Chanukah Candles in Kibbutz Beeri
We are celebrating this Chanukah in the shadow of war, a war triggered by the inferno that erupted on Simchas Torah. It is very difficult to celebrate or feel joy at a time like this, but we are obligated to make it a festive time nonetheless. The Jewish people are oppressed today just as they were oppressed in the days of the Chashmonaim, but we can see our salvation in the flames of the Chanukah candles.
The country was touched by the story of the menorah lighting in Kibbutz Beeri. Eli Karsenty was miraculously spared from death during the massacre. It was his second brush with the malach hamaves and the angels of destruction. During the Yom Kippur War, Eli was held captive in Egypt, and on October 7, his home went up in flames. Shoshana, the mother of his children, was murdered in cold blood. She was a woman with the soul of an artist, whose life revolved around giving to others. And the shadow of death touched other parts of their family as well: Noach and Maayana Herskowitz, Shoshana’s daughter and son-in-law, who lived nearby, were murdered as well. Their children’s emotions vacillated between terror and hope for the following two weeks while they waited for word of their parents’ fates, until they received the dreaded news that their parents were no longer among the living.
The home once occupied by Noach and Maayana in Kibbutz Beeri, which was blackened by flames and soot, has become an icon of sorts, partly because of the Chanukah menorah that survived the destruction. Images of that menorah appeared in this newspaper and others last week; it makes for a striking sight, perched on a windowsill and surrounded by a home ravaged by flames, with the menorah likewise bearing signs of damage but radiating emunah. The menorah has suffered and been bent, but it still stands—just as the late Yosef Herskowitz, Noach’s grandfather, stood strong even after living through the horrors of Auschwitz. The menorah was an inheritance from Saba Yosef, and the image of the menorah still standing proud in Kibbutz Beeri has instilled hope and faith in many people throughout the country. The sight conveys a symbolic message: Klal Yisroel has suffered a serious blow, but things will be good in the end.
Last Thursday night, on the first night of Chanukah, Tamir Herskowitz traveled to Kibbutz Beeri to kindle the first Chanukah light in his parents’ home, filling the empty house with emunah. Tamir told me that he is not religious, but he is a man of faith. He recited the brachos, including shehecheyonu, and sang Maoz Tzur in a voice choked with emotion, followed by Tchernichovsky’s Ani Maamin. It is doubtful that he was aware that the lyrics imitated the song Shakah Chamah by Rav Avrohom Eliyohu Kaplan, a talmid of Slabodka, which was sung in the yeshivos of Lithuania, and the tune is identical. The melody thus seemed to signal a connection between the atrocities of the Holocaust and the modern-day pogrom perpetrated by the terrorists from Gaza. Tamir stood there in Kibbutz Beeri, surrounded by rubble and blackness, and kindled a flame signifying the eternal spark in every Jewish soul. That moment was incredibly symbolic, representing the Jew who spends his life suffering and oppressed yet manages to rise from the dust and ashes.
I told Tamir that he had been mekadeish shem Shomayim with his actions. He replied, “I’m very happy that my personal act on behalf of my parents can create light for others.” He paused and then added, “This is my gift to my parents.”
A Message from the Bibas Brothers’ Aunt
Numerous menoros have been lit in many places in Israel as a zechus for the hostages still being held in captivity and a symbolic show of support for them. Israelis feel a sense of responsibility for each other; we are davening and hoping for our brethren to return safely from captivity. Their pain is our pain; their suffering is our suffering. The images of the two redheaded child captives, ten-month old Kfir Bibas and his older brother Ariel, are seared into everyone’s consciousness in Israel. It is presumed that the boys are being held together with their mother, Shiri. Israel demanded their return in the very first wave of releases, but Hamas claimed that the family was no longer alive. We all fear the possibility that the children and their mother were indeed murdered in captivity. We know with certainty that they were taken to Gaza alive, as the video of their capture was viewed throughout the country. The fate of their father, Yarden, is also unknown at this time.
