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It was very quiet on my first Yom Kippur day in Mashabei Sadeh in the Southern Negev. The grass was shimmering in the sunlight and the sky blue without a cloud. No one ventured onto the lawn or walked about. Desert heat, 6th October, early afternoon, the hour for a well-deserved nap.
Being the only non-Jew on the kibbutz, I was assigned to catering to the needs of the old or those too sick to fast. Cut bread, prepare their sandwiches, pour lemonade. I can still smell the sliced meats and pickles, the deep time stretching out silently all around me. I was the only busy one in the vast kitchen of the kibbutz.
A strident burst of fighter planes tore through the stillness, exploding the quiet like a ripe pomegranate. People were suddenly all over the lawn, looking up at the streamlined fighter jets. This anomaly, this sudden eruption ripping open the sky, set off a loud alarm across the kibbutz. In the back of the dining hall all the black phones started ringing. War on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of rest? We were very close to the Egyptian border.
I’m buttering sandwiches for 180 or more men hopping into the dining room, one boot half-on, shirt untucked, uzzi in hand. The women formed a shield around them, some sobbing, some severe, some steady. Come back to me, come back!
As I buttered slices, I thought: So, too, the ordinary Egyptian man called up to uphold his country’s pride, thinking he has no choice.
His woman and children also cry, Come back, come back! Sides may be opposed, but the suffering is the same. Will these men come back? Will they return intact? Will they disappear into the haze of heavy heat and never return?
We’ve tried it so many times over, with the same disastrous consequences — conquerors dominating and enslaving the conquered until the conquered rise up in revolt and destroy the conquerors? When will we learn to get off this bloody seesaw?
There are no enemies here, just an internal enemy that suffers under an illusion so crushing it is willing to abandon its instincts. Just to prove its point, it will wreak revenge on other humans. We have all failed to find new ways of dealing with our anger and victimization of the other. And yet, this is the most profound work we can engage in.
Each night during that war, I sat under the stars guarding the kibbutz with my friend Yohav, one of only three men left to protect all the women and children in our small community. He read to me from the Bible. Lekh, lekh lekha. Go, go to yourself! Turn inward, find the inner peace to accept yourself. The most impactful, shattering change is the compassionate recognition of the other as yourself, your brother, your sister, your neighbor. We are all the same.
After the war I became a Jew because, like Abraham, I want to say to my adversaries Hineni. Here am I.
Breathe out three times slowly, counting from 3 to 1, seeing the numbers.
See the 1 tall, clear and bright.
Hear and see what the prophet Habakkuk said: In anger remember love.
Breathe out and open your eyes.
Catherine Shainberg, Ph.D. | November 2023