Thirty Days In: Reflections on Shloshim for October 7

Rabbi Avi Strausberg
Tuesday, November 7, 2023


When it first happened, we couldn’t help but be completely immersed in the emotions of those first days. In the immediate aftermath, we were consumed by our newsfeeds, our Whatsapp filled with opportunities to help: we cried, we were silent, we were stunned. It was hard to engage with our day-to-day lives. Thirty days later, somehow an acceptance of this new reality in which so many are suffering has become a part of our lives. We have moved forward. We are doing the daily work of caring for our families and functioning in our jobs. For many of us, this has required that we, in moments, compartmentalize our feelings, if only temporarily, in order to allow us to function. Thirty days later, I am wrestling with the question: how do we not become numb? How do we manage our families and our work while still making space to hold each loss and the unbearable reality of more than 200 people still held hostage?

I have found over these past few weeks that I’ve been turning again and again to the Torah of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Pieceszner Rebbe, who wrote from the Warsaw Ghetto from 1939-1941. In the context of the Holocaust, Rabbi Shapira speaks precisely to the imperative to not become numb in the face of immense suffering. In 1941, he wrote, “We must resist becoming accustomed to the fact that Jews are suffering. The sheer volume of Jewish suffering must not be allowed to blur or dull the compassion we feel for each individual Jew. On the contrary, our heart must all but dissolve, God forbid, from the bitter pain.”1

In the years during the Holocaust, Rabbi Shapira witnessed suffering on a catastrophic level. He must have seen in himself and in his community the tendency, perhaps out of self preservation, to become numb to suffering. From that place, he teaches, we must not allow our ability to feel compassion for individuals to be dulled by the immense amount of individuals in need of compassion.

In the Kedusha of the Amidah, the angels call out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.” In a different drashah, Rabbi Shapira teaches that the angels in their heavenly call and response are empowered by human beings who similarly call to one another in support. He writes, “the angels calling/receiving from one another… has in it much of the pain of the Jewish people. This is the pain of one Jew broken by woes afflicting his fellow, and another buttressing his fellow through his pain.”2

When we allow ourselves to be deeply impacted by each other’s pain, when we care for a person who is suffering, the angels are empowered by our compassion, by a sort of human call and response, to engage in their own heavenly call and response, as they take on some of our pain.

At the same time, while Rabbi Shapira is clear on our obligation to open our hearts to each other, to call out to one another with care and compassion, he also writes of the impossibility of consolation. Comfort only goes so far. He writes,

3אבל על הפסד נפשות אי אפשר לקבל תנחומין

For the loss of life, there is no consolation. When we open our hearts to each other’s pain, when we offer support to one another, there can be some comfort for personal suffering. But make no mistake, he says, there can be no consolation for the finality of loss of life.

There’s something important in this for me. We can and must continue to be there for each other and for those suffering in Israel. And, we also have to acknowledge that there are losses for which there is no consolation.

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote this short and powerful poem:

So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those, who, age after age,
Perversely, with no extraordinary
Power, reconstitute the world.4

For me, this poem has two parts. First, the direct acknowledging and reckoning with devastation and loss. The speaker allows herself to be deeply impacted by the destruction that she observes. In Shapira’s words, she allows her heart to all but dissolve. I hear in this first part the echoes of “for the loss of life, there’s no consolation.” There is no saving that which has been destroyed. This is the space in which we’ve been for the last thirty days and this is the space in which we will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

And yet, Rich writes, somehow, perversely, impossibly, with no extraordinary power, we will reconstitute the world.

We are thirty days in and we are perhaps no longer reeling in shock, unable to pick our heads up from our phones. We have been forced to accept this new kind of reality in which people are taken captive and held hostage, families are violently destroyed, and more loss is inevitable. We have had to do the work of returning to our lives, caring for our families, and reconstituting the world. But we cannot become numb. We cannot let our ability to feel compassion for our own and for others become dull, even in the face of such immense and extended suffering.

For some, this may mean continuing to reach out to friends and family in Israel, refusing to forget them in the new status quo. For others, it might be seeking out the stories of those personally impacted and listening to them through podcasts like the Israel Story: Wartime Diaries. And for others, it may be through prayer, through the daily or weekly recitation of psalms as we cry out to God for help. It will look differently for each of us as we negotiate how to move forward while still grieving and holding the loss. But, whatever we do, we must keep our hearts open, calling out to one another in love and support, “Holy, holy, holy.”

1Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, Eish Kodesh, Parshat Hukkat 1941

2Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, Eish Kodesh, Parshat Vayikra 1940

3Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, Eish Kodesh, Shabbat Nachamu 1941

4Adrienne Rich, “All I Cannot Save” from The Dream of a Common Language, p. 67