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“On Our Way Home from the Front Line in Israel,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

March 8, 2024 | 28 Adar I 5784

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat.

On our trip to Israel this past week, we discovered there are many front lines during these days of light and darkness. We may not have stood there ourselves, but we certainly sat near and with many brave individuals who have experienced the wounds of war and the consequences of the brutal attack of the Hamas terrorist government upon Israel on October 7. That day is never far from the way people hold themselves and make their way through the new world transformed.

Last week I shared this poem by Eli Eliyahu, entitled “Night”:

We are now on the dark side
Of the planet, my daughter. Yet maybe
Something can be said about the world —
Half of it is dark and half lit up.

So are human beings,
So are human beings.

The darkness:

A few nights before I left, I attended a lecture by Miri Eisin, (retired) Colonel of the IDF and now Director of a Counter Terrorism Institute in Israel, who spoke about two narratives Hamas strategically planned and brutally executed. They wanted to inflict as much terror, trauma, and killing as possible. In doing so, there would be another narrative of humiliation upon Israel and the Jewish people. The world witnessed the stark display of these narratives. The people of Israel are living them.

We met family of the hostages. Their anguish sits in the front of their existence. We met Shelly whose son, Oded, remains in Gaza as a hostage. We sat with her. She cradled his picture of her 21-year-old son in her arms. She told us that on October 6th, she had had the most perfect birthday celebration and thanked God for her life. She could not have imagined the horror the next day would bring. Oded went to the music festival. He was among those taken. She leaves the light on in his room and the messy way he left it so that he can straighten it up when he returns. She doesn’t say, “if.” How could she? She called him her sunshine. Waiting and advocating for the hostages is the mission of her life. The families of the hostages live in a between time. They keep pressing to make sure no one forgets. They can’t and neither should we. I kept thinking about our museum at Temple Israel that has all those who have been taken.  The reality their families live every second of every day pierced our hearts. Bring them home is all they want.

We stood on that festival ground knowing that people like Oded and all the others faced the unimaginable as they ran for their lives or were shot down in cold blood. There are saplings planted  for every murdered and captured person. The breeze and the sun could not lessen the pain that moved across the dust and campground. We tread lightly on the ground in silent respect for lives cut down before their time.

Later that day, we met with Shlomo who told us what he did on October 7 in Sdorot, a town that sits at the northern west corner close to Gaza. The sirens started at 6:29 a.m. but no one knew the extent of what was to come. Soon he heard from his army commander to report. He was in a brigade of tanks that made their way on the road up from the folk festival. He couldn’t hold his tears as he described the carnage on the side of the road when they passed by burnt vehicles calling out to see if anyone was alive. There was no one. They were among the first to arrive at the scene on the campground. The weight of what he holds is tragic and yet he saved others on that day, too.

We also toured a beautiful kibbutz filled with scars and destroyed homes with death still in air.  One side of Kibbutz K’far Aza sits next to the fence that faces Gaza. Hamas breached it that fateful morning of October 7 and entered the homes of the young adults of that community.  They were the first victims of their savagery as these terrorists took over the kibbutz for 15 hours until the IDF arrived and even then it took days to gain control back. Of the 400 members of this community, 300 survived. Twenty-five percent were lost to Hamas’ evil and murderous rampage. Those who survived were evacuated to other places in Israel. They have not yet returned. Others remain captive.

Another tremendously frightening narrative is the terrorist infrastructure funded by Iran in the north. Hezbollah continues to shower rockets there. Hundreds of thousands have been evacuated. Will there be an invasion or just incursions? No one wants to be unprepared.

The world in Israel has its very dark corners and paths of sadness, trauma, worry, and loss, and yet light has managed to shine its way through the cracks. The country is conveying its own narrative.

The power of resilience holds up much of Israel found in the way its citizens have organized, assisted each other, and shown their determination to create a narrative about the way a country can transform itself in the face of devastation.

The families of the hostages, thanks to Shelly, Oded’s mother, have organized a complex organizational infrastructure of 2,000 volunteers. A major software company has provided an  entirely renovated building across from hostage square to provide support in every way possible.

In Rahat, in a Bedouin town that feels more like a city, a man named Kher had worked closely with Vivian Silver, one of the murdered souls of October 7. The name of their organization is called Ajeek which means, “I walk toward you” in Arabic. They had modeled together what it means for Israeli Arabs and Jews to work together. He quoted Vivian Silver who used to say, “There is no way to peace.  Peace should be the way.” He told us that the first Hamas rockets fell on a Bedouin family who were killed instantly. Other bombs landed close by. Bedouin young men drove into areas of danger to rescue people. Many of them are among those who died on that day. Kher reminded us that believing and working toward a shared society is a worthy endeavor and the way he honors his friend, Vivian. And, as he said, “It doesn’t just happen by itself.”

Hadassah Hospital just opened a new rehabilitation wing where we saw the diversity of Israel represented throughout the hallways, all working together, caring for the wounded.

The news around the world prefers to speak about what is wrong and division, but we witnessed what can be made right and righteous through the perseverance of human beings living through darkness and in the possibility of light.

Everyone we met offered the same refrain, “Thank you for being here.” I held your blessings with me as we showed our support for them in their time of need. We wept at each eye witness account and put our hands to our hearts as they thanked us for being present with them. If only we could have taken away something of their pain but all we could do was to listen with aching hearts.

We may have entered into a country at war, but also one busy with the work of healing and finding the strength to persevere. That is a narrative worthy of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher