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Tragedy and Triumph

Cholent has long been one of my favorite foods: the texture, the flavors, the savory aroma, the nostalgic hints of childhood Shabboses, and the more meat and barley, the better. Due to its manner of preparation making it halachically possible to be served fresh on Shabbos day, it has earned its respected place in Judaic culture as the oldest known Jewish food, with variations having existed in Jewish Diaspora communities throughout the world, tracing back to Second Temple era Judea. It remains a staple among Jews from all types of backgrounds, especially as a weekend snack, and on this particular past Thursday night served as the weapon of choice for a survivor in the latest deadly terror attack in the recent wave of Palestinian violence in Israel.

I’ve come to accept, whether through current events or historical ones, that there are concepts that I’ll never be able to wrap my head around. Not how two young men, around my age, could request a ride from the Lod father of five who had frequently driven them in his taxi to the construction site they claimed to be working at near a synagogue only to senselessly murder him upon arriving at the final destination. Not the cruelty with which they proceeded to shoot and hack to death two more fathers, one of whom was holding the hand of his six-year-old son. Not the heartbreak of a six-year-old boy running to security personnel to tell them his father was killed. Not the everlasting agony of the sixteen Israeli children rendered fatherless in one night. Not the absurdity of bloodied yeshiva students in their shattered parked car turning to their pot of cholent as their only recourse.

Every casualty hurts. Jerusalem. Be’er Sheva. Hadera. Bnei Brak, which we just recalled in the Hagada, where Rabi Elazar, Rabi Yehoshua, Rabi Elazar Ben Azaria, Rabi Akiva, and Rabi Tarfon discussed the Pesach story all night until daybreak. Tel Aviv. Ariel. Elad. The ramming attacks, the guns and the knives and screwdrivers and axes, cut deeply into our hearts. But they fail to break us, for in their deaths the victims reinforce our commitment to life.

This time of year, alongside the seasonal changes in Israel, marks an ancient transitional period on the Jewish calendar. Fittingly, it opens with the recounting of our national emergence from Egypt on Pesach, a complex occasion that incorporates the joy of exodus and rebirth with solemn memories of our suffering. The Hagada read at the Seder is a quintessential embodiment of the classic Jewish emotional balance between lamentation, joy, gratitude, guilt, and ecstasy. Immediately following the week of Pesach, we enter a time of mourning, during which observant Jews traditionally will not hold weddings, listen to music (or at least not live music), shave beards, cut hair, or engage in a myriad of other activities.

We grieve for an entire generation of Rabi Akiva’s followers who died close to two millennia ago because of the divisiveness between them, for the defeat of the Bar Kochva revolt, for the tremendous loss of life, of Torah, and of our national autonomy in Judea; for the Jewish villages subject to wholesale massacres by the Crusaders just under one millennium ago, and for the Jews slaughtered by the Cossacks not quite four centuries ago. For ourselves and the bitter divisions that still cut through us, for the Jewish blood spilled in our own lifetimes, for the incompleteness of our modern sovereignty. For the living and the dead who testify to “in every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us”. On Lag ba’Omer, we celebrate the ever-renewed hopes, our faith in our endurance, that “the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands”. We continue to count upwards to the climax of our departure of Egypt and the epitome of our cultural history and character: our receiving of the Torah on Shavuos.

Through this we acknowledge that the definitive stages of liberation were expressed in our unity at Har Sinai, our acceptance of God’s will, our dedication to the truth that dictates our moral compass, and our sanctification of life upheld against all odds, best modeled in our Torah and accompanying midrashic sources by the defiance of Yocheved’s quiet rebellion against Pharaoh, Miriam’s pleas to her influential father in Egypt, and Moshe’s direct appeals to God on our behalf in Sinai. In this one family, we recognize the unfathomable power of individual action.

Last Tuesday night, my friend and I stood silently in our uniforms as we heard the siren ring through Jerusalem. We listened to the overwhelming wail piercing the air as the whole city drew to a halt, before hearing a chossid’s haunting cries of the Shema prayers in honor of soldiers killed in action and murdered civilians as we made our way to the Western Wall to watch from a distance the rest of an official ceremony taking place, at which bereaved family members and military representatives were present for a moving recitation of prayers for the dead. All Wednesday I read stories of terror victims, of which there are over one hundred years’ worth, and of fallen soldiers in honor of Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day that directly precedes our Independence Day.

This even more abrupt transition from tragedy to triumph is symbolic of the price of the freedom we enjoy, of the confusion between all the conflicting emotions we carry. It’s a reminder of our obligations to those who fought for us, who died so that we should live, or whose lives were taken for being one of us, to ensure that no Jewish life or death was ever in vain. On Yom HaShoah, I’d spent the day reading about the hellish atrocities inflicted on my people, the grotesque mass murder, torture, and enslavement that displayed the most indescribably shocking levels of deliberate, despicable evil seen on the face of the Earth, the nightmare that my family was trapped in. As a Jew, I don’t have the privilege of naïveté or of the cosmopolitan moral relativism prevalent among so many of my Western peers. I know where it can lead. “By your blood shall you live” echoes again and again.

Yet, through the pain and frustration, there are glimmers of resistance to draw strength from even in the darkest of catastrophes. Fallen heroes who were adored in life and never left us in their deaths. From Shimshon who fought the Philistines holding him captive with his last breath, to the fighters of Bar Kochva who took a last stand against the Romans, to Simcha HaCohen of Worms who, after witnessing the destruction of his centuries-old community, fought back against those active and complicit in the Crusades, to the Jewish underground fighters in Nazi-occupied Europe, to the guard in Ariel who died shielding his fiancée and the father in Elad who struggled with the terrorists for long enough to save the lives of countless children who managed to escape the scene. And if you pay attention, we more often than not fight back and live. From King David to the Jews of the Persian empire under the direction of Esther and Mordechai, from the Maccabean victory over the Seleucid Empire to the Jewish paramilitary movements in British-occupied Eretz Yisrael.

There are small moments of heroism today, too. Just recently, a Belgian chossid who surprised his antisemitic attacker with a knockout punch circulated the internet. Since January, nearly twenty terrorist attacks that had failed to be prevented have been foiled by diligent security forces, brave civilians, and great hospitals, the latest of which involved a Tekoa father shooting an armed terrorist who had breached the security barrier and crossed into his backyard. And of course, there was last week’s resourceful employment of hot cholent. So maybe it’s time to put to rest the often self-fulfilling stereotype that the Jews don’t fight back.

The reality remains continuous: the same Jews, following the same calendar, defying callous enemies while the rest of the world is largely indifferent, reliving the same stories, praying in the same words to the same God for the same redemption but never relying on a miracle. Reading the Hagada on Pesach, snacking on cholent the rest of the year, counting the days to Shavuos, raising their children in the paths of their forefathers, mourning their brothers and sisters with the same pain and the same determination to live. Closing every Kaddish with our hopes for peace for all of Israel.

About the Author
Rivka Atara Holzer made Aliyah from Miami Beach in 2015. She attended Midreshet Lindenbaum and currently serves in the IDF.
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