Building in a state of hope

It’s perhaps the most private moment of each week for me: the start of kabbalat shabbat, when I try to let go of the week’s stresses and appreciate all that is good in my life, when I try and open myself to that special mix of excitement and peace that every shabbat brings…

Then the siren.

There is a moment of disbelief. Then I realize that I have to start moving. I feel everyone around me making the same realization, and also starting to move. We know to count down from fifteen. As I get to the stairs leading down the basement, I see fathers at the door to the shul, desperately trying to call their children inside.

“Why do they want to hurt us?” It was the kind of question only a young child could ask, simultaneously piercing and innocent. As we sat talking later in the evening, trying to make sense of what felt like a new, heavier reality, my friend Judah explained that he could have answered any other question that his son had asked. Just not that one. He felt helpless looking into his own son’s eyes.

I converted to Judaism in college. I knew when I became a Jew that I was bringing myself into a world that carried extra dangers. But the abstract idea that people are willing to hurt me was very different from the moment when I first felt them actually trying to do so. I felt something click. One rocket made it possible to understand how living under a rain of them – as hundreds of thousands of Israelis do, cannot be accepted. And it made me angry. Angry at the men who had sent this weapon towards me and all that I care about. At the men who dedicate their lives to killing innocents and even at their wives who bake the sweet cakes handed out when their husbands succeed. Like most acts of terror, it’s not the actual rockets that pose the greatest threat. What really injures is the murderous hatred of those who send them and applaud them. And the grizzly offspring of that hatred, fear.

This fear is not unfounded.

I say of the Lord, my refuge and stronghold, my God in whom I trust … His fidelity is an encircling shield: you need not fear the terror by night, nor the arrow that flies by day.

Yet David’s words seem of little comfort to us when it is apparent that the weapons of our enemies may strike us or those we love. Trust in God wasn’t enough for those gravely injured on the bus bombed in Tel Aviv last week. Nor for those, including a pregnant mother, who were killed by a rocket in a home in Kiryat Malachi. It is certainly true that in our small corner of the world we have, by dint of our innovations and military strength, succeeded in creating a place for Jews to live that is much more shielded from the threats of those who wish to kill us than ever before. But this alone is not enough to vanquish the weapons of our enemies, nor the fear that they bring. I am coming to realize that trust in God, as a nation, gives us a different and more important kind of protection than physical weapons.

I grew up in South Africa, where the crime rate makes some war zones seem safe. When I was young, one of my father’s friends was shot by men who wanted to steal his car. He died a few weeks later. One of my music teachers was kidnapped and another held at gunpoint. All South Africans have these sorts of stories, and we are all affected by them. I remember as a child having recurring nightmares about being attacked in my home and chased by attackers, scrambling to crawl under a fence. In South Africa the victims of crime are powerless to change the reality that they face each day. They rely on electric fences and private security firms to fill the gap that the state will not. But more painfully, they struggle to find an explanation for why they should continue to endure this situation – why they should continue building lives and families in South Africa when they would be safer and better appreciated elsewhere.

Israel is different. We are certainly affected by the terror that stalks us. But these challenges that we face are placed within a four thousand year historical arc of longing and striving. Our current war against terror has meaning because our enemies threaten a project that we and millions before us – all the way to our forefathers – have worked and bled to create. This is how trust in God encircles us and protects us. It gives meaning to our struggles and reminds us that we are fighting for something good.

A history of purpose has a liturgy. Growing up in South Africa, I had no conception of a national yearning and the way such hope makes your soul feel greater. I had no songs to sing in times of struggle, nor prayers that place suffering as a step towards a better world. Yet we Israelis and Jews do. And we have laws that give our lives structure and stability, even in times of distress. Our weekly Torah reading gives us a lens through which we can refract our current situation against the lessons we learn from the stories of our nation’s founders.

