Passover. Two thousand years ago. (Approximately.)
Picture it. Walk through the thought exercise with me. You know how Israel just glows when the sun is out? How the fields come alive and the mountaintops veritably dance in the light? I can’t tell you that that’s what it was like. But I can imagine it.
And you know how Jerusalem is hopping around the chagim? How people just stream in from all over, packing into hotels and loitering around town? But also just enjoying being there and soaking up every second? I can’t tell you that that’s what it was like. But I can imagine it.
And you know how things get quiet in the afternoon on erev chag as everyone goes home to get themselves ready? And how the music starts to play as the sun begins its final descent in the sky for the day? And how people start to stream out, once again, this time dressed in their finest garb as they make their way to shul? I can’t tell you that that’s what it was like. But I can imagine it.
And you know how, two thousand years ago, Jews did what they did and they came up to Jerusalem for Passover because even though it’s turbulent times, how can we not, and you have hundreds of thousands of extra people packed into the city in honor of the chag and then Vespasian coincidentally besieges the city right then and all of those people who came to be עולה לרגל are there when the siege of Jerusalem starts?
I can’t tell you quite what it was like.
But I can imagine it.
Because early Simchat Torah morning, October 7, 2023, with I don’t know how many people who came here to be עולה לרגל, we were attacked. Massacred. Brutally. And as I came out of the sealed room for I think it was the fifth time that morning (but it might have been the fourth) (or the sixth) (they all kind of blur together), the historical comparison hit me. We did this before.
We did this before.
And the last time we did this, it ended in catastrophe. The Temple was burned. Millions were slaughtered. We were forcibly removed from our land in a way that took us nearly 2,000 years now to make it back. In the process of making our way back here (and we’re not done yet), we were murdered and raped, pillaged and plundered, slaughtered and reviled and our souls are so tired and we swore, 78 years ago, we swore and we said never again.
So when we found ourselves in eerily similar circumstances, attacked on our holiday, in our land, for no reason other than who we are, and I realized that parallel, I got scared. I’m not going to lie to you. It scared me. So much so, in fact, that I couldn’t articulate the thought for almost three days. And even then, it was a one and done and I haven’t shared that comparison since then because it scared me.
Now I’m ready.
Because now I can see that yes, the circumstances that began both calamitous events are similar. But the response could not have been more different. Because now I can turn to God and say, “Hey. Look at us. We learned from our mistakes. We did better this time.”
I’ve talked before about the way that the Jewish world has responded to this horror. It’s been everyone. Everywhere. Reaching out, praying, collecting, donating, doing mitzvot in merit of the soldiers, volunteering. You name it, we’ve done it. And from all types of Jews, too. Communities that believe in the State and communities that don’t, with their self-imposed, artificial walls melting down so quickly in the face of being in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who are suffering. Children who don’t really understand what’s going on because they’re kids but they know that Israel and the Jewish people are hurting and so they write notes to send to the soldiers who are standing on the edge of battle.
Two thousand years ago, the response looked very different. You see, two thousand years ago, the response involved civil war. And yes, I can tell you that that’s what it was like, because we have historical accounts from then. (Open up the ספר יוסיפון and read Josephus Flavius’ firsthand account. It’s horrifying.) Civil war. Jew killing Jew in the most beautiful city in the world even as they are literally trapped in there because Rome has tightened the noose. And it’s okay, right, because there’s enough grain in the storehouses to feed everyone for a while. Until there isn’t any grain in the storehouses because someone—a Jew—decides it’s a good idea to burn them. And then it’s not okay. And suddenly we’re not okay. And from there everything snowballed and it took us nearly. Two. Thousand. Years. To make it back here.
But we did better this time. We learned from our mistakes. We know what we did wrong then, and we could not have responded in a more polar opposite manner. Because we didn’t resort to civil war, even though there was so much vitriol being spewed on either side of the political aisle as recently as October 6. We came together. We don’t have Jew killing Jew, not here, not anywhere, but we have Jew praying for Jew even though they are complete strangers who never met and probably never will meet, but it’s enough that someone asked them to pray. We have Jew gathering supplies and gear and money and snacks—so, so many snacks—to make sure that their brother, the soldier, has what he needs. We have Jew ordering 54 pies of pizza for his unit because, hey, they were hungry, and army food just isn’t all that. We have Jew from the Diaspora coming to Israel in her time of need because that’s what you do when you have a skillset that’s needed, like being a medic or a doctor or a nurse or who knows what else. We have Jew offering rides around the country to soldiers who need to get from remote Point A to even more remote Point B. We have Jew offering to order cars or find rides to bring family and friends to base so that their soldiers, who can’t just leave at will even if they do have their own car, can see them. We have Jew offering to fly soldiers back to Israel for free because you’re coming home and you’re coming to protect our land and our people and it is the highest form of honor for us to be able to bring you home.
So on day one, I realized the echoes of history. I noticed that parallel. I saw the similarity. And it scared me. But it needn’t have scared me, because that was where the similarity ended. And now, on day fourteen, I can comfortably articulate this thought. Because now, on day fourteen, I can turn to God and point to every single one of you—of us—who has responded with unity. Who has responded by banding together, as families do, pulling closer the ties that bind us, leaning a little more on each other, being a little more vulnerable and raw and real.
Now, fourteen days later, with full confidence in my people, I can comfortably turn to God and say, “We learned our lesson. We learned from our mistakes. We did better. We did better. It’s time.”
כי אין לנו ארץ אחרת.
Please continue to pray for us, and the following soldiers, especially:
עזרא צבי יוסף בן אריאלה פנינה
יעקב זכריה בן אריאלה פנינה
אליהו סִינַי בן ביילא רבקה
נַתַּן בן דבורה אסתר
דוד אלכסנדר בן דבורה אסתר
אלכסנדר בן שרה אלישבע
ראובן אליעזר בן אביגיל אסתר
בועז כָּלֵב בן יפָה מרים
יצחק אייזיק בן פריידא
אהרן בן רחל ברכה
כי ה׳ אלקיכם ההולך עמכם להלחם לכם עם אויביכם להושיע אתכם. ה׳ ישמור צאתך ובואך מעתה ועד עולם