My friend’s inspiring life was a reminder: We need to see each other’s humanity

It's natural to retreat into our own pain and fear, and to stay there. But then none of us gets the world we long for and deserve.

Samantha Woll, left, and Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit, Michigan. Photos via Facebook

(RNS) — War comes in waves, and if you stand close enough to the ocean, eventually the sea foam touches you, too. In this particular wave of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there was the initial terror of Hamas’ attack on southern Israel; then, the extended pain of Israel’s retaliatory siege on Gaza; then, the brutal murder of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Chicago; and now, the stabbing death of Samantha Woll, the young president of an urban Detroit synagogue and a founder of the Muslim-Jewish Forum of Detroit.

Sam often attended the activities I organized when I was a young secular humanist rabbinical student at the University of Michigan Hillel from 2000-2003. She was a little more traditionally religious than I was or am, and she was a staunchly pro-Israel activist.

I remember seeing her full of passion on the blue and white side of rival Israeli/Palestinian student rallies raging on the U of M “diag,” or quad, over the question of whether the U.S. and other wealthy nations should “divest from Israel.” I was the kind of person who would show up and hang out off to the side with a handmade sign promoting the two-state solution. It included both the Israeli and Palestinian flags, along with the slogan, “Invest in Palestine.” Nobody paid much attention to it. But Sam would join the meetings of our group, too, because she believed in the search for truth, even if it made her uncomfortable; and because she respected attempts to bridge differences between the two sides, even if she saw herself as firmly standing in the Israel camp.

And was Sam ever a presence!  She was extraordinarily passionate about living an ethical life and beyond determined to make a positive difference in the world. I grieve severely for her loved ones and community.

Detroit police have yet to find any indication of a hate crime in their investigation of Woll’s horrifying murder, so I don’t want to speculate. There’s been too much speculation already in this horrible war.

I just want to say this. Over seven years of graduate studies trained me for my strange and beautiful profession as a nonreligious rabbi and chaplain serving atheists, agnostics and allies from every cultural background. I lived for about 18 months in Israel/Palestine, or Palestine/Israel. My life is immensely richer for so much that I encountered there: beautiful human beings and communities on both sides of literal and metaphorical fences. It always gets me that the whole sliver of land being fought over so savagely is basically the size and shape of New Jersey. And yet, whenever wars break out there, it feels like the whole world is on fire. I think it is because the nature of the conflict is that all of us, no matter who we are, feel asked and expected to identify with one side or the other. We feel called upon to choose our team and fight or protest for them alone. And it’s understandable. Each side can offer visceral grievances. Everyone is in such terrible pain.

RELATED: Two young Palestinian women died in a Gaza church, treated like ‘human animals’

But I want to point out how incredibly important and necessary it is for each and every one of us to see the humanity and the legitimacy in the people who stand on the other side of the fence. There is no way forward for humanity unless Jews and Israelis and our allies can recognize that the lives of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims are just as precious as our own. And there is no way toward peace and safety unless Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and their allies can recognize that Jews and Israelis are fully and deeply human, deserving of compassion and security as much as anyone.

Just think about a child growing up in Gaza. Nowhere to go. Bombs falling, entire neighborhoods exploding, friends and neighbors and family members dying. What is that child supposed to do? What are they supposed to believe about the world? And think about a child escaping the Holocaust. Their people hounded across Europe for the better part of a thousand years. Offered the chance to help to build something new in a land of ancestral memory. How afraid that child must have been? How scared to be victimized again?

It’s natural to retreat into our own pain and fear and to stay there. But then none of us gets the world we long for and deserve. There is no true, sustainable safety while one’s next-door neighbors suffer preventably, their entire world on a slow but constant boil. No one truly gets to rest unless, somehow, everyone does. Unless one child from one side of the fence can somehow find the courage and compassion to walk up to the fence and embrace the other, and unless the other child can somehow find the understanding and fortitude to return the embrace. That is the only way it will ever work. But who begins? Whose responsibility is it to break the cycle, to offer the first hand, to share what little strength they may have in their vulnerable, grieving heart?

In Jewish funerals, mourners traditionally say a prayer called “El Malei Rachamim,” or “God Full of Mercy,” to ask the divinity to provide an eternal and perfect home for the one who has died.

But I am thinking now of a piece by Yehuda Amichai, a secularist and humanist who may be the greatest poet of modern Hebrew. One of Amichai’s most famous poems is a kind of secular psalm that also begins with the words El Malei rachamim, but as a tragic inversion of the original prayer: “If God was not full of mercy,” Amichai complains righteously, “Mercy would have been in the world, / Not just in Him.” In Amichai’s version, in other words, God is a kind of hoarder of resources, keeping all of humanity’s precious mercy for himself rather than distributing it equitably.

We are living in a world that is desperately in need of mercy. But to paraphrase the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by a Jewish extremist for his determination to make peace, mercy is not something we offer to those with whom we already identify. It’s what we offer to others.

Or to say it with the words of the late, great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, writing in Arabic from Ramallah in 2002:

“I raise a glass

to the one who shares a glass with me

in the pitch black of this night,

a night so thick we’re both in the dark.

I raise a glass to my ghost…

Peace means a full and honest confession of what was done to the ghost of the murdered.

Peace means returning to dig up the garden to plan all the crops we will plant.”

Or maybe, we might best hear a necessary message of magnanimity and grace from Ariana Silverman, the rabbi of the innovative urban Detroit synagogue where Woll served as a key leader. Silverman, just a few days ago, delivered a sermon that now reads like a heartbreakingly prescient eulogy. She reflected:

“… As I said in my Yom Kippur sermon a year ago, that it is possible for people and for entire countries to be both powerful and vulnerable at the exact same moment. Right now, Israel is extremely vulnerable — in addition to mourning the losses of a terror attack and a war, tragically we know that more Jews will die in the weeks to come. And at the exact same time, Israel is extremely powerful — the lives of thousands of people are now in the hands of Israel’s government and the IDF. Both Israel’s vulnerability and Israel’s power keep me up at night.”

Even as we actively grieve the dead, we may get to sleep peacefully precisely because of the comfort and strength we feel when we remember that those who are ostensibly our enemies are a lot like us and that they deserve our love and our respect, too. May we work for the safety of others just as vigorously as we work to protect our own. May we and our ghosts and our ghosts’ ghosts build a world more full of mercy, together.

(Greg M. Epstein serves as the humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT and as the Convener for Ethical Life at MIT’s Office for Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life (ORSEL). He holds a rabbinic ordination from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and is the author of the New York Times bestselling book “Good Without God.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

RELATED: In the Mideast, evangelical leaders need to stand with people, not states


Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!