Chaveirim Kol Yisroel – Maintaning the Incredible Unity in this Difficult Time
*Adapted from sermon given in Boca Raton Synagogue this Parshas Masei 2014/5774
Sgt. Eviyatar Moshe Torjamin was only twenty years old. He was a student at Yeshivat Ha’Kotel, a hesder yeshiva in the Old City of Yerushalayim that combines army service with Torah study. He had only two weeks left until the end of his service and was therefore given the option of not entering the fighting in Gaza. Nevertheless, he insisted on taking part in the war. Worried that he would be delayed in getting back to the yeshiva for the beginning of the new zman (semester), he sent a message asking to have his personal seforim (books) set up in the Beis Midrash so that he could jump right in. His place in the Beis Midrash was set, but he will never again sit in it, for rather than sit in his makom (seat), this week his parents and siblings have been receiving the greeting of Ha’makom as they sat shiva for the loss of their beloved son and brother, Eviyatar.
Eviyatar’s is only one of many tragic stories that could be told over this past month. It has been a horribly painful time for the Jewish people. Three yeshiva students were kidnapped. Jews everywhere were shaken by their disappearance and longed together for their return. Then we learned the devastating news of the discovery of the boys’ bodies. Soon after sirens began to sound and rockets began to rain down not only in communities in the south but in Tel Aviv, Yerushalayim and as far north as Zichron Yaakov. Israel decided to strike back against Hamas terrorists in Gaza and, after long deliberation, ultimately began a ground operation that has already cost forty-three Israeli soldiers their lives.
This month has been one filled with sadness, fear, uncertainty, suffering and sorrow. It has been particularly difficult Yocheved and me to absorb all of the news and events while away on vacation and apart from you, our beloved BRS family and community. We longed to daven with you, hope with you, cry with you and stand with you in support of Israel in every way possible.
There are many reasons to look at what is happening with Israel and with Jews around the world and to feel pessimistic, anxious and concerned. We are all drawn to the news 24/6 and follow everything that is happening in real time. We are obsessed and consumed by alerts, updates, articles, pictures and videos. We are gripped by the stories as if we are following a reality show, but it is not a show. It is our reality. It is our story. It is what is happening to our people and to our family.
So much of the mainstream media, as you know, have been intellectually dishonest, unfair and slanted in how they have presented this conflict and the events that surround it. Sometimes it feels as if Israel is not only fighting Hamas, but fighting the NY Times, CNN, and perhaps even the FAA who are not analyzing the situation from an objective, logical, moral perspective, but from a sensationalistic, distorted, and agenda driven one.
We have been inundated with news coverage, but there is so much that is not being covered, not reported on, or even spoken about outside of Jewish media:
They do stories on family members of Hamas fighters, but what about the wives, children and parents of the young men who are going into Gaza risking their lives in order to restore peace and quiet to their people? What about the impact on parents and spouses whose lives are literally put on hold for weeks, while they are consumed by wondering, fearing, imagining the worst and dreading the phone call no parent ever wants to receive? There are parents in our BRS community whose sons are serving in Gaza right now, and they describe that they cannot sleep at night, they cannot eat, and they cannot function. Who is caring for their stories, who is writing about them and the lasting impact of living with this stress and worry?
They do stories on the impact of rockets on children in Gaza, but where are the stories describing the trauma and impact on over a million children in Israel who have been introduced to sirens and bomb shelters and who have a new appreciation of just how short 15 seconds truly are? My nephew could not sleep at night because he was afraid he wouldn’t wake up if there was a siren. Another nephew began wetting his bed every night, clearly out of fear. Who is telling the story or concerned with how all of this will affect their lives going forward after the rockets stop falling? How will they cope with the sound of every fire truck that passes by, or a firecracker set off in their vicinity?
They do stories about the economic impact of the war on Gaza, but what about Israel’s economy and how it has been impacted by the drastic drop in tourism, the practical closure of its airport, the disappearance of tens of thousands of businessman and employees from their business and place of work while they have been called up as reserves to defend their country? Who is sending Israel aid? Who will provide millions of dollars to compensate for the impact of this war on Israel’s economy and businesses?
