What do we do next?
We gathered as a community for an inspiring Shabbos afternoon, we went to numerous Tehilim gatherings, we have been calling our congressmen, we put up yard signs, we put up signs with the names and faces of the hostages, we went to a vigil, we’ve been praying more, learning more, some of us went to Israel, and this past Tuesday we gathered with almost 300,000 people to stand with Israel.
What do we do next?
So many of us felt like we were on a high after that powerful show of solidarity. To hear the heart-breaking messages from the families of the hostages, to see the support from non-Jewish politicians and leaders of other faiths, to sing Acheinu, Esah Einai, (and yes, even One Day!) with a quarter of a million fellow Jews. Truly, an experience of a lifetime.
How do we continue to combat the growing anti-semitism in our backyard? How do we continue to provide political, material, and spiritual support for Israel? What do we do next?
I’d like to suggest that instead of doing more, instead of taking on a new project for Israel we pause for a moment before we consider what to do next. Because we are forgetting something. Or more honestly, I feel like I am forgetting something.
As you know and as you can see, the back wall of our shul is covered by posters of hundreds of hostages stuck in Gaza. I’m proud of our back wall. It allows us to glance at those faces of the elderly, the infants, the helpless, to gain a moment of inspiration before turning back to our Father in Heaven and begging Him to let them all return home in safety. It’s a powerful tool to help us focus.
The idea of placing who you are davening for in your field of vision can be traced back to the opening passage in this week’s parsha. When Yitzchak davens for Hashem to bless Rivkah with children, the Torah describes him standing “opposite” his wife. Rashi comments that he and Rivkah stood in opposite corners of the home. The Radak suggests otherwise. He suggests that Yitzchak stood opposite of his wife, meaning, he davened facing her, “she’yichavein libo aleha, so he could focus his heart on her.”
The hostages, the soldiers, and all the Jews in Israel have been “opposite us” for the past six weeks. And it’s beautiful. We are truly united with our brothers and sisters and have not lost sight of them for even a moment. I don’t think anyone has gotten nay work done; we’ve been running from event to event, saying tehilim and reading the news in between. The people of Israel have truly been opposite us 24/7.
But there’s more we can learn from Yitzchak. You have to wonder why, according to the Radak, Yitzchak needed to place his wife before him so he could focus his heart on her. Could there be anything more important? Could he possibly have been thinking about anything or anyone else when his wife was barren and desperate for a child?
Apparently, yes. As the spiritual heir of Avraham, he likely had hundreds if not thousands of people who turned to him for assistance, who he inspired and led. It would seem that Yitzchak was focused on many big and important projects; initiatives that would change the future of humankind. But at some point, Yitzchak realized that he was ignoring what, or rather, who was standing right before him. Yitzchak realized that sometimes we could be so focused on all the people out there that we could forget about those who are already standing right before us.
I look out at those pictures and see those innocent faces staring back at me, but in doing so, I fear that I am looking over the heads of so many of you in the seats between me and those pictures. If I am being honest with myself, and I embarrassed to say this out loud, but in my zeal to be there for the people of Israel I haven’t been there as much as I should be for the people of Ner Tamid.
Like Yitzchak, sometimes we need to stop, sometimes we need to pull ourselves away from the big and compelling picture and remind ourselves of the needs of the people standing before us. I could relate to Yitzchak. He had to reorient himself, he had to stand opposite his wife. Otherwise, he would have been distracted with noble causes pulling on his heart and attention.
In the laws of charity, there is a principle of prioritization – those who are closest to you deserve the most focus. Before we give to impoverished children in Africa, we are to make sure that those in Baltimore are cared for. Before we give to those in Baltimore, we are to make sure that those in our family have what they need. We do need to care for those in Israel, but we have to make sure that we don’t lose sight of those in our midst.
There are grieving mothers in Israel. And there are also grieving mothers in the seats near you. There are people living in constant fear and pain due to rocket attacks and the trauma of October 7th. And there also countless people living with all forms of trauma in our pews. There are ill people who need to be visited, not only in Tel Hashomer, but right here, in Sinai and in Johns Hopkins. The soldiers of the IDF have enough food at this point; there are countless people just a few feet away who could use a Shabbos invitation.
