Prologue: I was walking in the countryside in Tunisia in 1967 and encountered a German cemetery from WWII. Family members had clearly visited and put pictures of these forever young men on their gravestones. I was 23, and most of those faces belonged to boys younger than I, boys whose lives had been cut short by war. I looked at them and wept. My tears did not endorse their cause but their humanity.
My heart breaks when I see the distraught faces of parents, children, and babies twisted in pain that is beyond words. My tears fall when I hear their cries of fear and loss—the ineffable agony of war. For the people in such pain, it truly doesn’t matter who started it, who is right or wrong, whether it’s a good cause, a bad cause, or a lost cause. What matters is their lives were torn and broken.
While leaders make speeches and the media search for emotional pictures and sounds to exploit, the despair they capture is real. These are not “Crisis Actors.” These are people, our fellow human beings. The Jewish families in Gaza are devastated by their losses. The Gazan families are equally devastated by their losses. If we fail to feel their pain, if we emotionally withdraw and shut off our connection to them, we diminish our humanity.
Whatever a TV crew elicits from a grieving Gazan family about being proud of raising a martyr (Shaheed), an Israeli family might evince pride in the heroism or sacrifice for the greater good; they didn’t have children and raise them to be martyrs (Kaddosh HaShem). They had children whom they wanted to live, to love, and to be loved. Post facto, they try to give meaning to their terrible losses and find some measure of comfort from their perception of the holiness of their cause. It’s natural for any person to try to find greater meaning in the absurdity of deaths in war.
Here in America, we may see gold stars displayed in the windows of some homes or worn as a pin indicating that they lost a son, daughter, or sibling in combat. These stars may be shown with pride, but we know that whether the death was in a good war or an ill-considered war, the loss is the same. We also know that whatever solace a family may take from the sacrifice, they didn’t have children and raise them in order to earn a gold star and belong to the Gold Star Society.
Families, whether Ukrainian or Russian, suffer the loss of their children the same. Muslim or Hindu in India and Pakistan, left-wing or right-wing in Latin America, Hutus or Tutsis in Rwanda, all the survivors cry, keen, and scream in bewildered pain. Then, they try to find a reason for their pain. Some seek revenge and live on anger. Others seek peace and an end to the conflict. Some look for signs of a divine hand or justification for their loss, while still, others hold that only total and final victory will assuage the bottomless pit of their despair.
I understand that wars might seem, or even be, necessary. People do have to defend themselves. But I also believe that they are mostly absurd and, in the fullness of time, futile. There are no holy wars—wars fought in the name of God don’t make them holy. Killing each other with hearts filled with righteousness is tragic.
Wars seem like eternal conflicts of absolutes that are forever irreconcilable. History doesn’t support such pessimistic certainty. How many times did Protestants fight Catholics in England? I think we in the United States have somewhat reconciled with those vile colonialist oppressors of the English Crown. Up until three weeks ago, the number one spot for Israelis, particularly ultra-orthodox Haredi, to book destination weddings was Dubai! The top three European destinations for Israelis are Turkey (!), Spain, and Germany (!!). American tourists (318,000) filled the streets of Saigon and Ho Chi Min City in 2022.
We human beings don’t forget the pain and losses, nor are we compelled to poison our lives forever with that pain. In the biblical story of Lot and his wife, while escaping the hellfires destroying Sodom, she looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. I think the deeper message is not to be obsessed by the past and trapped inside a salty carapace of tears but to turn towards life. Yes, we glance back and don’t forget the anguish, but we must know that to dwell in that pain is to deny the joys of today and tomorrow.
So, let’s weep for the dead, let our hearts break for their families, but let’s also know that peace will come, and our tears can grow flowers.