Mark Wildes

Israeli lessons for American Jews

My wife and I traveled to Israel with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) to give some love and support to our Israeli brothers and sisters.  We came (with MJE packed duffel bags for the IDF) to say: you’re not alone, but it was we who gained the strength and inspiration.

I would say the most difficult moments of the week, were paying a shiva call to an old friend and MJE alumnus, Stephanie Keating whose stepdaughter Rose Lubin z”l was killed, and walking through Kfar Aza which was brutally attacked on Oct. 7th. The level of destruction was beyond words. As the IDF took us through the devastation, every few minutes we heard what sounded like an explosion – the ground literally shook.  I was happy to hear those were mortars fired by the IDF at Hamas, destroying their tunnels, targeting the terrorists.  And so, as we walked through this devastation there was a sense that — yes, Israel has been hit hard, but Israel is fighting back.  Every explosion was another reminder of Israel’s strength and conviction to defend the Jewish people — of what is thankfully different today than 75 years ago during the Holocaust: today we can fight back.

After Kfar Aza, we were taken to an army base for a barbeque with over 100 soldiers.  The morale of the soldiers was incredible.  We gave out the letters MJE participants had written for the chayalim — the smiles these simple letters inspired were priceless.  One chayal – when I asked him how he was doing, said “I’m ready to fight back”.  It wasn’t bravado.  It was strength and pride in being able to defend Jewish lives.  The message from these soldiers was clear: we are no longer victims, and we Jews of the diaspora must adopt the same attitude in fighting the anti-Semitism we are seeing in NYC and elsewhere.  We must practice the same pride our Israeli brothers and sisters are exhibiting on the front lines, keeping on our Yarlmulkes and Magen David’s and fighting back against anti-Semitism.

Another lesson I took from my trip is the extraordinary value Israelis place on human life.  While I may not agree with Israel’s decision regarding the hostage exchange, it does demonstrate how far the Jewish people will go to save one human life, to restore one Jewish family, in contrast to Hamas’s absolute disregard for human life.  This is something we saw when visiting the Soroka hospital in Be’er Sheva, where over 650 injured people were brought on October 7th.  There I met a policeman from Sderot with a bandage on his foot. He told us how on October 7th he went with just his firearm, killing all these terrorists to save as many lives as he could.  He was shot multiple times but just kept going, emphasizing how he was motivated by saving as many lives as he could.
We also met survivors in the city of Ofakim, which was also hit hard on October 7th.  The woman from whom we heard – some of whom had lost spouses, children, and siblings, reminded us rabbis that the outcome of this war will not be solely based on the IDF’s success, but ultimately on what Hashem decides. This is why our Tefilot (prayers) are so important, and why the achdus – the unity now happening in Israel is so critical. Like any parent, whose greatest nachas (joy) is seeing their children get along, our Sages similarly teach – God’s great nachas comes from seeing His children getting along.  The level of achdus in Israel today is quite extraordinary.  By in large, people are putting their political, religious, and ideological differences aside to defeat this enemy – something we also need here in the diaspora, if we are going to combat the anti-Semitism rampant on our campuses.

There is a terrible blur of truth coming out of our university campuses.  Places where wisdom and truth are supposed to emerge have instead become breeding grounds for lies and falsehood.  In last week’s Parshat Vayishlach, the Torah tells us that the night before Jacob confronts Esav, “Jacob was left alone” (Genesis 32: 25)  and he encountered a man with whom he wrestles through the night: “and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Ibid).  The Hebrew word the Torah uses for wrestling is V’yaavak which Rashi says is taken from the root word Avak or dust, namely, the dust that emerges from the feet of two people fighting on the ground. The Rebbe of Slonim says it is the dust of battle which clouds our judgment – the haze of war that confuses people, turning simple truths on their head.

Which other nation, after it is attacked, is then accused of genocide when it retaliates? Which other people, after it has disengaged from a territory, is still called an “occupying power”?

But at some point, the dust settles, and the truth emerges, which is why the verse in the Torah says that Jacob battles until dawn, until the light breaks when people can see the truth for themselves.

Jacob ultimately prevails against his challenger. The Sages of the Midrash say this “person” with whom Jacob wrestled, was the prince of Esav – the personification of evil.  This evil force sees Jacob is too strong to overcome, and so he tries to injure him: “…he struck the ball of his thighbone…Then he said, let me go for dawn has broken” (Ibid 32: 26).  Jacob’s adversary was saying: ‘let me go because the sun is about to rise – the light and the truth are emerging, so you need to let me go’.  It reminds me of those vampire movies where the vampire cannot be out when the sun rises, because the light reveals the truth.

Jacob then tells his adversary: “I will not let you go, unless you give me a blessing” (Ibid 32: 27) to which he responds: “No longer will your name be called Jacob, but rather Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and you have overcome” (Ibid 32:29).  What it means to be a Jew is to struggle with God and with others.  We will not always understand Hashem’s ways, and the world may give us a hard time, rejecting what seems to be plain truth and morality, but like Jacob, we will ultimately prevail.

We may get injured, but we always prevail. This is the story of the Jewish people: after the Tablets were broken, Moses beseeched God until He gave us a second set. After the destruction of the Temple, we created the Synagogue.  After the exile of our people, we came up with the Talmud, and after the Holocaust we built the State of Israel.

Imagine if we could travel back in time and tell the great Pharaohs of Egypt that thousands of years later it wouldn’t be Egypt that would survive, but the people they enslaved.
Imagine if we could tell the Caesars of Rome that their powerful legions would not stand the test of time, but instead it would be the small minority they oppressed and whose Temple they destroyed.
Imagine if Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler could see the hundreds of thousands of Jewish children today attending Jewish Schools or the many Jews who gather every Friday night to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, while Communism and Fascism are relegated to the dust bins of history.

That is Jewish history, and that is what we must remember at those moments we lose hope, or think our message to the world isn’t being heard.  Just keep fighting the good fight, stay the course and with God’s help, just as the Maccabees prevailed against the Greeks in the Hanukkah story we celebrate this week,  we too will see the IDF, the Jewish people and truth prevail in the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Wildes, known as The Urban Millennials' Rabbi, founded Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) in 1998. Since then, he has become one of America’s most inspirational and dynamic Jewish educators. Rabbi Wildes holds a BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University, a JD from the Cardozo School of Law, a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and was ordained from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Mark & his wife Jill and their children Yosef, Ezra, Judah and Avigayil live on the Upper West Side where they maintain a warm and welcoming home for all.
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