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Defeating Death, One Chapter at a Time

Originally posted in Times of Israel here.

As the war between Israel and Hamas enters its second week, Jews around the world are suffering from anger, fear, and a broken spirit. Hamas not only kidnapped and murdered our citizens, but filmed and broadcasted it as widely as possible to horrify and demoralize us. With so much pain being inflicted on our people at once, many of us are wondering how we will find the strength to heal from this national trauma.

It is important during this healing process to be deliberate about what we value, about what we believe is worth fighting for on this earth. This is particularly relevant to the conflict taking place between Hamas and Israel, which is not merely a battle of national survival, but a battle of values.

From its inception, Hamas has been an organization devoted to ending Jewish history. It has made its value system clear. In an article in The Atlantic in 2014, Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz Rantisi was famously quoted as saying that the Jews will lose because they love life while Hamas loves death. In the years since the terrorist organization adopted its charter, Hamas leaders and spokesmen have reinforced its message again and again (including most recently on TV here). When pressed, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar declared that the group “will not change a single word in its covenant.”

Hamas is now using the fact that we “love life” to break us. They are attempting to devastate us with death by killing over a thousand Jews in a single day and then playing it on loop across the media. With death all around us, overwhelming us, how do we continue forward? How do we defeat death?

The answer lies in the stories we tell ourselves and the actions we take as a result.

This sentiment reminds me of another time in my life, on a more personal level, when I had to choose between life and death. A little over a decade ago, just as I was starting my studies in a highly competitive security program, I found out that the man who had inspired me to try out for the security field in the first place had just committed suicide. I had first met Roman in Israel as a young immigrant from the U.S. Originally from Russia, Roman had proudly carved out a path for himself in the elite echelons of the Israeli security community, only to have his journey cut short by mental illness.

As a lonely security student in Pittsburgh, I struggled to move forward in the aftermath of his death, starting with the simple action of lighting a candle. This is how I described it in my memoir:

It was a cold winter in 2010, but I didn’t mind staying inside and studying into the late hours. Eventually, the snow melted and turned the streets muddy, and then it was the beginning of spring again. By exam season, the eastern redbud trees were covered in tightknit clusters of magenta blooms. Roman had passed away during this time in early spring, cutting off his life just as the rest of the world was beginning to blossom around him.

On the night of his memorial, I lit a thick white yahrzeit candle—a soul anniversary candle—and placed it carefully on my windowsill in its glass jar. According to Jewish tradition, when a soul departs from this world, it leaves behind a dark void. The yahrzeit candle replenishes a little bit of this lost light as a remembrance, burning for twenty-four hours until its wick turns to ash.

After lighting the candle, I made myself a cup of chamomile tea and gazed out the window at the skyline, my eyes wandering over the ring of lights that encased the city, writhing and twinkling with life under a purple-black sky. When I thought about the things Roman and I had shared—and later, the secrets we kept from each other, the things that would nearly wreck us—it reminded me of a time when it was so dark in my mind that I couldn’t imagine ever coming out of it, couldn’t imagine a tomorrow with any light left.

In the shadow of my friend’s death, I turned the story of his life over and over in my head, trying to make sense of his final choice. I also had a choice to make. I could decide to choose death by being perpetually depressed and incapacitated, or I could choose a life of meaning that included helping others heal.

This is the choice that we must all make now in the face of the great loss we have suffered in Israel. As a member of our community in Maryland put it this past Sabbath in the synagogue, we must make up for all the good deeds that would have been carried out by the thousand-plus Jewish lives we just lost by exponentially increasing our own good deeds in their place.

With our love for life, Judaism will continue its sustained protest against Hamas’s depraved worldview. Hamas places no value on human life, whether it is Jewish or Palestinian. Ultimately, Hamas’ love of death will be the cause of its demise.

So, Hamas, this is my message to you: Your victory is short-lived and your days are numbered. When you perish from this earth, as all the enemies of the Jews over history eventually do, you will be remembered not only for the pain you inflicted on Israel, but for the injustice you committed against your own people. Your legacy among the Palestinians will not be the value of life and freedom that they have craved for decades, but of death, destruction, and disloyalty to your own.

As former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once put it, obsession with death ultimately devalues life. Why fight against the evils and injustices of the world if life is nothing but a preparation for death? This is why we must never give into the darkness of complete despair. We can’t bring back our dead, but we can extend their legacy by committing ourselves to the living who still need our good deeds.

In the final chapters of the Torah (which we coincidentally just finished reading in its annual cycle as the war broke out last week), Moses warns the Jews in the desert no less than fourteen times, do not forget. If we forget the past, he warned, we will lose our identity and sense of direction and disaster will follow. We are commanded to remember our national story and to pass that memory down to our children.

In other words, we achieve immortality by being part of a sacred covenant. Just as Hamas has their “covenant,” we have ours, and ours will prevail, as it has for over 3,000 years despite our historical injuries.

Every one of us today who has witnessed this tragedy in Israel will be the guardian of this story for years to come. During this difficult time, we must each find the strength to write the next chapter, to do deeds of kindness that alleviate some of the pain in this world, and to continue embracing a value system that cherishes life over death.

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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense sector. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, CIA officers, law enforcement, psychologists, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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