I think we’ve all been distracted. Distracted with the most noble of causes, but distracted nonetheless. It’s time we place our loved ones, our neighbors, our friends, before us, she’yichavnu libeinu aleihem, so that we could focus our hearts upon them.
In too many conversations with people going through genuinely distressful situations that need to be resolved, I hear apologies for bringing up their issues because of everything else going on. I wonder, how many are not reaching out? How many are suffering in silence? Not to mention the sheer loneliness that those who live alone are feeling right now with no one to comfort them or allay their fears. Not to mention those already in a state of depression or helplessness who now feel like the world is truly caving in. There are too many in our community who already carry tremendous burdens; they need our support and attention, now more than ever. Before we address what is next; let’s focus on what and who is first.
It need not be an either or. If there is one thing we learned these past weeks it is that the Jewish People are capable of doing even more that we ever thought; we have given more tzedakah, learned more Torah, paid more attention, and performed more chesed than ever before. I have been blown away by what we, in this community, in this shul, have accomplished. It is mind-boggling and a source of appropriate pride.
We are capable of providing for those in Israel who need our help and those at home. We can remain focused on those in captivity and those in the line of fire without losing sight of those right before our eyes.
In 1933, a letter was written by the Orthodox Jewish leadership in Germany. It was addressed to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. The letter was a plea for safety and security, describing the terrible impact that the Nazi laws had caused the Jewish community, and the fear in which the Jews now lived. In pleading their case, the rabbinic leadership, the authors of this letter, attempted to find common ground with the Nazis:
“Marxist materialism,” they wrote, “and Communist atheism share not the least in common with the spirit of the positive Jewish religious tradition… We (too) have been at war against this religious attitude.”
They went on to say that they would accept laws that would limit their autonomy and opportunities. What they wanted was clarity; are the Nazis truly intent on removing Jews from the land, in which case they would leave, or, are those just empty words, campaign slogans meant to curry votes that have no teeth to them, in which case they would happily reside in Germany as second-class citizens.
They did not receive a response.
How naïve. How pathetic. To be groveling at the feet of Adolf Hitler. If only they opened their eyes. If only those leaders took the signs that were all around them seriously. Who knows how many Jewish lives would have been saved.
Tragically, these Jews were blinded by their comfort. Germany was their home. Germany was their “new Jerusalem.” They were so patriotic, so connected to the motherland, that they could not imagine the reality that lay ahead – despite Hitler being abundantly clear about what was in store.
A hundred years from now, history will judge us. Will they say the same thing? How naïve. How pathetic. How could these American Jews miss the writing on the wall? Did they not read the news? Did they not see the pro-Palestinian anti-Semitic protests? Did they not listen to what the intellectuals in all the prominent universities were saying?
In pre-World War Two Germany, the Jewish German community would publish lists of all the Jews killed defending the country in World War One. We too celebrate today the sacrifices of all our veterans, and specifically here in our shul, all our Jewish veterans. It is something we should be proud of. We are all deeply grateful to the veterans in our community for their service. But is that enough to grant us acceptance in this country? Or will our enemies just shrug their shoulders, accuse us of dual allegiances, and lead us once again to destruction?
It would seem that some did learn the lesson of history. I am hearing now more than ever – Is this it? Is it time to go? Should we be packing our bags and making Aliyah en masse?
It’s a good question, but it’s now a new one. It goes back well before our time, well before Nazi Germany, all the way back to the times of Avraham Avinu. As always, there is a lesson, a powerful lesson, that we could learn from our great-great-grandfather.
When Avraham encounters the Chittite people, they describe him as “Nesi Elokim atah b’socheinu, as a G-dly prince among us.” They welcome him as one of their own. But Avraham, perhaps with a premonition of the history that would follow, rejected their embrace. “Ger v’toshav anochi b’to’ch’chem, I am a stranger and a permanent resident among you.”
