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Vayechi 5784       November 25, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

I first want to thank Maury and Carol and all those who filled in for me while I was sick last week. We are blessed indeed to have talented members who can fill in when I am sick. I am grateful for their help and for all your wishes for my speedy recovery.

Bex Stern Rosenblatt, in her D’var Torah for the Conservative Yeshiva, takes note of the blessing that Jacob gives to Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephriam. True to family history, Jacob moves to give the younger son, Ephriam, the greater blessing than the older Manasseh. Joseph is not happy to see this happen and, with the understanding that Jacob is old and almost blind, Joseph assumes that Jacob is making a mistake and giving the blessing to the wrong son. Jacob, however, indicates that while Manasseh will be a great tribe, Ephriam will be even greater.

Two weeks ago, in Parsha Mikketz, When Joseph is elevated to a new Egyptian job, Joseph gets a new Egyptian name, a new Egyptian wife, and fathers two children. In this rapid rise to power, Joseph gives up all connection to his Israelite past. His family had abandoned him, and he had to make it on his own. Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes, “Faced with bad and good, destruction of his old identity and creation of his life in Egypt, Joseph named his two sons accordingly. His firstborn, Manasseh, was named with Joseph saying, “God has made me forget my hardship and the house of my father.” Joseph looks back on all that has come before him and tries to erase it, to blot it out, to embrace the now and forget the past. He then names Ephraim, saying, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” With the birth of Ephraim, Joseph recognizes his pain, lives with his pain, and still finds blessing.”

Two weeks ago, I spent two and a half days on the ground in Israel. I wanted to share what I had seen and learned last Shabbat when I returned, but I came back with COVID, so I had to wait. The visit was a roller coaster ride of extreme downs with extreme highs as well. Rather than share the wild ride I experienced, I want to explain what is happening not in chronological order but like Joseph in Parshat Miketz, I will start with the pain and end with the blessings.

One of the sites of the October 7th massacre is Kfar Aza. It was a kibbutz that was built right at the fence between Israel and Gaza. With the random sounds of nearby Israeli artillery booming in the background and the occasional high caliber machine gun fire, and with the smoke on the horizon from the bombings in Gaza, we toured the site of the atrocities. I have been to concentration camps in Eastern Europe and seen the horrors there perpetrated on Jews, and this took me back to those visits. I was surprised that some of the Rabbis in our group of 21 Americans and 5 Israeli Rabbis had never been to Auschwitz. They were completely unprepared for what we witnessed. Many were in tears, weeping on the shoulders of friends and colleagues. Most of us were speechless, without words to describe our feelings. Only at the end of the visit, did I take pen to paper and on the bumpy ride out, this is what I wrote:

The destruction of the buildings does not do justice to the destruction of life. Homes burned, blown up, windows broken, debris everywhere.

Symbols by the door: a diamond shape with the letter “c” inside means that the house has been cleared of terrorists and booby traps. A circle with a dot in the middle means there was a body inside the house. There is a sticker on the doorway left by Zaka, which lets them know that all body parts and blood have been removed for burial. There are banners by the doors that show pictures and names of those killed there. Faces and names of those taken hostage.

I feel like a gawker. Why do I take pictures? A picture here is not worth 1000 words/lives. We hear many random booms, some close by, also sounds of high caliber automatic weapons. There is smoke on the horizon from the bombs in Gaza. Some people are wearing protective gear. We are here to hear the story of what happened here. How can we be tourists on this holy ground? Our Guide speaks clearly with no emotion. The story must be told, and he has no more tears. He is from Ashkelon, where explosions were part of his normal life.

There are trees full of fruit in the yards; the fruit is falling and rotting on the ground. Does hope fall from trees? Does compassion fall from trees? Do they rot on the ground?

I remember that when I was on the March of the Living in Auschwitz, when I stood to hear the El Malay Rachamim, I stood with my eyes closed and felt the presence of someone standing nearby. When it was over, I opened my eyes but there was nobody there. I guess the spirit of the place was with me. In Kfar Aza, we said the El Malay, I closed my eyes, but I was alone.

The bougainvillea was in bloom, but the thorns were no protection. My colleagues cry and I feel their pai;, their pain and the pain of the people of Kfar Aza. My friend, Rabbi Matt Futterman blames all the Gazans who did not protest against Hamas over all the years. I say to myself that it is hard to protest when you fear for your life. Matt allows no excuses.

