When the sirens went off, apartment neighbors met each other in the stairwell. A young family with small children lined their landing with plastic building blocks. A tall, older woman set up a chair one flight up, to which she repaired with every new siren wail. There was also a family: parents with two boys, one small and the other a bit bigger, and their grandparents.
The day began with sirens, which seemed to catch people unsure of what to do. Couples dressed for Shemini Atzeret turned this way and that, looking for guidance. One woman standing in front of her apartment house stood, musing, “Maybe we should go to the miklat (the shelter).”
At the Beit Knesset men and women had left the sanctuary and gathered downstairs in a miklat, which soon grew crowded. The Rav advised people “who live nearby to leave—it is getting hard to breathe.” Perhaps he had corona transmission in mind.
Back at the apartment, one learned that the safest place to stand is in the stairwell one flight below the roof and one flight above the lobby, where shattered glass from an explosion outside could pose danger. More and more sirens came. Some were followed by booming sounds—when Iron Dome succeeded in intercepting an oncoming missile.
Information trickled in. One rocket had penetrated and caused damage in central Jerusalem. The word from the south of the country, as yet unconfirmed, was worse. Much worse.
When sirens went quiet and stayed that way for 10 minutes, everyone went back to their apartments. When the wailing resumed, they headed back to their positions in the stairwell. An old woman, the tall woman’s guest, stood at her door and smiled ruefully. “My knees don’t do well going up and down,” she said.
The boys discussed whether there would be school the next day. The small boy said to his brother, “Why does it always happen in Israel?”
“No!” said his brother. “Israel is a good place to live.”
The stairwell dwellers went up and down the stairs, in and out of their doors, with each new siren. The husband of the older woman had gone to shul earlier and not yet returned.
“I’m scared,” said the small boy. He turned to his grandfather and said, “I’m scared for you.” His brother grasped the inside of the grandfather’s upper arm and pressed his cheek to its outside.
When the sirens seemed to pause, someone suggested that everyone go to the tall woman’s apartment. The grandfather, a ba’al koreh, was asked to read from a Chumash the Torah portion they all would have heard in shul that day had they gone there and stayed.
More news trickled in, all of it bad, some of it terrifying. In the south—deaths, casualties, kidnappings. No one commented. There was nothing to say.
The grandfather read VeZot HaBracha, which ends with the death of Moshe and concludes the Torah, followed at once by Bereshit, the Torah’s opening portion describing the creation of the world. He read quickly, knowing as everyone did that another siren could come at any moment.
One section read:
מְעֹנָהֿ֙ אֱלֹ֣קי קֶ֔דֶם, the eternal God is a dwelling place. וַיְגָ֧רֶשׁ מִפָּנֶ֛יךָ אוֹיֵ֖ב, He will thrust out the enemy from before you; וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הַשְׁמֵֽד and will say: Destroy them!וַיִּשְׁכֹּן֩ יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל בֶּ֤טַח בָּדָד֙ Yisrael then will dwell in safety, alone.
The ba’al koreh had heard, and sung, these words more times than he could remember. But he had paid scant attention to them before. In this moment, in this context, they sounded utterly different. Now he would only hear them as an eternal promise and a desperate wish, as they sounded to him and his companions at this time, in this place.
Most experiences of any value are those shared with others. What transpires between people depends not just on what happens but on exactly when and precisely where, even—or especially–when it happens with people they dearly love, along with others they barely know, huddled together against the walls of a windowless stairwell.