Friday, October 13, 2023

Despite the Tears, A Shehecheyanu


Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets troops on the Gaza border, October 10, 2023

There are times when the grief-stricken must recite a Shehecheyanu.


This blessing is meant for joyous occasions and thanks God for having "kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.”


When one is grieving, this blessing seems out of place. But Jewish law expects mourners to recite this blessing when they are the beneficiaries of a gift. We don’t ignore the good, even in the worst circumstances.


This past week, I was thinking about a Shehecheyanu that was recited 80 years ago.


In Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, Yaffa Eliach recounts when the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Israel Spira, recited this blessing on a Chanukah evening in the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp:


….a wooden clog, the shoe of one of the inmates, became a hanukkiah; strings pulled from a concentration camp uniform, a wick; and the black camp shoe polish, oil.


Not far from the heaps of the bodies, the living skeletons assembled to participate in the kindling of Hanukkah lights.


The Rabbi of Bluzhov lit the first light and chanted the first two blessings…When he was about to recite the third blessing, he stopped, turned his head, and looked around as if he were searching for something.


Immediately, he turned his face back to the quivering small lights and in a strong, reassuring, comforting voice, chanted the third, Shehecheyanu blessing: "Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment."


Among the people present at the kindling of the lights was Mr. Zamietchkowski, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Bund….Afterward, he turned to the rabbi and said, "I can understand your need to light Hanukkah candles in these wretched times. I can even understand the historical note of the second blessing, 'Who brought miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season.' But the fact that you recited the third blessing is beyond me. How could you thank God and say 'Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment'? How could you say it when hundreds of dead Jewish bodies are literally lying within the shadows of the Hanukkah lights …and millions more are being massacred? For this you are thankful to God? For this you praise the Lord? This you call 'keeping us alive'?"


"Zamietchkowski, you are a hundred percent right," answered the rabbi. "When I reached the third blessing, I also hesitated and asked myself, what should I do with this blessing? … But as I turned my head, I noticed that behind me a throng was standing, a large crowd of living Jews, their faces expressing faith and devotion... I said to myself, if God, blessed be He, has such a nation that at times like these ... stand and … listen to the Hanukkah blessing, … if, indeed, I was blessed to see such a people with so much faith and fervor, then I am under a special obligation to recite the third blessing.”


What the Bluzhever said is particularly relevant now, as we search for hope while engulfed by tragedy. 


Yes, our grief is overwhelming. A friend of mine in Israel told me that his children who serve in the IDF have lost more friends in the past few days than he did in his lifetime. Entire families have been wiped out. The loss is so severe, that Israeli cemeteries are calling for volunteers to dig graves. The Jewish people are in mourning, just two degrees of separation from someone who was murdered or kidnapped.


Analogies fail when it comes to this attack. To call it a pogrom is a dramatic understatement. Even 9/11, which remains a deep American trauma 22 years later, pales in comparison to this attack; the Simchat Torah massacre is the equivalent of thirteen 9/11s. The only proper analogy for the two days of horror is the Holocaust.


The barbarism of Hamas is incomprehensible. They murdered individuals by shooting them at point-blank range with rocket-propelled grenades. They slit throats. They massacred 40 babies. They took such pride in their depravity that they videotaped what they did.


Actually, incomprehensible is the wrong word to describe Hamas’ crimes. Good people simply have a failure of imagination, and they often refuse to understand the mindset of those who are evil. And that is a flaw. It hobbles democracies when they have to take on dictatorships; they imagine they can negotiate with those who are ruthless, and “bring out the best” in them. One who desires love finds it difficult to imagine that there are people who have a passion for cruelty.


Our Torah reading introduces us to Lemech, the first person who takes joy in violence. He boastfully recites the following poem to his wives:


For I have killed a man as soon as I wounded him,

Even a young man as soon as I hurt him.

If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,

Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.


This passage is enigmatic and difficult to interpret, and commentators offer multiple approaches. But the above translation is based on the commentary of Umberto Cassuto, who follows the approach of Rabbeinu Bachya. Lemech is the one who popularizes violence; his son is the inventor of the sword. Lemech sings about how strong he is, how easily he killed a young boy who displeased him; as Cassuto puts it, Lemech “boasts with great bravado of this cruel murder.”