Last Thursday, Yarden Bibas’s sister wrote, “Two months have gone by, and it is now the first night of Chanukah. Do you [her family members in captivity] even know that it is Chanukah now? I’m sure you have lost any sense of the passage of time, as have we. Time has stopped moving for us, but at the same time, everything has changed. Every year, we used to meet at Saba Yechiel’s house and light candles together. We all feel your absence keenly, and we are all worried about you. I hope that you haven’t lost hope. We are here, waiting for our Chanukah miracle, waiting for you to return to us and to bring back the light. We love you, and we are waiting for your return.”
Netanyahu Speaks at the Kosel
It is an annual ritual for menoros to be lit at the Kosel by public figures every night of Chanukah. There is a menorah in the Kosel plaza and another in the enclosed area. On the first night of Chanukah, the outdoor menorah lighting was conducted by the Sephardic chief rabbi, Rav Yitzchok Yosef, accompanied by the Minister of Religious Affairs, Michoel Malchieli. The menorah in the enclosed area was lit by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was accompanied by Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and by Yaakov Shabtai, the chief of the Israel Police Force. The events were attended as usual by Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, the rov of the Kosel, and Soli Eliav, the chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
Netanyahu addressed his audience at the lighting ceremony. “We are standing here beside the last remnant of our Bais Hamikdash, which stood here 2200 years ago,” he said. “The Maccabees liberated the Bais Hamikdash, purified it, and restored Jewish autonomy and independence. They saved the heritage of Israel, the religion of Israel, and the people of Israel. Without them, the thread of our lives would have been severed, and we would not be standing here today. The battle at that time was against the forces of evil who came to erase the Jewish nation from the face of the earth. Today we… are fighting the forces of evil who are trying to eradicate the Jewish people and their state from the face of the earth…
“We are deep within the Gaza Strip right now,” Netanyahu continued. “This enemy will not dismantle us; we will dismantle them. This enemy will not wipe us out; we will wipe them out. This enemy will not overcome us; we will overcome them. We are doing this every day and every night, and we will continue doing it until the end.”
Netanyahu even mentioned President Biden in his speech: “I spoke with President Biden this evening, and I told him, ‘Today is the eve of Chanukah.’ He told me that he keeps a menorah in his office. I told him, ‘We keep a menorah in our hearts, for the sake of our land and our future.’ We light the first candle tonight with the knowledge that the light that emanates from here will never be extinguished. Even if this holiday is diluted with sadness, this knowledge can give us a chag someiach. I wish you all a chag someiach.”
The Trauma Continues
The professionals who met the hostages returning from captivity were advised not to pressure them with questions. Nevertheless, the returning hostages were quick to open their hearts and share their feelings and experiences, and their testimonies paint a picture of horrific abuse at the hands of their barbaric captors. The social workers told the media that they have heard about the conditions under which the hostages were held, about their captors’ attitudes toward them, and about the ways that they gave each other encouragement and support. “They all have a long road ahead of them, even if their physical health is reasonable,” said Dr. Gur-Kol. “After fifty days in captivity, without food and without seeing light, no one would return in good condition. We are concerned about their emotional states and the stories that will soon be surfacing. We are trying to arrange for professionals to follow every one of the returning hostages for years to come.” She added, “With some of them, we can see that the Hamas brainwashing worked. Some hostages told us that their captors threatened them by telling them, ‘We know where you live, and we know where your families live,’ and warned them not to divulge anything that happened to them in captivity. Many of the hostages are still afraid; they were warned not to open their mouths.”
Ruthie Munder, a 78-year-old woman who was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz and later freed, related that the hostages were hungry most of the time. She and her daughter Keren lost seven kilos each during their time in Hamas captivity. Yaffa Adar, an 85-year-old woman from Nir Oz who was taken hostage by Hamas, likewise lost weight in captivity. The same was true even of the younger hostages, such as nine-year-old Emily Hand, whose father claimed that her weight dropped significantly. A citizen of the Philippines who was freed from captivity related that he was forced to eat toilet paper due to the lack of food. At times, the hostages were also given almost no water, and the little water they received was salty.
