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sermon, fri eve, nov 3, 2023

11/05/2023 01:24:09 PM


Rabbi Abigail Treu


On Heartbreak and Hope

Rabbi Treu joined a small group of clergy for a 36-hour Solidarity Mission to Israel organized by Greater MetroWest Federation on November 1-2, 2023. The following is her reflections upon her return, shared at Shabbat services (Friday night).

The first thing we noticed, upon arrival at Ben Gurion airport early Tuesday morning, was how empty it was. Our El Al flight was full, but as we walked down that long hallway, we realized we were the only arrival. The El Al planes the only ones lined up on the tarmac, rows of white and blue stripes.

The streets are quiet, almost empty. No tourists, no school, and anyway people are scared and hunkering down at home. There are flags everywhere, and banners: Am Yisrael Chai. And a new one, that has become a slogan of sorts for this war: ננצח ביחד. N’natzeach – we will win, we will succeed; b’yachad – together.

You don’t realize it at first but then you do: that there are very few men. There are not a lot of young adult women around, either. The only young adults around at all are the mothers of young children, especially in the hotels in Jerusalem, where entire border towns like Sederot are now housed, and in the Negev where we visited our sister communities Kibbutz Erez, Ofakim and Merchavim – three places where our Greater MetroWest Federation has for decades created partnerships.

Greater MetroWest Federation has an office at Ofakim, and many of us know Michal Zur who works there. Of course she didn’t meet us in her hometown, Kibbutz Erez – she met us miles away, in Mitzpeh Ramon. This town of 5,000 people has taken in 3,500 evacuees. We stood with Michal overlooking the beautiful Ramon Crater and she said to us: “Kibbutz Erez was our home. We were there because we believed that the Gazans, just over the border, wanted what we wanted. Now, we don’t know. We are full of questions. Can we go back home one day? Will we be too traumatized, having seen terrorists inside our homes? And we have questions of faith – where was God? And also questions of miracles, thank God, for saving me. Thank God they entered from the left not the right, they would have hit the Simchat Torah celebration at the school, thank God. Questions of compassion,” she said, “how to locate it again inside our hearts, and questions of values.” She described the past two weeks, 400 families in their circles sitting shiva.  You leave the kids with a friend, she said, you head to a hotel where in the lobby there are signs like for a bar mitzvah – this family in this ballroom, another family over here, every room taken. All sitting shiva. “It’s all we’ve been doing now for weeks.”

Over and over again we heard, about that Oct 7 which is now called Shabbat Shechorah, the Dark Shabbat: we just didn’t know what was happening. That was the first trauma, the not knowing. Hearing a siren and thinking – it will pass, something must be happening somewhere else, and then the second trauma, realizing there was a terrorist on your street, and then realizing there were dozens of terrorists on your street. Sagit, a woman about my age wearing jeans and a t-shirt, is in charge of emergency operations in Kibbutz Erez. From the situation room there she called the ambulance when one, then two, then three people with gunshot and then grenade wounds entered the kibbutz’s situation room – but then halfway through her request for the ambulance she said wait, how will the ambulance get here, they will get shot if they come on the road, and that’s when she realized she had to shut the gate, that’s when she realized there would be no ambulance, that they were alone. If she hadn’t decided to close the gates there would have been slaughter.

In Jerusalem, at Hadassah Hospital, we met Michal. Michal is a pediatric nurse by profession, the mother of 10 children. Wearing a jean skirt to her ankles, her hair wrapped in a yellow scarf wound high up on top of her head, her blue eyes are bright and watery. Her left arm is in a sling and she is teary as she shares her story with us. She and her husband like to volunteer with the children as a family, and sometimes they go to army bases to relieve the rabbi there, give the soldiers some love and the rabbi a shabbat off. This shabbat, she said, “Hashem brought us to Zikim” army base. Her daughter was nervous because it’s so close to Gaza, but Michal told her no, it’s quiet, the rockets go right over. They made a beautiful Simhat Torah with the soldiers, they made them treats and an oneg shabbat, it was very beautiful. At 6:20 in the morning she woke up from a big boom – and then a voice over the loudspeaker, tzeva adom, red alert, over and over again. She heard bombs all around and that voice non-stop, tzeva adom. It was shabbat but they picked up the phone;  they didn’t know if their room was secure. It was not; a few minutes later a soldier came and escorted them out to the safe-room. Michal grabbed a pacifier for the baby and they ran out and the soldier told them to stay there, it will be over in 2-3 hours but they never came back, just the bombs and that voice tzeva adom over and over and over. She heard a soldier injured outside, and her kids said – ima you’re a nurse, go help her, so she left them in the safe room and went outside. At this point in telling us the story Michal broke down, the memory so traumatic and fresh, and I will skip the description of what she saw, but she realized that this young woman, this soldier had taken a bullet through her face and it was now stuck in her head. Terrorists are shooting and this wounded soldier, this young woman is saying my head hurts, I need the bathroom. With another soldier Michal moved her, got her to a bathroom and then she was calmer and they lay her on a bed and then this soldier, her name is Noa, passed out which Michal said was a relief, that she was asleep. Michal watched as the soldier guarding the door staggered into the room, shot, the soldier next to Michal said – we have to do something, save him, but Michal knew, there were nothing to be done, they watched him die before them. She knew she should go and hide but she just couldn’t leave Noa there alone and then she saw another soldier coming, she made eye contact with him and she thought – he’s a little older, maybe he’s coming to help me and then he walked up to her and it clicked. He shot her, three times. Michal and Noa are now at Hadassah hospital recovering; they will both be fine, and Michal hopes that with rehab she will one day regain the use of her left hand. She said: my children and my husband weren’t hurt. I sit here crying but it’s just my hand. Am Yisrael will become stronger because of this.

