Shabbat Message, March 8, 2024, Parashat Vayakhel

A Letter From Israel – Shabbat Vayakhel 5784

“M’ha’Shvi’i – Since the Seventh”

Dear OZ,

I’m writing from Israel where — depending on the experience of those you encounter, how you steer your heart and direct your mind it — feels like either war time or not.

Some are serving in the army; others are stuffed into hotel rooms displaced from homes in the north or south. Still others are blessed to be in areas where life goes on pretty much normally — outside of everyone’s doing fine but really not being “ok.”

I have heard a new expression, a new way of defining time. The date of the Black Sabbath, the massacre of October 7th, stands out as a point in the timeline here in a very conscious way. “M’ha-shvi’i” – “since the 7th” is a marker for talking about what’s going on these days both personally and societally. It has displaced expressions like “since the new year began” or “this fall” or “after the summer ended.” May we talk about seasons of peace and renewal soon.

The life of our People unfolds here daily. To be a Jew is to recognize that we lift Jerusalem above our simhas. We hold our People and their joys and pains on top of our own. While I’m getting so much nahat being in my married children’s first apartment in Haifa, I’m cognizant of the dear friends and family who have experienced unspeakable crime against their humanity. We take a collective accounting — not only a personal inventory — of how much simha or suffering we’re experiencing.

As I wrapped my t’fillin this morning, I thought about how so many individuals’ lives and my own are moving forward or feel on hold. I empathize with those contending with calamity or feeling pierced by the pain of a loved one’s life cut too short. Or maybe they are waiting for news from the front lines or dealing with a business loss. I’m not able to empathize with those who hold fiery anger — a willingness to kill or be killed — as their first thought. I’ve heard that, too, since I’m here.

Everything comes together for me when I pray. How could people live a life guided by hate? And how is it that curricula and radio broadcasts and speeches in religious places spew hatred of Jews? When and how will we solve this problem of coexistence? People deserve to live as unique families and tribes on earth. Personal life and a connection with our People and its destiny and the promise of humanity become so intensely entwined for me each and every time I pray in Israel.

In my first three days here, I’ve checked-in on family and friends and brought our greetings and blessings. The great transportation system makes it easy to travel throughout the heartland. I visited fresh graves to chant Tehillim/psalms. I had a blessed reunion with Rabbi Wechsler and Sophia D. in Jerusalem; so good to be together.

I visited with several colleagues who have helped the war effort by transforming their organizations and personally volunteered on the front lines. I’m distributing the last thousands of our Israel Emergency Fund donations to the Fuchsberg Center for supporting day school trips to Israel, to individuals with educational and resilience programs, and I spread our tzedakah to the poor of Jerusalem. There are so few tourists and visitors putting shekels and dollars into local soup kitchen walls and beggars’ cups in the Old City and Mahane Yehuda.

Speaking of organizations we support, The Society for the Protection of Nature (who was recently at Or Zarua telling us about getting teens stuck in hotels out to nature retreats) hosted me to talk about the 10-year plan for recovering a wetlands area twice the size of the Hula Valley. Talk here is of programming that deals with immediate needs as well as long-term planning, as it should be.

Considering what is happening on the ground here means business meetings start with people sharing how their own families are holding and who needs a brakha (blessing) and for what. A researcher and top officer of the IDF I know reported that secular people are praying at conferences and the army is getting more religious. There’s a need to build faith. Our tradition’s vocabulary of unity and seeking goodness helps people bridge their hearts.

Many in circles I spend time in have noted how our tradition is being invoked for comfort and to strengthen our resolve to stand strong for our family. While they express some concern about extremist religious teachings being used to dehumanize others they find our faith-based expressions of our right to self-defense and self-determination an inspiration, as well as the calls for healing and comfort.

Good people are at work helping to defuse any incendiary type of irreligious rhetoric. “We’re really holding onto our humanity despite a lot of attempts to make us just like those who hate the Jews,” said a top officer of the IDF. The Middle East has always been a tough neighborhood in which to be a Jew. Our unity and knowledge of God’s promise that Israel is our homeland, and our success, has turned so many against us throughout history.

When the evildoers struck on October 7th, on Simhat Torah, and slaughtered so many, it sent a shockwave through the State. A person — and a people — contends with trauma and deals with tragedy and stress in so many different ways. What is evident here, though, is that there is post-traumatic growth and much resilience. People take care of each other in wonderful ways. Expressions of hope are attached to reports of devastation. “We’ll find a way forward.”

At a dinner in ancient Caesarea yesterday one of the extended family members asked me, “Have you felt the war every day since you arrived or not? Can you believe we’re at this amazing kosher restaurant to celebrate birthdays and an engagement along with the four brothers’ tours of duty in the army coming to an end, at least in phase one?” (A couple know their dates for returning to base; this is far from over.) Celebrations and praying for comfort and healing go on.