They do stories about Gaza families forced to leave their homes, but where are the stories about the 8,500 people evacuated from Gush Katif and other Jewish areas in Gaza nine years ago? They were told their tremendous sacrifices were necessary for peace. We can’t imagine how their pain has resurfaced or become compounded by watching how their sacrifices were for naught, and their former homes have become sites where rockets are now being launched at them. Who is telling their story or concerning themselves with their plight?
They do stories about the fear in Gaza, but where are the stories in the mainstream media about Jews in France being chased and attacked in their synagogue? Where is the expose on how Jews in London are afraid to go out with their yarmulkas visible.
Yes, there is in fact so much to be sad about, so many reasons to be down, mournful, anxious and afraid.
We find ourselves in the period of bein ha’metzarim, the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, an inauspicious time designated for mourning, loss and destruction. Close to two thousand years ago, a group of rabbis looked up at Har Ha’Bayis, the Temple Mount. In the place that had held our holy Mikdash, a place where Jews gathered 3 times a year, a place where sacrifices were offered and where our Sanhedrin sat, there was now a pile of rubble and the smell of ash.
The image and the realization of the new reality, the vulnerability and fragility of the Jewish people and the uncertainty of what the future would hold, brought feelings of grief and sorrow. In fact, the Talmud at the end of Makkos, in a very famous passage, tells us that the small group of rabbis saw a fox running where the Kodesh Ha’Kadoshim, the Holy of Holies, once stood and they began to weep. However, rather than cry, one of them began to laugh. The colleagues turned to Rabbi Akiva and wondered how could he be so callous, how could he be so cold, so distant? How could he possibly laugh in the face of so much loss, suffering and uncertainty?
R’ Akiva explained: We have two prophecies, that of Uriah and that of Zechariah. Uriah described, ‘Tziyon will be plowed like a field’ (Micha 3:12). Zechariah foretold, ‘Od yeishvu z’keinim u’zekeinos…yeladim v’yelados mesachakos, old men and old women will sit in the streets of Jerusalem… and the streets of the city shall be filled with boys and girls playing’ (Zechariah 8:4-5). I also was fearful about the future and what it would bring, but now that I see the prophecy of Uriah come true as a fox runs across the plowed Har Ha’Bayis, now I know that the prophecy of Zechariah will also come true and it gives me so much reason to hope. His friends turned to him and said, Akiva nichamtanu, Akiva nichamtanu, Akiva you have comforted us. Why do they say it twice; why not just once? He had clearly found the right words to lift their spirits so say once, nichamtanu, you comforted us. Why twice? Why the repetition?
Suggests Rabbi Dr. Abaham J. Twerski, what in fact they were telling him was this: Akiva, you have comforted us with your words, but Akiva, you have also comforted us with your actions, with who you are, with how you choose to live your life. Akiva nichamtanu, by being Akiva you have brought us comfort.
You see, R’ Akiva had endured incredible hardship and loss in his life. He experienced tremendous poverty, he buried thousands of students, he lived through the destruction of the Temple. However, R’ Akiva made the choice to be optimistic, to live with faith, to look with hope and to see the light, even when overwhelmed by darkness. Akiva nichamtanu, Akiva nichamtanu, Akiva you have comforted us with your words, but even more you have comforted us by being you, by showing us that when given the choice, choose to see the light, to be hopeful and optimistic, no matter how many reasons you have to feel otherwise.
R’ Akiva has taught us, particularly during these three mournful weeks, mournful on the calendar and mournful in reality, not to see the sadness on the surface, but to see the hope and optimism and light that lie just beneath it.
When we think about the unfair way the media and the international community are treating Israel, there is reason to despair. When we consider, the 3 boys and 43 precious soldiers whose candles have been extinguished, worlds unto themselves that are no longer, there is certainly reason to be sad and mourn.
