David Lerner

Healing the Trauma of October 7th – Shabbat Parah 5784 

Last week, I led a group of Temple Emunah members and friends on a short solidarity mission to Israel.

Photo credit to Rabbi David Lerner

A friend asked me to bring a small package.

When I got to the hotel, I put the package in a cute gift bag and dropped it off at the front desk telling them to give them to the Cohen family who would be stopping by to pick it up.

The next morning we were volunteering on a farm near Gaza, which had lost most of its workers due to the war. My hands were pretty muddy from planting melon seedlings in the moist soil.

Photo from Rabbi David Lerner

My phone rang; somehow I managed to answer it.

It was the Cohen family calling from the hotel to say that the package was not there. I asked Ezra, my friend, and our tour guide, for help.

But there was no bag anywhere. 

When we came back to the hotel, late that night, the clerk, after some coaxing, searched for the bag, but to no avail. 

The next morning, the same thing – no bag. 

We gave up. 

A friend who was on the trip ordered the package from Amazon to be delivered to her sister who was coming to Israel two days later.

When we got back to the hotel that night, Oded, one of the hotel managers, was there. He had investigated and discovered that it had been given to the Cohen family. 

I was perplexed. They clearly had not received it.

He said they checked in the previous day and they had been given the bag immediately! 

Why did they think this package was for them? 

Who knows.

There are lots of Cohen families in Israel.

* * *

That mix-up was symbolic of what we found in Israel. A country that is experiencing confusion. 

October 7th has shaken them to the core.

We heard testimonies from survivors. 

Oshrit, a woman who was on Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border; they suffered terribly.

Photo credit to Rabbi David Lerner

Reumah, a mother from Kibbutz Be’eri; that kibbutz was particularly devastated. She told us about her experiences that day and how her 16-year-old son was murdered by the Hamas terrorists and her 13-year-old daughter was taken hostage. 

Photo credit to Rabbi David Lerner

Thankfully, she was returned in a hostage exchange two months later. 

We listened to Nehorai whose perseverance helped him escape the massacre at the Nova music festival.

Photo credit to Rabbi David Lerner

We listened to their stories, we cried with them, and we gave them hugs. 

Not just from our group, but from all of you.

We held space for them to share their trauma.

It was hard, it was painful, it was intense, but it was incredibly meaningful.

They told us that our presence made them feel that they are not alone.

* * *

Photo credit: Flickr (

So today is Shabbat Parah, the Cow Shabbat, which includes a special section of the Torah that deals with a most unusual ritual. The Israelites had to find a red heifer without any defect or blemish – a rare find in itself. 

They were to offer it as a sacrifice, mix its ashes with water, and sprinkle them on anyone who had come into contact with a dead body. 

This would purify them.

This reading was placed on this Shabbat since we were supposed to be in a state of purity to participate in the Passover sacrifice; once the ritual could no longer be practiced, due to the destruction of the Temple, reading about the ritual replaced performing it.

In general in Judaism, learning has supplanted the performance of many ancient practices. 

And so, that is what we are doing.

This particular ancient ritual includes many elements that lead to questions.

First, why does someone who touches a corpse need healing? 

Why would this rare animal be needed for this ceremony?

And finally, most strangely, why would the person who prepared the healing balm become impure and also need to go through a ritual to return to a state of purity?

Many have tried to explain it. 

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the great sage who lived around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, taught “It is not the dead that defiles nor the water that purifies! The Holy Blessed One, says: ‘I have laid down a statute (hukkah), I have issued a decree. You are not allowed to transgress my decree’; as it is written: ‘This is the ritual law (hukkat ha-Torah) that Adonai has commanded.’” (Numbers Rabbah 19:8 quoting Num. 19:2) 

In other words, this revered sage is saying that this bizarre ritual cannot be explained.

* * *

Photo credit to Jewish Theological Seminary (

Dr. Barry Holtz, a Jewish educator, references French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and historian Mircea Eliade who teach about “oppositional pairs in religion and in culture such as pure and impure (tamei and tahor). 

“Purifying waters that also defile fit into a pattern that begins to make sense. Cultures seem to gravitate toward oppositional figures; these figures help make sense of the world. We distinguish the raw and the cooked, the forces of light and the forces of darkness. 

“We humans are comfortable in those precise categories. 

“But when things are on the edges, when they cross borders, we are a lot less certain. Anthropologists refer to this as the crisis or confusion around ‘liminality,’ the threshold or boundary. Throughout human history we have built rituals around liminal states that function like a mezuzah on a doorpost, staving off the confusion of the boundary.

“Of all borders, none is so frightening as that between life and death. The individual who has touched the dead body has come in contact with the border that none of us wishes to cross. (He or she is) [They are] between the two polarities of life and death and, throughout human history, it is ritual that allows us to negotiate those boundaries.”

* * *

This mysterious ritual reminds us that people who experience death, who experience trauma need deep healing. 

And those who work with them, in essence, experience a trauma of a different sort. 

The experience of listening to these stories can also be challenging since the listener is also brought into the pain of the one who was directly impacted.

