On Chol Hamoed sukkot, which feels like, and was, a different lifetime, I took my family camping to Masada. We didn’t have a great time. It was loud, crowded, and I couldn’t stop worrying about all the work I wasn’t doing while spending time with my family. We got through it, and even though I didn’t enjoy it, I was happy to check another box toward my Rosh Hashanah goal of camping with my family for 18 nights over the new year.
Less than 48 hours later, on the morning of October 7, Simchat Torah, a siren woke us up. It was an inconvenience. My wife and I grabbed our kids and slowly went to the stairwell. It wasn’t a big deal, but as the sirens continued, we realized something was wrong and decided not to take our children to shul. But looking out our window at the men walking into the shul across the parking lot, it seemed to us that it wasn’t that serious, despite the constant sirens and the direct hit about half a km from our home, which created a pillar of black smoke that gave us something interesting to talk about with our neighbors in the stairwell.
So when the sirens slowed down, I walked to shul.
And while I was walking, occasionally darting into the stairwell of a random building because of a siren, my sister-in-law, who is hiloni, non-religious, was desperately calling my wife and me to tell us not to leave the building — because it wasn’t just rocket attacks, there was also an infiltration. Terrorists had penetrated deep into our country, and they were murdering people and taking hostages right down the road, 20 minutes away in Ofakim. No one knew if there were more heading in our direction. But my sister-in-law knew that sirens wouldn’t stop us from going to shul.
Of course, our phones were off; we are religious. I arrived at shul, found it locked, and then walked around to get some updates the old-fashioned way. On my walk, I ran into some friends and heard a few rumors that sounded unreal and figured that they must have been exaggerated, which is normal when you are getting your news second, third, or fourth hand in a game of telephone.
When I finally got home and told the rumors to my wife, she agreed.
Night came, Shabbat went out, and we finally turned on our phones to discover the horror that our people had, and were still, enduring. The first thing I thought to myself was: “I could have gotten myself killed walking to shul.”
And I immediately thought about the camping trip to Masada. Suddenly, I was infinitely grateful for that time with my wife and children. I also thought about the story that my children would have grown up hearing if the terrorists had made it further on their path of destruction and I was murdered that morning.
Masada is a complicated monument. And it is important to note that the exact history of what occurred on that mountain is highly debated, but I want you to think about the narrative we learn from the historian Josephus.
The story that 967 Jewish men, women, and children killed themselves rather than suffer enslavement or death at the hands of the Roman Legion.
As an outsider who joined the Jewish people, it seems really strange to choose a moment when a bunch of Jews who had decided to rely on their military strength to fight for their freedom gave up and committed suicide as a symbol to motivate modern Zionists to fight for another attempt at Jewish sovereignty over this land.
Regardless, it is a powerful story. The first thing I see in this story is that you always have a choice. You can die rather than fight. People like to say, we have to fight, and we have to win because we have no choice. But you always have a choice. You can fight, you can surrender, you can lay down and die.
The second is that Israel can fall. The idea that we are and always will be stronger than our enemies because of our fighting spirit, or our technology, or our G-d, blessed be his name, is the exact type of hubris that led to the tragedy that occurred on October 7. Twice before, we have been crushed by our enemies and driven from our land, and it can certainly happen again.
It’s difficult to hear, but we need to remember that reality. Because we will not win this war if we cannot face reality. To be clear, I believe that we can and we will win this war. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are facing an existential threat, a threat to our existence as a people on this land, the land of our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov.
We have overcome tragedy and even imminent destruction so many times in our history. In fact, one of the most ironic phrases people use to describe our destruction is that we will be pushed into the sea. Because that is something which has happened before and we have overcome.
I am sure you all know the story of the parting of the sea. As it was related by Rabbi Yehuda in tractate Sotah 37A, we stood in front of the Yam Suf with the Egyptian army bearing down. The tribes started arguing, each one refusing to be the first to enter the sea. Then, in an act of bravery and faith, Nachshon Ben Amindav, a Prince from the tribe of Yehuda, a Jew, jumps in and his tribe follows him — and they start drowning.
Nachshon calls out, “Hoshani Elohim.” Save me, G-d.
In response, Moshe prays more intently, and HaShem tells him, what are you doing? My beloved ones are drowning, and you are intensifying your prayers?
Moshe responds, “What can I do?” And the Holy One blessed is he says: “Tell the children of Israel to go forward. Hold up your staff and spread your arms.”
We all know how the story ends. Moshe obeys, the sea splits, the Jews cross safely, and our enemies are swallowed up by the sea.
But I doubt many of you know another story of the Jews and the sea. A modern story from the 1860s during the same time as the American Civil War.
It is a story about our Ethiopian community, and I first learned from Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom in his book “From Sinai to Ethiopia.”
Abba Mahari, a Kes, a Jewish priest, had a vision, a vision that it was time for the community to return home to Eretz Israel.
Let me read you his exact words:
‘Abba Mahari gathered thousands of Beta Israel and told them about the vision. They followed him on a tortuous journey. When they reached the Red Sea, they stood gazing at the water, but it refused to part. Many began to doubt the reliability of the dream, and begged Abba Mahari to return to Ethiopia. Abba Mahari tried to calm the public, and spoke to them about Zionism: “We must believe that God is testing us, as he did our forefathers during the Exodus from Egypt. He parted the sea then, and He will do so now as well.” He believed that God was with him, watching over the community. Abba Mahari raised his staff over the water, but it did not divide. He entered the sea first, followed by thousands who believed that God would part the waters. Instead, many drowned. The survivors returned to Ethiopia, settled in villages, and established a Jewish community in the Tigray area. The first attempted journey of Ethiopian Jewry to the Land of Israel was thus a stinging failure that claimed many victims. It also represented an attempt at transition from imagination to rationality, and left behind stories of heroism of simple people who believed that the time would come when their children would cross the ocean and return home to the Land of Israel, to build and be strengthened there.’
It could have broken the community’s faith. G-d did not lead them to victory; he did not lead them home. He let brave Jews with complete faith in His power to do miracles — faith just like Nachshon — drown.
How can you still believe your G-d will bring you home when you realize that the sea will not part for you. When you realize that your faith can lead you to a horrible death. It is the kind of event that can break the faith of an entire community.
But it didn’t break the community; they turned it into a story of heroism, and they did not give up. And now their descendants are on the front lines with their Jewish brothers and sisters from all over the world, fighting to restore our faith that we, as a people and as a country, can bounce back from the greatest tragedy to ever befall the modern state of Israel.
Resilience is when you take those events, those stories of defeat and tragedy, and you turn them into a source of strength. You look at the pain and the suffering and see reasons to sacrifice even more.
We are resilient because we see those Jews at Masada who quit fighting and chose death on their own terms as martyrs. We could call them cowards or heretics or fools, but we choose to call them heroes.
We are resilient because when we could say that our G-d let us down and either refused, or was unable, to save us from death and destruction, we choose to see it as proof that our faith, and our G-d, are real and we should be proud.
We are resilient because we don’t give up, and we keep fighting until the defeat becomes our victory.
Chazak Chazak v’Nitchazek.
The above was originally delivered as a speech to Beit Knesset Rambam located in Be’er Sheva, Israel on October 30, 2023.