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.