It’s a strange choice of words; contradictory terms. A stranger and a permanent resident. Which one is it?
Rashi suggests that Avraham was proposing an either/or. I could be a stranger here or a permanent resident. But what Rav Soloveithcik suggests that the terms be read together. What Avraham was conveying to the people, what he was conveying to us, was the nature of being a Jew. We have one foot immersed in society and one foot out the door. We are both a brother and sister to the people of the world and – we are the eternal outsider. We are comfortable, we are citizens, we’ll build houses, and we’ll fight your wars. And – we are wary, we have a packed suitcase, we will never fully settle in. “Ger v’toshav anochi b’to’ch’chem, I am a stranger and a permanent resident among you.” So no, I don’t think we should necessarily leave, but we should, at all times, be ready to do so.
This ger-tsohav identity does not necessarily lead to Aliyah. I would like to remind you that Avraham said those words not in Berlin and not in Baltimore. He said these words in Chevron.
I truly hate to say this out loud, but there is no guarantee that being in Israel will serve us as protection. There is no G-dly promise that the State of Israel will last forever. This was the mistake made by the People of Israel who lived during the times of the first Beis HaMikdash; the Temple cannot be destroyed. Until it was.
To be clear, making Aliyah is amazing; I’m all for it. Israel is the greatest place on earth, the closest you will ever to G-d, a fully-immersive spiritual experience, but a guarantee that we will be safe there? That the state will last forever? If there is one lesson to take from October 7th it is that Ger V’toshav, that sense of insecurity, that sense of vulnerability, needs to exist in Israel as well.
Being a stranger and a resident is not about geography. Avraham was defining our identity for all of time. We are to never get comfortable. We are to always remind ourselves of the fleetingness of life. We are to always transcend our physical existence, not be bogged down by our material wealth, and instead to focus on the spiritual. Until the time of Mashiach we are not to rest – anywhere.
Those rabbis in Germany most certainly failed. They should have acted more ger-like, more stranger-like, and less toshav-like, less attached to their beloved Berlin. They should have packed their bags and left. That’s what I always thought. But I also wonder.
I wonder what would have happened had they taken the opposite approach; recognizing how they did not belong, recognizing how despite their deep patriotism, they were indeed strangers, and yet, leaned into the fact that they were citizens of that country. Call me naïve, but what would have happened if instead of sending a meek letter, the leaders of German Jewry would have called their fellow Jewish citizens to gather in the plaza of the Reichstag? Imagine if the half million Jews would have stood right outside the German parliament and demanded that the government treat them like regular people? Imagine if those men, women, and children, would have made it clear to the German politicians and to leaders across the world that the status quo was unacceptable? Maybe, just maybe our history would have been different.
We are living in a historic moment. We are being reminded of how much of a ger, how much of a stranger we are in this land and in the world, and we need to use this moment to reorient ourselves to what is real and what is eternal. It’s amazing to see the spiritual revival among the Jewish People, here in our shul and everywhere across the globe. But we also need to lean in to being a toshav, we do live here, this is our home. And we need to make our voices heard.
The next generation will analyze what we did in this moment. They will wonder why some people stayed home on Tuesday, why some people went to work. They will wonder how people were doubling down on their comfort and not their spirituality at a time when the truth was so clear. Ger v’toshav anochi. We are strangers and we are citizens.
As strangers to this world, let’s not be held back by how backward people may think we are. Let us pray to our G-d that we believe in from the depths of our soul, let us learn our precious Torah like never before, let us do chesed, let us unite as a People, as a family. And as toshavim, as citizens of this country, on Tuesday, in Washington, DC, let us, each and every one of us, make our voices heard. Because someday soon, ladies and gentlemen, history will judge us too.
Three thousand year ago, our ancestors sent a group of spies to the land of Israel. They came back with a negative and cynical report that changed the course of our history. I feel fairly confident that had we spent those same spies to Israel this past week, try as they might, they would find nothing to be negative or cynical about. The same land that just a few weeks ago was filled with infighting, with faithlessness, hopeless, and just plain ugliness, is now filled with unprecedented unity, expressions of chesed on every corner, strength, conviction, and faith like never before. If they were spying on the land this past week, no one would disagree that “Tovah ha’arezt me’od me’od, it is an exceptionally good land.”
