Three weeks ago, I witnessed the miracle of my wife bringing life - our first child - into the world. It was the most sacred experience of my life, the closest to what we sometimes call God I have ever been. Cocooned in a hospital, we were blissfully unaware of the tragedy simultaneously unfolding thousands of miles away. My wife gave birth on Friday afternoon, and I first detected something unusual might be happening when I called a local rabbi, to ask his advice as to where to find kosher food for the impending Sabbath.
He answered my opening pleasantry, "How are you?" with something like, "Watching CNN, can't believe it." A little thrown, I filed that away and explained why I was calling. He did not offer any advice on where I might find food. He speedily dispatched a trainee rabbi to purchase and hand-deliver a box full of goodies that sustained us well into the following week. We later discovered that while my wife was holding our newborn in her arms, and the trainee rabbi was shopping for us in a kosher supermarket, Islamist terrorists were demonstrating their contempt for life in a very similar supermarket in Paris.
These are not the easiest of times for our family. Jews and Israelis are living with more fear than they were ten or twenty years ago, and it is not hard to understand why. The neighborhood around the country established by the UN to be our safe haven has never been so volatile. States are dissolving and weapons amassing, and all under the ominous banners of ideologies that openly call for our genocide and know no hint of rationality or compromise. Even worse, the well-armed fanatics intent on our extinction are supported by many of the world's key opinion shapers - academics and journalists. Liberals and liberalism have turned from our allies to our most pernicious enemies. And so, we fear, and we fret. We ask ourselves, has it ever been this bad?
Making decisions based on fear is understandable, but ultimately counter-productive and even self-destructive. Holding my newborn son in my arms, the fragility and uncertainty of life - all life - hit me more profoundly than ever before. What is the probability of the millions of necessary coincidences all conspiring perfectly to create each unique human being? When the Torah teaches us that all humans are created "in the image of God," is it not telling us that we are all infinitely improbable, unlikely, wondrous?
Thinking back to the founders of our family, Sarah and Abraham, they too faced constant existential anxiety, but they did not permit their fear to drive their behavior. Abraham risks his life by smashing the idols of his society, defying his overlords and wandering to wherever he feels the Divine calling him. A midrash teaches that our name, Hebrew, Ivri, means one who stands on one side of a divide while the entire world stands on the other side. Having amassed a few hundred followers, Abraham does not hesitate to throw himself into a war between far more powerful rulers, to rescue Lot, his kidnapped nephew. His army is tiny but his strength, which flows from his connection to the loving Source of all life, is tremendous.
Sarah, like Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah and many other great Jewish women, struggled to conceive an heir to perpetuate her life's work. Her eventual success - Isaac - is clearly miraculous and always uncertain and insecure. Looking down the generations of our family, every single link in our four thousand year long chain has been moulded by our seemingly fragile love and hope miraculously overcoming the seemingly mighty forces of fear and hatred. Our people suffered inhuman persecution at the hands of great empires such as the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans to mention but a few. How did we not only survive, but thrive, in the face of a stream of global superpowers, who dedicated vast resources to our suppression and even extermination?
The Talmud gives a simple but profound answer: love and hope. It teaches that we were redeemed from Egypt because of the merit of the Jewish women who loved and believed in life so much that they risked their own to perpetuate it:
As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation, the Israelites were delivered from Egypt. When they went to draw water, the Holy One, blessed be He, arranged that small fishes should enter their pitchers, which they drew up half full of water and half full of fishes. They then set two pots on the fire, one for hot water and the other for the fish, which they carried to their husbands in the field, and washed, anointed, fed, gave them to drink and had intercourse with them among the sheepfolds...After the women had conceived they returned to their homes; and when the time of childbirth arrived, they went and were delivered in the field beneath the apple tree, as it is said: "Under the apple tree I caused you to come forth [from your mother's womb]" (Song of Songs 8:5).
See how the midrash ties the act of preparing food for others to creation of a new generation, one that would experience redemption. In the hospital, our rabbinic helpers continued this legacy by supporting us with their simple but profound act of love and hopefulness. In both the midrash and in our own lives, love and hope triumph through the most mundane and everyday acts.
In the face of the fragility of life and mighty forces of hatred and fear, many will lapse into denial or despair, making decisions from a place of spiritual defeat. This is not what our tradition asks of us. We are called to fully acknowledge the reality of evil, and lovingly perpetuate life in spite of it. We are called to make decisions based on love and hope.