One of the first hostages to be freed, 85-year-old Yocheved Lifschitz, gave a press conference after her release in which she presented a thorough account of the conditions under which the hostages were held. She told the reporters that she had been beaten with sticks during the drive from Israel to Gaza. “We reached the caves and walked for kilometers under the damp ground,” she said. “It looked like spider webs. When we got there, they told us that they believe in the Koran and they would not harm us; they would provide us with the same conditions that they had. After walking through the tunnels, we reached a large room where we were gathered together, forming a group of about 25 people.”
Eyal Nuri, the nephew of Adina Moshe, a 72-year-old hostage who was freed, related that his aunt needed to reacclimate to the sunlight after spending weeks in darkness. “She was held in total darkness,” he said. “She walked with her eyes down, because she was in a tunnel.”
Other hostages described being held in extremely oppressive conditions. Medications were not provided, and one of the hostages, Elma Avraham, returned to Israel in serious condition due to the fact that her medications were denied to her. “From a medical standpoint, she was abandoned throughout her time there,” her daughter declared. “She did not receive her lifesaving medications.”
The hostages also were not given the opportunity to bathe and were kept under inhumane conditions. One of the hostages was wounded and underwent an operation in Gaza, where the doctors reattached her foot backward. Another hostage was subjected to surgery without anesthesia. Some of the freed hostages’ relatives noted that they were not physically abused, but the aunt of twelve-year-old Eitan Yahalomi told the press that he experienced unspeakable torture in captivity. “The Hamas terrorists forced the children to watch the videos of the atrocities they committed on October 7,” she said. “Every time a child burst into tears at the horrific sights, they threatened them with guns so that they would be quiet.” She claims that Eitan says that he was beaten by many residents of Gaza after he was taken captive. “When he arrived in Gaza, he was beaten by every citizen that he encountered,” she said. “Remember, this is a twelve-year-old child!”
Eitan’s grandmother, Esther, related that he was kept alone in a closed room during the first 16 days after his abduction.
The captives also suffered from psychological torment. Many of the children who were released were speaking in whispers when they first encountered their family members, unable to break the habit that had been forced upon them during their period of captivity.
Terrorists’ Families Receive Rewards
Meanwhile, more details are constantly coming to light about the actions of the terrorist murderers on October 7, and the reports are utterly horrifying. Even the rest of the world, including the UN, continues to be appalled by the stories that are emerging. It brings to mind the teachings of Chazal about the children of Yishmoel and Eisov, about Edom and Cham, and about the world’s eternal hatred for the Jewish people. Klal Yisroel has a long history of suffering from persecution; Jews have been burned at the stake or shot to death and buried in mass graves, shuls have been torched, and many other horrific atrocities have been committed against us throughout the generations. But the horrors of this massacre are still heartrending. These events happened now, in our times and in Eretz Yisroel. For a long time, we allowed ourselves to think that we would never witness such sights or hear about such events again, but the brutal reality continues confronting us. The massacre on October 7 wasn’t prompted by a desire for vengeance; it stemmed from deep-rooted, bestial hatred. These murderers committed barbaric acts of violence against people who had never harmed another human being, and who certainly hadn’t done anything against the people of Gaza. In fact, some of the hostages and murder victims had spent much of their lives helping Palestinians, but that did not stop the terrorists from murdering them. Their evil knows no bounds. Israel is currently embroiled in a war against heartless, inhuman monsters. It is no wonder that the people of Israel are suffering from anxiety and trauma. Everyone is beginning to understand that there is no chance in the world for peace with these barbarians.
Then there is the matter of the monetary incentives for terror. Out of the 3000 terrorists who entered Israel from Gaza on Simchas Torah, thousands were killed and hundreds were captured. Those who were captured and imprisoned will be receiving wages of 2000 shekels a month from the Palestinian Authority. If a terrorist is sentenced to over five years in prison, the PA will continue paying that stipend for the rest of his life, even after he is released. Some of the recipients of these lifelong stipends are terrorists who were released in the prisoner exchange deal with Hamas. The families of terrorists who were killed will likewise be receiving monthly stipends. This month, the PA will be paying 11 million shekels to the terrorists who slaughtered Jews on Simchas Torah. According to their laws, the family of a terrorist who was killed while attacking Jews receives an immediate one-time grant of 6000 shekels, and then a monthly stipend of 1400 shekels thereafter. If the terrorist has children, his family receives a larger stipend. And a terrorist who murders Jews in Yerushalayim receives a bonus.
