How in the world can I convey to you the depth and breadth of emotions that I experienced over this past week in Israel?
At every intense moment, and there were plenty, I thought to myself, I wish you could be here so you could experience this yourself. Because there’s no way I could express with mere words what I felt so deeply in my heart. I wish we could have all been there experiencing it together.
Some of the experiences were cute, like the first time I tried paying for a taxi and my credit card wasn’t working. The taxi driver, being a fellow Jew, even though he didn’t know me for a hole in the wall, shrugged his shoulders. “Ain baaya. No problem.” And he let me go… It would have been nice to smile to one another and say, “Only in Israel.”
But there was so much more than just cute. What I really wanted you to experience were moments like Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and civilian victims of terror, at the cemetery in Gush Etzion. Gush Etzion was formally founded in 1943. But in 1948, during the War of Independence, one village in the Gush, Kfar Etzion, surrendered to the Arab army, and subsequently 127 Jewish inhabitants of the village were massacred. In 1967, the Jewish People reclaimed that land. But those 127 loom large over this community. It’s a community that was built on their blood. So you could just imagine what emotions are at their cemetery on Yom Hazikaron.
And as I’m standing there at the cemetery, I meet Hillel Fuld, the brother of Ari Fuld, Hy’d. Ari was a well-known pro-Israel activist who after being stabbed by an Arab terrorist, chased the terrorist, and shot the terrorist just one second before he attempted to stab someone else. Ari succumbed to his wounds. His brother, Hillel has continued in the ways of his brother with a larger-than-life love of the Jewish People and the State of Israel. To stand next to that beacon of strength… I wish you were there to feel it.
And then I look up and see Rabbi Dee and his daughters, and I just start crying, how could you not? A man who just a few weeks ago, had two daughters and his wife taken from him by an Arab terrorist. I watch as he walks over to the Fuld family, to give them hugs, to offer them words of comfort… I wish you were there to cry with me at such strength, at such Ahavas Yisrael, such love for a fellow Jew.
It was a beautiful ceremony, with soldiers, and poems, and tefillos. And then, almost on cue, all the young men and women spread out around the cemetery, visiting different graves, and they started singing. Softly at first, and then louder and louder. Acheinu kol beis Yisroel, songs of brotherhood. Esa einai, songs of devotion. And finally, the ultimate song of faith, Ani Ma’amin, I believe in Mashiach, I believe in the resurrection of the dead. To hear and feel those sentiments coming from those not-so-innocent voices of young adults and teens who know first-hand what loss is… I wish you were there to experience what faith in G-d sounds like, feels like, tastes like. It was so tangible.
And then, that evening to stand shoulder to shoulder with five thousand people, mostly Americans who had made Aliyah, and to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut together at a Tefilah organized by the Orthodox Union. Someone once suggested to me that celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut in America is like celebrating a birthday party without the birthday girl. It’s a nice analogy, but after celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel, I realize it doesn’t do justice. Yom Ha’atzmaut is not a birthday, it’s a wedding. It’s a wedding of a 2000-year-old bride who finally gets married.
I don’t even know why they put out chairs. Ten minutes into Hallel, the whole place was on their feet, dancing together – not just the teenagers, the adults! dancing with abandon. And singing together, Hodu laShem ki tov! Thank you, Hashem for you are good! You gave us this land! The land that we had yearned for, cried for, died for. You kept Your promise. Thank you!… I wish you were there to experience true chibas ha’aretz, authentic love of the land. Because nothing I could say or do can give you a sense of what you have experienced at that moment.
