Learning a New Word in Israel

In the story of Genesis, the universe comes into being through the introduction of new words. God assigns names to the elements of the world, names that did not exist before God invited them into reality. We too come to know our world through words. Sometimes when we learn a new word, the constellation of meaning that we form for ourselves – our notion of “the real” – changes forever.

The Hebrew word for “siren” is “sirena” – one of many English words that invaded Hebrew. The word that is being used to describe these sirens is different, and far more significant: אזעקה “az’akah” or the plural “az’akot.” Whenever we want to unlock the meaning of words in Hebrew, we look to the three-letter root. The root for az’akah is the letters zayin, ayin, and kuf— “za’ak,” which means “cry or shout.” This solidarity mission to Israel with 12 Rabbis of the CCAR has taught me this word.

So far on this visit I’ve experienced three az’akot. Each one has its own story, but I’ll just share one. When we first arrived, our guide Uri told us that it’s not unlikely that we’re going to experience this. He told us what Israelis do: they find the nearest shelter within 15-30 seconds (depending on how close to Gaza you are), and wait. If they are outside and unable to find shelter, then they find the safest place in view and lay on the ground face down. They are to wait there for 10 minutes. Those were are instructions.

I vaguely recall being trained in this once before, during orientation week of one of my summers as a supervisor at URJ Camp Harlam. What I recall most about that training, some 12 years ago: it was Israelis who flew from over to show us what to do if “God forbid…” happens.

The first siren sounded while we were in an Ashkelon apartment, meeting with the former deputy mayor of the city. It was sharp and loud, and I felt it in my heart – a rush that startled me and caused me take a deep breath in. Without needing to say a word, we all got up and walked toward the stairwell.

A word about that walk. Every safety training I’ve ever been a part of – and we have many at Temple Israel in Boston- emphasizes the importance of not panicking. It’s obvious why that’s the case. But I have to say, as a runner, I wanted to run. Of course I didn’t, but my desire to move faster caused me to counted every millisecond until reaching the door to the stairwell. The moment I crossed through the plane of the door, I exhaled. I could hear my wife Nicole in my head saying, “Shema Yisrael!” like some Israelis do- not as a prayer per se, but as an expression of relief (though “prayer” is a word that I use for that too).

There’s a good reason why the symbol of the mezuzah stuck around so long in our tradition; it’s a critical tool in the Jewish toolbox. Safety, security, is something not to be taken for granted. After passing through the door, I went down a few stairs to make room for the others, and- as instructed- we waited. Within a few seconds we heard a “boom” from afar: the Iron Dome did its job. Again, “Shema Yisrael!” Then we waited 10 minutes and walked back to the living room to continue our conversation.

But I couldn’t really pay attention. All I could think about was the fact that a rocket was headed in our direction, and then a missile miraculously intercepted it. I tried to picture individuals actually firing that rocket, but the idea of being on the receiving end of their target was just too far away from my reality to hold the image. Then another thought barged in– this is happening to every Israeli, and often. I haven’t spoken to a single person on this trip who hadn’t been through this several times. I knew this would be the case, I read it online, on twitter, but I didn’t see it. I didn’t actually pass through a doorway to a shelter, or see a mezuzah with this much literal meaning; never in my life.

The az’akah confused me because it is a new word. After experiencing the three az’akot I have to alter the constellation, reconsidering life for Israelis. In Ashkelon, in Sderot, in Ashdod, in Shaar HaNegev– in these southern communities, people are sometimes experiencing az’akot 20-30 times a day. How do schools function, when they constantly have to rush the students into shelters, over and over? How do parents sleep at night, or let their kids play in a park? The truth is they don’t. Restaurants there are empty, people are staying in their homes or fleeing north. How do those who remain there live with the utter insecurity that overwhelms them, knowing that many of them may have tunnels beneath their living room, built by Hamas for the sole purpose of murdering them? I don’t yet have a word for that.

Obviously, I am not an unbiased reporter (though who is?). I realize that I am on one side of the fence here. Many of my friends, congregants, and family members have asked me about the other side, about Israel’s operations in Gaza. As I’ve written about before, I am horrified by the reality of so many innocent Palestinians being stuck in Gaza and killed because of where they are. I don’t have words to describe the emotions of that experience. I don’t have words to describe what they must be feeling, particularly those whose children are in the schools or hospitals from which Hamas is fighting this war and launching the rockets. I just don’t have the words.

But I now have the word for knowing that those rockets are fired in my direction. And I understand why word “az’akah” means crying.


About the Author
Matthew Soffer is the Senior Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, where he leads the social justice efforts, practicing congregation-based community organizing with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Matt serves on the Advisory Council of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, the Board of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and the Rabbinic Council of Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
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