The Palestinian pay-for-slay policy has not gone unnoticed by those who seek to stamp out terror. After the terror attack in Ramot last winter, which took the lives of Alter Shlomo Lederman and the brothers Yaakov Yisroel and Asher Paley, Sander Gerber of New York spearheaded the Paley Law, which called for the madness of the Palestinian pay-for-slay policy to be put to an end. At a meeting held at the home of Rav Boruch Weisbecker, Gerber recruited the Knesset members from Shas and Degel HaTorah to promote this cause. The idea raised some eyebrows, but the law was passed in the Knesset, with over 60 MKs signing on it. The law stipulates that terror victims are entitled to file lawsuits against organizations that encourage terror attacks by paying salaries to terrorists. Gerber met with Aryeh Deri at the time and received his support; he also met with Yuli Edelstein, who promised to support his initiative and to promote the law in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. A few years earlier, Gerber had also pushed a different law through the legislative process in the Knesset, calling for payments for terror victims to be deducted from the funds that Israel transfers to the Palestinian Authority. Gerber, who works tirelessly for this cause, is driven by a clearheaded understanding of the dangers of allowing murderers to receive salaries for their acts of terror, as well as by profound concern for the victims of terror. Every terror attack in Israel stirs his emotions in faraway New York.
Last Thursday, after the shooting attack at the entrance to Yerushalayim—which occurred at the very spot where Aryeh Schupak was murdered last year—Gerber was outraged again. If anyone has any doubt as to whether Gerber is justified in pushing for this bill, the following should clear up that confusion: Last week, the European Union included Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa, the leaders of the Hamas military wing, on its official list of terrorists, freezing their assets in Europe and prohibiting the transfer of any funds or economic resources to their position. Clearly, the European governments understand that cutting off the sources of funding for terror is instrumental in combating terrorists. But while the EU understands this, not everyone in Israel has the same understanding.
One Hundred Soldiers Killed
On erev Chanukah, we marked the passage of two months since the dreadful massacre. By the time of this writing, another week has already passed, and Israel is still at war. According to the Finance Ministry, it is considered a possibility that the war may continue throughout the year 2024. That, at least, is the assumption guiding the development of the state budget for the coming year, which takes the economic cost of warfare into account. Every day brings the news of more soldiers who have been killed in the hornets’ nest in Gaza, where our enemies are doing everything possible to take Israeli lives. The IDF knows that they will have to suffer fatalities, but that does not stop them from operating there. Almost every day, we hear stories about heroic soldiers who put their lives on the line. Over 100 soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the war, and about 500 have been wounded; may Hashem send them a refuah sheleimah.
In the meantime, a number of people, both soldiers and civilians, who were thought to have been abducted by Hamas have since been found to have been killed. Several hostages were also found to have been murdered by their captors in Gaza; their bodies were retrieved by soldiers of the IDF. May Hashem avenge their blood.
Last week, two deaths in the IDF attracted a significant amount of attention. One was Gal Eizenkot, the son of Gadi Eizenkot, a former chief of staff of the IDF who is a member of the cabinet today. The other, who was killed two days later, was his cousin, Maor Cohen, whose mother is an Eizenkot. Both young men were named after the same grandfather. The death of any soldier is tragic, but there was something about the deaths of these two cousins, who shared the same namesake and were killed two days apart, that was particularly heartrending.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Hamas terrorists surrendered to IDF soldiers in Gaza, and the images of these terrorists raising their hands in surrender and putting down their weapons have been widely publicized, with a demoralizing effect on their comrades who haven’t yet surrendered. Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi attended a Chanukah candle lighting ceremony this week with a group of soldiers from the Nachal Brigade and commented, “We see many terrorists who have been killed and many who are surrendering. That is a sign that the system is breaking down and that we need to push harder.”