However, my dear friends, if we put on our R’ Akiva glasses, if we look back on the past month through his lens, there is so much to be hopeful for, so much light, so much to be optimistic about and so much to look forward to. We have learned such incredible things about ourselves and we have come to appreciate so much that we took for granted until now. Consider the following incredible blessings and miracles:
For the first time in two millennia, our safety, security and well-being is not outsourced to the world and we are not entirely dependent on the beneficence. We don’t have to be victims, passively accepting our destiny. Unlike during the crusades, inquisition, countless pogroms or the Holocaust, we don’t have to hide or run or beg others for mercy. We are blessed to have our own country, to be in our homeland, to have the most resilient, tenacious, focused, brave, spiritual army in the world. Who has not watched the video of IDF soldiers coming back from an all night mission singing, dancing and proudly waving Israeli flags to the words mi she’maamin lo m’facheid, whoever has faith in Hashem has nothing to fear?! Mi k’amcha yisroel, what an incredibly special people.
We learned this week that though Nefesh B’Nefesh and the FIDF have an incredible program to take care of chayalim bodedim, Lone Soldiers, the truth is that there is no such thing as a lone soldier. Twenty one year old Sgt. Sean Carmeli, a heroic young man from Texas, volunteered to serve in the IDF 6,000 miles from his home. He was tragically killed defending Israel last week. His favorite Israeli soccer team learned of his death and worried that given his few connections in Israel, his funeral would be empty. They placed one post on Facebook and sent a message on What’s App asking people to come to the funeral so it would be dignified. They even provided busses to and from Haifa so people would have no excuse not to come. Imagine how the Carmeli family felt when they arrived at their son’s funeral and expected a handful of people only to discover over 20,000 who had never met Sean but attended his funeral, simply because we are all brothers and sisters. There is no such thing as a lone soldier; we are all one family. Mi k’amcha yisroel, what a remarkable people.
Consider the miracles that we have merited to see before our very eyes. Imagine what devastation there would have been if not for the miraculous invention of Iron Dome — against all odds and with the gracious support from the United States necessary to provide it. Think about what we now know is the miracle of discovering these tunnels. Maariv and others have reported that through interrogations of those arrested, around Rosh Hashana time, “thousands of terrorists were meant to cross over to Israel from Gaza through the tunnels and kill and kidnap as many Israelis as they could.” Thank God, though illogical, Hamas rejected multiple cease-fire offers that would have avoided the Israeli ground forces entering Gaza and discovering the tunnels before what might have been the largest terrorist event in history.
Remember the divisiveness and infighting in the Jewish world just a month ago. Could you have ever dreamed that the Jewish people could experience the level of achdus, unity, interconnectedness and peoplehood that we have felt in the last month? Jews around the world have united in prayer, in hope, in giving, and in a shared sense of destiny. I read an email from someone who got off a plane when the boys were missing and before he even left the gate area he rushed to turn on his phone. He describes that there was a Chassid on his flight who also stood there right at the gate and quickly turned on his phone. The two saw the news at the same time, that the boys were gone, their bodies had been discovered. Their eyes locked and then filled with tears. Two strangers who had little in common, at that moment felt the strongest bond and the closest connection.
A grass roots effort began in Israel for chareidi women to cook dinner and bring it to families whose husband/father has been called up for reserves. It has been growing in popularity and is appreciated by the beneficiaries.
Think about the incredible unity and unanimity in the Israeli government and security cabinet right now. Despite the incredibly diverse opinions represented, they have been unanimous in their decision to go into Gaza, to start a ground operation and even to withstand extraordinary pressure and reject a ceasefire until Hamas is defeated. The Israeli government, Tzahal, the country and Jews around the world are together. We are one people with one destiny.
My brother attended a rally in Tel Aviv when the boys were missing that had tens of thousands of people. He wrote to me on his way home about the indescribable feeling of realizing that night that he belongs to a country, a nation and a people who truly care about him and that if anything ever happened to him, millions of people would do all that it takes to bring him home. What an incredible feeling to live with. Mi k’amcha yisroel!
