Moshe Shapiro stood before us, holding the last picture ever taken of his son, Aner. We could clearly see the internal walls of a migunit, a public bomb shelter, in the background of the picture, and people lying on the floor with their hands on their heads in the area marked “safe” with red letters. We could also see that one man stood between everyone else and the shelter’s doorless opening. His back was turned to the camera. He was facing the outdoors.
“This is my son Aner’s back,” Moshe said.
Next to Moshe, candles were flickering on a podium. Around me, members of my community and residents of my neighborhood were wiping tears off their faces. We all knew the end of the story. We all knew that Aner stood like this, in the area that’s so clearly marked “not safe” in red letters, in order to intercept the grenades that Hamas terrorists were lobbing into the shelter on October 7th. We all knew that he successfully caught and tossed out seven incoming grenades. And we all knew that the eighth grenade exploded in his hands.
“The man who took the picture – he didn’t even mean to take it, he was sending his location to friends in the army so they could come and rescue them,” Moshe added. “But he pressed the camera button twice by mistake. And he found the pictures in his phone while he was in the hospital.”
Thirty days have passed between the moment when the picture was taken and the moment when Moshe Shapira stood before us, looking at this image of his son. We were gathered in a local schoolyard, the same schoolyard in which our community prays every Shabbat, to mark the shloshim of the atrocities that Hamas inflicted upon us on Simchat Torah. Thirty days earlier, our prayer in this very place was interrupted by sirens. At the time, we were confused by the sirens. We didn’t know what was happening.
Now, we know only too well.
The only speakers in this gathering were people who lost family members in the attack on October 7th or in the fighting since then. I was shaken by the fact that even though we are neither a large community nor a large neighborhood, Moshe was just one speaker out of four. My friend Noa spoke about her beloved cousin Shachaf Bergstein, who loved his nephews with his whole heart and was murdered in Kfar Aza. Yossi and Pnina Granot spoke about their grandson, Amitai Tzvi Granot, a beautiful young soldier who used to come home from the army and immediately play on the piano, chapped and greasy fingers dancing on the keys. He was killed on the northern border a week into the war. And our community’s rabbi, Rav David Ansbacher, spoke about his nephew, Amichai Yisrael Witzen, who fought with the rest of Kerem Shalom’s first-response team to protect his community. Amichai died in defense of his neighbors and their six children.
As I listened to our friends and neighbors speak about these unbearable losses, I thought about all the other communities in Israel that were gathering that very same evening, each with its own tally of unbearable losses. How can we ever grasp the scale of this collective loss?
Yet when I looked at Aner’s back in the picture, I was thinking about more than loss. I was thinking, with an odd and sad sort of clarity, “Oh, so this is why we’ll win.”
On the most basic level, we won’t lose, because at every juncture that matters, whenever our enemies rise to bring about destruction, there are always people like Aner, Amichai, and Amitai, who are willing to face this danger head-on and defend others.
But there is more to winning than ‘not losing’, and there is more to victory than beating an enemy in the battlefield. To win, to truly win, we will have to rise from our grief and pain, and rebuild and grow stronger and better. And we will, we will, because the spirit that moved Aner to stand in that shelter’s entrance, the spirit that we share and fight for, is the very spirit that will move us to rise up and rebuild once the battle is won.
“What we know about Aner’s death is like the tip of the iceberg – it tells you everything you need to know about the rest of the iceberg,” Moshe told us. Aner’s heroic last hours weren’t an island in time, but rather a natural continuation of his lifelong values and choices. Aner always loved justice. He always sought to do what was right. He always loved life and music and creating music. He disliked systems that controlled people because he always believed in the good in people, and wanted every person to be free to thrive.
So when Aner stood in death’s way on October 7th, his bravery was of a piece with everything he believed and did before. He died as he lived, loving and nurturing life.
* * *
On Simchat Torah, a day dedicated to joy, our enemies invaded to bring about our death. but they can’t win, because death is their ultimate purpose. They can’t win, because they openly declare that they are not fighting to better people’s lives.
And you can’t win, truly win, if your purpose isn’t life.
We fight this war because we love life, and because we want Israel to remain the kind of place where life can blossom. We want it to be the kind of place where young men like Shachaf can play with their nephews in peace, young musicians like Aner and Amitai can play the piano, and young families like Amichai’s family can raise their children to be happy and creative and brave.
It is this love of life and the living, this desire to nurture life, that moves us to help each other now, to reach out and cook for evacuees and offer hugs to strangers.
It is this love that will give us the strength to defeat our enemies.
And it is this love, too, that, that will bring us true victory. Because even though right now we are hurting, even though we are losing beautiful, irreplaceable lives in this war, our love of life and the living will give us the strength to rise from our grief one day, rebuild our Israel, and make it better. It will give us the strength to go on choosing life.