Jonathan Muskat

Feeling Israel’s Pain from Afar

Yesterday, I asked the high school students in my Zionism class how they were feeling about the situation in Israel. The responses were varied. Some students were scared for the hostages. Some students had relatives who were called up to the front lines and were worried about them. Some students felt inspired by all of the unity and generosity that the crisis has engendered. Some students wondered how this could have happened and some students were angry. One student wondered why it had to take a crisis like this to bring Israelis together. Another student felt that we should simply devastate Gaza because of what they did. Some students were still in shock.  I think that I experienced all of these and other emotions over the past few days. Shock. Devastation. Anger. Hope. Pride. Confusion.

The Torah is my guide so three Torah ideas kept reverberating with me again and again over the past few days:

  1. Va-ye-ma-en l’hitnachem – and he refused to be comforted. After hearing that his son, Yosef, was killed by a wild animal, the Torah states that Yaakov Avinu refused to comfort himself (Breishit 37:35). What prompted this reaction? Rashi explains that “a person does not accept consolation for one living whom he believes to be dead.” On some level, if someone is still alive, then there is no closure and we cannot move on. When we find ourselves in a state of uncertainty, when life and death hang in the balance, we cannot be comforted. This is how I have been feeling. On Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, I was going through the motions of being “happy” with a tremendous feeling of dread about the casualties and hostages and over the past few days I still maintain this dread about the fate of the hostages and the endgame of this conflict. I don’t see a world where Israel goes into to Gaza to wipe out Hamas where the hostages are freed unharmed. I also don’t see a world whereby Israel goes into Gaza to wipe out Hamas that doesn’t result in many more casualties and possibly additional hostages. Va-ye-ma-en l’hitnachem. I walk around all day going through the motions with a heavy feeling of sadness, trepidation and dread about what the future holds.
  2. L’hit’abel yoter mi-dai ee efshar – to mourn too much is impossible. The gemara in masechet Bava Batra (60b) states that when the second Beit Ha-mikdash was destroyed, there was an increase in ascetics among the Jews, refusing to eat meat and drink wine. Rabbi Yehoshua asked them why they stopped eating meat and drinking wine. They said to him: “Shall we eat meat, from which offerings are sacrificed upon the altar, and now the altar has ceased to exist? Shall we drink wine, which is poured upon the altar, and now the altar has ceased to exist?” Rabbi Yehoshua then told them that using that logic, they shouldn’t eat bread, produce or water, because these were also used for sacrificial services which no longer exist. The ascetics did not have a response. Rabbi Yehoshua then told them that “she’lo l’hit’abel kol ikar ee efshar,” to not mourn at all is impossible, but “l’hit’abel yoter mi-dai ee efshar” – to mourn too much is also impossible. Despite the barbaric tragedy that we just suffered and the potential for greater casualties and loss of life from the impending battles and the hostage situation, we can’t spend our entire days and nights in mourning and sadness. We must create space during the day to mourn, to cry, and to petition God. We must also create space to celebrate life as well, to be grateful for what we have and to cherish our loved ones. We must fight the impulse, as difficult as it is, to remain in a state of melancholy and sadness constantly each and every day.
  3. People of Fate to People of Destiny: How do we accomplish the aforementioned goal? How do we acknowledge the pain, the loss, the suffering, the anxiety and the dread and still celebrate life? Recognize, as Rav Soloveitchik writes in one of his famous essays, “Faith and Destiny,” that we must distinguish between an existence of fate and an existence of destiny. If we live an existence of fate then we are an object. We will suffer from evil or deny the evil. However, Judaism promotes an existence of destiny. We recognize that there is real suffering in the world and no matter how much we try to understand, we cannot understand why God creates a world with evil. But the man of faith transforms this fate into destiny. We take action. We pray. We perform mitzvot. We engage in acts of kindness. We give charity. We do not focus on why this happened. We focus on for what purpose did this happen? How can I react in a meaningful way now that I have been placed in this situation?

These three Torah ideas have shaped my mental state over the past few days and will likely shape my mental state in the near future. But there is one additional element that provides me with emotional strength each and every day. We learn a lot from the mitzvot of the Torah which are a blueprint and a guide about how to live our lives, but we also learn a lot from the stories of the Torah and specifically from the heroes of the Torah, such as the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Similarly, while Torah ideas have shaped my mental state of mind, our modern-day heroes are the source of my strength living thousands of miles away from me. The men and women of the IDF are being called up to the front lines to defend medinat Yisrael with their lives. I’ve read posts by some soldiers stating that we give them strength through our tefillot and acts of kindness. I would say the opposite. Their courage, resolve, selflessness and sacrifice help me get up in the morning each and every day. Thank you, men and women of the IDF, for defending our country and for strengthening me during these difficult times.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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