I wish you were there with me to meet the people of Israel. You have to be a romantic to live in Israel. The country is so small, but every person is larger than life. Our lives here are so predictable. In Israel, every person, on some level, is living a great drama. And that’s true for the people behind the counter to the people in high-tech, but it’s especially for the leaders of the country. I am not talking about political leaders. I wish you were there with me to meet Natan Sharansky, a man who inspired and inspires all of us to never give up hope. I wish you were there with me to meet the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Dovid Lau, the great poseik, Rav Asher Weiss, and the endless number of scholars who saturate the land with fully-immersive Torah study, with holiness. I wish you were there with me to meet Racheli Fraenkel, the mother of one of “the three boys” who was brutally murdered. During those times while we all prayed for the safety of those boys and ever since she has become a matriarch, Mama Rochel, is a beacon of life and light, of Torah scholarship and Jewish leadership. I was so moved to speak to her, I couldn’t talk. I just stood there, mumbled some words, while she patiently smiled… I wish you were there with me to stand next to greatness, to grasp the sparks of inspiration these people give off.
You see what I mean? How can I convey those experiences to you with words? You had to be there. Better yet, you have to be there. Our Jewish lives are so poor compared to the richness of Judaism in the Holy Land. And yes, there are reasons not to make Aliyah, good reasons! But we need to visit as often as we can. We need to dream of Israel and all it represents as often we can. We need to know that we may have beautiful houses here, but we are not home. I wish you were there. I wish we could all be there, to taste it, to feel it, to live it.
But there is one thing I am happy you were not there to see. As I am sure you know, Israel is in the midst of a crisis. The judicial reform, a proposal by the current Israeli government to curb some of the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court has set off a firestorm. And as I quickly learned, it’s no longer about judicial reform. There has always been some low-burning tension, a divide between the religious and secular elements of Israel, but that divide is quickly turning into an abyss… I am happy you were not there to hear from leading intellectuals, Chareidi and secular, who think this may be the beginning of the end. I am happy you were not there to watch as a politician on a panel to discuss judicial reform encouraged hecklers to disrupt his political opponent instead of engaging in dialogue. I am happy you were not there to see and hear the deafening roar of protestors trying to intimidate politicians and observers like me from having any form of meaningful conversations. I am happy you were not there to listen to American leaders of Jewry share how disconnected they feel from Israel due to the judicial reform and by extension how disenfranchised they feel from Judaism. I am happy you were not there to see their despair. I wiped away more tears at those discussions than anywhere else on this highly emotional trip.
I couldn’t help but think of all the Gemaras that speak about the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple; Hatred. Sinas chinam. Had the Jewish People united against the Romans, Jewish history would have looked very different. But as Josephus relates, instead, they divided themselves into factions. By the time they were done fighting one another, the Romans walked in and finished us off.
I couldn’t help but think of American history. The American Civil War broke out how many years after independence? 78 years later. To be around for 75 years is not that long. That’s a frightening thought… I am glad you did not have the experience of shuddering like I did.
At the end of Acharei Mos, Hashem tells us to act morally in the land of Israel, “lest the land vomit you out, V’lo saki ha’aretz es’chem.” Vomit is a harsh word to use to describe exile. The Torah could have written, you’ll be kicked out of the land. What imagery is G-d trying to convey by describing our exile from the land of Israel as the land throwing up?
Rashi asks us to imagine a prince, who his whole life only ate the greatest of delicacies. He had refined taste, a sophisticated palate, and because of that, a sensitive stomach (something all the Ashkenazim in this room can easily relate to). One day he eats something disgusting. A regular person, you and me, okay, we’ll manage. But the prince with his refined sensibilities, his stomach couldn’t handle it. And so, he threw up.
That’s what it means that the land will vomit us out if we do not act appropriately. It’s G-d’s way of conveying that the land of Israel is holy, it is kadosh. Holy things are sensitive, they are fragile and they need to be handled with care.
As proud as we are in the accomplishments of the State of Israel, and there is a lot to be proud of, we cannot take any of it for granted. It is holy and being holy, it is fragile.
To assume that since we made it this far, there is nothing stopping us. To say, as so many politicians said these past few days, that we are confident in the future of Israel is the height of hubris. 2000 years ago, the Jews in the land of Israel were confident. The Gemara records that while the Romans were massacring one half of a city, the other half was partying, arrogantly oblivious to the impending doom. Look how far that confidence got them. In a few months, I am sure I am going to receive the question I receive every year, “Why are we still mourning the Temple? Why do we still describe Jerusalem as destroyed?” Yes, Jerusalem today is magnificent. But it’s holy, and precisely because it’s so holy, it could so easily crumble.