And thus, both groups need rituals to help heal them. 

When we leave any cemetery, the Jewish custom is to pour water on our hands. While this might have originated as a hygienic practice, it has become a reminder that when we move from death to life, we need to pause and remind ourselves what we just experienced and that we are moving to another realm. 

* * *

All this brings us to this moment. The events of October 7th deeply traumatized those who experienced them directly. 

I would argue that it traumatized all Israelis and even Jews around the globe.

Traveling to Israel to hear their stories allowed them to share their pain, opening a window into their experience. 

Hopefully, as we heard them, we provided a measure of healing, or, at the very least, the knowledge that they are not alone. The awareness that our group and in fact, our community, stands with them.

We learned the incredible stories of how Israeli civil society took care of each other and within hours were providing rides to people escaping the south, clothes and food to those who needed to be relocated, and over time, the therapy they needed to begin to heal.

Photo credit to Rabbi David Lerner

We saw the powerful street art in Tel-Aviv that has been created to help people work through these tragedies and the poems, the poems just written on the walls…

We visited families in the north who have not been to their homes in half a year to escape the anti-tank missiles that were destroying their homes. 

One woman pulled out her cell phone to show me her destroyed apartment.

Photo from Rabbi David Lerner

We brought toys to children and distributed beautiful crocheted Stars of David that members of our community had made. Everyone there wanted these hand-made gifts that read “Made with Love from Temple Emunah.”

Photo from Rabbi David Lerner

They were symbols of the love we hold for them.

In so many places they told us how much our visit and those of others are helping them during this terrible time – whether it was families whose loved ones are still being held hostage, families who lost loved ones on October 7th or in its aftermath, or families whose children are serving in Gaza.

Everyone we went said the same thing. 

Photo from Rabbi David Lerner

Every group. 

The soldiers we served dinner to on their base. 

The families who are displaced from their homes on the Northern border.

Even Benny Gantz – the leader of a centrist political party in Israel, who has been brought into the highest leadership in the war so that more of Israel can be represented during this most fraught time. 

Photo from Rabbi David Lerner

We bumped into him in a random shwarma restaurant in the often-attacked city of Sederot; he got up and spoke about how much it means to have the support of American Jews.

It was painful to take in all their pain. 

But there was also hope. 

Their perseverance, their commitment to one another, and their ability to share their stories were inspiring. 

It felt like they would heal from this trauma, even if it may take years.

When we volunteered, it felt like we were engaging in the healing of our wounded family.

* * *

To me, the most important part of the strange ritual of the red heifer was the person who sprinkled the water.

This person would take twigs from the beautiful hyssop plant with its blue and pink flowers, dip them in the water, and lovingly sprinkle it on the one who had experienced the trauma. 

I like to think that they did it with love in their eyes and kindness in their hearts. That person’s healing touch, the compassion, may have been the balm that the traumatized person needed.

* * *

Photo credit: Rabbi David Lerner

As we pray for peace for all the people of Israel and Gaza, as we pray that the humanitarian suffering will be alleviated, as we pray for peace, and most importantly, as we pray for the safe return of our hostages, let us hold out a message of hope.

Just as the ancient Israelites were able to cope with trauma through ritual and kindness, I pray that we find ways to share our love with our family who are in need. 

May this ritual remind us that healing and hope are always possible.

Natanya, please join me.

Mazal tov-it is so nice have you lead, read and teach-dvar.

You worked hard to reach this moment and it shows.

Natanya, I just spoke about Israel and bringing Israelis our support during this time.

And you bring this same support to your friends and your community – and as big sister.

And you got to do the same in your hesed, your BM project – volunteering to work with Golden Retrievers who become service dogs to help people who are differently abled or working with police. In Israel, these dogs have used extensively last 6 months.

Now, I have been blessed to know you and your family for many years and your parents are role models of J. life. Your mom working here as youth director, nd then program director and now, as a lay leader. Your dad’s work at Brandeis and now, CJP help our community plan for the future. 

You have taken all that in to become a passionate Jew. You are active in our youth community and love being here at Temple Emunah and you love being Jewish and you love your summers at CYJ; you shared w/me how special Shabbat is at camp – Friday nights and Havdalah. 

It has been a pleasure to watch you grow over the last 13 years here at shul – to see you become an independent young person. You are passionate gymnast who bring dedication to that and to Taylor Swift. You enjoy arts and crafts and are up for any challenge.

This Shabbat we read Parashat Tzav and you discussed the eternal flame so nicely in your dvar Torah. The opening verse says that God commands –tzav. Moshe tells his brother Aharon to tell his son. Tzav means commandment and that is what we are celebrating today – that you, just like any of us are commanded, bound by this tradition and responsible in a way that was not true before.

Strange this list – like a game of telephone – Why? To me, this is to remind me of how we pass down the tradition from one to another, from teacher to student from grand to par to children. And so today, you take your place – literally and metaphorically taking hold of the Torah, of our tradition. I look forward to seeing you continue Mazal tov! USY – Nathan Gaffin – Israel Affairs – 2026 TRIP!

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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