Rachel Gottlieb

Israel at War: The Other Half of the Battle

Empty park in Bet Shemesh, Israel, 11 Oct 2023
The parks in Beit Shemesh sit empty, October 11, 2023. (courtesy)

I like to pray. There’s something about prayer that really speaks to me. I find it very grounding, centering, and comforting. It’s what I turn to when I’m in pain, it’s what I turn to in times of joy, it’s what I turn to in relief and in fear and for pretty much every occasion. (Funny story, actually: I landed here in Israel late Thursday evening before chag, and early Friday morning made my way to Jerusalem to get to the Kotel because priorities, right? I spent a nice little while there, very happy to just be, so when I made my way back up into town, there were a lot more people out and I ran into a whole bunch of Americans that I knew, including someone who was in Israel for the first time and was clearly clueless about anything Israel, because when she heard that I wasn’t staying in Jerusalem she couldn’t figure out what I was doing there. I laughed and informed her that I had an appointment with God. And that it’s stupidly easy to travel between cities. She got it.) The point is that it’s unsurprising that I’ve never been too far from my siddur since last Shabbat, and the well-worn pages are becoming even more worn.

I find a lot of comfort, too, in going to shul and praying with a minyan. To me, such an act is microcosmic of what it means to be part of the Jewish people as a whole, where you belong to something greater than yourself and so, in praying with a minyan, you attach yourself to that greater whole and transcend the limits of your individual self. I happen to also love going to shul on Friday night when I’m here in Israel (I don’t know why it isn’t a thing for girls in the States, but for some strange reason, it just isn’t). Truth be told, I was kind of disappointed that the two Friday nights that I was scheduled to be here in Israel for this trip were both chag, which meant that neither of the two would feature the usual Friday night tefillot. But okay, it is what it is and I certainly won’t complain that I have the opportunity to be in Israel for chag, even if I don’t get everything that I want. But then I suddenly found myself with extra time. And an extra Shabbat. With a regular Friday night. Well. Not regular. But the regular tefillot. I was already scared to enter Shabbat because I would be going off the grid, and even though I was resolved to do so, going to shul Friday night felt like the best way to enter Shabbat, with the tefillah, together with a minyan, grounding me as we entered that sacred time.

Let me tell you: It was a great call. As I said, I enjoy the experience on any given week, but this time it was especially moving. The chazzan (who just so happened to have been my uncle, shoutout to him) did a beautiful job taking us through the introductory tefillot, but then we got to Lecha Dodi, the liturgical 16th century poem composed by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz in which we welcome in the Shabbat herself. Typically, the chazzan chooses an inspiring and uplifting melody to begin the song, and this time he hit pay dirt: The tune the chazzan chose to use was one of the commonly used tunes for Im Eshkachaych, the song we sing to remind us of the place Jerusalem holds in our hearts, and it was exceptionally poignant now as Israel’s heart has been so broken. So poignant, in fact, that I let the strains of melody wash over me and through me and it finally allowed me to feel everything that I had been going through last week: the pain, the fear, the anguish, the heartache, the loss, the grief, the pride, the love, the terror—the whole gamut. And I’m not ashamed to admit it: I cried. And it was genuinely cathartic. Because in that moment I felt the truth of Rashi’s comment on the verse in Genesis in which he says, “When Shabbat comes, tranquility comes,” and I felt that because in that moment, I was joining together with my people in our pain, coming together to find a measure of solace in our shared grief.

The dissonance for me, though, came today, because today is Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new Jewish month. And today, as we do on every Rosh Chodesh, we sang Hallel, psalms of praise and thanks to God in celebration of the day, which is considered like a mini holiday. And I wasn’t feeling it. Like, at all. How can I stand and sing joyous tunes when I overwhelmingly feel pain, sorrow, and fear? How can I possibly be asked, in this moment, to put aside the urgency of the moment and instead burst out in song?

If I’m being perfectly honest, it wasn’t just that I wasn’t feeling it, it was that it felt wrong. But I realized, in that moment, that that was exactly why I needed to do it. What was being asked of me was not about me. What was being asked of me was to put aside myself and my feelings and to trust in the eternity of am yisrael, to tap into what it means to be part of something greater than myself on an even more existential level. Because being part of the Jewish people is not about what’s easy. If it were, we wouldn’t have survived. It’s about doing what’s right. And sometimes (okay, often), what is right is not about what I think is right. Because my right and wrong are subjective. Instead, it’s about what God says is right and wrong. So I said Hallel today. And I will do so again tomorrow. Because that is what is asked of me. Nay, that is what is demanded of me. And I will rise to that challenge.

But more than that: Being forced to confront the question of joy in these incredibly trying times made me realize that if we don’t continue to live, then we are letting them win. I’ve seen and heard I don’t know how many weddings from the back porch of our house in the last week, because life marches ever forward. There are quite a few stories of soldiers who got married on base, because their brides came to surprise them as they were called up to war to ensure that the Jewish people live on. Continuing to live is part of the fight. It’s going to look different right now, because there’s a war going on. It should look different right now, because there’s a war going on. But we have to live. Am yisrael chai is more than just a cute catchphrase. The Jewish people live on because we fight for the right and the privilege to be able to really, truly live and if we don’t live, we have given up on half of the fight.

So we will continue to pray. We will continue to fight. Those of us who are not on the front lines will do our part in fighting this war in support of those who are actively fighting. And we will continue to live. There is a beautiful future to be had in this beautiful land of ours. We’re in this together. We’re fighting together. We will win together. And we will live. Together.

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


About the Author
As a combination logophile and Israel-o-phile, Rachel's fingers itch whenever something needs to be shared about Israel, particularly as it relates to the Diaspora. Her credentials include a Master's in English and many years experience as a high-school English teacher, which covers the writing part, and being a card-carrying member of the Jewish nation, which covers the Israel part. Although she currently resides in Suffern, NY, her heart has long since been stolen by Israel herself, and her mind is constantly preoccupied with the capital of the Jewish people.
Related Topics
Related Posts