Torches in the Dark

When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, its courtyard would come to life during the nights of Sukkot with unbridled joy. As the Mishna recalls:

“The pious and men of distinction would dance, holding lighted torches in their hands….”

To the accompaniment of the Levite’s harps and cymbals, they would cavort and gambol until they reached the easternmost Temple gate. And there they would turn their backs to the nearly rising sun and exclaim:

“Our ancestors in this place would turn their backs to God’s hall…and bow to the sun. But we, we lift our eyes to God!”

When my son was alive, we would walk down the steps of Yemin Moshe together with our extended family (visiting from the US for Sukkot) and dance away the evening of Simchat Torah. Round and round, singing and leaping, dancing and shouting, lifting up the scrolls to the heavens in song, we would end the evening drenched in sweat, footsore and hoarse.

One year, when my son was about 10, a young man in his 20s, watched us wistfully as to the calls of “From the mouth of God will Israel be blessed!” I grasped my son’s hands and hurled him upwards as he jumped high above both our heads. Higher and higher, louder and louder — my son’s bright blue eyes shone, his long blond peyot swung — until winded, I collapsed onto a hard wooden bench for a breather. The young man who had been watching approached me. He was a visiting yeshiva bochur, just beginning to go out on shidduchim. Watching my son and I dance, he told me, filled him with hope and expectation that he would soon marry and be blessed to have a son. A boy with whom he too could one day dance with abandon. To such a sentiment, I could only add my wishes that it happen speedily in our day.

A few years later, my son — already a bar-mitzvah — would man one of the Torah-reading stations in that same venerable Yemin Moshe synagogue on Simchat Torah day. I would call people up for an aliyah and my son would layn. I had never seen my father as happy as he was standing next to his first grandson, just across from the Old City walls, listening to him read from the scroll. To have one’s grandchild, named after one’s own father, read one’s aliyah overlooking the very place where our ancient forefathers had once danced themselves…well, what could be better than that?

Two years hence, my second son and I would make our way through the streets of new Jerusalem, the night lit up brightly by the flashing blue and reds of police cars and army jeeps. They were parked outside of the Merkaz Harav yeshiva. There my son and seven other young men had been shot to death by an Arab terrorist. For my family and me, there would never be a darker night than that.

Ten years have passed. We have all stumbled along, the deep pain of loss carried by myself and my living children a burden which never rests lightly on our shoulders. Each of us struggles with it in his or her own way.

I have thought about that Mishnah, with its dancing rabbis and torches, not little over the years. They turned their backs on the sun, because they had lights of their own. The sun sets, the darkness descends, but the gift of light (so mythically un-Prometheus-like in our tradition) illuminates in its stead.

Even on days like this one, when the searing heat of loss flames up within my gut, when standing next to my son’s grave, listening to the day’s siren, trying to get through kaddish as the tears roll down my cheeks and the words catch in my throat, I know that all is not gloom. There are points of lights still. My living children, friends near and far, the wonder that modern Israel has become in a mere 70 years….

And for all that I miss my son — a bright-eyed, shining blonde boy so brutally murdered at only 16 — I know that he was a precious gift with whom I shared so much joy and love. Memories of our too short time together: of hikes had, of bicycles ridden, of laughter and learning, of precious hugs and football tackles, of three generations standing together in sacred celebration — these flicker still in my heart.

About the Author
Naftali Moses, born in NYC, has lived in Israel for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in medical history from Bar-Ilan University, and teaches and writes on the nexus of medicine and Judaism. The author of "Really Dead?" and "Mourning Under Glass", he has also translated several books on Jewish thought into English, published on philosophy in the Mishna, and aggadah.
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