Relying Only on Hashem
I generally prefer to write about my own musings, but Rav Zamir Cohen wrote something so incredible this week that I can’t resist quoting it for you. Rav Cohen writes the opening article every week in Oneg Shabbos, a newsletter published by the Hidabroot kiruv organization with a readership of at least 300,000 people. This publication can be found in every hospital, on every army base, at every police station, and in kiosks around the country.
I can attest to the newsletter’s popularity from my own experiences in the Knesset shul. When it was first introduced to the shul by one of the Knesset employees, Shimon Testa, the gabbai of the shul, Asher Chazan, refused at first to allow the newsletters to be placed there. “I can’t be burdened with bringing the leftover copies to shaimos,” he said.
I intervened and said, “I can guarantee you that there won’t be a single copy left in the shul for you to handle.”
Sure enough, Shimon dutifully brings dozens of copies of the newsletter to the shul every week, and there has never been a single copy left behind.
Parenthetically, Shimon did not come to work for several days after Simchas Torah. We soon discovered that his nephew, Ofir Testa, had been killed in a battle with terrorists in the south. Ofir was buried on the Tuesday after Simchas Torah in the military cemetery on Har Herzl, and Shimon spent several days with his family to help them get through the mourning period. The family told incredible stories about Ofir, who was a student in the Shuvu school network during his childhood. May Hashem avenge his blood.
But let us return to Rav Zamir Cohen’s article. Rav Zamir quotes the mishnayos in Maseches Sotah that predict the state of the world during the days leading up to Moshiach’s arrival. These mishnayos state three times that we will not be able to rely on anyone other than our Father in Shomayim, in a comment that seems somewhat tangential to its discussion. Taken at face value, the mishnayos seem to be expressing a sense of resignation; since they discuss the hardships that will befall Klal Yisroel, they add that we will have nowhere to turn for help other than to Hashem. However, Rav Zamir explains that this is not the meaning of the mishnah; rather, this phrase describes another sign of the impending arrival of Moshiach. One of the signs of Moshiach’s coming, he explains, is that we will realize that we can rely only on Hashem to protect us. In fact, Moshiach will not come until we reach that realization. If we believe in our own strength, in the power of our economy, in American aid, in the Iron Dome, or in anything else, it prevents Moshiach’s arrival. The world will be ready for Moshiach only when we understand that we have no source of salvation other than Hashem Himself.
Moreover, Rav Zamir adds that suffering sometimes befalls us so that we will reach that understanding and cease believing in the nations of the world, in our own might, or in anything else other than the Master of the Universe. That, he concludes, is exactly what happened on Simchas Torah. Everyone felt a sense of security, relying on the IDF to protect us in the south and the north, but we have discovered that our only true source of protection is Hashem. “We are all davening for the geulah to come soon,” he concludes, “without suffering or pain.”
A Failed Rescue Mission
There are several other stories that I must share with you, but I will try to keep them short, due to space constraints.
First, there is the escalation in the north. Last Thursday, Eyal Uzan, a 54-year-old farmer from Kibbutz Gesher Haziv in northern Israel, was killed by an anti-tank missile. Military paramedics who arrived at the scene of the missile strike found the victim wounded and unconscious. He was pronounced dead several hours later. Earlier today, terrorists fired an anti-tank missile from Lebanon toward the area of Matat. A number of other missile launches were also detected emanating from Lebanon into Israeli territory. In response to the missile fire, the IDF has been striking back using helicopters, tanks, and artillery fire.
Meanwhile, terror is continuing within Israel as well. A Palestinian armed with a machine gun was caught on Thursday near the settlement of Elon Moreh in the Shomron, after an IDF lookout spotted him with a concealed weapon. The terrorist was quickly apprehended by soldiers and taken for questioning. In another case, a female soldier was injured by a car that was deliberately rammed into her. It was only by a miracle that she did not suffer a worse fate.
