Editor’s Note: Israel is at war, and the suffering is difficult to bear. To better appreciate this transformation and the pressures of this moment, we have assembled a symposium of community leaders and thinkers to address the effect of the crisis on Diaspora Jewry.
Rachel Sharansky Danziger
“Avinu Malkenu, our father, our king, foil the plans of our foes,” says the hazan. “Avinu Malkenu, foil the plans of our foes,” we all repeat in unison. “Avinu Malkenu, wipe out every oppressor and adversary from against us,” he says, we repeat the words, and the prayer goes on.
It’s Shabbat, not a time when Jews usually recite Avinu Malkenu. But since the war started, this prayer has become a fixed part of our services. In the early Saturdays after October 7th I still repeated each line with tears running down my face. By now, four months later, I’ve grown so used to this addition that my mind wanders even as my lips shape each word. “Avinu Malkenu, pardon and forgive all our iniquities,” I say, and think about the program I have to run after services. “Avinu Malkenu, send a complete healing to the sick among your people,” and I think about the weekly Torah portion that we’re about to read. “Avinu Malkenu, may this hour be an hour of mercy and a time of favor before You,” says the hazan, and I find myself singing the words with my community.
I’m moved by the way our voices come together, and by the simplicity of this prayer, but even my elation is routine, familiar. It’s yet another emotion that I got used to feeling at certain regular times, just like the dread I feel every morning at 5:59 AM right before the new list of fallen soldiers is published, just like the grief I feel once it’s published a minute later, just like the resolve I feel sometime around 7 AM when it’s time to set aside the grief and focus on my children. Repetition smoothed away the jagged edges of these emotions, and wove them into the smooth flow of our daily lives, where they form a new and improbable “normal”. In this new normal, it’s prudent to leave some wiggle room in your weekly schedule in case you’ll have to attend a funeral or make a shiva call. It’s reasonable to hug a friend for an extra moment because who knows when you’ll meet next and under what circumstances. And it’s understandable to recite painful words without paying them attention, because how can we keep paying attention after four whole months of pain?
But then the hazan says “Avinu Malkenu, do it for the sake of those—,” and stops. The line remains dangling. The words that are supposed to follow, “who went through fire and water for the sanctification of your name,” remain unsaid. The expected flow of routine prayers is interrupted.
And just like that, the feeling of normalcy is ripped away, and I choke on tears, because the houses I’ve seen in Kfar Aza a few weeks ago – burnt shells where people, our people, suffocated on smoke and died in fires – slam into the forefront of my mind. The weight of everything we suffered, everything we got used to, is suddenly present and apparent and it’s not normal, it can never be normal, how could I ever think of it as normal?
All around me, people cry.
The hazan forces his voice to form the words, eventually. We murmur after him, our voices heavy with feelings we can’t name. He stumbles again over the next line – “Avinu Malkenu, avenge the spilled blood of your servants,” but then regains his composure and keeps chanting without further pauses. We continue with him, following his example, but our experience changes. The normalcy that started coating this abnormal prayer is gone, shredded. We hear every word, feel every word, without defense against the weight of horror they imply. “Do it for your sake,” we say, and all my rage at God – how could He allow His name to be desecrated in the burnt homes and broken bodies of our brethren? – comes back, as raw as it was in those early days nearly four months ago. “Deliver us,” I say, and the desperation behind this request is all-encompassing. “Avinu Malkenu,” I say, and I think: If You won’t grant us victory and protect our soldiers out of a father’s kindness, I demand it of You as your loyal subject, my liege.
“But how do we keep going,” a friend asks me. Her husband donned his uniform and disappeared into reserve duty on Simkhat Torah. Since then, she had to take care of her traumatized kids, do her job, manage the household, sooth a thousand little aches and worries, and do it all while fearing for her husband’s life. She held everything together for a month, for two, for four now. But when her husband’s commander said he doesn’t believe their unit will be released before March at the earliest, she broke down.
I hug my friend. I hug my sister when she asks the same question, with the same exhausted eyes. I hug all of my friends and colleagues and neighbors who are in the same situation, remarkable both in their strength, and in the fact that their situation isn’t remarkable at all – there are hundreds of thousands of them, all keeping on going on, because what’s the other option? And I think about that moment when the hazan couldn’t simply say the words by rote, and how his pause pulled the sameness of routine from underneath our feet and threw us back into the full horror of our present moment. I suspect that the answer to my friend’s question, or rather – two complementary answers, lie there in that pause.
The first answer is routine. That pause interrupted our attempt to create a routine in a time of upheaval. But it also illuminated, for me, what those routines achieve. We can’t live our lives if we’re constantly and fully aware of the horrors around us. So, we build routines and habits that carry us over and through the present, as if we’re boats that float upon a river’s stream.
Some rivers are small and private: my personal habit of journaling each day. My personal ties to my community, family, and friends. I embrace them, pour myself into them, and they form a tide of familiarity and security that can carry me through difficult moments. Other rivers have a longer history, a deeper bed. The weekly Torah portions, the Jewish calendar, our daily prayers – all invite me to immerse myself within their ancient tides, like countless Jews have done before me. But no matter the type of river, they all offer the same answer to my friend’s question. Routines, be they private or communal, new or ancient, carry us through time, and allow those parts of ourselves that don’t have to do with immediate crises, the parts that get deactivated when adrenaline rushes through our veins, to unfurl more fully. They remind us that we are more than our present moment, and in doing so, allow us to keep going on.
But the interruption, the pause that exposes the horror underneath these routines, is its own sort of answer as well, a complementary one to the very routine it disrupted. Because it reminds us that the horror we experience, the pain we need our routines to get us through, isn’t only something to repress and leave behind. Catastrophes, as Rabbi Soloveitchik pointed out in Out of the Whirlwind, disrupt familiar patterns. In doing so, they open doors to revelation.
The catastrophe we’re living through sheds new light on everything we thought we knew and reveals new facets in the routines we hold dear. The ancient words of Avinu Malkenu and other prayers never meant as much to me before. Words I used to recite by rote, like “hayei olam nata betokhenu” (“He planted eternal life within us,” words we recite before we read the Torah) mean something different now that the Torah became my lifeline in a turbulent time. While the rivers of routine and familiarity can carry us through difficult moments, the same difficult moments can expose to us the depths and nature of these very streams.
This revelatory potential is my second answer to my friend’s question. Routines can empower us to get through this abnormal new normal. But so can the choice to treat these days as an opportunity for discovery and learning. So can the choice to hold their terrible light in our hands, and let it illuminate everything around us, and open our eyes wide to see new truths.
Routines can lend us their flow and allow us to relax a little into them. The quest for revelation can give us purpose, and purpose, in turn, can lend us strength.