They would be right about one thing – the land is filled with giants. Not giants in size, but giants in strength like the soldiers deep in Gaza, giants in faith like the many bereaved parents who did not question G-d but affirmed their belief in His ways. I’ll share with you one of many examples:
We met a man by the name of Shmuel Slatki. On Simchas Torah morning, his two sons got wind of what was happening down south. They decided together that they would go and help. They only had pistols but they assumed that a handful of terrorists infiltrated the border. Like everyone else in the country, they could not imagine what was actually taking place. As they were driving, they saw tens of cars speeding in the opposite direction, running out of harm’s way, but they drove on. They pulled into Kibbutz Alumim, they quickly learned what was really taking place. There is video footage that catches them discussing what to do. They could have easily jumped back in their car and sped off, but they chose to march forward. With pistols in their hands, they killed numerous terrorists, saving hundreds of lives. Tragically, they were both killed in the battle.
Their father, despite losing two sons in one day described his pride in bringing such children into this world. How proud he was that they were ready to give up their lives for the Jewish People. How he recognized their death was a part of G-d’s divine plan. He was one of many giants we met on this trip.
Like the spies before us, in the presence of giants, one is made to feel like a grasshopper. We were there to give support the people of Israel, but what could we, with our shallow faith, say to a man like this that would actually make a difference? In truth, the entire trip made us feel like a grasshoppers. There was a war going on; how could we help? There were entire communities uprooted from their home; what difference could we make in their lives?
But I was reminded of a passage from this week’s parsha. We read how G-d informed Avraham that He was going to destroy the cities of Sedom. Avraham immediately engaged in an argument with G-d, begging and pleading that He save the cities. As we know, every request was turned down. And sure enough, G-d destroyed the cities of Sedom. I imagine Avraham feeling quite small at that moment. I imagine he felt quite useless. I imagine he felt like we did, like a grasshopper. But he didn’t give up.
The very next morning, Avraham goes back to the back he stood the day before. He tries again. He begs G-d to have compassion on whomever is left. And this time, his prayers are heard. In his merit, Lot and his two daughters are saved. It would seem that even grasshoppers can make a difference. We may not be able to save a city, but we could save a single person or family.
Allow me to share with you three stories how despite us feeling ever so small in the presence of great people or overwhelming loss, we were still able to make a difference.
The first many of you already know. We were staying in a hotel in Yerushalayim that was filled with displaced people from the city of Sederot. One evening, I was waiting for an elevator and started up a conversation with a nice family. Like 90% of Sederot they were homeless until the war was over. Not only that, but this particular family’s home was hit by a missile. As we were talking they introduced me to their 12 year old son who I was told was about to turn 13. Reflexively, I asked him where his Bar Mitzvah would be. Of course as the words came out of my mouth, I realized how horrible of a question that was. His face fell and he shrugged his shoulders. His friends were dispersed throughout the country. His father told me they went to a hall in Yerushalayim to see if they could rent it but the cost of living prices in Yersuhalayim are astronomically higher than they are in Sederot. They couldn’t afford it and they didn’t know what to do.
David Lehmann and I decided to make a video of Facebook letting people know his story and encouraged people to chip in so we could give him $1000 for his Bar Mitzvah. I made the video on the last day I was in Israel and told everyone that they only had a few hours to donate. Within that time, we raised $4500 for this boy and his family. I cannot describe to you the tears of joy, the depth of their gratitude, the sense of love that they felt when we told them the good news. We can’t help all the people of Sederot, we can’t even help this one family with all their needs. But just because we’re grasshoppers doesn’t mean we cannot make a difference.
The second story took place in the city of Chevron. We met with the parents of a soldier who is in captivity. This giant of a man described his faith in G-d’s ultimate plan. He thanked G-d for allowing his son to be a part of the wars of good against evil, acknowledged that his son may never come back, but affirmed his faith in Hashem. We all felt, once again, so humbled, in the presence of such people.
