Dedicated to the Memory of my dear chaver (friend) Yehudah (Joel) Wine, 1968-2023
Fall 1973. Jerusalem. Yom Kippur. The neilah prayer has just ended and on a cold dark night, a young man and his closest friend join a group of Chasidim in the neighborhood of Bayit Ve-Gan. They are dancing and singing, performing the monthly kiddush hachodesh, the sanctification of the moon. The Rabbis teach that anyone who sanctifies the moon will not be harmed in the month ahead.
They repeat not once, not twice, but three times:
As I dance before You but cannot touch you, so may our enemies dance before us and neither touch nor harm us. May dread and fear befall them.
“Soldiers, go to the Rebbe to receive a blessing,” the Chasidim say, and so Chaim and Dov go to the Amshinover Rebbe. They receive his blessing. “May dread and fear befall them. Them and not you.” With this blessing in their hearts, Chaim the gunner and Dov the ammunition loader go together hand in hand and get on the bus departing for the battle front. Within hours they are gathered on their base in the Golan heights, entering their tanks, and proceed into what will become the deadliest days of war in Israel’s history, facing the battalions of armed Syrian in Nafah.
In Chaim Sabato’s harrowing memoir, Adjusting Sights, Chaim held on to the Amshinover rebbe’s prayer, surrounded by the chaos and hell all around him.
We parted from him [the rebbe] and boarded the bus. We thought we would be back soon. During the three terrible days that followed, I kept seeing the Rabbi of Amshinov before me. I kept hearing his words. Each time fear threatened to overcome me, I pictured him saying, “Them and not you. Them and not you.” That calmed me.
Until I heard of Dov’s death.
After that the old man stopped appearing.
Sabato, a noted author and rabbi in Israel, not only recounts the pure terror on the battlefield, but the absolute inner chaos in his heart. Written a quarter century after the war, the book reflects the sense of angst for the faithful while simultaneously finding ways to hold onto faith in the face of the abyss. He recounts years later that he returned to the neighborhood of Bayit Ve-gan to ask the Amshinover Rebbe, “Why?” hoping that his words would give him some understanding. Upon arriving, he found some of the Chasidim, only to be told that only an hour earlier, the Rebbe had ascended to the next world. There was not going to be an answer, at least in this world.
Many Jews in the past few years have expressed deep fears and doubts about the future of the State of Israel. In private and not so private rooms Jews have engaged in dark ruminations, even succumbing to despair. Is the great project of the Jewish State a project that could fail? Could we descend into civil war? Will Israel become an anti-democratic, intolerant theocracy? Without sounding pollyannaish, this is not the first time in Jewish history- nor the most significant event in Jewish history- where questions of the capacity of the Jewish people to survive, much less thrive, were at stake. The events of Yom Kippur fifty years ago should give us pause to reconsider our exclamations of hopelessness and despair.
For a religious man of faith like Sabato, growing up in the euphoric and messianic aftermath of the Six-Day War, history made sense, faith made sense. From the ashes of the Holocaust to the birth of the State to the reclamation of Jerusalem, how could one not see the hand of God in history. A comforting and unconflicted (uncomplicated?) narrative. Facing the fear that the Syrians would claim Tiberias, Chaim ruminates, “How could we lose the war? The Redemption was underway. The State of Israel was proof of this. Could the Redemption be militarily defeated?” (p. 82)
In the years that followed the war, a gradual answer emerged. Yes. The State of Israel survived but barely. The impenetrable Bar-Lev line in the Sinai fell within hours, and a few battalions of weary soldiers with damaged tanks may well have prevented Syrian troops from marching in the streets of Tiberias. Can any serious Jew not consider what the Jewish people would look like today if – God forbid – the State of Israel were to fall? Yet, in 1973, Israelis faced this very real prospect. Following 1973 Israel – and the Jewish people at large – were awakened to the deep-seated anxiety that the State, and Jewish existence at large, was not a given, but in some ways provisional. In spite of our history of miracles, our promises of redemption, our stories of Jewish heroism and survival, and our feelings of invincibility, the underlying fear of helplessness and the inability to control national destiny was reawakened in the most disturbing and jarring of ways. The Jewish State did not finally deliver the Jewish people from the tenuous nature of Jewish existence.