What I took out of my trip to Israel, more than anything else, is the need to live with a heightened sense of kedusha, of holiness. What all the people I met in Israel shared in common – that taxi driver, the Fuld family, Rabbi Leo Dee, the teens singing in the Gush Etzion cemetery, the men and women dancing on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the Racheli Fraenkels, what they all have in common is that they live with a deep awareness of the fragility of it all. They have a delicacy and urgency to their being. They’ve learned the hard way to not take life for granted, and so they live every moment to the fullest. They do not assume that tomorrow will be better; they make it better. Precisely because of the fragility of life they live such rich and meaningful lives. That’s what holiness demands of us; to step it up, to not allow inertia to move us forward; holiness needs to be handled with care.
Eretz Yisrael is kadosh; we cannot take her for granted. We need to do everything in our ability to bring peace and understanding among its people and among all the Jewish people, and that starts here. And we need to pray today more than ever for the true and full return to Zion.
But the land of Israel is not the only thing that is holy. So are we. Kedoshim tih’yu. We have a mandate to recognize the holiness that exists within. We can live crude and coarse lives, where every day spills right into the next, and before we know it, it’s over. Or we could choose to live like those holy Israelis, with a deep recognition of the fragility of life, awakening ourselves to the sensitivity of our sleeping souls, to live on fire – just like they do b’eretz hakodesh, in the holy land.
May we merit to see the true rebuilding of the land of Israel, and may we live our lives, wherever we find ourselves, with the sensitivity, care, and passion that our inner holiness demands.
There is a passage in this week’s parsha that is often invoked in the context of the Holocaust. After the tragic death of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, two young men who were slated to be the next leaders of the Jewish People who were killed during the inauguration of the Mishkan, on what was to be a most joyous day, Moshe attempts to comfort his brother. He fails. Instead, we are told vayidom Aharon, Aharon was silent. There were no words. No rationalizations, no words of comfort. There was simply nothing to say.
This silence is often invoked when facing personal tragedy that defies logic. And most certainly when facing the senseless death of six million of our brothers and sisters. What flimsy rationalizations can be offered? What shallow comfort can be found? Vayidom. We are silent.
The silence of Aharon finds new meaning in this day and age. Today, at a time when there are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust to share their story, a new and eerie silence reigns. You and I can scoff at the ludicrous deniers of the Holocaust because we heard from survivors with our own ears. But what stories will our children hear? Vayidom, we are silent, not because we want to but because almost no one is left to speak.
On Seder night, we engaged in the peculiar act of Jewish remembrance, what Professor Yosef Yerushalmi described as “making the past present.” We spoke of the experience of leaving Egypt in the first-person. “In every generation, one must see themselves as they left Mitzrayim.” I believe we are at a juncture in history where we, those of us who are not survivors, but knew survivors, who heard their terrifying stories, need to share their stories for them. We need to see ourselves as if we left Auschwitz. We need to see ourselves as if we left Bergen-Belsen.
That’s what I’d like to do this morning, share a few stories that I heard growing up from my grandparents. And I encourage you, if you’ve heard first-hand accounts from family, or from those who were not family, to share those with others, k’ilu, as if those stories are yours. Because on some level they are.
I’ll start with my grandmother. Unfortunately, I don’t have any stories to share about her. With rare exception, she never wanted to share what happened to her. And that silence, to me, is one of the most powerful and painful stories; the trauma that was never communicated verbally, but was communicated in every sigh, in every cigarette that she smoked, in every forced smile.
My grandfather, Yosef Shlomo, did share his story, not to his children, he wanted to protect them, but to us, his grandchildren, and I’d like to share with you just a little but about him.
He arrived in Auschwitz just a little before Shavuos. He found a Jew who had a pair of tefillin. Every day, after a difficult day of labor, he would wrap the tefillin and would daven by heart.
