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Ari Hart

Vayigash – A Call to Come Close in Traumatic Times

Now is the time to come close.

Our parsha this week, Vayigash, which means to approach, to come close, is the story of Yosef and Yehuda. They are the different leaders of a family in crisis figuring out how to come together. The coming close of Yehuda and Yosef is also a national story, reflected in the Haftorah we will read this Shabbat, with Yehuda’s tribal legacy and Yosef’s tribal legacy representing different aspects of Jewish national identity that come apart and then come back together. In mystical thought, Yehuda and Yosef represent Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David, different aspects of the yearned for ultimate redemption that ultimately must come together for the repair of the entire world.

As we navigate the collective trauma of 10/7, in Israel and abroad, the Torah’s call to come closer, as individuals and as a nation, resonates more than ever. 

The events of 10/7 have cast a long shadow over the Jewish people, touching every life in a manner that calls us all to come closer, to truly understand and share in the collective experience of our nation. 

I had the blessing of making a Vayigash trip to Israel last week. 

Life in Israel now is somewhat “normal.” Schools are in session, people are working, shops are open, and people are on the streets.

And on top of that “normal,” a layer of grief, worry, and action – so much action – pervades everything. It’s astonishing how all sectors of society have mobilized to support the myriad needs that arise during wartime.

A piece of graffiti on the streets of Jerusalem that I saw said it well: ein li yom, vein li layla – I don’t have days, I don’t have nights.

It’s hard to overstate how much the events of the Black Shabbat have affected every single person in Israel.

Everyone knows first or second hand someone that was murdered or kidnapped on the Black Shabbat.

Everyone knows first or second hand a soldier who was killed in the fighting since then.

Everyone knows someone who is currently serving.

Everyone knows.

In the US, even tragedies like 9/11 do not have the direct, personal connection to an entire nation. It’s just so close.

I came close to the horrors of 10/7 through a visit to Be’eri, one of the oldest and most significant kibbutzim in southern Israel, that will forever leave an indelible mark on my soul. This kibbutz, known for its cooperative model, agricultural success, and the Be’eri Print company, also had a profound legacy of peace and support for its neighboring communities. It offered financial assistance to Gazans and took active roles in facilitating medical care.

However, the horror of Black Shabbat left an indelible scar. Over 130 residents, 10% of the community, were killed or taken hostage. The kibbutz’s buildings and homes bore the brunt of the violence. There aren’t really adequate words to share what we witnessed. The whole experience simply didn’t make sense. Seeing a children’s playground riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, seeing rooms that were supposed to be safe rooms that became places of death and destruction, seeing Sukkot still standing in December… surreal and incomprehensible.

One image that I cannot shake: We bore witness to what happened to the Bachar family. During the attack, the family sought refuge in their safe room, which tragically became a site of unspeakable horror. We stood in the safe room and we listened to messages that a 13 year old child, Hadar, left with various people, trying to care for her dying and wounded family members as smoke, bullets and grenades filled the room. Hadar and her father survived, her mother and brother were murdered. There are no words.

Amidst the ruins, I was escorted by Or, a resident who lost two cousins and numerous friends. His story was heart-wrenching yet filled with a sense of purpose. Despite reliving his trauma with each retelling, Or is committed to sharing Be’eri’s story and rebuilding the community. 

And that encapsulates much of the spirit right now. Trauma and resilience. Grieving and hope. 

The feelings are so raw and intense. Much of what I did on the trip was just try and come close and listen to what friends and family are feeling.

And there are such intense feelings. A small sample:

There are feelings of a surge in national unity, and anger at the government. 

There are feelings of betrayal and rage at the Palestinians who worked in Kibbutzim in the South and gave information to Hamas, and there is sadness and pain over civilian casualties in Gaza.

There is deep worry at what might come next, and hope for the future.

And all of these feelings are often contained in just one person and expressed within a moment of each other!

Every person I’ve spoken with has also expressed deep gratitude for those who have visited. The impact of such visits is profound, highlighting a real sense of isolation. 

I understood this when I got to the airport for my return flight and I was greeted by a sad sight:

Ben Gurion was empty. Emptier than I’ve ever seen it. 

I got here four hours before my flight because I remember just barely making it onto the plane after waiting for 3 hours in endless security lines with thousands of other people in the past. Ben Gurion in December should be crowded, noisy, and uncomfortable. Instead, it was empty and smooth. I made it through security in ten minutes. It was terrible!

But guess what? You might be able to do something about it.

You could come.

For all who are able, I encourage you to come. Come pick olives and avocados on farms with labor shortages. Come daven and learn Torah. Come eat at restaurants and ride in taxi cabs. Come swim with dolphins in Eilat (everything is half-off right now!). Come and be with your friends, family, and people.

It’s not easy, and it might not be easy for a while.

But the people here are resilient. They are soldiering on. People are sacrificing and even finding ways to smile.

So if you can, come.

In the spirit of Vayigash, I call upon our global community to physically and emotionally come closer to Israel. Your visit, your engagement, and your presence can be a profound act of solidarity, echoing the embrace between Joseph and Judah.

Come cry, come smile, come be, come close.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Hart is the spiritual leader of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a modern orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.
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