However, this national awakening is not merely a narrative about a people or about a state. It is about each one of us and our lives. We come into this world, and we are told by well-meaning people who love us and care, ‘everything will be Ok.’ We tell ourselves stories that if we do the right thing we will be rewarded- at least that is the way many of us would like to feel. Especially in our technological world in which we control so much more than we did in earlier centuries, we can create the illusion that we are authoring our own stories and therefore can plan the next chapter. The lesson of the war of 1973, and the uncomfortable lessons we learn in life, sometimes in the most terrifying ways, is that we often control very little.
Naomi Shemer expressed the messianic euphoria in the Day War in her song “Jerusalem of Gold,” However, in 1969 she wrote another song, a song that almost prophetically expressed the angst that emerged following the war. In the song We Come from the Same Village (Otanu me’oto HaKfar) she writes:
We’re both from the same village
We crossed the green field reaching up to our neck
And in the evening we returned to the square
Because we’re from the same village…
We hid in the same places
We fought in all three wars
We crawled over thistles and thorns
But to the village we returned together
I remember in the battle without end
How suddenly I saw you break
And when dawn rose over the hill
I carried you back to the village
And on Friday nights
When the breeze softly rustles
Through dark treetops
That’s when I remember you
Like Chaim and Dov, two brothers in arms, two identical journeys, but only one returns. At the height of the Yom Kippur ceremony, two identical goats are taken before the High Priest, as he draws lots. One will go on the altar for God and atone for the sins of the Jewish people, while the other will be taken to the wilderness to die there. What makes one deserving and one not deserving, one who lives and one who dies? We do not know. Unlike the stories of the Six Day War, the stories of the Yom Kippur War- or the stories of our lives- can sometimes leave us with unanswered questions.
As I write this, I think about my dear friend Joel Wine, part of my ‘chevra.’ Joel came from the same schools, the same social circles, and we were the same ages. Without warning, right before Rosh Hashanah he suddenly and tragically died from a heart attack. In speaking to his other friends, each of us processing our grief, we all thought the same thing. Why was the lot chosen for Joel and not us? What was the calculus? What was the meaning of his death?
As we know, the liturgical poem Unetaneh Tokef universally read by Ashkenazic congregations muses, “Who will live and who will die?” Many people assume that the image portrays a discerning Divine judge, looking at every deed, and determining who will be inscribed for life and who for death. Similarly, God will determine who will be successful and who will not, who will be rich and who will be poor, who will live a long life and die at their proscribed time and who will not. However, I do not believe this is the meaning of the text.
God does deliberate as it were, and each of our fates are intertwined in some ultimate Divine calculus, but that calculus is unknown to us in any way that is intellectually or even emotionally satisfying. Our lived experiences, especially during times of grief or challenge, tell us otherwise. Ultimately, try as we might, we cannot intuit the Divine mind in such a way that God yields to what we desire or want. Thus, when the question in the prayer is asked, “Who will live and who will die?,” it is not describing what is found in God’s book. Rather it is the question of the petitioner seeking for certainty: who indeed lives and who dies? A string of questions with no answers. The questions themselves are left unanswered, because like us, the author of the prayer does not know either.
So, what does it mean to have faith? Faith in what?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, months before his untimely death in the midst of the pandemic, captured the uncertainty and fear that gripped so many. He said, “Faith is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty.”  My colleague, The Reverend Theo Johnson said a similar thing to me in conversation. He said, “We do not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.” Of course, both were echoing a more ancient voice, that of King David. “Even as the shadow of death befalls me, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23).
