Posted on October 11, 2023
I honestly don’t know where to begin this evening. In trying to think about the right words to share, the right remarks, what we need to hear – I have struggled. I have struggled more than on any other occasion during my rabbinate.
Like you, I woke up to the news yesterday morning and I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t process exactly what was happening. As I’ve shared with this community, I am part of a WhatsApp group with my Israeli relatives; together with my uncles, aunts, and cousins we have a group simply called the Mishpacha – family. At 5:30am when I checked my phone there were over 30 messages in that group. They were checking in with each other, they were letting each other know where they were, and they were sharing what they were hearing and seeing firsthand with one another. And of course they were warning each other about going outside and even about opening links or opening attachments because of fears of cyberattacks and the potential of giving away locations to the terrorists at their doors.
There was a real fear and uncertainty about what was happening in the country, and this was a fear that stretched all the way to our shores, and to anyone who cares about Israel, who cares about decency, who cares about morality. And it happened yesterday. Yesterday, which was supposed to be a festive day, a day that was supposed to be filled with joy and celebration, where we danced around with our Torah scrolls and celebrated the ending of the Torah cycle and the beginning of a new cycle. And it happened yesterday, which was 50 years and one day after the Yom Kippur war, when Israel was attacked on our most sacred and holiest day of the calendar. And while people have drawn parallels already between that Yom Kippur war experience, and what happened and is happening now, it’s different. 50 years ago it was armies fighting armies; yesterday there were terrorist attacking civilians.
The pain and scars of what was experienced are only just beginning to form; and it will take weeks, months, and even years for us to fully process and comprehend what happened and what has been lost over the last two days.
It has felt like we’ve been living in two worlds. Here we are in Massachusetts, we step away from the computer screen from the news and life goes on; people are doing those things they always do on a long weekend. And then we sit back at the computer and we see that the number of dead has grown and the number of injured has increased; the story just keeps getting worse.
Our daughter Gabby asked me what was happening, and I didn’t know what to tell her. I didn’t want to tell her the truth, I didn’t want to give her all of the details about the numbers who have been killed, the people taken hostages, and those who were suffering. I said to her that people in Israel have been killed, and her response was “Why is it always Israel?” A 10 year old already recognizes how Israel is on the front lines facing this kind of attack.
And the shock is palpable. It is clear that we were not prepared for how to deal with this moment. And Israel was not prepared for what lay ahead. And now is not the time for us, from a distance, to analyze security failures, or discuss the Government’s response. Now is the time for us to comfort one another – to offer the support, strength, and love that the people of Israel need.
We are dealing with unprecedented times. It is unprecedented that 800 have already been murdered, and that is what we know about, that number will certainly be rising. 260 of them were young adults who were at a party dancing and celebrating that night and who were shot down as they fled and searched for any shelter or hiding place that they could find. Right now we’ve heard there are 130 hostages being held in Gaza; this is a number that is hard to fathom and where they are and what they’re experiencing is something I cannot even imagine. Over 2000 and been injured, and that’s the ones we know about. And we’re starting to hear the stories of hundreds of thousands who had to hide in their homes and fled to safety rooms as terrorists rampaged through their communities, and even went into their houses.
The prayer for the captive soldiers and the missing that Heather recited earlier says “insert names” in the prayer. It imagines two, three, or four names to be inserted. We would need to insert 130 names that we know of at this time. And while these numbers are almost too big to imagine – it’s personal. Each and every number is an individual a person who is impacted and affected by what happened.
Yesterday evening around 1030 or 11 o’clock, I’m not sure when exactly, as I was struggling to put my children to bed my Israeli cousin called me, she is currently in the States, but of course her heart and soul were in Israel. Her in-laws live in Sderot on the border with Gaza. We went there to celebrate a Henna ceremony just before her wedding; it was such a warm and welcoming community. But when I talked to her last night she shared that her in-laws were hiding in their safe room.