I was on a conference call with Rachel Frankel who described that if Hamas knew the unity it would bring, they never would have taken the boys. Gil-ad Shaar’s mother said thank God the boys’ bodies weren’t found earlier even though they had been killed immediately because it enabled the army to do all it needed to do in Chevron. What mothers are capable of putting the nation ahead of themselves? Such amazing strength and faith – Mi k’amcha yisroel!
Consider the outpouring of chesed, generosity and donations. The IDF has more underwear and socks than they could possibly know what to do with. There has been a steady stream of care packages, toiletries, cold drinks, equipment and more. I urge you to continue to give at this time.
Do you know that the biggest challenge facing the security at hospitals in Israel right now is the influx of visitors who are neither friends nor family with the injured soldiers but have come to visit in droves.
I received an email from a friend who went to visit soldiers in the hospital. He described a visit to a soldier from Rosh Ha’ayin who lost an eye from a shrapnel wound. His family was with him but he was very depressed, and it was hard to lift his spirits. As they were on their way out of the room, a ten-year-old boy came in which was unusual because children are not allowed in that ward of the hospital. They listened as he turned to the soldier and said he had lost his eye to cancer and had come to tell the soldier to be strong; you can live a wonderful life with one eye and everything is going to be okay.
And so each moment of each day of the past month has been filled with these conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we cry from the horror we have seen. But at the same time, we cry from the beauty of what we have witnessed. We feel overwhelmed by sadness, but at the same time, we are overwhelmed by the strength of our people. We are depressed and uplifted simultaneously. This has been the worst three weeks, soon to be nine days, in many years, but at the same time, in other ways, it is the most hopeful as we palpably feel the unity necessary to bring Moshiach.
To be a Jew is to live with this tension, to embrace these contradictory feelings. R’ Akiva has taught us that our job, our task, is to channel one into the other, to experience the bad, but seek to find the good.
The Ohr Ha’Chaim Ha’Kadosh wonders why does it say eileh masei, these are the travels? It should say eileh ha’chaniyos, these are the encampments, since after all the parsha describes the forty two times we stopped. Perhaps the answer is that though we have stops in life, we have moments of being still, we must remain focused on the journey. We must, like R’ Akiva, put one foot in front of the other and carry forward with strength, hope and faith.
When we completed the fourth book of the Torah this morning, Sefer Bamidbar, we all said, chazak chazak v’nischazeik. When the Rama quotes this practice, he simply says we say chazak. We, however, expand the statement by turning towards one another and saying chazak – you be strong, and chazak – you be strong and nischazeik, together we will strengthen one another. Do you know where those words, chazak v’nischazeik come from? They are from a pasuk in Shmuel that is so appropriate not only to end Sefer Bamidbar, but because we need to hear them right now – Chazak v’nischazeik b’ad ameinu uv’ad arei Elokeinu, be strong on behalf of our people and our holy land. Israel and the Jewish people are arguably as strong as we have ever been and together we will only grow stronger and stronger.
Let’s be honest. We have not solved our differences. When the dust settles the debates about yeshiva students serving in the army and all the division among the denominations of Judaism will undoubtedly return. However, what this month has taught us is, if we want to experience unity, if we want to focus on what we have in common, if we want to remember we have a shared destiny, if we want to never take for granted having our own country and army and the sacrifices it takes to have them, we now know that we have the capacity to live this way.
Before this month, I think many of us didn’t realize how connected we feel, how drawn to Israel and her well-being we are, how sincere our davening can be, how deep our faith extends or how much we are willing to donate to help others. We have learned a lot about the world, much of it disappointing. But we have learned even more about ourselves. We said in Rosh Chodesh benching a moment ago, mi she’asa nissim la’avoseinu, may the One who did miracles for our forefathers and brought them redemption, bring it for us. We end that sentence with the words that are the catalyst for salvation – chaveirim kol Yisroel.
Like R’ Akiva, we must choose what to focus on and to see all the hope and good that has emerged. Today, Jews everywhere are chaveirim kol yisroel. We need to embrace our unity, nourish it, reinforce it and promote it so that it grows only stronger and stronger until we bring the final redemption that we so desperately long for.
My friends, do not despair – chazak, chazak v’nischazeik. Remain strong, and together we will strengthen one another.