I started this morning with some running.
Every Sunday, I go to an exercise class which includes a good amount of running — at least in place. We don’t actually get anywhere, but we hope that we end up a little stronger, healthier and in better shape.
When I got home, I got a message that there was going to be a speaker soon in the Beit Midrash in Migdal Oz, where I teach, on the topic of the Yom Kippur War. I quickly went to freshen up, change, and run over there in time.
Rabbi Yaakov Fischer, a resident of Alon Shevut and former principal of Neve Shmuel High School in Efrat, was asked to speak about his experiences as a tank fighter in the Yom Kippur War. As we busy ourselves during these days with introspection and personal repentance, it is easy to forget that Yom Kippur is also the day that war broke out in Israel 45 years ago. In the early afternoon on that holy day, young men around the country ran from synagogue to their army units, many of them still dressed in their holiday clothes.
Rav Fischer described how on this very day, the seventh of Tishrei, 45 years ago, he and his close friend, roommate and chavruta (study partner) at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Avner Yonah, were preparing to travel up North. They had volunteered to lead prayers on an army base, with no sense that war was on the horizon.
Before heading out, Rav Fischer lay down for a nap. When he awoke, he found a picture that Avner had left for him at the side of his bed. In the photograph, Rav Fischer saw himself running along the border fence with Lebanon. On the back, Avner had written: “Yaakov, from time to time, stop, look at this picture and ask yourself — ‘Where am I actually running to?’ Avner.”
Rav Fischer described how sometimes there are words that are full of depth and power that only take on meaning with the passage of time and with the right perspective. Today, he knows that these words were Avner’s final charge to him and to others.
Avner died in a tank battle a few days later. He fell on the 16th of Tishrei, 5734 (October 12, 1973). His official government memorial webpage describes him as bright, accomplished and opinionated, but at the same time humble and modest. The kind of person that was always running to help any friend in need.
As Rav Fischer was finishing his talk, my phone started to buzz with WhatsApp messages about a terrorist attack at the Gush Etzion junction. My heart starts racing. A thousand thoughts run through my mind in those long few minutes before there is more information. I have too many friends and family members who shop in that center all the time. It is too hard to think about anything else.
And then I find out. An American oleh (immigrant) from Efrat, father of four, has been stabbed. He didn’t make it. He’s not a family member or personal friend, but there are multiple connections through others. In Gush Etzion, there is rarely more than one degree of separation.
Ari Fuld was stabbed from behind, fatally. But he turned around and ran. He ran after the terrorist with his last bits of strength and shot at him (as did others in the area) before he could attack anyone else. The terrorist was running as well.
“אנו רצים והם רצים. אנו רצים לחיי העולם הבא והם רצים לבאר שחת.”
We run and they run; We run to Eternal Life, while they run to the well of destruction.
In these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it feels like everyone is on the run. Running to shop, running to cook, running to work, running to school, running back to shop and running to cook some more.
And that’s on top of the running all year long. I think about the line in our annual Yom Kippur confession, “על חטא שחטאנו לפניך בריצת רגליים להרע,” “for the sin of our legs running to evil.” And I wish, as always, that I could just slow down a little.
But today I am thinking about Avner Yonah’s haunting question — not if I need to be running, but where am I running to? Am I running in place or, worse, in the wrong direction?
Or am I running in the footsteps of the best of the best?
The students of the Sages have no rest, not in this world, and not in the World to Come, as it is written, “They go from strength to strength; they will each appear before God in Zion” (Psalms 84:8). (Berakhot 64a)
May Avner Yonah and Ari Fuld never stop running. Yehi zichram barukh.