Fostering community through heartache and hakafot

Last week, a nine-year-old boy and his younger siblings said Kaddish for their murdered parents.

Eitam and Na’ama Henkin, may their memories be a blessing, were driving home to their village in Samaria when their car was approached by gunmen, who shot them at close range. Four of their young children, riding along in the back seat, were spared. Later, when asked how the children were coping with the murder of their parents, a neighbor answered simply “They’re crying.” As if there is another possible way to react to one’s parents being murdered in cold blood, simply for being Jewish.

I am unsure how to even approach fathoming this. Over the last several weeks, Israel has found herself threatened once again by Palestinian terror. Attacks on Jews have occurred in various areas of the country; as I write this, there have been six (!) terrorist attacks today alone at last count. The entire country is on edge, and many Jews in the diaspora await the news from Israel with a sense of trepidation.

We call the period of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah zman simchateinu, “the time of our rejoicing.” However, in the midst of our happiness, our collective mood has been tempered by the events taking place in Israel. We have heard news of terrorists murdering Jews, Jews injured by Palestinian rock-throwers, Jews harassed and assaulted as they make their way to the Kotel, and other such awful events. The happiness brought to me by the smell of my etrog as I carry both it and my lulav during hoshanot is mixed with the sadness of knowing that, in Israel, a group of siblings is going to grow up without their parents because they were victims of terror.

As a Jewish educator, I sometimes struggle with how to reconcile the responsibility to teach my students in the midst of overshadowing sadness. Learning, despite how students may occasionally feel, is supposed to be enjoyable and fruitful. How can I make my classroom a place of joy in the midst of tragedy? Similarly, how is it possible to learn of such horrific acts, and then proceed on Simchat Torah to drink l’chaims, dance hakafot, sing joyous songs and celebrate our completion (and commencement) of the reading of the Torah? For me, the answer is community.

I found yesterday during the Simchat Torah festivities that although we may concurrently feel both great joy and great sadness, our communal joy can often win the day. Although I have been mindful of the tragic events unfolding seemingly daily in Israel, yesterday I was also able to celebrate one of the most joyful days in our calendar as I danced with a Torah scroll on a beautiful autumn morning.

I find the rituals associated with Simchat Torah to be both majestic and moving. To see a group of young children called communally to the Torah for an aliyah, marching as a group underneath a chuppah held by adults, is to witness firsthand the growth of our tradition and the renewal of hope. To call a Hatan Torah up as the Torah is completed followed by a Kallat Bereishit as we begin learning it anew shows our steadfast devotion to learning Torah and our collective Jewish identity. Even after years of studying Torah, I find myself hanging on every word as I listen to the majestic words of our creation story chanted again. Chanting the appointed verses along with the Torah reader, we all take part both individually and collectively, finding communal strength in this most familiar of texts. Together, we begin anew the cycle of learning, of finding meaning, of gaining insight into our Teaching. In this way, we ourselves may be likened to children; on Simchat Torah, I’ve adopted the custom of wearing my very first kippah (a black leather one adorned with New York Mets and baseball designs) in order to symbolize the renewal of both our communal Torah experience and my learning. Eitz chayim hi l’mahazikim bah, v’tomcheha m’ushar- “It is a tree of life to those who cling to it, and those who uphold it are happy.” How very true indeed.

We are taught in Bereishit that “It is not good for man to be alone.” Simchat Torah embodies what both Judaism and education ought to look like: communal experiences. We are meant to share our greatest joy, along with our deepest grief, together. Communally mourning victims of terror, as well as celebrating joyfully, serve to build up the foundation upon which k’lal Yisrael is built. Even in the midst of terror and sadness, if we lean on this foundation, we can withstand nearly anything.

About the Author
Ben Einsidler holds Master's degrees in Jewish education and Jewish studies from Hebrew College. He currently teaches Toshba at JCDS, Boston's Jewish Community Day School, and is an active member and coordinator of the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston. He is also a lay leader and tutor at his synagogue in Lexington, Massachusetts.
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