Faith is not a philosophical perspective based upon understanding with certainty- even if some rabbis and ministers would like to argue otherwise- but a behavioral response to the events which occur in our lives which cannot and will never be understood. Faith is a reorienting of the self in which the main question is to consider how in our uncertain life we are to live powerfully and with meaning right now. That is at essence what mitzvot are meant to convey. Living before eternity as opposed to the present ephemeral moment is meaningful, and it is redemptive- not only for us but for the world. Faith is not a belief, but an action. To be faithful is to engage in actions of faith and hope.
The Jewish tradition commands us to say blessings on both the good and bad in life. We are to love God b’chol me’odecha, generally translated ‘with all your might.’ Playing on the etymological similarity between the Hebrew word me’od (might) and midah (measure), the Talmud states “with every measure God meets out to you, whether good or bad, you are to love and thank God.” (BT Berakhot 54a) In essence, the response to our own existential insecurity is to move ourselves, from an anthropocentric to a theocentric perspective on life. To fear constantly on the deepest level is to express a lack of faith, as we are tempted by the illusion that we can control that which is uncontrollable. Great civilizations that were understood to last forever, dynasties ordained by the gods, crumbled and fell; what remains are ruins and history books. How much more when we speak about our own lives.
This command to ‘bless the bad in life’ is especially hard when we personally suffer. When others suffer, we have no right to ‘explain it away’. Questioning and doubt are interwoven into faith, and questioning God’s intentions and justice is a critical quality of Jewish spirituality. Just open any page of the book of Job. Yet, our faith does encourage us to move beyond that moment, for the work of living must continue even after tragedy and uncertainty. This notion is the climax of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. We do not know God’s calculus for each of us individually -or even nationally- in this coming year. However, we do know that deepening our moral convictions (teshuvah), our engagement in a spiritually oriented life (tefillah), and our reaching out to one another with love and support (tzedakah) reduces or removes the evil of the unfathomable decrees in our world. Living with purpose, mission and meaning does in fact make life better, not only for us personally, but our families, communities and societies. Our response to the threat of meaninglessness is to double down on our conviction that our holy and good works have influence in this world. Without this attitude of faith and hope, the Jewish people would never have survived. Whatever challenges face us- on personal, communal or national levels- we may never give up hope.
While I cannot explain why my friend Joel died at such an early age, and to do so for me feels almost perverse, I can say with absolute certainty that our world is a better place because he walked through it. Together with his wife Debbie, he lived a deeply faithful life, and I do not mean that he was taking on every halakhic stringency and learning day and night, although he did make time weekly to learn Torah and took leadership positions in his synagogue in Modi’in. What I mean is that with three young children and a comfortable life in Sharon, Massachusetts, he decided with Debbie to uproot everything to fulfill a dream to move to Israel. This takes a deep faith and understanding of one’s mission and role in the world. Even as he was concerned about the present events in the State, he expressed deep hope and conviction, bemoaning those who would consider leaving.
I cannot even express the number of people that he impacted. He was an amazing father, helping them to navigate their lives with a listening ear and an open heart. He was a loving friend and soulmate to Debbie, and each shared and celebrated the successes of the other. He and Debbie enlarged their home to include so many others into that circle of concern, including my own daughter Shuli who on her own fulfilled her own dream of aliyah.
As I write these words, tears flow, because although on many occasions I thanked him for his support, I am not sure he will ever know the profound impact he had upon her. I know that the support and love he showed for her was not unique, but to other lone soldiers like her, to his colleagues at work, and to me personally. During major transitional moments in my own life, Joel was a trusted friend, and even if we were living thousands of miles away, we continued and deepened our relationship. When I pray this Yom Kippur I will be thinking of him, and what I can do to continue that legacy. His power, his spirit, will live on and not only because I believe in immortality of the soul, but because he lived his life in such a way that his spirit resides in the hearts of so many here.