At Hadassah hospital we met Oshry, 22 years old, dark curls and slender, smooth dark skin and enormous round brown eyes. Oshry led his unit into Ofakim and also Kissufim army base. When they arrived terrorists had already taken over the army base; they were forced to kill 15 terrorists in order to evacuate 32 female soldiers, 14 wounded Israeli soldiers, men and women, three civilian women and a baby. He described fighting for 40 minutes to save two of the women in a room directly next door to terrorists. Oshry was shot in the shoulder, because terrorists were up on the roofs, the bullet traveled through his stomach to lodge in his leg. At the end of the operation, his unit evacuated themselves – they found a car, drove it to an ambulance. He was first treated at a Hospital in Beer Sheva where more than 700 injured arrived; the hospital’s emergency plans for a mass event are for 100. We asked Oshry: how is your head, and your heart? He answered: I lost 3 soldiers. Even if we’d managed to save 3,000 people the price was too high.

Later in the day we met the family of Ron Sherman. Ron is 19, and was serving on the border of Gaza in a base set up to help with the economy there. He is asthmatic so he is not in a combat unit; his job is to check the goods going back and forth across the border. On October 7 he called home to say something was not normal. His mother, Ma’ayan, who sat stone-faced as she spoke with us, said he then texted her: there are terrorists at the base. He sounded worried. His mother told him: there’s nothing on the news, you’re in the safest place in Israel; don’t worry. He said – I can hear Arabic. I just hope they don’t kidnap me. At 7:12 he texted her: I love you, with a red heart emoji; it’s over. That’s the last they’ve heard from him.

Hamas posted the video of his capture, so she knows they took him in the shorts and t-shirt he slept in. He has a very good personality, she said, everyone loves him. She said: I hope that is helping him now.

How does she cope, we asked? By holding on to hope. That his personality is helping him through this. That he is alive. That he will come home.  

After they left, the room was silent. We’d been listening to stories like these for most of our 36 hours there. At first we just sat, not making eye contact, not speaking. And then I lay my head down on the table before me and cried. I cried from witnessing so much pain. I cried for the trauma of this nation. I cried because it is so unfair, the plight of the Jewish people, we thought we were different, this generation which has not known this, the anti-Semitism, the Jew-hating, the war. I cried because of what our friend Amit shared with us the night before, how his family goes back 11 generations in Tz’fat, how as a left-leaning person he could never understand why his grandmother could never forgive the Arabs. She said it was the Arab riots in 1936. The two boys that her mother had breastfed came after her family. She could never get over it. He said: “I am very left politically and I never understood it, and now I do. And I don’t know what to think, I don’t know how to forgive.”

And I cried because I want so badly to have something beautiful to hand you, some story of beauty and light to get us through.

A colleague came over and held me. I wasn’t the only one crying, we were in it together. And that’s, I’ve decided, where the beauty is. That op-ed I co-authored, about our sense of being alone after October 7? It’s not true. So many good people, friends of the Jews and friends of ours have reached out. So many leaders have spoken up for the Jewish people and the state of Israel. But more than all of that – we have each other.

N’natzeach b’yachad. The only good to come out of this, is the unity of the Jewish people. I have never witnessed a sense of peoplehood as fierce or as deep. Right, left, orthodox, Reform, Conservative, secular, religious, Israeli, Diaspora, the ones who have been protesting Israel these past weeks and the ones protesting for years – we are united now. There is beauty in that. There is beauty in comforting one another, in showing up because we are all now miluim, reservists, the on-call force waiting until we are needed to come serve. We are all called on to fight because the battle that was started by terrorists killing 1,400 and wounding thousands more and capturing hundreds is now being fought here, too. On social media, in all media, in the classroom, on college campuses and in our towns. We are all called on to take our commitment to tikkun olam, to building a better world, that tikkun olam we’ve been shining from ourselves out to help other communities, we need now to turn it to ourselves, too, to make this world safe for the Jewish people just as we want it to be safe for all people.

That is where I place my hope, and that is where I hope you will join me. The national anthem of Israel is called HaTikvah – The Hope. Od lo avdah tikvatenu – our hope will never be lost. Or rather: WE will never lose OUR hope. In the plural. Because that is how we cope, that is how we survive, as a Jewish people. By hoping, in the plural, all together. If Ron’s mom needs us to hope, we will hope. If Michal needs us to be strong, we will be strong. B’yachad n’natzeach. Together we will win, together we will prevail, together we will endure. Am Yisrael chai. Amen.

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784