Distinguishing Dark from Light: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates

Last week I had the immense honor of attending and presenting at a Holocaust Conference at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  I was there to present about the Nuremberg Trials and also to learn from other scholars. There are many spectacular elements about the Air Force Academy.  The caliber of the students, the brilliance of the professors, the bravery that it takes to commit to this pathway in life.

I left for Colorado several days after Israel entered into war.  Even though I was flying in the other direction, I felt like my time at the Air Force Academy would be important to ask questions to those who had experienced war firsthand.  I never expected how top of mind this war would be for those there.  At a moment’s notice any professor could be called away to the region.  The secular and military attendees referred meaningfully to the current situation and Jewish cadets came and found me to talk about their experience of being Jewish in the Air Force Academy and how this war was hitting them.

In my presentation, talked about my friend, Nathan Hilu z”l, a Jewish-American soldier who was sent to guard the Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials around the same age of those cadets I was addressing.  Among his writings is a quote is his diary from Walt Whitman.  “The real war will never get in the books.”


Entering into this Shabbat with Parshat Noach, the second week of war in Israel and Breast Cancer Awareness Pink Shabbat, war has been top of mind for many of us.

Rashi’s commentary on the nature of the rains of the floods of the Noah story in this week’s Torah portion, views the unending 40 days and nights of rain to be so intense and dramatic that day and night ceased to exist for the planet during the time of the rains.  It was all just intense all the time.

When we are handed a difficult diagnosis or a threat to the Jewish people or any traumatic situation, it can feel like a non-stop intensity of emotion, feeling and worry.

The overwhelming nature of reporting and news coming out of Israel right now is a deluge, but if we take Walt Whitman’s quote to heart and not look for the story of the war only from the books or the news or secondhand, but create our own sense of support and connection, we can better distinguish day from night. For some of you, the war is affecting dear family and close friends who live in Israel and you have been so open in sharing with us how they are doing and how we can stay connected and help.  For me, I am keeping an eye on the social media feed of Tom Afghan.

In 2019, Tom was one of the Israeli soldiers who came to Temple Beth El through Peace of Mind, a program for Israeli Veteran Soldiers.  His father-law-in and girlfriend are among those kidnapped.  And so every day I look to see if there are updates about their status.  Tom is a musician and until then I had checked his social media for his latest song, but now I am checking for something so different.  That’s the war that doesn’t get in the books.  The personal, the deep and internal pain and struggle and suffering.

Our role on this Shabbat is to help those who suffer, not to experience a constant deluge, but instead to be able to distinguish dark from light.  To help them get through the difficult days so that when they are on the other side of their struggles, they can be there for us.

Shabbat Shalom,

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