There are always people who love violence. Lemech, and his son Tubal-Cain, refine the brutality of their ancestor Cain. While most people compose songs of love and inspiration, Lemech sings a song of death. And the Torah wants to show us, up close, that there are evil human beings like Lemech in this world.


It is fascinating that Lemech refers to God’s protection of Cain. This reminds us that forgiveness is not endless. Perhaps Cain deserved God’s mercy; he had committed a then-unfamiliar crime and did so in extreme jealousy. But Lemech mocks God’s kindness towards Cain by expecting the same for himself. This violent murderer has the brazen chutzpah to demand forgiveness afterward.


What Hamas and its helpers in the international community do is pretty much the same. They expect all of their brutal crimes to be completely forgiven and any mistake by Israel to be severely punished. Our dear member Gilad Erdan has to combat the endless lies disseminated in the United Nations; dictatorships that murder their own people come forward to criticize Israel, and everyone sits and listens seriously to their prattling propaganda. But Hamas’ constant lying shouldn’t surprise us; if you're willing to murder babies, how difficult is it to lie?


For the tragedies of this past week we all weep, and our eyes flow with tears. Yet even so, we must make a Shehecheyanu, just like the Bluzhever Rebbe.


We must make a Shehecheyanu on exceptional kindness. A friend described what is happening in Israel as a “balagan of chesed,” or a chaotic whirlwind of kindness. Everywhere people are running and doing what they can for those in need. One Chabad in Jerusalem packed 25,000 sandwiches for the soldiers. There are hours-long waits at hospitals to donate blood, because so many people have come forward. Hundreds of volunteers have come to Soroka Hospital to help the wounded and their families with laundry, prescriptions, and rides. And here in New York, a lone man stood inside Kennedy Airport, buying plane tickets for soldiers returning home.


We have to make a Shehecheyanu on the beautiful unity. This was not the case at all a few weeks ago; but now, in a crisis, Israel has once again pulled together. (But why does it have to wait for a crisis?) Yotam and Assaf Doctor, who own the aptly named “Brothers Restaurant” in Tel Aviv, started delivering thousands of meals to the front lines. But many soldiers wouldn’t eat them, because the restaurant wasn’t kosher. What did the Doctor brothers do? They called in the Rabbinate, and for the first time, became a kosher restaurant. The Jewish people are brothers and sisters; and family must stick together, in good times and in bad.


We have to make a Shehecheyanu because of extraordinary courage. Perhaps, as the Haggadah says, in every generation someone comes to destroy the Jewish people. But more important to remember is that in every generation we have found the courage to overcome those enemies. They have been tossed into the ash-heap of history, and we are still here.


This brings me to another Shehecheyanu story, from just a few days ago. Israeli media shared a video of David, a soldier in camouflage netting, holding his smartphone. David was participating in his son’s bris, and saying his blessings while in the field of battle. Following the Sephardic tradition, David recited the Shehecheyanu blessing.


A pessimist might object to his Shehecheyanu, and see this as a moment of extreme disappointment. A young father should be with his family, not on the front lines endangering his life. A young mother should have her husband at her side, rather than worrying about if he will ever get to hold his baby boy.


Even so, David’s Shehecheyanu is a meaningful blessing, and expresses the destiny of the Jewish people. For much of Jewish history, we were defenseless. That ended with the establishment of the State of Israel. That’s why, despite the circumstances, David can say Shehecheyanu.


At the end of the bris, David and his fellow soldiers recited the words from Ezekiel (16:6), “And I said to you in your blood you shall live, and I said to you in your blood you shall live." Some of the soldiers began to cry. It is a time of bloodshed; these soldiers have witnessed the aftermath of Hamas’ atrocities. But the message of Ezekiel is that even in the worst times, Jews know that there will be better days ahead. Even amidst the blood, there shall be new life.


And for that, we can all make a Shehecheyanu.


Am Yisrael Chai!

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