Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Butterflies, Journeys and Destinations

We all have moments when we feel butterflies in our stomach.  Over the last few weeks, these moments of anxiety have seemed endless.

First, there was the frantic search for Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel.  Our brave IDF soldiers searched house by house in Gaza, college students raised their voices via social media, and Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations petitioned God ceaselessly through prayer and acts of kindness.

Throughout that ordeal, we all felt those nervous knots within us, and no matter what else was going on in our lives, that feeling simply would not go away.  We would laugh for a moment, attend a wedding, or try to relax, but those fluttering butterflies interrupted every moment and challenged every attempt at normalcy during this historic collective trauma.

And then we were informed of the tragic passing of “our boys.”  Again, we felt a painful uneasiness.  It was as if we were all suffering from the same ailment: a throbbing pain that could not be treated or ignored.

Our nine year old son, Yitzchak, who days earlier had helped me put up three yellow ribbons in front of our home, shared his unease with us – concern  that the last of the three murdered boys had to suffer even more by witnessing the death of  his two friends.

I was able to calm the butterflies, if only for a moment, when I visited the Frenkel family during the shiva. Though the loss was unbearably sad, we all found solace in the fact that we – a perfect cross-section of the Jewish nation – were all crying together.  We were united, and one could feel the presence of God escorting the mourners through those difficult moments.

As the dust began to settle and the butterflies appeared ready for imminent departure, a young man named Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir was gruesomely murdered by Jewish men seeking revenge for Eyal, Gil-Ad and Naftali. The murder, a perverted and senseless act that was wholly antithetical to Jewish law, tradition and values, shattered a family and challenged the Israeli government’s ability to protect its citizens.

And so, the butterflies returned with the concern that we would never be able to overcome this despicable denigration of Judaism and God’s name.

Soon thereafter, I was overcome by professional butterflies as 45 Yeshiva University students arrived in Israel’s embattled southern region to run Counterpoint Israel, a unique summer camp program for hundreds of teens and pre-teens classified as “youth at risk.” The program is designed to empower the campers through self-esteem building exercises and the acquisition of the high-level English language and computer skills required for them to graduate high school.

As in past years, our YU students were greeted enthusiastically by government officials, members of the host communities, the campers and their families.  But they were also greeted with the threat of constant aerial attacks from Gaza.  This new reality meant that they needed to make sure that they were always within close proximity of communal bomb shelters.

The butterflies intensified when I heard that none of the YU students had any intention of abandoning ship.  While I am proud of their idealism, I worry about the safety of our students and their campers.  On Monday night, two rockets fell within close proximity of where our students were living.  The local municipality told us that all summer camps were going to be immediately canceled in this part of the country.

As such, we had no choice but to move our students back to the Yeshiva University campus in Jerusalem.  With the help of Afikim, a network of afternoon centers across Israel that work with disadvantaged and troubled families, our YU students were placed in Jerusalem public schools to help teens that required extra tutoring in English.  This week, our students returned to the “regularly scheduled programming,” running our special summer camps in Arad and Dimona.

Finally, a new wave of butterflies began to overwhelm my wife, Ruchie, and I when our son, Yosef joined the IDF’s Golani Brigade as a “lone soldier” four months ago.

Immediately following our arrival in Israel last week, we began making plans to see our newly-minted Israeli soldier.  It was our understanding that Yosef would be given leave to spend a day with us, a special dispensation for lone soldiers whose parents visit from abroad.  However, within an hour of his arrival at our apartment, he was told to return to his base immediately.

Several tense moments later, his commander called back to inform Yosef that he could remain off-base but would be required to carry his phone at all times, even on Shabbat.  Sure enough, his leave was shorten and he spent Shabbat in Hebron under the protection of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

Though the Israeli government grapples with exactly how they plan to deal a decisive blow to the terrorists in Gaza, we know that any such maneuver would put the best and brightest Israeli youth in harm’s way.  The anxiety brought on by the introduction of that thought process never leaves.

So, what do we do with all of these butterflies? How can we cope with this anxiety?

I am reminded of an idea that Rabbi Soloveitchik z”l always shared with us during our lessons.  During periods of crisis, he would always recommend searching for clarity in the weekly Torah portion. Employing this method, I have always found the clarity I sought, so I will apply the concept here as well.

The Book of Bamidbar records the journeys of the Jewish people in the desert.  It highlights our transition from nomadic slaves in Egypt to a yearning for peoplehood in Israel, a yearning to live in our own land, and creating social framework that would allow us to become a beacon of light to all humanity.

The Talmud in Tractate Sofrim (chapter 2) relates that when we write a Torah scroll every column must contain at least 42 lines, corresponding to the 42 journeys of the Jewish people.  The reason given is that if the Torah is to be our guide book, it needs to help guide our personal, familial and communal journeys.  Therefore, every parchment column must have at least 42 lines accentuating the idea that it is the journeys and the values we bring to them that define us.

However, Maimonides (Hilchot Tefilin 7:1) insists that every parchment column must have 48 lines, a number that defies the Talmudic teaching!  I believe that Maimonides was trying to impart that if the Torah is to give clarity to our journeys, it must not only be emblematic of the forty two journeys in the desert  through which the Jews marched but must also highlight the six occasions in the desert in which the Jewish people retreated on their march toward sovereignty.

While life is about marching forward, sometimes challenges and anxieties force us to take a step back. Sometimes our progress towards creating a more tolerant and purposeful global society is impeded by the need to reevaluate our direction.

In our personal and national journey toward meaning, we often achieve greatness, followed immediately by defeat.  Hopefully, these ordeals ignite an even greater desire to march towards personal, communal and national perfection.

Though painful at times, my butterflies are surely welcome.  Hopefully, they will empower me to help play an even larger role in our communal journey towards purposefulness as well as sovereignty with serenity.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 32 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.