Consciousness about the war has only strengthened the resolve here to embrace life and to overcome complacency. We must not take each other and our nation for granted, said the matriarch of the family. I sensed that the singing of “Happy Birthday” and even “Od Y’shama” for the bride and groom was a little — appropriately? — muted. Then everyone at the table said a full-throated “Amen!” when someone added, “God strengthen the IDF and all our hands and hearts, to help redeem our captives and bless our nation.” Diners behind us, religious and not so much, all added, “Amen, v’amen!” Before dessert there was a prayer for the sick and injured. This is not an ultra-religious family or kosher place in Meah She’arim. This is us.

Immediately upon boarding my flight earlier in the week I was conscious of the mission to bring comfort, add strength and renew our bonds. I saw faces of Jews from every land on earth where we’ve come from sitting on that El Al plane. I was reminded of the ingathering of our family from the four corners of the Earth. Jews of all backgrounds and places on Earth are called to be part of this effort to protect and defend our homeland and stand up for our People, Am Yisrael, in the Diaspora.

The young guy next to me on my left was on his third trip back to Israel. He treks back and forth from Australia. A Jewish Ethiopian mother calmed her baby, and a Moroccan Jew was sitting to my right. His brother is one of the hostages still held in darkness in Gaza. It was time for him to return to his family more permanently in Israel from San Francisco. I asked him if he wanted to say the “Travelers’ Prayer” together with me and daven together for his brother. He told me he wasn’t so religious, but he would welcome my leading us through. I asked him if he would be ok using the words of HaTikvah as liturgy for prayer. He agreed to the nusach (rite).

The “Travelers’ Prayer” asks God to thwart enemies who seek to destroy us and then we said the line “Od lo avda Tikvateinu” at the end – “We have not and will never lose hope.” Tears fell from both our eyes. We nodded at each other, locked hands and hearts. “May he soon be home along with all the other captives.” We said: “Amen.”

Being in Israel just now means recognizing the strange times we live and love and hope in. As the writer Stefan Zweig said these are “times run amok.” With the war we are strengthening our resolve as an entire People. And, so generously, Israelis want to know how antisemitism is impacting us back home. They’re worried about what’s going on with college campuses, workplaces and bars that ban Zionists. (I think I was near that one in Salt Lake City a couple of weeks ago that the news reported just banned Jews).

Despite much anger about this or that mistake by the army, a policy matter, stand on the government or official or matters of local disrepair neighbors are strengthening those in mourning, praying for friends’ and loved ones’ recovery, working extra hard to keep the economy afloat and finding ways to taste the good life that Israel affords.

It will be good to be part of an organized JNF mission next week. More than 150 participants will farm together, make a barbeque for soldiers near the southern border, learn more about the infrastructure created to accommodate more than 250,000 turned away from their homes in the north and the south and visit with families directly impacted by the terror. I’ll be meeting the IsraAID team, as well, to hear about their resilience work in Israel. While they routinely export Israeli expertise for disaster recovery globally, they’ve pivoted to provide leadership for efforts that meet today’s challenges within our borders.

There’s a way in Hebrew to say “hello” and to truly bless one another with peace, so I seek each time I use our reborn Modern Hebrew language to infuse it with the ruhaniyut, spiritual strength, it has at its core. Folks here find it inspiring to see visitors and hear from this New Yorker that I bring our congregation’s warm greetings and that we all want them to know that “we’re with you.”

I left for Israel on Day 150. Today is day 153 of the war. Each day in Eretz haKodesh, the Holy Land, is another blessed day in the miracle of modern Zion. I do not take it for granted that our Family of Israel would experience a vayakhel here, an ingathering, the name of this week’s parsha.

Moses gathered the men, women and children in the wilderness and told us one day that we and our elders would inherit this land. He said that those who keep the Sabbath would call it a delight and feel unified as they marked sacred time. May Shabbat become the shvi’i in our collective consciousness.

Our global unity as a People makes us stronger and more able to forge a future that learns lessons from both mistakes and successes. Moses taught us that through education and Torah study, Shabbat observance, examining our ways through a dedication to holy routines (rituals) that reinforce the value of cooperation people could and would change for the better. Life here, as with Jewish life everywhere, is about being on that holy mission.

May this Shabbat bring Israel, and all Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, strength and ultimately peace. May our Shabbat services and observances remind us of the world we seek to inhabit daily. God send strength and healing to all those in need and help us release our captives.

I’ll send our love and support to those I see and greet. I’m privileged to be our shaliah in the Holy Land these days of this important journey m’ha-shvi’i, since the 7th.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Bolton