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Sukkos in the Shadow of Terror

The Yom Tov of Sukkos has just concluded, and, as always, it was a joyous time in Yerushalayim in particular and in Eretz Yisroel in general. At the main bais medrash of the Karlin chassidus, men danced in lively circles while the orchestra played with great emotion from a balcony overlooking the huge room. Then there was the spirited dancing at the Toldos Aharon bais medrash, not to mention the Hakafos Shniyos in Ahavas Shalom. Without a doubt, there wasn’t a single visitor to Yerushalayim on Sukkos who failed to experience the festive spirit at these three botei medrash.

From those events, I made my way to a series of other celebrations in various shuls, halls, botei medrash, and chassidishe courts, as well as the private sukkos of good friends and public figures. My heart overflowed with emotion as I made my way from one event to the next. Traveling from one Simchas Bais Hashoeivah to another, and finally experiencing Hakafos Shniyos, afforded me an opportunity not only to enjoy the festive spirit of the Yom Tov, but also get a refreshing look at the growth of Torah Judaism in Eretz Yisroel.

One has to look at the broad range of festivities from a somewhat anthropological perspective. When the State of Israel was first founded, the chareidi populace was seen as a superfluous appendage of sorts, one that was doomed to fade away over time. David Ben-Gurion went so far as to say, “Leave them alone. Let them serve as a relic of the shtetles of the Diaspora.” But Hashem had His own plans, and it is the secular society of this country that is now bankrupt and on the verge of extinction. It infuriates them when we quote the famous analogy of the Chazon Ish about the two wagons that meet on a narrow road, one empty and the other full. Even if their “wagon” was once at least partially “full,” containing some sort of meaningful ideals, today it is completely empty.

Alternatively, perhaps we should quote Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, who challenged the chilonim in his famous speech in Yad Eliyahu: “What makes you Jewish?” They had no response to his question other than rage.

Songs of Joy

Today, the great yeshivos overflow with bochurim celebrating the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah. At Yeshivas Mir in Brachfeld, Modiin Illit, a crowd of 600 bochurim danced joyfully, and they are merely a fraction of the royal army of talmidim that comprises the Mirrer empire. On Motzoei Simchas Torah, if you were to visit Yeshivas Bais Mattisyahu in Bnei Brak, you would find another 600 bochurim rejoicing at the Hakafos Shniyos.

And then there were the celebrations in Vizhnitz and in Rachmastrivka, in Haifa and in Netanya, in Chatzor and in Chadeira, not to mention the Sefardic community with its ubiquitous, effusive celebrations. Tens of thousands of young men, both veteran yeshiva students and the newly religious, rejoiced with the Torah this Yom Tov.

On a personal level, I had the privilege of being invited to a private sukkah that was graced by the presence of the Modzitzer Rebbe, along with a number of his chassidim and close associates. This sukkah was at the home of a prominent individual from New York who owns an apartment in Yerushalayim. It is a beautiful home, and during the Yom Tov, the spacious sukkah in his yard was visited by his close friends, various askanim, roshei yeshivos, and admorim.

I was present in that sukkah when the Modzitzer Rebbe appeared, radiating regality and nobility. I truly felt, as Chazal tell us about the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah, that anyone who did not witness those festivities has never truly experienced joy. For two hours, we were immersed in uplifting song and captivating chassidishe vertlach. At the head table were a number of distinguished guests: Rav Boruch Soloveitchik, Rav Yosef Chevroni, and Rav Meir Kessler, the rov of Modiin Illit. In the center of this group sat the Rebbe.

Sukkos is a festival of joy. The very walls of the sukkah radiate joy and kedushah. It is no wonder that many people take leave of the sukkah with tears, kissing its walls as they leave it.

One Tragedy After Another

But as much as Sukkos is a time of joy, this Yom Tov was also a time of sorrow. Tragedy after tragedy took place in quick succession, and we had no rest. Rav Eitam and Naama Henkin were still being mourned when Aharon Benita and Rabbi Nechemiah Lavi were murdered.

Rav Eitam and Naama Henkin were murdered on the third day of Chol Hamoed by terrorists shooting from a passing car, as they drove from the community of Itamar to Elon Moreh, near Beit Furik. The MDA paramedics who arrived at the scene pronounced their deaths. The couple’s four children, who were riding in the back seat of the car, witnessed their parents’ murder. The Henkins were laid to rest on Erev Shabbos Chol Hamoed on Har Hamenuchos in Yerushalayim.

Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu was in New York during the levayah, having spoken earlier at the United Nations General Assembly. Referring to the murder, he declared, “This has been a difficult day for the State of Israel. We have witnessed a particularly cruel and horrifying act of murder, in which a couple was killed and their four children were left orphaned. My heart and all of our hearts are with the orphaned children and the family. The murderers knew that they were killing a father and a mother; the children were there. Once again, it has been proven that the wild Palestinian incitement leads to acts of terror and murder such as the one we have seen. I will soon be speaking with the Minister of Defense, with the IDF Chief of Staff, and with the director of the Shin Bet to determine what steps we will take now, not only to capture the murderers, but also to increase the security of all the citizens of the State of Israel.”  The murderers were indeed apprehended quickly, based on a gun they had left at the scene of the attack.

The American State Department also issued a statement condemning the murders. “We send our condolences to the families of the victims,” it announced, immediately adding, “and we call on both sides to show restraint, to refrain from an escalation of the tensions in light of this tragedy, and to work together in order to bring the perpetrators to justice.” It is interesting to see Washington speaking of “restraint” while blood flows in the streets of Yerushalayim…

Murdered Before Their Children’s Eyes

Rav Eitam Henkin was a well-known talmid chochom. Tamar Omar, my neighbor in Givat Shaul and his daughter’s kindergarten teacher, spoke very highly of him to me. She has been weeping bitterly over his death. His parents, too, live in Givat Shaul. His wife was a daughter of a member of the Sayeret Matkal combat brigade who participated in the attempted rescue of Nachshon Wachsman, who was abducted and murdered by terrorists. Rav Eitam spent ten years learning at Yeshivat Nir in Kiryat Arba and served in the Golani Brigade of the IDF.

I spoke with a paramedic from Ichud Hatzalah who responded to the scene of the attack. He related that finding four children seated in the back seat of a car while their parents bled to death from bullet wounds was an experience that sliced through him like a blade. It is a sight that will leave permanent scars in the hearts of the rescue personnel and security forces who responded to the scene.

And so, as we sat in our sukkos, we felt that our lives had been declared hefker. Our land has been invaded, and the State of Israel cannot fulfill even the most basic obligation of a state: to provide security for its citizens. By that, we mean actual security and not merely a feeling of security. The Minister of Internal Security and the Prime Minister have both decided to station police officers at intervals of 50 meters in order to provide a sense of security to people visiting the Kosel. But we are in need of actual security, not merely an illusory feeling. It is the result that matters, not the appearance of the situation. And in fact, despite the heavy police presence, Rabbi Nechemiah Lavi and Aharon Benita were both killed before the eyes of the police. Rabbi Lavi, a member of the faculty of Yeshivas Ateres Kohanim and a melamed at Talmud Torah Neriah, heard a terror attack in progress and ran to help, only to be killed himself. Aharon Benita’s wife, meanwhile, was treated to hostile glares from Arab bystanders during the attack.

Killed in the Course of a Mitzvah

Rabbi Lavi’s levayah took place on Hoshana Rabbah at Har Hamenuchos. In his speech at the funeral, President Reuven Rivlin said, “Nechemiah, I am standing here before your funeral bier, looking at your delicate children with their beautiful names and at your wife, and my heart refuses to accept this. We have prayed for salvation on Hoshanah Rabbah, but this time, these words are more painful than ever. How can it be that Jews have been murdered on their way to the Kosel on the night of Hoshanah Rabbah? You were killed while coming to the defense of your people and your homeland.”

Rivlin added that the days when it was prohibited to sound a shofar at the Kosel are long gone, never to return.

“We must not be deterred from visiting the Kosel,” he declared.

Next to the president sat Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, the well-known philanthropist from Los Angeles.

Rabbi Lavi’s son, Aharon, delivered a eulogy for his father, declaring, “My father wasn’t simply murdered. He was killed in a battle against the enemy. My father left our home to defend other Jews and fell in battle.”

The Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Rav Dovid Lau, said, “You ran to fulfill an additional mitzvah on Sukkos. You ran to save another Jew from the hands of an enemy. And now we are all standing here in prayer. Master of the Universe, these are such difficult tests. What type of simchas hachag will the children and their parents have?”

The country was also horrified by the experience of the wounded Mrs. Benita, who ran through the Arab marketplace in the Old City, screaming for help. From the moment she was stabbed until she finally found police officers to rescue her, Arab men and women stood and watched as she ran, laughing and spitting at her. Of course, she found no one willing to offer her assistance. This was a clear indication that even those Arabs who do not actually commit murder still rejoice over every Jewish death.

The newspapers have now reported that the police have been ordered to summon all of the bystanders who laughed at Mrs. Benita for questioning. Their joy at the sight of her wounds is like a knife in the heart of every person who seeks peace. But one wonders what the police hope to accomplish. Do they think that they will somehow change our enemies’ attitudes? Can questioning by the police turn a hardened foe into a friend? What can they possibly achieve?

