9 January 2009
13 Tevet 5769
As we returned to school this week, rested and restored by the winter break, friends reconnected, learning resumed, sports teams competed, rehearsals began. The school is abuzz with renewed energy and excitement. Yet, as I said to our community this week, while we return to our normal school routine, Israeli citizens – including young men and women not much older than our students – are fighting a war.
The natural energy and excitement of our first week back has been infused with and overshadowed by a heightened communal consciousness of the war in Israel.
Even before the week began, a student sent an email requesting that we modify the dress code to permit tee shirts that promote Israel or peace, in order to encourage students to show their solidarity with Israel in a physical way (and we did). At hakhel (community assembly and announcements), another student stood and encouraged the whole school to attend last night’s community-wide Israel rally. Another student invited his classmates and teachers to write prayers, which we now read over the school’s loud speaker right after mincha each day. In our daily minyanim (our smaller prayer communities) and our madrichim ruchanim (spiritual guidance – prayer and discussion) groups – which are more intimate educational environments – students and faculty are discussing, sharing, processing and praying about the situation. Whether reciting Psalms, reading articles, or reviewing relevant information that our students need to know, we are striving to keep Israel, this war, and all of the people who are suffering, on our minds and in our hearts. Since Tuesday was Asara B’Tevet, the minor fast day of the 10th of Tevet, I spent the lunch period with a group of students and teachers who chose to replace eating with learning and introspection about Israel and more broadly about who we are and our ethical responsibilities. These are some of the ways that our community has responded to the war. We will continue to take the time to process in smaller groups and as a community; include opportunities over the next month to hear from guest speakers who have visited Israel; have a special assembly about the Israeli Elections; and host a visit with Nadav Tamir, Consul General of Israel to New England.
I addressed our community, a humbling responsibility in the face of such a difficult and complex situation. I gave our students permission to feel confused by the combination of our affirmation of Israel’s right to defend itself with our grief over the loss of innocent lives, whether Israeli or Palestinian. I affirmed our school’s mission, and our community’s commitment to and support for Israel and its people – in the words of one of my colleagues, “our deep sense that our fate as American Jews and the fate of the Jewish People is bound up with the fate of Israel.” I also reminded our students that love and support for Israel transcends our political opinions and that one of the beauties of the Jewish People and the State of Israel (and of a pluralistic school) is that there is room within the tent of our “pro-Israel” mission for many voices and perspectives. I lamented the loss of any human life and we prayed for the suffering on all sides to end.
This week, we conclude Sefer Breishit (the Book of Genesis) and in the final chapters we read about Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) death. In a moving bedside scene, Yaakov blesses his two grandchildren, Efraim and Menashe, with a line that has become a song and traditional blessing with which parents bless their children at bedtime: “Hamalach hago’el oti mikol ra, yevarech et hane’arim, v’yikareh vahem shemi, v’shem avotai Avraham v’Yitzhak . . . the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – Bless these lads; in them may my name be recalled, and the name of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac; and may they multiply in the land/upon the earth . . .” (Genesis 48:17)
I sing this to my children every night, but last night the words took on new meaning for me. I sat in the crowded rally, proudly surrounded by Gann students, and listened to Barry Shrage describe the spirit people of Sderot, a community that has suffered mightily from Hamas’s launching of rockets into Israel over the past many years. He told the story of a fourteen year old girl who was walking with her younger brother when a siren sounded warning of an incoming rocket. They had just a few seconds to find shelter, but there was none. So she wrapped herself around her younger brother and she was his shelter. The rocket landed, she was killed, but her brother was not. Like every parent in the room, through my tears, I thought of my children, our children, Israeli children, all children – they represent innocence and hope, and their deaths are simply unbearable.
And then I thought about “Hamalach.” Why, I realized, does Yitzhak not ask that the Angel who has redeemed him from all harm in turn redeem the lads from all harm? Is that not the logical progression of his blessing, both spiritually and literarily? Why, does he focus on the redemption from harm for himself, but then ask that the lads be blessed and his name be recalled? It would seem, especially in light of Barry’s story and the suffering of war, that what we want for our children is merely that they be protected and safe from harm. But, as I think about the fourteen year old girl from Sderot, I realize that what makes this so incredibly sad is that we actually want more for our children. We want more than just survival, protection, and shelter from rockets. As was said last night as well, we want children not just to survive, but to live, and for their lives to be a blessing. Yaakov was protected from harm, but when he looks at his grandchildren for the first and last time, he wants to see a better future, for them to “be blessed and to multiply,” to live productive and fulfilling lives, to have families of their own, and to carry on the legacy of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. I realize now that this is what I think of when I sing to my children at night. This is what parents in Sderot and in Gaza think about when they try to avoid rockets, bombs and gunfire. And this is the tragedy of any child’s life cut short – not just death, but the loss of hope and potential, the cutting short of a future, a family, a legacy.
Tonight, the fourth blessing of the Shema will have new meaning for me. As I pray that God will spread out God’s sukkah (shelter) of peace on all of us, I will think of that fourteen year old girl spreading her arms around her little brother. May God protect the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces; may this war and all suffering come to an end soon; and, may it bring about a genuine, lasting peace, in which children and all people can focus not just on surviving, but on living.
Rabbi Marc Baker