Halakha, Jewish law, binds our lives up with the story that began with Avraham. But even non-observant Israelis participate in this story and the values that are born from it: The families that opened their homes to those seeking shelter away from the terror of falling rockets. The couple that was married in a bomb shelter in the South, with relatives coming in from all over the country. And the determination of the team that cleaned up the scene of the bus bomb in Tel Aviv within two hours, allowing traffic to resume and patching up the ripped fabric of daily life. These are all the offspring of the Jewish soul. They highlight the desire to build a good world in the face of those who threaten it.

I was struck during the past Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, days after receiving my identity card, how tenderly the day tried to kindle the memories of those who have died. It was unexpectedly powerful. After living through a violent conflict, and feeling the pain of human suffering that it involves, I better understand now where the force of that day comes from. Remembrance, too, is a way in which we resist and build, in spite of those who work to destroy.

Building really is our central project. It begins with words, hopes and ideas but is realized through action. We build by welcoming the stranger or the new immigrant into our homes, as I have found Israelis staggeringly willing to do. We build through strong marriages, and the families that they form, which our tradition teaches us help to return God’s presence to Jerusalem. We build by planting flowers along the pavements and roads that connect our cities. Israel was started by pioneering builders, and it continues to be built by their children and their children’s children and all those who have come from distant shores to join this project. We must never lose our sense of what it is that we are building, nor forget the ways in which we’ve already succeeded. A Jewish state gives us the opportunity to teach Jewish ideas and values to our children in the ancient language of our people. It gives us yeshivas and universities, where we can form new ideas for a changing world that are founded on the thoughts of those who came before us. It gives us businesses that power computers or revolutionize agriculture and hospitals which help us to live healthier and longer lives – lives that continue to participate in this project of building.

As a people with a state, we are able to make our lives better. But having a Jewish State also gives us the opportunity to offer something to the world. We face many of the same kinds of challenges as other nations do, but the way in which we bring our tradition and our unique ingenuity to bear on those challenges allows us to inspire other nations to seek and to create better, more just societies.

I was struck by another thought during the minutes of confusion after that siren: Perhaps this was more than just a lone rocket. Perhaps Egypt had decided to attack, or this was one of a volley of rockets launched by Iran. Perhaps we were in for the really hard, long fight that most Israelis, somewhere deep down, fear. I considered what my parents would think then. Already they struggle to understand why I have chosen to live in Israel and commit myself to following halakha. How much more inexplicable would it be if my life and the lives of all those around me were put in the gravest danger. Yet, I realized, even if the worst was indeed happening, I didn’t care. I’d still trust in the goodness of the Jewish people and the value of our fight. I can argue for it in words and concepts, but when it comes down to it, it runs deeper as a feeling that’s lodged inside of me, one that I’m willing to sacrifice to defend, like generations of Jews before me. I know it’s good the same way you know it is good when you see a newborn baby or a laughing child in your arms. It is with this deep understanding that what I have joined is good that I face the hard realization that Israelis must: “War must be,” says J.R.R. Tolkien, “while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

Things are hard. And things might get worse sometime soon. It is made more obvious when rockets streak through the sky, but we have been at war for a long time. The murderous hatred that has been demonstrated over the past days – not just in Gaza but also by the people of Bethlehem who celebrated the rockets nearing on Jerusalem or the Iranians who supplied those warheads and who seek to produce worse – suggests that things are not likely to change any time soon.

Yet in spite of all this, not long after that warning siren rang out, we were back in the shul, asking God to “guard our going out and our coming in, for life and peace, from now and forever” and to spread over us His “canopy of peace.” It is words like these that keep us close and keep us strong – and help us to keep building.

About the Author
Olaf Sakkers is a graduate of Princeton University. He grew up in South Africa, but has also lived in Germany, Japan and the USA. He made aliyah after graduation in 2011 and after completing his IDF service in the Foreign Relations Branch, he now works for a venture fund investing in autonomous vehicle technologies.