Judah, the namesake of the Jewish people, draws near to the brother he no longer recognizes. His brother Benjamin is held in captivity. He pleads for his release. “Then Judah drew close to Joseph.” (Genesis 44)
Over the years the distance between American Jews and Israel has grown. We no longer seem to speak the same language. Israelis talk about survival. American Jews argue about tikkun olam. October 7th has transcended this distance. It is shrinking the dissonance.
I plead. We cannot grow apart. We must not remain divided.
At present I am here in Israel on a rabbinic solidarity mission. I am here to convey our support. I am here to bear witness to the tragedy. I was surprised to receive thanks from the many Israelis we met. Israelis sometimes feel alone and abandoned. They are not. We are one people.
We made many stops on this pilgrimage.
We visited Kfar Azza, a kibbutz on the Gaza border. The community was established in 1951 and has grown to some 900 people. On Saturday, October 7th sixty-eight residents were murdered. Others were taken hostage. Fifty soldiers lost their lives battling Hamas terrorists. The fight to regain control of Kfar Azza lasted until Wednesday.
As we walked through the rows of houses where the twenty-something’s lived, the group of rabbis fell silent as we made our way past the burned houses scarred with bullet holes. It is hard to comprehend that Hamas terrorists carried maps of this neighborhood. They knew which families usually left for the weekends and which did not. There is evidence that the attack was planned for eight years. The enemy not only carried maps of army installations but of villages. They despise our very existence.
Homes now have markings indicating that they have been searched for explosives and others for human remains. Some have pictures of those murdered and others of those taken captive. Never have I drawn so close to a massacre. I have read about Kristallnacht and Kishinev, but not walked the streets weeks afterward. I notice empty beer bottles on the porch of one home. These are my children’s contemporaries. I can imagine the pictured hanging out with their friends, the evening before, laughing and enjoying a beer.
We visited the army base where soldiers who fall in battle are identified and prepared for burial. In the days following October 7th an installation designed to process at most fifteen fallen soldiers at a time was forced to do so for thousands. Victims from the Nova Festival arrived in refrigerator trucks meant for food. Soldiers arrived after heated battles in Gaza.
We were awed by the room where family members said their goodbyes before their loved ones were sent for burial. It is not a large room. It is euphemistically called the separation room. There is a back door from which the soldier is carried in and a front from which the grieving family walks in. There are wooden benches built into the wall, surrounding a six-foot table on which the coffin rests. The grief and tears this room witnessed were overwhelming. I walked outside for air.
Nearby, in a room filled with rows and rows of Torah scrolls, ready to be sent to IDF bases, a sofer struggled to see if a scroll wounded by a missile attack in the North and pockmarked with shrapnel, could be restored. We watched as he removed pieces of shrapnel embedded in the parchment.
In three days I have seen things no one should ever see. I have also witnessed things everyone needs to see.
The word describing when Judah draws near to Joseph is vayigash. The Bible uses the same word when it details war. “Yoav and the people with him drew near for battle.” (II Samuel 10)
We hear the sounds of war. As we walked through Kfar Azza the booms of artillery shells thundered nearby. The sounds of helicopters and jets were heard overhead. Gunfire lingered in the distance. Dark clouds of smoke billowed over Gaza.
Never have I drawn so close to war.
Is this the cost of our survival? Is this the price when others begrudge our existence? There is no repair within reach. The clouds portend a banished tikkun.
On Monday we volunteered with Leket, an organization that works with restaurants and farms to supply food to those in need. Today, they provide 234,000 meals every week to army bases overwhelmed by the call up of so many soldiers and to hotels now housing displaced families rather than tourists. Before heading out to the field to pick kohlrabi our guide provided us with instructions of what to do if there was a rocket attack.
“Even though we have not had a rocket attack here in five weeks, I need to tell you what to do if we hear a siren. When working in the fields, we cannot make it to a shelter in 90 seconds so this is what you need to do instead. Lie face down on the ground, on your stomach, with your hands covering the back of your head.”
After picking vegetables for thirty minutes, the sirens blared. (So much for the five-week respite!) We dutifully followed the instructions. As I lay on the ground, I did not think about the Hamas rockets overhead. I was not concerned or worried or most surprisingly, even frightened. Rather than worry about what I cannot see, I will marvel at what is right before my eyes.
I looked at the rich earth. I watched the ants climb what must have appeared to them like mountains. I marveled at the land. After hearing the explosions indicating that Iron Dome’s missiles intercepted the rockets, we waited another minute. And then it was back to picking kohlrabi. People need to eat!
To be a Jew today is not to cower in fear. I will not give in to worry.
I will bear witness to the massacre. I will give voice to the hope.