Thursday, June 01, 2023

We all have moments when we feel butterflies in our stomach, but for these past few weeks those moments have seemed endless.

First there was the frantic search for Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel. Our brave soldiers went house to house, college students came together to speak out through social media, and all Jews, religious and non-religious, Belzer and Gerer, Dati Leumi and kibbutzniks, those that pray regularly and those who wrote off God decades ago, petitioned God ceaselessly through prayer and acts of kindness. Throughout this ordeal, we all felt those nervous knots, and no matter what else was going on in our lives, they would not go away. We would laugh for a moment, attend a wedding, or try to relax, but those fluttering butterflies interrupted every moment and challenged every attempt at normalcy during this collective trauma.

When we were informed of the tragic ending of “our boys,” we again felt this painful queasiness. It was as if we were all suffering from the same ailment: a throbbing pain that could not be treated or ignored. Our nine year old son Yitzchak, who days earlier had helped me put up the boys’ picture and three yellow ribbons in front of our home, shared with us his unease—concern for the last of the three boys murdered, since that unfortunate young man had to witness first the death of his two friends. The butterflies were put to momentary rest when I made a shiva call to the Frenkel family. Yes, it was terribly sad, but we were all crying together. It was a moment that in one room you saw the latitude and longitude of the Jewish people woven together as one. You could feel the presence of God that escorts the Jewish people through its difficult moments.

As those butterflies begin to settle, along came the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, a barbaric act I could not believe was committed by those calling themselves Jews. Spilling innocent blood is an act so heinous that it challenges the moral fabric of Klal Yisrael. It was a perverted act that not only took the life of an innocent young man and shattered a family, but also challenges the government’s ability to protect its citizens and respond to the rocket fire from Gaza. Again, there were those butterflies, wondering if we can ever overcome this despicable Chilul Hashem.

Then I feel a swarm of professional butterflies as 45 Yeshiva University students find themselves in Israel’s threatened South working with hundreds of teens and pre-teens classified as “youth at risk.” The YU students run summer camps to build up the campers’ self-esteem and help them improve the English and computer skills necessary for them to graduate high school. In past years, our students were greeted enthusiastically by the government, the communities, the campers, and their families; this summer, they were greeted as well with missiles, and they needed to reorient to ensure they were always within close proximity of communal bomb shelters.

The butterflies in my stomach are sharpened by the fact that none of the YU students have any interest in leaving, and while I am proud of their idealism and privileged to work with them, I worry about the safety of our students and their campers. When two rockets fell within close proximity of where our students were living, the local municipality told us that all summer camps were going to be immediately canceled in this region of Southern Israel. We moved our students back to the YU Jerusalem campus and, with the help of Afikim, a network of afternoon centers across Israel that works with disadvantaged and troubled families, our YU students were placed in Jerusalem public schools to help teens that need extra tutoring in English. Please God, next week our students will be running summer camps in Arad and Dimona.

Finally, a new set of butterflies that my wife Ruchie and I have started to contract. For the past four months we have been the parents of a volunteer chayal boded, a “lone soldier,” our son Yosef, who serves as a sharpshooter in the Golani Brigade. We arrived in Israel on Wednesday night and eagerly waited to see him Thursday morning, when he would be given leave because his parents came from abroad. Within an hour of his arrival to our apartment, his leave was cancelled and he was told to return immediately to his base.

The butterflies returned to my stomach in full force. They were quieted momentarily when, as he stepped out the door, his commander called to say that he could remain off-base but must carry his phone at all times, even on Shabbat in case of any changes. But the quiet was short-lived; the butterflies were reawakened when he received a text during Kabbalat Shabbat. Welcome to the anxiety of the fathers and mothers in Israel whose children protect us all. While we feel that the terror from the Gaza must come to an end, we know the cost of that resolve puts the best and the brightest of our youth in harm’s way. Those butterflies never leave.

So what do we do with these butterflies? I am reminded of the idea that Rabbi Soloveitchik z”l always shared with us. When searching for clarity, whether as individuals, as a family or as a people, we should look at the Torah portion surrounding the current crisis. The Book of Bamidbar records the journeys of the Jewish people in the desert. It highlights our transition from nomadic slaves in Egypt to a yearning for peoplehood in Israel, a yearning to live in our own land, creating social norms and mores that are to serve as a beacon of light to all humanity. The Talmud in Mesechet Sofrim (chap. 2) relates that when we write a Torah scroll every column must contain at least 42 lines corresponding to the 42 journeys of the Jewish people. For if the Torah is to be our guide book, it needs to help guide our personal, familial, and communal journeys.

Therefore, every parchment column must have at least 42 lines accentuating the idea that it is the journeys and the values we bring to them that define us. Yet Maimonides (Hil. Tefilin 7:1) insists that every parchment column must have 48 lines, a number that defies the Talmudic teaching! I believe Maimonides’s message is that if the Torah is to give clarity to our journeys it must not only be emblematic of the 42 journeys in the desert through which the Jews marched but must also highlight the six occasions in the desert in which the Jewish people, on their march toward sovereignty, retreated. For after the death of Aaron, the people withdrew and revisited six of their previous encampments.

While life is about marching forward, sometimes challenges not of our making, anxieties, and national difficulties force us to take a step back. Sometimes our progress towards creating a more tolerant and purposeful global society is impeded by the need to reevaluate and retrench. When we witness the brutality against our children globally “celebrated” by symbols of three raised fingers as well as statements championing moral equivalency, we ask ourselves whether the journey is perhaps too difficult. In our personal and national journey toward a destination of meaning, we often achieve greatness, followed by defeat, which hopefully, somehow, ignites an even greater desire to re-engage in a voyage towards personal, communal, and national perfection.

My butterflies are welcome. Hopefully they will empower me to help play even a small role in our communal journey towards sovereignty with a soul.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander is the Yeshiva University Vice President for University and Community Life and Dean of the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future (CJF).

By Rabbi Kenneth Brander

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