April 10, 2024
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The Heart of a Nation: Reflections on the People of Israel at War

Being in the Land of Israel, as a general matter, is always a privilege.  As Chazal remind us, Moshe and Aharon never merited setting foot in Israel. Under any circumstances, then, being in the Land of Israel is a profoundly humbling experience.

Being in the Land of Israel as a representative of the extraordinary Bergen County kehilla, a kehilla which has demonstrated the highest level of devotion to the needs of this great war for the People of Israel and the Land of Israel, is something still greater. If I merited living 1,000 years, the three days I spent together with Rabbis Daniel Feldman, Larry Rothwachs and Chaim Strauchler, and Rebbetzins Chani Krohn and Michal Goldberg, and nearly 130 members of our broader community, would surely be three of the most cherished days of my life.

The approximately 72 hours I had the privilege of walking in the Land were filled with encounters of our People in our ancient homeland locked in a struggle for our survival. In this crucible, the beating heart of a nation was revealed.

Each person does their small part, and the nation moves forward. This is the very essence of the halachic notion of milchemet mitzvah, in which each member of the Jewish people, every man and woman, חתן מחדרו וכלה מחופתה, is called to contribute to the war effort in some form or fashion.

We experienced the full range of emotions: Even as we danced and laughed with soldiers in the evening, who had been in Khan Younis and Rafah in the morning and the afternoon, we went to hear the cries of parents in Hostage Square, crying into the night for their children.

We saw the faces of wives and children reunited with their husbands and fathers after months of combat, battles from which not all returned, and of those that did, not all returned whole, filled with the purest form of joy and love. To see these men, exactly my age, sweep their children, exactly the age of my own, into their arms, was overwhelming.

We walked the grounds of the Nova festival, in the dirt and in the forest where each tree can tell a terrible story, the ground sanctified by a pogrom nothing less than that which occurred in the Crusades.

We wept on Har Herzl as the sacred soil of the Land of Israel lovingly received back one of her sons, Maoz Morell, HY”D, who fell in her defense, as he was dragging his wounded comrades to safety, his life cut short at 22 years.

And, as it concerns the sacred soil, because no one remains to bring in the harvest, we helped to prune the loquat farm of a man named Tomer, called Karmei Yosef.

And we planted a tree in the sacred soil of Kerem Shalom, in memory of two other sons of this Land, Amichai Wietzen, HY”D and Yedidya Raziel, HY”D, who gave their lives in the battle to save Kerem Shalom. If there is a reason, beyond manifest siyata d’shemaya, that the fate of  Kerem Shalom is not synonymous with Be’eri, it is Amichai and Yedidya, as well as Natan, HY”D and Yaron, HY”D, two soldiers from Sayeret Nachal, who happened to have been stationed there that fateful Shabbat, the four young men who sacrificed their lives that morning so that a community could survive.

When scores of terrorists sought to infiltrate the kibbutz on October 7, and were heroically repelled by these men and those who were spared, they did make it to one home, that of Avital and Amichai Schindler and their six children.

When terrorists surrounded their home, Amichai held the door with his hands. The terrorists tried to get him to open the door. “Tzahal, Tzahal!” they shouted. He could tell their accent was not that of our People.

When they could not convince him, they blew up the door, destroying Amichai’s hands with it. He absorbed massive injuries. An enormous firefight took place outside of his house, and we met the heroic people who prevented the terrorists from harming the family further, and Roni, who provided the medical care that would save him.

To stand outside that home with Avital, pockmarked with bullets and shrapnel, the site of a fierce battle between the forces of good and pure sadism and evil, is a very humbling thing.

To see how she, and so many of the other women, can accept their new reality, having to raise children while their husband is not only away, but might not come back, or come back whole, or is kidnapped, with faith, in the God of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the People of Israel, the Land of Israel, with emunah shleimah—is itself a religious experience. These women are the rightful heirs to the nashim tzidkayinot whose unshakeable faith was our People’s deliverance in our first crucible, that of Egyptian slavery.

But if anything could have been more humbling than standing outside of her home in Kerem Shalom, it was standing next to her a few hours later, as the sun set over the Negev desert, in their temporary home in Ashalim, and to have her say the following, and ask me to to share it with each and every one of you.

It was hard, she said, in the safe room. They waited and they waited. It was not until the army removed them from the kibbutz on Sunday night, and she saw the thousands of vehicles full of miluim pouring South, that she thought, הם באים להציל אותנו, they have come to save us.

And then, she said to me, as a representative of this community, of each and every one of you, reflecting on Bergen County’s partnership with Kerem Shalom, אתם המילואים שלנו, that for the second time since the war began, she had that feeling, you have come to save us, to help us.

It goes without saying that there was nothing that I could possibly say. No matter how small one feels in that moment, when one knows that it is a drop in the bucket, that it is their willingness to live literally on the wall, in Kerem Shalom, that allows Jews to live in Ashkelon, and Ashdod, and Petach Tikvah, and Tel Aviv, and yes, Teaneck and Bergenfield and Paramus and Fort Lee as well, Avital’s gratitude to the Bergen County community was deep and authentic.

We look forward in the coming months, b’ezrat Hashem, to welcoming representatives of the beautiful people of Kerem Shalom to our kehilla, and to collectively doing all that is in our power to enable all of the families of Kerem Shalom to return home in safety and security.

We will never grant the Nazis of Hamas the victory of knowing they rendered a Jewish community in Israel judenrein, and leave them with aspirations of continuing, God forbid, the barbaric and genocidal assault they began on October 7.

As individuals, it may indeed be the case that we each contribute but a drop in the bucket. But when the entire Jewish people is filling the bucket, one small drop at a time, by fighting in Gaza, rallying for the hostages, saying Tehillim, learning a Mishna, doing a chesed, refraining from lashon hara, and giving so generously, the bucket is filled, and it overflows.

These were the words of Rachel Polin, a woman of indomitable strength who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, whose faith that she will be reunited with her son Hersh is total and absolute. “כוסי רויה,” she said. “My cup overflows.” “Sometimes it overflows with tears, but also faith and joy at the thought of redemption yet to come, and the great love of a people for one another.”

Even in this time of great challenge and peril, כוסנו רויה, our cup overflows.

The Jewish people are pouring little drops of love for one another, the Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the God of Israel, into a bucket, and our cup is overflowing.

Those who seek to annihilate us will never break us. Their fires of hate will be extinguished by our drops of love.

The heart of a nation beats as strong as it ever has.

Rabbi Daniel Fridman is the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

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