50 years ago, I was learning at Kerem B’Yavneh, a hesder yeshiva, where Israeli students divided their time between learning at the yeshiva and military service. On the morning of Yom Kippur, we heard planes flying over the yeshiva, a clear sign that something was very wrong. As the day went on, students began to discreetly leave the yeshiva. Many of the students were in the army that Yom Kippur morning, conducting the tefilot. One was taken as a POW by the Syrians. 12 never returned to the yeshiva.
Before the Yom Kippur War, Israel seemed invincible. It was that air of superiority that led to Israeli intelligence misreading signs that Egypt and Syria were preparing for war. The war took Israel by surprise. Israeli lines along the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights were overwhelmed. Israel struck back and won the war, but at a terrible price. The initial failure has haunted the Israeli psyche ever since.
50 years later, on the Hebrew calendar, the Tel Aviv municipality refused to grant a permit to allow Yom Kippur services with a mechitza to be held at Dizengoff Square. When some people attempted to hold the service, they were violently disrupted by protestors. I am not looking to assign blame but to note that the polarization in Israel had reached the point where even praying on Yom Kippur was a matter of violent contention.
On the day after the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War on the secular calendar, Simchat Torah morning, the sounds of sirens interrupted the davening as we sang Oz Yashir. The hakafot were cut short as Israel once again faced a devastating attack on a sacred day.
Thousands of rockets were launched against Israel. As Hamas terrorists crossed the border, the vaunted security fence proved as useless as the Yom Kippur War’s Bar Lev Line. Terrorists entered Israeli towns and villages. With not a soldier or a police officer in sight, the locals were forced to defend themselves alone. Hundreds were killed. Close to 1,000 were wounded. Worst of all, an unknown number of civilians, women children and elderly people were taken to Gaza as hostages. The events of Simchat Torah morning were an epic failure of the Israeli government, security and intelligence establishments.
The focus on the deep polarization within Israeli society, caused us to lose focus and lower our guard. It emboldened Hamas to decide that the time was right for a major assault against Israel.
We learned on Simchat Torah morning, what we should have known all along, that we are all in this together. Israelis are coming together. With G-d’s help we will turn the tide. But the trauma of Simchat Torah morning will not go away so fast.
The destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash – Temple took place, because bitter rivalries and hatreds within our own ranks prevented us from acting together against the common foe. Simchat Torah morning was a wakeup call. The same fate, G-d forbid, can await us, if we don’t find a way to live together with mutual respect.
In the days before Yom Kippur, the print, electronic and social media were abuzz with talk about the need to do teshuva. In the vast majority of cases, they wrote or spoke about the need for others to do teshuva. The focus was not on taking accountability but on assigning blame. It is others who are responsible for the anger tearing us apart.
Such rhetoric is the exact opposite of what Yom Kippur is about. In the confession we proclaim “chatanu – we have sinned.” We reflect on how our actions have had a negative impact and strive to correct them. We apologize for the pain we have caused others and forgive others for the pain they have caused us.
When the war is over, leaders in government, the military and intelligence will have to answer for the failures of Simchat Torah morning.
But there is something else that needs to happen. The issues that caused the deep polarization in Israeli society will not go away. The lessons of this war and the decisions that will have to be made in its wake will be difficult and will lead to debate. It is crucial that the debate take place in a spirit of mutual respect rather than with incitement and inflamed rhetoric.
All of us need to look in the mirror rather than point fingers. We need to ask ourselves what we have done to cause the polarization and what we can do to bring our people together.
Now is the time for us to come together to meet the threat that is facing us. It is also a time to take accountability for what we have done wrong in the past, to make a sincere commitment to do better in the future and live up to it, and to reconcile with those who we have hurt and those who have hurt us along the way.