Dancing in Telz-Stone

At this year’s Simchas Bais Hashoeivah, the clarinets sounded somewhat mournful. The bitter taste of blood mixed with the joyous song of the holiday, and fear and rejoicing mingled. Like everyone else, I had arrived at the festivities straight from a levayah, and I joined the celebration with abandon. Tears of sorrow mingled with tears of joy, as the dancing and mourning mixed in a bizarre combination. But a Yom Tov is a Yom Tov and we will not allow our enemies to disrupt our lives.

On the night of Hoshanah Rabbah, I spent a few hours at an event held by Bais Medrash Torah V’Halachah. The bais medrash itself is located on Rechov Tzefaniah in Yerushalayim, but the event took place at the home of its rov in the community of Telz-Stone, just outside Yerushalayim. The name of the bais medrash is an accurate description of its function: It is a place where bnei Torah learn halachah, take tests, and receive certificates attesting to their accomplishments. It is a unique institution in several senses, the brainchild of a number of gedolei Yisroel who proposed the idea and who praised the application. The person who actually founded the bais medrash and continues to maintain it is Rav Yisroel Abramovsky, the rosh bais medrash.

Rav Abramovsky spoke at the event I attended, quoting Chazal’s account of the ten miracles that took place in the Bais Hamikdosh during the shalosh regalim, among them the fact that even when the people stood crowded together, there was plenty of space between them when they bowed. Rashi explains the purpose of the miracle: “So that each person would not hear the confession of his friend, so that he would not be ashamed.” This, the rov pointed out, is strange: Is viduy recited on the shalosh regalim? The answer, he explained, is that with these words, Rashi teaches us that a time of festivity is also a time for viduy. It is precisely at the moments of the greatest spiritual elevation in the Bais Hamikdosh, when the Jewish people reach their highest level of attachment to Hashem, that the viduy of Yom Kippur can be continued. But this is not the confession of sinners. It is a viduy of people rising to a higher spiritual level, a confession of what they could have become and what they failed to achieve. It is a confession of the sin of lost potential, of aspirations never realized and goals never accomplished.

“Our bais medrash,” the rov proclaimed, “is a home for bochurim who have made a choice to fulfill their ambitions, to make the most of their abilities, and to aspire constantly for further growth. At our bais medrash, we devote every evening to comprehensive, in-depth study of halachah, with mesirus nefesh for the Torah and with continuing dedication to make the most of everyone’s capabilities and never stop aspiring to achieve. We ignore the question of what other people will say; we simply devote ourselves to that which is most important and set aside everything that is subsidiary. We turn our backs to the stigma of our unconventional approach and we focus on what Hashem wants of us.”

These were the words spoken by the rov of the bais medrash, a man with an enormous heart whose warmth of character illuminates everything about him. An encounter with Rav Abramovsky himself is enough to afford a stranger at least some idea of the nature of his institution.

Hespeidim on Hoshanah Rabbah

This took place on the night of Hoshanah Rabbah, when we all knew about the murder of the Henkins and had heard the eulogies at their funeral, and we were also aware of the additional murders of Aharon Benita and Rabbi Nechemiah Lavi, which had taken place that night. I personally attended one of the levayos, where I wept bitterly along with everyone else. On Hoshanah Rabbah afternoon, I found myself at the levayah of Aharon Benita at the Shamgar funeral home in Yerushalayim. I arrived relatively early. I felt an obligation to pay my respects to the young Breslover chossid who was murdered simply for being in the Old City of Yerushalayim, a place where I could very easily have found myself. I waited there with a group of chareidi soldiers, friends of Aharon who had served with him until very recently. Their facial expressions spoke volumes about the sorrow they were feeling.

One of the commanders of the unit, a chiloni, received a message on his communications equipment and motioned for the others to approach him. I followed them, curious to hear what he had to say. The commander notified them that the funeral procession would be heading to Har Hamenuchos and would probably take some time, and it had therefore been decided that they were all free to leave, as Yom Tov was rapidly approaching. “I don’t want anyone coming home late because of the funeral,” he explained. But none of them chose to leave. They all remained for the hespeidim and then accompanied the deceased to Har Hamenuchos.

I listened to the hespeidim. The chief rabbi of Yerushalayim, Rav Aryeh Stern, spoke first, followed by Rav Dovid Lau. Rav Lau is a powerful speaker with a phenomenal memory, and he was able to recite the Hoshanos for that painful event by heart. After he spoke, a hesped was delivered by one of the rabbonim of the Breslover community in Beitar, where Aharon Benita had lived. We, the audience, had a taste of the uniqueness of Breslov, as the rov spoke tearfully and with profound pain about accepting Hashem’s judgment.

That was Sukkos of 5776. It was a time of dancing and song bizarrely coupled with tragedy and bereavement.