On Friday, the IDF spokesman announced that an operation with the goal of rescuing the hostages in Gaza had failed that morning. In a special operation that began late Thursday night, two IDF soldiers were severely wounded when the soldiers raided a Hamas position and eliminated a number of terrorists who were involved in abducting and holding the hostages. The IDF spokesman clarified that no hostages had been freed in the operation, although some terrorists were eliminated. He added, “Together with the Shin Bet, we will work in every way possible to bring all the hostages home and to acquire information. Representatives of the IDF are in constant contact with the families of the hostages and are keeping them updated. The IDF’s representatives are in regular contact with the families and are updating them with any verified information about their loved ones.”
Interestingly, I received information—although I cannot divulge the source—that the operation was launched after the IDF received definitive intelligence that the hostages were in that particular location. It seems that the soldiers missed them by a very short time. Without going into details, I will add that the operation was made possible by the temporary ceasefire. Certain critics within Israel described that ceasefire as a surrender to America and a gift to Hamas; this should serve as a reminder that the public isn’t always aware of all the factors determining the government’s decisions.
Another story that deserves more comprehensive treatment is that of the soldier who killed Yuval Doron Kastelman, the civilian who shot the terrorists at the entrance to Yerushalayim and was then mistakenly killed by an Israeli soldier. It is a very sad story, and the exhumed Kastelman’s body for examination, to clarify the facts of the case. I must also mention the terrible events in Tel Aviv motzoei Shabbos, when a group of leftist protestors almost lynched a Lubavitcher chossid who was present with a menorah.
A Good Word from a Kind Heart
Let me end this column with a story.
Two weeks ago, a distinguished member of the Har Nof community named Reb Yaakov Kleiner passed away. Reb Yaakov, who was similar in age to me, was a member of the group of administrators of the Chasdei Naftoli shul, as am I (even though I live in Givat Shaul and do not daven there). He was a brother-in-law of Rav Shmuel Yaakov Bornstein (whose wife was a Kleiner). Reb Yaakov’s mother was a daughter of Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, the rosh yeshiva of Telz. One of the visitors at the yeshiva was a young man with special needs named Hillel, who is a kohen and often performs birkas kohanim at the shul. On Wednesday, Hillel placed a phone call to his parents and tearfully informed them, “Kleiner passed away. He was my good friend; he used to thank me every morning.” Hillel is very sensitive, but he is also very resilient. He doesn’t often cry, but this time he was deeply pained.
When he visited the family during shiva, Hillel said, “I want to tell you that I think that Kobi [Reb Yaakov] was a good person. My heart is truly pained. I am genuinely upset. He used to thank me every morning, and why? Because I said the birkas kohanim. He also helped me with my tefillin. He was so good. It really pains me. He was truly a very good friend to me. He was very beloved to me. Before I go, I would like to stand up and say something.”
With his sweet voice and heartfelt words, he gave expression to the feelings we all shared: Reb Yaakov Kleiner was an incredible person, a man with a noble soul and outstanding middos. Like many tzaddikim, he spoke modestly about his plans, but his accomplishments were enormous. He was always the first to advance any cause of kedushah or chessed; he was kind and gracious to everyone. He was an outstanding family man and a true friend. Hillel stood up, and everyone waited tensely to hear what he had to say. Straightening his sweater, he swayed back and forth and uttered the words, “Hamakom yenacheim eschem….”
I later spoke with Hillel’s father, an incredible man named Yosef Mackler. (“I am not a rov, and do not use that title for me,” he warned me.) He is a yungerman in Rav Yisroel Weissman’s kollel in the neighborhood of Romema, a kollel with a very strict schedule. The Mackler family used to live in Washington Heights, where he attended the shul of Rav Yosef Breuer, which was later headed by Rav Shimon Schwab. The family moved to Israel in 1985. They are a very special family with a fascinating story that deserves to be told at some point in the future. But for our purposes, I will share Reb Yosef’s comment about the lesson to be learned from his son’s visit to the family during shiva. “This is the power of a kind word,” he said. “Just look what Rabbi Kleiner did for my son with a few words. When he said ‘yasher koach,’ it penetrated Hillel’s heart; he sensed that it came from his heart. There was a reason that he said that Kobi was his friend. We must all learn from him to use our own words to perform kindness for others.”
I couldn’t help but observe that his son Hillel had modeled the very same lesson for all of us with his own kind words at the shiva.