One morning we had a meeting with Tal Hochman, the Director of Government relations at the women’s lobby. She is deeply involved with the issue of sexual assault on October 7. To this day the United Nations and the International Red Cross have paid only lip service to the atrocities that have been documented from that day and the assaults against the hostages who have been released. It is known that some hostages are still being sexually assaulted in their captivity. She did not list the many cases of atrocities against women, but the few she did mention were horrific. It is the stuff of nightmares.

Later that day, we spoke with a man who had escaped from the Music Festival that was at the heart of so much death, mutilation, and hostage taking. He spoke about the random chances that happened that helped him escape. He told us of Druze soldiers who told those with him to get as far away as they could from the area. And how he eventually made his way home to his wife and family. He was supposed to meet a friend at the festival. The friend and his wife never made it. Taking cover in a roadside bomb shelter from the rocket attack, terrorist threw grenades into the shelter killing all but one to tell the story of what happened.

That evening we met with the families of two hostages. One family is missing their father, the other is missing a son. They spoke bitterly about how the government was not doing enough to bring the hostages home. At a nearby square in Tel Aviv, the families gather with supporters to pray for the safe return of their loved ones and to sing songs of hope. We joined the Masorti Rabbis in a prayer circle in “hostage square” and many bystanders came to join our circle. We finished before six o’clock which is when the daily death toll in the war is announced by the army.

In the city of Omer, a suburb of Beersheva, we met with the Rabbi and members of his congregation to talk about how our presence was so important to them, that Israel had not been forgotten. That Israel is not alone in the world. As they spoke, however, it also became apparent how traumatized the people of Israel are. We heard the great pain in their voices. We heard their calls for revenge and retribution. There are no exceptions to their rage; Palestinians, Hamas, they are all the same. At this time there can be no talk about peace. It was frightening and humbling to hear them give voice to their pain.

And yet, we were surrounded by blessings. The same people in Omer who are in so much pain are also volunteering at a pop-up site for those in the IDF. Taking over an empty lot, they have erected an army base of sorts, only one that does what the army can’t do. There are large tents filled with cots with clean sheets, a far cry from the ground soldiers sleep on in battle. There are hot showers, boxes of needed socks and clothing as the weather gets colder. Farmers donate vegetables and donations are spent on meat so fully cooked real meals (not from a can) are served daily. Individual soldiers or whole battle groups can be accommodated on their days off from fighting, or while they await new orders. The owner of the lot, a tech company in the building next door, donates the electricity and water needed. I don’t know if they could pass any building code inspections but the people working are there for the soldiers.

In a parking garage in Tel Aviv, a group called Achim B’Neshek, “Brothers in Arms” once protested the judicial reforms of the Government. Now, because of the war, they have pivoted to supporting the soldiers and the displaced families from the borders on the north and in the south. As we came around the corner in the garage, our jaws dropped open. As far as the eye could see, this lot was filled with clothing for men, women, and children; coats and sweaters, appliances, electronics, every size and need represented. Each category of items had their own area and soldiers or displaced civilians, who had left with only the clothing on their back, could ask for anything and it would be boxed up and sent out or delivered personally. We were told that soldiers needed socks, so we brought nine full duffle bags of socks with us. The young woman in charge of that section burst into tears of joy when we unloaded a small mountain of socks for the soldiers.

We started our visit at the Jewish Agency, where we met with Gadi Pearl, the vice chairperson of the Jewish National Fund. He was very excited to see American Rabbis in Israel, coming to support Israel in its hour of need. He is a big supporter of Masorti Judaism and religious pluralism in Israel. He noted that Israel has helped many nations in their time of need, earthquakes, floods, and fires, but none have stood up for Israel in her hour of need. But, he noted, that Masorti Rabbis, who are vilified, denied rights, denied funding, and denied respect in Israel, we were the first ones to show up in Israel’s hour of need. He was very proud of why we were there and hoped that Israel would notice who their real friends are.

Many of my colleagues left Israel feeling the trauma themselves and carrying the burden of what Israel is carrying. As usual, I choose to see the good that is happening all around. I can’t change the horror that is 10/7 nor can I have any effect on the war that is waging. But I can help those who are helping those in need, soldiers, and displaced civilians. Perhaps, as the time goes by, like Joseph, things will move from pain to seeing the blessings. Israel and Israelis are all very strong. May we stand by them in their time of trauma.

May the God who helps those in trouble, help bring home the hostages, heal the trauma of our people, and bring blessings once again to our people and our land as we say ….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, July 15 2024 9 Tammuz 5784