Even before the alarm rings, I stir and can already feel the knot in my stomach, the heaviness in my chest. The constant, latent awareness that something is not right and hasn’t been so for a while.
Sometimes, in the darkness of the room, I can feel my husband tiptoeing around as he quietly gets ready. His presence is comforting. His gentle manner will soften the blow.
Half asleep, I mumble, “What’s happening?”
The ensuing few seconds of silence is never a good sign.
The nights are far from easy, but it’s the waking up that can be the hardest. How many? Who are they? How many degrees of separation?
It’s difficult to face each new day when you know that it might be someone else’s last.
“I’m going to look for some strength in the shower,” my husband replies.
Finding strength these days takes effort.
On the front lines, I am told, the morale is high; there is a sense of mission and unity of purpose.
But on the home front, it feels like we are trudging along, absorbing painful and devastating news one day after another. We try our best to remain hopeful and positive.
It’s easy to get down, but we can’t give up.
Sometimes strength is found in a few minutes of hot water washing away the tears and clearing the mind. Sometimes strength is found in relaxing music, a good cup of coffee, an engaging book, a meaningful tefilla (prayer), a distracting show.
But, mostly, I find strength in people – in the incredible resilience of friends, neighbors and the citizens of this country at large.
Last week, all over Israel, families spent their Hanukkah vacation volunteering to do manual labor on the farms of strangers. We went to pick oranges down south and were greeted by Uri, the owner of the grove, who told us that he had proudly provided salaries and cared for workers from Gaza for years. “My father came here from Turkey, and I am a first-generation farmer in Israel.” The betrayal has been unimaginable. “But we are people of belief,” he told us, as he smiled and handed out gloves, pails and ladders.
The fruit was delicious, as was the falafel lunch served by Uri’s warm and caring wife, Smadar. It felt good to be productive, to be out in the sun working with our hands for several hours. It felt even better to see the empty containers fill up with thousands of oranges. And, in addition to the fruit we picked, we also picked up some needed strength from a family who has forged forward in the face of adversity.
The next day, we hosted a series of speakers at Migdal Oz, a women’s seminary where I have the privilege of teaching. Ditza Or, mother of Avinatan, a 30 year-old hostage, shared ideas that have helped her manage and stay afloat during this time of such darkness. Dignified and with so much grace, Ditza centered her talk around ideas of gratitude and fear. Encouraging us to focus on the positive and find things to be grateful for, she shared that even in pain, we can see spaces of kindness.
Rather than agonize over what her son may be experiencing, she forcefully holds her thoughts in elevated places. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explained that a person cannot fully concentrate on two thoughts at once. By thinking about faith, friendship, gratitude and kindness, there is no real room for negative ideas.
תחשוב טוב, יהיה טוב – “Think good and things will be good,” she promised. “But also don’t deny the fears. Give them room, but in a way that you control. Invite them in and engage with them at a time that you choose. Don’t let them surprise you; prepare for them and listen to what they are saying. But on your own terms.”
From Ditza, I gathered the resolve to honestly address what gives us strength and what brings us down. No one is better off not functioning well. We need to know which tools enable us to manage best and contribute and do good in this world. She ended by saying that the more we unite, connect and partner with others, the more our broken hearts will be able to heal.
Ditza’s parting message overlapped with that of the next speakers – Eitan Herzl, a founder of Brothers in Arms, and Adi Soffer Teeni, the CEO of Facebook, Israel. The pair discussed how on October 7th, they each switched gears from protesting the judicial reform to full time civil operations to help the war effort. Over the past two months, they have done their best to help meet the many needs of soldiers, evacuees and farmers, as well as mobilizing, centralizing and facilitating support from overseas. The tech skills of over 400 volunteers have been used to analyze video footage to help identify those kidnapped and murdered.
Eitan and Adi left me optimistic about the future of our country. They called for a “reset” on the way we engage with each other and reminded us of how we can partner and work together, even when we disagree. Adi drew a big “pizza pie” on the board to represent the many different segments of society. In place of splitting up the pie into its slices, she called for the entire center of the circle to come together. I drew strength from the desire of people on all sides to rethink their perspectives and look for common ground.
And sometimes we find strength even when we are not looking.
On Saturday night, I joined thousands of others who drove up north after Shabbat to Kibbutz Ein HaNetziv for the funeral of Shai Pizem, a 23-year-old student at Yeshivat Har Etzion who became a father exactly three weeks ago. Each eulogy beautifully captured Shai’s special qualities – his happiness and good nature, his seriousness, his deep values and idealism, his care for and appreciation of others. It was dark and cold outside. The hour was late. I felt physically exhausted and emotionally drained…and then Maayan, his wife and a beloved Migdal Oz alumna, got up to speak.
Standing tall and straight with a steady and unwavering voice full of emotion and layered with pain, this new mother, a young widow, opened by majestically rising above her own sadness and anguish to carefully and intentionally thank everyone who was there. There was no one she didn’t “see,” no one that wasn’t mentioned, no one left out. Nothing that wasn’t noted and appreciated.
After describing Shai’s belief in and commitment to hard work and to never taking short cuts, Maayan made a request of everyone there. She asked that anyone who loved Shai take a moment on the walk down to the cemetery, on the drive home or in their bed later that night to think honestly about something real that they want to be better at. “Something hard, that takes effort, that you have to work for and must get ‘dirty’ doing, something you get up for in the morning, something that will make you happy, even if it takes time and will be hard. Not the happiness of fun and ice cream, but the kind of happiness that comes from doing good and doing the right thing.”
Maayan closed by sharing that “what was most important to Shai is our spirit, our morale, and us being together. What he wanted most was to see the nation he fought for get up and walk together in friendship, always, even after this war.”
“In his memory,” she said, “let us be better together.”
These days, we are looking for strength.
Sometimes we find strength in the shower, sometimes in the orange grove, and sometimes in the lecture hall. Sometimes we find strength in music and in prayer.
And sometimes we find strength in strength.