What she shared was that earlier in the day her husband and she had talked to them and told them what knives to take into the safe room with them and what to do in case someone came into their home and broke down that door. She shared with me that they had discussed whether they should tell them how to make Molotov cocktails or something similar so they could throw them at the terrorists should they come into their house. And it wasn’t just her in-laws; their seven-year-old granddaughter was spending the weekend with them. She was there in that room with her grandparents being told to keep quiet, being warned about what was outside, while her mother was in Ramat HaSharon in the middle of the country frightened and scared of what was happening.
Thankfully through the night, at some point, they were rescued by the Israeli army and they are now in Ramat HaSharon with their family. But this is just one story that had an ending where thankfully they’ve been reunited and no one was harmed, although one can’t factor in the emotional scars that one will carry from that experience. There are too many where that wasn’t the outcome. Too many who don’t get to tell that ending to their story.
And so as we reflect on what happened, we need to be clear about some things. The first is that this was an act of terrorism and evil. When the media and others say militants, we need to tell them “no, terrorists”, not freedom fighters “terrorists”, not armed attackers “terrorists.” And then we need to challenge any narrative that seeks to explain or justify what happened, because there is no explanation, and there is no justification for attacking the elderly, for taking women and children hostage, for rampaging through civilian homes in the way that happened yesterday and continues to happen. This was evil. And when Mahmoud Abbas says that there’s a right to self-defense, this is not what self-defense looks like. This is offense and this is offensive to humanity and to everyone.
And already we can see there was a march in New York by pro-Palestinian groups celebrating what happened, and similarly in Berlin where they handed out candies celebrating the attack. There needs to be an unequivocal response because we know how we’re supposed to respond to terror and evil – and that isn’t the way.
As we emerge from the experiences of this past weekend it’s also clear that there are difficult days ahead. This is just the beginning the war that Hamas essentially declared on Israel through their terrorist acts will be responded to. And there is going to be more violence, more bloodshed, and Palestinian civilians are going to be the ones who suffer because of Hamas terrorists. And rescuing hostages and neutralizing, what we now know is such a great threat to Israel, will come at a price.
It’s likely that over the coming weeks and months the external narrative will change, and that’s when we need to raise our voices. We need to remind people why we’re in this situation. We need to remind people of the images that we’ve seen – the people that were lost, the names upon names of those who were murdered in cold blood.
And then we need to remember that when this happens in Israel this doesn’t happen to them – it happens to us. We are part of Klal Yisrael – that family of Israel. No matter how far away we may go the miles do not matter. We are united in feeling that pain, united in feeling that hurt, and united in being the ones who are being attacked. And so we need to raise our voices; telling our friends, telling people here what happened, and ensuring that they understand that Israel is facing a fight against evil in this moment.
And yet, amidst this, we still find those ways to talk about peace, to sing about peace, and to hope that eventually there will be peace. It is hard on this day to imagine how that will happen, or when that will happen; but that remains the dream that we’re still hoping for and aspiring to.
When we think about the fact that the attack happened on Simchat Torah there are two reflections that come to my mind. One is that Simchat Torah is a moment where we read about the death of Moses, and then immediately creation. We don’t let the story end with death. Simchat Torah is a day that reminds us that we find that way to overcome death and to create something new. And then it’s striking that on the day of Simchat Torah, whenever we conclude a section of the Torah, the words that we say to one another are: Chazak Chazak VeNitchazek – be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened.
As we say these words on this day, we know that we need strength, but we also know that we need to share that strength with those in Israel. Reach out to your family and your friends, to your loved ones who are there, let them know that we’re thinking about them. Let them know that we’re there for them, and over this week we will ensure that we circulate with all of our community a number of places where money can be donated, and where collections are taking place to really help those who are on the front lines in Israel.
These are the beginning of difficult days. But as a community, we’ve experienced difficult days before, and by standing together, by supporting one another, we’ve always found that way to overcome them. Now is the time when our siblings in Israel need us, possibly more than ever, and we must be there for them – sharing their stories, offering them support, and letting them know that they are not alone. That’s our job, that’s our response; that’s the way that we can spread love and give strength at this difficult time.