This was not how we planned on celebrating Simhat Torah…
Just as we began Shaharit, sirens rang out in our typically quiet neighborhood of Jerusalem. We quickly made our way to a safe space in our synagogue. After a number of minutes, we returned to the sanctuary to learn that Israel is at war: Rockets were falling all over the country, security fences had been breached, Gazans had invaded border communities killing innocent men, women, and children, and soldiers and civilians had been taken hostage.
We were confused and shaken and deeply pained by the news.
Just like the Yom Kippur War, which broke out 50 years ago, almost to the day – October 6th, 1973 – the State of Israel was taken completely by surprise. And just like the Yom Kippur War, we were attacked on our holy day.
Feeling vulnerable, we tried our best to continue praying. Our Tefillot were punctuated by dozens of sirens and the sound of rockets exploding in the air, shot down by the Iron Dome, or landing not far away. With every siren we interrupted the Tefillah and made our way again down into a safe space. We considered cancelling the rest of the service, but feeling that our homes were not any safer – along with the need to be together as a community – we continued on. In light of the security situation, we decided to expedite the Tefillot and save the Hakafot – only a custom – for the very end, if the situation allowed. For me, it was evocative of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we had to make critical decisions regarding religious life given the constraints.
And like the pandemic, questions of Piku’ah Nefesh came pouring in. Throughout the morning, I was asked by members of our community and their children if they may check their phones to see if they were being called up to serve. One by one, members of our community – reservists and those in active duty – left over Shabbat, with the future uncertain.
As we read the concluding passages of the Torah – without the customary additional Aliyot – a verse jumped out at me. Just before his death, Moshe blesses the Jewish People and says,
אַשְׁרֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִי כָמוֹךָ עַם נוֹשַׁע בַּה’ מָגֵן עֶזְרֶךָ וַאֲשֶׁר חֶרֶב גַּאֲוָתֶךָ וְיִכָּחֲשׁוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ לָךְ וְאַתָּה עַל בָּמוֹתֵימוֹ תִדְרֹךְ
“Fortunate are you, O Israel: Who is like you! O people delivered by Hashem, the shield of your help, Who is the sword of your grandeur; your foes will try to deceive you, but you will trample their haughty ones.” (Deut. 33:29)
Yes, we were deceived by our foes on this holy day. But Hashem is our shield and our sword. He delivered us in the past – and He will deliver us again.
The Sukkah, of course, is a symbol of divine protection. We recall how Hashem protected us in the wilderness from the elements; from the harsh sun and strong winds. And how he continues to protect us today. So we retreat from the safety and security of our homes of brick and mortar and spend a week in a hut, a temporary structure pieced together in a temporary fashion. We are made to feel vulnerable, insecure, unsteady. Because the Sukkah is a lesson in faith. It is in fact called by the Zohar, “the Shade of Faith.” It reminds us that even in the safety and security of our homes of brick and mortar, it is Hashem who protects us, not the brick and mortar. When we feel vulnerable, insecure, and unsteady – we place our trust in Him. He is our rock. Our strength.
No, this was not how we planned to celebrate Simhat Torah.
Typically a day of great joy when we celebrate our intimate relationship with Hashem and His Holy Torah, this year the festivities were curtailed. The Hakafot which can be wild with singing and dancing and go on for hours, this year were shorter. The tone was serious; solemn; subdued. Our feet moved with purpose. Our thoughts and prayers with our brothers and sisters.
Immediately after Havdallah we turned on the news and were plunged into mourning with the devastating news of hundreds of Israelis murdered and missing, thousands injured. Horrific images of violence and terror forever seared into our memories.
The State of Israel was not given to us on a silver platter. It was not spoon-fed to us with a silver spoon. We have paid a heavy price. We have sacrificed and we continue to sacrifice. But we are a strong and resilient people. We have faced many challenges in the past and have overcome them. We are not going anywhere. We are here to stay.
May Hashem protect our holy soldiers and citizens.
Am Yisrael Chai!