There is one more thing we can know in this uncertain world, beyond the power of our faithful actions to create a holier, kinder and more just world. I believe this can also strengthen our faith. Chaim Sabato, unlike many, came out of the crucible of 1973 with a deeper faith, but how?
When something bad happens to us, we naturally tend to ask, “Why me? Why do I deserve this?” A legitimate question. However, many of us are the recipients of thousands of moments of kindness and grace. If we are aware of them, do we ask ourselves, “Why am I deserving of such goodness?” The unetaneh tokef also muses about the people who will be born this year, who will die at a ripe old age, who will be blessed with economic success, who will rest, who will live in peace and who will be ‘lifted up.’ Just as we do not know why we experience loss in this world, if we are honest with ourselves, we do not always know why we deserve kindness either.
On a dark night of Kislev, a few months after the initial battles, Chaim finds himself again in the Golan heights, looking for a sliver of the moon on a cloudy night so he may sanctify it. He is speaking with his comrade Shlomo, recounting the battles during the first days.
I looked back at the moon and I saw Dov. We had sanctified the moon of Tishrei together, the two of us, in Bayit ve-Gan with the Rabbi of Amshinov… Sometimes God had mercy on the undeserving and shone His light on them. That mercy and that light stayed with you forever….
The novelistic memoir concludes:
[We said the formulaic greeting that is said to one another in the sanctification of the moon prayer.] “Peace be upon you. Peace be upon you. Peace be upon you.”
I bowed to the heavens above. I aimed my thoughts at Dov and I said:
“Peace be upon you. Peace be upon you. Peace be upon you.”
The moon, unlike the sun, waxes and wanes, very much like our lives. When the moon begins to expand, when light increases, we need to hold on to these events and feel the grace and love of God and one another and extend this out to others. When we reflect on blessing and gratitude we will realize everything in our lives unfolds under the banner of heaven.
As we exit the holiday of Yom Kippur we enter into the Sukkah, what the Zohar calls the tzela d’hemnuta, the shadow of faith. The sukkah has no roof, no protection from the elements, as if to say, “Your real shelter is not your humanly constructed home, but the heaven above you. This is your true home.”
Chaim Sabato later reminisced that he kept a notebook during those difficult days, authoring poems. The notebook was left in a damaged tank and in the midst of battle he needed to quickly escape. A few days later the tank was washed and the notebook was ‘washed out of the world.’ He remembered this poem because he placed it next to the gun periscope to ground him and to strengthen him in the chaos of war. It clearly was written during sukkot.
In prayer shawls enfolded
With palm fronds in hand
Their shelters imploded
No barriers withstand
Earthly refuge corroded
In heaven’s shadow they stand
Just as the periscope helps us to adjust our line of sight in the midst of battle, so faith has that same capacity on a spiritual level. As we enter Yom Kippur and Sukkot, let us deepen and adjust our own sites, remembering all of the kindness we have received this year and throughout our lives, and understanding more profoundly we exist under the canopy of eternity. Let us wish one another, Shalom Aleichem, peace be upon you, and let us multiply good and holy actions which combat the darkness which threaten to claim our lives. May each of you be blessed.
Gmar Chatimah Tova and Chag Sameach
May you be inscribed for life and be blessed with a joyous Sukkot.
 This prolonged battle was terrifyingly dramatized in the HBO mini-series Valley of Tears.
 Translated by Hillel Halkin from the Hebrew Tium Kavvanot. (Toby Press: Tel Aviv, 2003). Above is my summary of the first chapter.
 Excerpts from song. Translation can be found at Naomi Shemer – אנחנו מאותו הכפר (Anachnu Me’oto HaKfar) lyrics + English translation (lyricstranslate.com) Song can be accessed here: https://youtu.be/ccWHg_92_V8?si=XN-8aNVLRVCyIj_x
 “God Hidden in Heaven’s Vault,” Tradition Summer 2023 (55:3) p. 38 (Essay translated and adapted by R. Jeffrey Saks.)