There was a chilling video that was circulating a few days after October 7th. It was a clip of Thomas Hand, a father of a 9-year-old girl who was at a sleepover in Kibbutz Be’eri when Hamas attacked and who he had not seen or heard from since. Thomas described the fear he experienced on that day. And then he was told that his daughter’s body was found – she was dead; murdered by Hamas. ‘Yes!’ he said, ‘Yes!’ and he smiled. And I quote, “That is the best news of the possibilities that I knew … Death was a blessing, an absolute blessing.” He was right. Knowing what we are even starting to know about how the hostages were held, seeing the images of the violations especially against women, death was a blessing.

Only that she wasn’t dead. A few days later, after mourning the loss of his daughter, he got word that she was alive.

This past week, his daughter, Emily, was released. Emily does not look like she did on October 7th. Her once chubby face is now chiseled, her once vibrant eyes are now glassed over. But most jarring is how she speaks. As Thomas described: “The most shocking, disturbing part of meeting her was she was just whispering, you couldn’t hear her. I had to put my ear on her lips,” he said. “She’d been conditioned not to make any noise.”

Thomas Hand’s life has been changed forever.

Emily Hand’s life has been changed forever.

Last week, I met with a fundraiser from Shuvu. Shuvu is a network of schools in Israel that cater to children from secular families who would like a Jewish education. I asked the man if he has seen any differences since October 7th. He told me that they received approximately 750 requests for Tefillin from the fathers of the Shuvu children. There are thousands upon thousands of people making tzitzis for soldiers who otherwise do not wear tzitzis but have chosen to start wearing them now.

These 750 fathers, these thousands of soldiers, they have truly changed.

The world around us has changed; polite and subtle antisemitism has given way for overt and violent Jew hatred.

The State of Israel has changed; the fractured disharmony that permeated every part of Israeli society a few months ago has given way to Messianic fraternity and love.

So much around us has changed. But what about us? Have we changed? Or are we just left watching as all this change unfolds around us?

Maimonides, the Rambam, describes how a Jew is to respond to tragedy. “When a tragedy befalls the Jewish People, they must cry out and pray.” So far so good; we’ve been doing that. “And,” he writes, “they must acknowledge that it was because of their own misdeeds that the evil has befallen them.”

In other words, the response to tragedy in Judaism is not only praying, is not only watching moving videos, is not only protesting. The response to tragedy in Judaism is making sure that we take these events to heart and that we change.

This past week, I sat with a group of distinguished rabbis from across the country to discuss openly and freely how we are doing and what we need to do next. One rabbi, the oldest rabbi in the group exclaimed: “I feel like a failure! A failure! Was the purpose of G-d sending this terrible catastrophe of October 7th so that we should all become fluent in a new chapter of Tehillim? Hashem sent a tragedy the likes of which most of us have never experienced before, and for the most part, we remain the same! Yes, we have given a lot of tzedakka and performed a lot of chesed…but how have we changed? How are we different?”

We read this morning how our forefather Yaakov received a new name. לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל. But it’s more than a name change. The Netziv observes that the Torah initially describes the angel wrestling with Yaakov, but there is no mention of Yaakov fighting back. Vayi’ovek ish imo. It is the angel who is wrestling but Yaakov is passive like he has always been. He ducks away from the punches, he avoids confrontation. But at some point in the battle there is a change of heart, and the Torah then describes Yaakov fighting back – b’hei’ovko imo. Yaakov is no longer avoidant, he is no longer a sneak, he is no longer passive. He is a new man. And for that, he is given a new name – Yisrael – Ki sarisa im Elokim v’im anashim vatuchal – because you have struggled against the Divine and against man, and you have prevailed. Yaakov changed, not superficially, not with external actions, but his entire persona transformed. We are called B’nei Yisrael – our identity is such that we are capable of walking in the footsteps of our father, of becoming someone else entirely. Change is in our blood, it’s in our spiritual DNA. We have been forced to reinvent ourselves at too many junctures in history. But that ability to struggle, to start fresh, and to transform is also a gift. It’s a gift, and at times like this, it’s a responsibility.

There is a story told of a man who is lost in a forest. Suddenly, it starts to rain. But it’s not just a rainfall, it’s a thunderstorm. Before you know it, the trees are shaking due to the booming thunder and the sky is being lit up with brilliant lightning. Now I don’t know about you, but I happen to love watching lightning; how the sky lights up, how the raindrops seem like they are suspended in the air, and watching the zigzag of yellow across the dark canvas of the sky. So this man could do what I do when lightning fills the sky; look up and take in the beauty. Alternatively, if he was wise, he could take advantage of the light and use it to quickly look around and try to find a path out of the forest.

This story is a cautionary tale; how do we respond to moments that move us? Do we sit with our emotions, looking up at the sky, allowing our hearts to tremble and be overawed by the moment? Do we scroll from heartbreaking clip to heartbreaking clip? Or do we remind ourselves that we are lost – spiritually, we are not yet at our destination, and quickly scramble to find our way?

I know what you’re thinking. It’s irresponsible to make tremendous changes; they don’t last. I agree. But it’s even more irresponsible to not make any changes at all. We had a storm not that long ago, it was called Covid. And we all thought the world would change, we would change, everything would be different… We cannot allow yet another tragedy to pass us by and come out on the other side exactly the same as we were before.

The hostages are slowly making their way home. The war, we hope, will be over in the near future. Life is starting to get back to normal. The rain is slowing down, the thunder is getting more and more distant, and the inspirational lightning is starting to fade. Now’s the time to start reflecting on what we learned; about the world around us and about ourselves. Reflecting on the increase in our own spiritual accomplishments, can I carve out a few more minutes for G-d in my day? Can I study more? Can I pray with more kavanah? Seeing families ripped apart, how do I interact with my family? Can I improve? Watching the strength of the families and the soldiers, are there areas in my life where I could exhibit a little more strength? A little more courage? As B’nei Yisrael, as masters of transformation, now is the time to take a small step along the path of greater spiritual heights.   

Now, before it’s too late, we need to ask ourselves, when the rain stops, when the intense emotions are no longer, will we have changed, or will we have remained the same?