As we all lined up to give him a hug – because that was all we could do, I mentioned to him that we have a picture of his son on the back wall of our shul in Baltimore. And every day and every night we pray for his son’s release. He stopped, looked at me in astonishment, and called over his wife. “Tishmi! Listen! This rabbi has a picture of our son in their shul!!” He gave me the biggest hug I ever received. For all the people who have told me, enough with the prayers, they don’t make a difference. First of all, they do make a difference on a cosmic level. But beyond that, as small as we may be, our thoughts and our prayers are so deeply appreciated by the people of Israel.
The final story, the one that shook me to the core, took place on the first day of our trip. We started the day in Sederot to get a sense of what devastation the State of Israel had faced on October 7th. We were taken to the site of the Sederot police station, only that it wasn’t a police station, it was a pile of rubble. We heard how the terrorists overtook the station and used it as their base. We heard the heroic stories of the police officers and civilians who fought with them, saving the lives of countless people.
We decided, knowing that this was the site of the death of so many holy people that we would say a Keil Malei. A policewoman came and stood near us as the tefilah was said. We turned to her after the prayer and asked her if she lived in Sederot. She did not. What was she doing there, we asked her. She told us her name was Hodaya Harush. Her husband was the first police officer killed in the police station. She decided that morning to visit the site for the very first time and came just as the Keil Malei was being said.
We were all – she and all of us – quite moved by the timing of her visit. We asked her to tell us a little about her husband. I’ll share the video with you after Shabbos so you could see the strength of this woman. She described, with a smile on her face, the humility that her husband. She spoke about him finishing long shifts, but coming home with tons of guests, overjoyed that he had the opportunity to do hachnossas orchim. She told us how proud she was of being married to this incredible person. Another giant; a widow with two children, but greater strength and courage than I can even imagine.
We asked her what her husband’s favorite song was; we figured we would sing together, to provide an ounce of comfort. She told us his favorite song was “Torah hak’dosha,” a song about one’s love for the Torah, which we dutifully sang.
How could we help this person, we all wondered. What could we possibly do?
Rabbi Silber and I were discussing this during the trip and we thought about how much this man clearly loved the Torah, and decided that we could dedicate our shul’s learning of Bava Kama, the upcoming tractate in Daf Yomi, to her husband’s memory.
A month ago, I met with Fishel Gross about encouraging the shul to do Daf Yomi. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think many people would be interested. I had just pitched learning five minutes a day, every day, and I thought that was pretty bold. But then this war broke out and so last week, I encouraged us all to be guided by our heart, to do things that make no sense, for the sake of a great cause. Of course there was a financial incentive as well, both for each of you and for the shul. Nonetheless, I was blown away by the response. Over 100 people in our shul – all people who are currently not learning the daf, committed to learning Bava Kama.
But now we, together with Suburban Orthodox, are going to learn the daf in memory of Hodaya’s husband, Eliyahu Michael. I am going to call her after Shabbos and let her know just how many people are doing this for an Aliyah for his Neshama; how 1000 people listen to Rabbi Silber’s daf yomi, and the many people in this shul who will be signing up after Shabbos.
I texted her Friday morning and told her of this idea. She was blown away. This was her response:
תודה רבה רבה
אתם משמחים אותי ממש
זה שאתם לומדים זה זכות גדולה
אני מודה לכם מאוד על זה
“Thank you ever so much. You are given me so much joy. Your learning is a great merit and I am so grateful.”
I implore you to learn in his memory. I implore you to continue to look at those posters in the back of the shul. I implore you to continue to give tzedakah. I implore you to continue to daven. There may be giants in Israel, and we may indeed be grasshoppers. But grasshoppers can make a difference.
Day One of the Orthodox Union United We Stand Mission
Ben Gurion is a ghost town.
In the void are signs, every few feet, for bomb shelters.
It’s not a depressing silence.
Everyone in that airport has purpose in their footsteps.
We’ve come to fight. We’ve come to help. We’ve come home.
Nearly every passenger from the US is carrying anywhere between 2 and 13 duffel bags.
I told them at customs my bag was filled with clothing for soldiers.
That’s what they told me.
It was filled with medical supplies.
The soldier looked at the supplies, looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and let me through.
Handed the bags to some off duty soldiers who were waiting for me. A quick embrace before they went back to their base.
We’re all family, bringing packages for our loved ones.
The highways are empty. I’m waiting for foxes to run across Kvish Echad.
But we’re not crying.
We’re all Rabbi Akiva.
Here to give hope and to experience the eternal hope of the Jewish People.
The hotel – this is the third hotel we booked as the others got filled up with displaced people, is now a refugee center.
A Bat Mitzvah is taking place.
Strangers off the street come to give the girls some joy.
Kids running through the halls.
Pressing all the buttons on the elevator.
Fighting ever so hard to just be normal.
How many people from the south told us tonight that they said shema on October 7th, thinking it was their last prayer? How many parents described giving out kitchen knives to their 13 year olds?
Who dared awaken these old plotlines from books from the crusades, movies of the Holocaust. What are they doing here?! In Israel?! In 2023?!
There are words that keep on being repeated: “Miracle” “Hashem was watching over me.” “Achdut!!”
The last time I was here was August and I’ve only been here a few hours, but I can confidently say, this is a new people; a people awakened from a deep slumber, a people energized with unity, with faith, and with resolve.
It’s midnight. There’s a cool breeze outside, blowing hope through the streets of Jerusalem. We have been knocked down. But we are anything but beaten.
Day Two of the Orthodox Union United We Stand Mission
There’s just too much to share and emotions that are too raw to unpack. So I’ll just share a single moment –
In Chevron, we learned that one of the soldiers stationed there got married a few days ago. Immediately after his wedding he went back to serve. Because that’s what you do in a time of war.
He didn’t have any sheva berachos. However his battalion decided to surprise him and brought his newly wed wife to their base for an impromptu sheva berachos. We crashed and this is what we experienced.
You can watch a clip of the sheva berachos here: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CzFAG-JrU7r/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==
V’haikar lo l’facheid klal.
May Hashem give them the strength to not be scared and to return home in safety.
Day Three of the Orthodox Union United We Stand Mission
It’s a pretty holy group of people I’m traveling with. Leaders of their community, international teachers of Torah, and just plain old good people. Despite their collective stature, there’s one sentiment I’m hearing from them over and over: “The people here are just on another level.”
The parents whose child is in captivity who affirms his faith in G-d’s plan, the father who just buried his 19 year old son who affirms his faith in the holiness of the land, the secular soldier who thanks us for coming to the kotel to pray, the unit whose job it is to identify bodies who have been pulling 24 hour shifts who have seen and smelt and touched the most horrific sites who somehow danced with us affirming their faith in the eternality of the Jewish people with huge smiles on their faces…
These are not rabbis or spiritual gurus. These are doctors, mechanics, college students, teachers…
To be in their presence pushes you, it opens your eyes to how shallow our version of spirituality is.
My dear colleague, Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, a different level individual in his own right, commented today how he’s afraid that whatever new vistas have been opened to us will be lost when we return, he wonders how long it will last. Those concerns shook me to the core.
I’m afraid it won’t even make it off the tarmac. It’s like those bottles of ‘Israel air’ they used to sell in the shuk.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves, the holiness of Israel cannot be imported. The people are different because the air is different. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
I’m already checked in to my flight tomorrow night, the ominous countdown has begun. But I’ll be back. We’ll all be back. Our soul is drawn to holiness like a magnet. No amount of missiles and no amount of terror can hold her back.
And even if we only stay for a few days, we can still walk these holy streets, breathe the holy air, and hug the holy people of Israel who are radiating their holiness now more than ever.
Touching Down in the US
The commentators question why it is that Hashem made Noach save the animals. Why couldn’t G-d save them on His own?
“Olam chesed yibaneh, the world is created on kindness.” There is a principle that for the world to form it must be built on kindness. This is not only a mystical idea, but practically, the world cannot function unless there is kindness at its core.
The pre-flood society had devolved into a jungle where each person or tribe was focused entirely on themselves. That world was destroyed; it simply could not go on. Hashem asked Noach to look out for the animals as He wanted to ensure that the new world will be founded on the most important quality – chesed – only then would the world endure.
This past year was a low point in the history of the State of Israel and the Jewish People. Our differences seemed unbridgeable, our shared values seemed to not be enough to hold us together.
That world experienced its own mabul on October 7th; destruction and devastation beyond description.
In its place a new world is forming. Every Israeli citizen has been mobilized not to fight but to unite. Charedi teens are cleaning understaffed hospitals in Tel Aviv. Senior citizens are picking fruit to help farmers. Communities are creating massive meal trains for all the mothers whose husbands are on the front lines. One Israeli told me, “There are more volunteers than opportunities to help.”
“Olam chesed yibaneh, the world is created on kindness.” There is a new world forming and at its core is unity and kindness.
I’m about to land in Newark airport.
My heart is always in the east, but now more than ever, I want to be a part of the revolution of kindness that is sweeping across the land.
Below you will find a video and letter from a soldier to whom we brought cards drawn by children. I had assumed that these hardened soldiers, and these ones in particular whose job it was to deal with the dead, could not care less for silly cards. Boy was I wrong.
We can still be a part of the revolution from across the Atlantic. We have and we will continue to think and pray for the people of Israel – aside from its intrinsic value, they appreciate it more than you can imagine. We have and we will continue to fundraise unprecedented amounts of funds to help support the people of Israel – they need it now and they will need it for the long haul. We have and we will continue to do anything we can for them, up to and including drawing pictures, thanking the brave men and women of Israel.
But perhaps even more importantly, we can and we will rebuild our own world; maybe it wasn’t as broken as Israeli society, but our community too faces its own share of challenges. We can commit to rebuilding it it before it is destroyed.
My heart is not in the east. My heart is with my people, in Israel and in my backyard.
Imagine Noach in his teivah.
Stuck in a structure for an entire year.
Imagine how claustrophobic he must have felt. The screams of the animals. The stench.
I wonder if he missed his neighbors, his cousins, his parents. All dead.
Imagine his dream at night – if he slept at all. The hellish nightmares that surely woke him up in a cold sweat.
If you look at the back wall of the shul, you will see the faces of a hundred people who know exactly how Noach felt.
If these men, women, and children, ranging from the age of 3 to their 80’s are even alive, they are most certainly feeling claustrophobic right now.
They are surrounded by people speaking a language they don’t understand. They hear missiles falling, sirens, and screams.
They may have just witnessed their family members or friends murdered in front of their eyes. Or worse, they have no idea what happened to their loved ones.
I can’t imagine they are getting any accurate reports.
And the nightmares. With no one to soothe them. To hold them. To tell them it’s going to be okay.
Not to compare in any way because to do so is an insult to the horrific experience these hostages are experiencing right now – but in our own way, we are all feeling claustrophobic right now. We’re all feeling boxed in, suffocated. Someone bumped into me quite physically at the subway station the other day. Was it a mistake or was it deliberate? Are people looking at us different or is it just our imagination?
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think the world is out to get us right now. Did you read what our “best and brightest” signed on to at Harvard and Penn?! Our future doctors, lawyers, and judges. Our future leaders?!
Have you seen the protests across the country where the thin veil of anti-Zionism has been dropped and antisemitism is on full display?
Like Noach, we’re all feeling short of breath; walls moving in; trapped.
The Torah describes the dimensions of the teivah and then adds an intriguing detail. “Tzohar taaseh lateivah, a tzohar should be made for the ark.” The Medrash relates a debate as to the meaning of this word. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana suggests that it is a window. Rabbi Levi suggests that it is a special stone that gave off light. On face value, they are debating where the light of the teivah came from, a rather technical architectural question. The first opinion suggesting that the light came from outside, whereas the second opinion arguing that there is no light outside during a vicious storm, and therefore it must have come from this special shiny stone.
But perhaps there is more at play. Perhaps Rabbi Abba bar Kahana is teaching us a relevant and personal lesson. Perhaps the window of the teivah is meant to teach us that when one feels lost and alone, when one feels like they are locked away from the rest of society and begins to give up hope – look out the window! There is always more than meets the eye. There are always people out there who can help you. As Mr. Rogers would say, “Look for the helpers.”
As dark and lonely and depressing as it is to be a Jew right now, there is also a lot of light outside. For example, the vast majority ofAmerican political leaders who are strongly supporting the Jewish People. Or the French government who attempted to outlaw supporting Hamas. Or the leadership of Germany and England who made solidarity trips to Israel. And of course, President Biden’s historic trip to Israel, lending Israel’s fight against Hamas international legitimacy, and providing all forms of needed aid to the citizens of Israel and the IDF.
As claustrophobic as we all feel, there is a lot of light shining through.
But Rabbi Levi reminds us that there isn’t always light coming in from outside. Imagine once again those many hostages who are all alone, hidden in some bunker in Gaza. They don’t know that much of the international community is cheering them on. They have no clue that President Biden just visited the region. They’re probably being fed lies day and night. They’re probably being told that Israel is losing the battle, that Hamas is winning the war.
Says Rav Levi, even when there is no light coming in from the outside, even when you are enveloped in darkness, there is a tzohar, a precious stone, that can give off light. It is possible to find hope in the midst of a terrible storm.
In the sixth century BCE, Jerusalem was surrounded by the Assyrian forces. The Assyrian army was the mightiest in the region, wreaking havoc and devastation everywhere they turned. These were the same Assyrians who conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and obliterated the ten tribes who lived there. Chizkiyahu, the king of Judea, was given the opportunity to surrender, but he chose not to. “I have a tradition from my great-grandfather, King David,” he proclaimed. “Afilu cherevchuda al tzavarecha, even with a sharp sword on your throat, we do not despair.” (Talmud, Berachos)
No nation provided any military support to King Chizkiyahu. And yet, the Judean Kingdom survived. All those nations who didn’t come to the aid of King Chizkiyahu, the Babylonians, the Edomites, the Moabites, they are gone. The Assyrian army is a relic of history. And yet, the Jewish People are still here.
I hope and I pray that those 203 hostages who have no window to the outside world, can draw upon that inner hope that has shined for us for so many years. I hope and pray that those 203 hostages who have no window can find their own tzohar, something to keep them going, as they face unimaginable horrors.
But you and I, as claustrophobic as we may feel, we are not stuck. You and I can do something for those trapped inside. And we must.
Do you remember how the Jewish world was turned upside down a few years ago when the three teenagers were kidnapped? Remember what we did and said for 3 people? There are now 203 who have been kidnapped!! 203 sets of mothers and fathers and children crying their eyes out!! I imagine we are all just so overwhelmed by all the news that we haven’t let it sink in that 203 men, women, and children, who are being held by people who a few days ago, violated, decapitated, burned and destroyed entire families.
There was some discussion among the shul leadership before putting those signs up in the back of the shul. We wondered if it’s too intense.
But we decided to go ahead with it, precisely because it is so intense; we cannot afford to lose sight of what these 203 hostages are going through.
So we will look into their eyes, we will read their names, we will be shocked at their ages. And now we have to ask ourselves, what can we do? I’d like to share 3 suggestions:
1) Contact your congressman. Thank him for supporting Israel and beg him to do everything in his power to bring these hostages home.
2) Show up. There are vigils, there will be rallies. Every person in attendance makes a difference. We can’t afford to say we don’t have the time when 203 people are trapped in Gaza and all alone.
3) Pray. “Afilu cherev chuda al tzavarecha, even with a sharp sword on your throat, we do not despair.”
G-d willing, we will have a chance to one day meet one of these 203 hostages. And we will be able to look him or her in the eye and say, I did not give up. I thought of you, I prayed for, I fought for you.
May we see that day bimheira v’yamenu, speedily in our days.