Right before Rosh Hashana, he got his hands on a shofar. He and his uncle decided, despite the incredible risk, they would blow the shofar in Auschwitz. They calculated the most distant place from Nazi guards, two people stood on watch, and they blew thirty blasts, blasts of deep and unbreakable faith, in the darkest place on earth.
On that same Rosh Hashana, he was walking across the grounds and heard the screams of children. There were about 100 children locked in a holding room who were going to be brought to the crematorium as soon it was emptied. Without thinking twice, he broke the door down and allowed the children to escape. Later in life, he bumped into a few of them in Israel.
For all the spiritual heroism of the day, it was also a day that broke him. He witnessed 1000 children go to the crematorium. He related to us how later that day when he went to pray, he seemed to forget the words. It took him years until he was able to talk to G-d again.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know much more. He never went into too much detail about the conditions in Auschwitz or the emotions he experienced. I don’t think he had the capacity, after all that he went through, to even speak in those terms.
What I did know my whole life was that he and my grandmother were survivors. Though they didn’t speak about it much, it drove them.
Despite better financial prospects in the US, they made Aliyah, and for the first few years, my grandfather worked as a janitor and lived in poverty. Years later, they lost their youngest son who was fighting as an Israeli soldier in the war of ‘82. But they never complained.
On the contrary, their sense of gratitude and purpose shined through everything they did or said. My grandfather, after retiring spent his waking hours studying Torah. My grandmother volunteered at a local hospital until she was no longer mobile. The image of my grandfather which will stay with me forever is the incredible emotion he had when he said the bracha of shehechiyanu at Kiddush. “She’hechiyanu v’kiy’manu v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh, that you gave me life, kept me alive, and brought me to this day.” He was so overwhelmed with emotions he could barely make it through the words.
Some may describe what they had as survivors’ guilt, but all I witnessed was survivors drive and survivors gratitude.
A few pessukim after the death of Nadav and Avihu, the Torah describes Aharon’s other two sons, Elazar and Isamar. They are referred to as bonov hanosorim, his surviving sons.
Rashi comments that even though they weren’t with their brothers, even though they were nowhere near the heavenly fire that killed their brothers, clearly, they were also supposed to die, and they are therefore described as survivors. If something happened to their brothers, clearly, it could have happened to them.
What a profound and poignant idea – We are all survivors, whether our grandparents or parents lived through the Holocaust, or not. World history could have looked very different. Hitler was not only intending to destroy the Jews in Europe alone. All of us survived the Holocaust.
By referring to Elazar and Isamar as survivors, G-d was teaching us that we all need to live as survivors. To live with the knowledge that there is a Mengele at every corner, that we can so easily be sent to our death and to therefore live with gratitude for every breath we take. To live with the knowledge that no matter what difficulties we face there is the possibility of rebirth, of starting over again. To live with the knowledge that the heroism, the choices we make today, will be spoken about by our grandchildren years later, and make an impact on who they are.
Those who have lived through the hell of the Holocaust are mostly no longer with us, but we are all survivors, and we can and we must live accordingly.
I’d like to share with you a story of one of our greatest teachers, Nachmanides, also known as Ramban (an acronym of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, and not be confused with Rambam, Moshe ben Maimon). Ramban was born in Spain in 1195, a physician by trade, but was best-known for authoring brilliant commentaries on the Chumash and the Talmud, and for his philosophical works.
This was still centuries before the Inquisition, but anti-Jewish sentiment was growing in Spain. One technique used by the church was to “prove Judaism wrong” by holding religious debates — a disputation — between a rabbi and a priest. Such undertakings were fraught with danger. If the rabbi lost, Jews would be forced to convert. If the rabbi won, things weren’t necessarily any better. In one disputation, the rabbi won the dispute, nonetheless, copies of the Talmud were burned by the cartload.
In 1263, King James of Spain authorized a disputation between Nachmanides and a Jewish convert to Christianity, Pablo Christiani. Nachmanides reluctantly agreed to take part, only after being assured by the king that he would have full freedom of expression. King James, who had a complicated relationship with the church, agreed.
According to our sources, Nachmanides won the battle, but lost the war. His arguments earned the king’s respect and a prize of 300 gold coins, but the Church ordered Nachmanides to be tried on the charge of blasphemy. A friend tipped him off and so, in the middle of the night, Nachmanides, who was 72 at the time, fled his homeland never to return.
Five years later, in 1267, after a long and perilous journey, Nachmanides arrived at the port city of Acco. He had decided to make Aliyah. After a brief stay, he traveled to Jerusalem where he was struck by its desolation. Buildings were dilapidated and abandoned. There were so few Jews that he could not even find 10 men for a minyan! In a letter to his son, he wrote as follows:
“What can I tell you about the land? There are so many forsaken places, and the desecration is great. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Yerushalayim is the most desolate place of all!”
I imagine Nachmanides standing there in Israel, thousands of miles away from his homeland, knowing that he would never see his family again. I’m sure he realized that the golden era of Spain was slowly coming to an end; the Jewish future looked bleak. And he comes to the Promised Land, a place described in the Torah as overflowing with milk and honey, but instead, what meets his eyes is utter desolation.
And yet, amazingly, Nachmanides was hopeful. He recalled a passage in the Torah, in what is known as the tochacha, in which God describes the terrible suffering the Jewish People would go through. The land of Israel during this period of exile is described as follows:
“So devastated will I leave the land, that your enemies who live there will be astonished… Your land will remain desolate, and your cities in ruins.”
In his commentary to the Chumash – something he started writing upon arriving in Yerushalayim, he explains that those words “Your land will remain desolate,” words that are in the middle of a string of curses, are actually a blessing to the Jewish People. That verse, he argued in a fantastically creative leap from the simple text, was actually a reassurance from G-d. And I quote: “That which God states here, “Your land will remain desolate” constitutes a good tiding, proclaiming that during all our exiles, our land will not accept our enemies! This is a great proof and assurance to us, for in the entire inhabited world one cannot find such a good and large land which was always lived in, and yet is as ruined as it is [today]. For since the time that we left it, it has not accepted any nation or people, and they all try to settle it, but to no avail.”
As creative of a read as it was, he had a good point. Throughout the many centuries since the Jewish People were exiled from their land, no conqueror ever succeeded in permanently settling the land, Israel for two thousand years remained a wasteland. As Mark Twain wrote in the late 19th century, “A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action.”
Somehow, in the ruins of Yerushalayim, Nachmanides saw a fulfillment of G-d’s promise that the land was waiting for the Jews to return. He understood that the destruction of the land was an incredible testimony to the bond between G-d and His people. He saw in the barren wasteland a living proof that G-d had not forsaken us. G-d made a promise to us, and He would keep it. G-d seemed so distant and removed from the world. The dark clouds of the Inquisition were descending over his native land. The temptation to convert was stronger than ever. And yet, Nachmanides saw through the land of Israel that G-d was sending him and all the Jewish People a message – “I am not that far away.” If one listened closely enough, with a sensitive ear like of Ramban, one could hear G-d whisper, ever so softly – “Look at this land! It makes no sense! How can a land that was at one point so fruitful become such a wasteland? It’s because I’m holding on to the land for you” said G-d. “I’m waiting for your return.”
The Ramban’s tenacity and optimism are part of a long tradition. He was quite literally walking in the footsteps of another great sage who lived in Yerushalayim about a thousand years before him. The Talmud relates how Rabbi Akiva was once walking through the ruins of Yerushalayim with his colleagues. They had witnessed the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, they had lived through fierce and bloody battles, and on this one morning, they found themselves walking near the Temple Mount, or should I say, the former Temple Mount. There was nothing there. It was a razed field – a deliberate slap in the face by their Roman oppressors. And to add insult to injury, just as they walked by, a fox ran right over the space on which the Holy of Holies stood. The rabbis could not contain themselves, and they burst out into mournful crying. But Rabbi Akiva began to laugh. Shocked, they stopped crying, and asked him to explain himself. “Why are you laughing?”
“There is a verse in the book of Zechariah,” he told them, “Which speaks of foxes running through a desolate Jerusalem.” They nodded their heads. “But there’s another verse, this one in Isaiah, in which Zechariah and another prophet by the name of Uriah are mentioned. Uriah’s most famous prophecy is one we sing at weddings – “Od yishama, we will yet hear in the cities of Judah… the song of joy and happiness.” Now clearly, there is meant to be a connection between the two. It would seem that when the prophecy of Zechariah, of foxes running through a desolate Yerushalayim will be fulfilled, then the uplifting prophecies of Uriyah will be fulfilled as well! When we see foxes running through the temple mount, it is G-d’s way of telling us that the prophecy of Uriah, that song and joy will fill the street of Yerushalayim, will also be fulfilled.”
Did you follow that? A little convoluted, right? That’s exactly my point. You see, for two thousand years, our greatest thinkers had to come up with the most creative leaps of faith, difficult, maybe even stretched explanations to find hope in the desperate darkness. But today? In 2023? Who needs creativity? Who needs Talmudic reasoning?
If Nachmanides were to travel to Israel today, he wouldn’t write home about destruction. He would probably write a letter to his son describing Tel Aviv. 100 years ago, it was a patch of sand dunes, and it now boasts a population of just under half a million residents. He would describe Petach Tikvah, at one point a swamp infected by malaria, now a flourishing city that doesn’t stop growing. He would write about the economy that boasts the second-largest number of startup companies in the world, after the United States, and the largest number of NASDAQ-listed companies outside North America. He would describe a land overflowing with life and trees. Did you know that Israel exports tulips to Holland?! That Israeli wine makers export to France?!
At this point in history, you wouldn’t need to be a Rabbi Akiva or a Ramban to interpret verses creatively. Anyone who owns a Chumash can open it up and see for themselves. Any one of us can open Yechezkel to read a crystal-clear prophecy from over two thousand years ago: “Mountains of Israel shall give forth your branch and bear fruit for My people Israel.” Fulfilled in our days!
Any one of us can recall the prophecies of Isaiah who described how G-d will one day gather Jews from all across the world, vikabeitz nidacheinu mei’arbah kanfos ha’aretz, G-d will ingather the Jewish People from all corners of the earth. Every plane-load of olim is a fulfilment of this promise!
G-d is no longer whispering to us that He has held on to His promise. He is shouting, loud and clear. That same land that was for so long forsaken, is now overflowing with milk and honey. I don’t typically share miracle stories. They’re not for me. I find my inspiration elsewhere. But the State of Israel is a miracle we cannot ignore.
I wish I could go back in time, to visit my great-grandparents right before they were gassed by the Nazis. I wish I could whisper to them what would happen in just a few years – the State of Israel would be born! Yerushalayim would be ours! Ha Habyit b’yadeinu! There would be a Jewish army – and they would be powerful! “How could it be?” they would ask. It’s a miracle, they would shout. And they would be right.
For most of us, our great-grandparents and grandparents are no longer here. For some, it is parents who we are missing. How jealous would they be of us to be living at this time? And how would they respond?
For all the political instability, for all the truly unspeakable terror that we witnessed these past few days, we are living in miraculous times. Hodu laShem ki tov! For the State of Israel to have been born, dayeinu. For the State of Israel to have reached 75, there are no words to express the emotion for a miracle of such magnitude. So, let’s take a moment today, on this holiday of redemption, to appreciate the gift that our ancestors yearned for two thousand years. Let’s take a moment today, on this holiday of thanksgiving, to thank G-d for what our ancestors had to imagine, and we can see with our own eyes. Let’s take a moment today, on this holiday of hope, to be inspired by the hope of those who came before us, so that we merit to see not only reishit tz’michat Ge’uloteinu, the messy beginnings of redemption, but the complete redemption speedily in our days. Amen!