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What we remember as the war in Gaza unfolds

By Rabbi Bruce Alpert

One of the most widely observed rituals in Judaism is the Passover seder — the festive meal that commemorates our exodus from Egyptian slavery. Most Jews, even those who aren’t otherwise observant, find their way to a friend’s or neighbor’s or synagogue’s seder.

So virtually every Jew you will meet will be familiar with a peculiar rite we observe as part of the seder. We recount the story of the exodus from Egypt with a brimming cup of wine before each of us. But as we recall the ten plagues that God brought upon the Egyptians, we dip our finger into our cup to remove a drop of wine for each of them. Every Jew can tell you the meaning of that gesture: wine is a symbol of joy, and every death — even the deaths of those who oppress us — diminishes our joy.

Judaism is a religion of life. In fact, the Hamas terrorists who butchered 1,300 people on October 7th believe in their ultimate victory because Jews love life while they celebrate martyrdom. They are wrong. One fights the hardest and sacrifices the most for what one loves.

While Israelis mourn their dead, worry about a second or even third front, and send their loved ones off to the horrors of war, American Jews — including those of us here in the Meriden-Wallingford area — feel dazed, bewildered, and anxious.

We are dazed by the sheer savagery of Hamas’s attack: by images of a brutality that many of us thought were left in a darker age, and by images of people dancing and praising God for that brutality.

We are bewildered by the world’s reaction to this evil: the news coverage that draws no distinction between those whose aim is to slaughter the innocent and those who seek to defend themselves; the colleges and universities where antisemitism pretends to be a social justice movement.

And we are anxious about what we can do to help. We are donating to Israeli charities that support all who are bearing the brunt of this horror. And we are phoning, texting and Zooming with our families and friends in Israel, telling them how much we love and worry about them, and begging them to tell us what more we can do to help.

My wife and I are fortunate to have many Israeli friends. When we ask them how we can help, we hear one answer again and again: “keep America with us.”

Israelis know how fickle is the support they receive. The world is with them when they are burying their dead, but that support quickly evaporates when they start to fight back. When Israel’s enemies use civilians to shield their weapons, when they prey on Western sympathy with images of suffering — suffering that they themselves are causing — it isn’t long before the narrative shifts against the Jewish State.

But Israelis cannot live with the threat of what happened on October 7th hanging over them again. They must be given the time and space to put an end to Hamas in Gaza, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the innocent Palestinians whom Hamas terrorizes for its own aims. And they are counting on us to help them win that time and space.

So, as you watch what unfolds in the Middle East over the next days, weeks or even months, I ask you to do so critically; to look beyond the simplistic logic of numerical comparisons and remember what you saw when this war began. Remember the savagery and remember those who celebrated that savagery. And remember too those spilled drops of wine at the Passover seder, for their meaning is etched into the souls of so many of those who fight in Israel’s defense.

Bruce Alpert is rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford.