Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A Letter From Israel: It's Time to Start Dreaming


A Scene from Kfar Aza

It was a landscape of horror. Kfar Aza, one of the Kibbutzim ravaged during the Hamas massacre, is filled with rubble and burned-out buildings. (The terrorists came ready with gasoline and tires to burn down the homes of those who wouldn't leave their safe rooms.) While all of the bodies had already been taken for burial, there still were the outlines on the grass where they had sat, unmoved, for over a week. We heard first-hand reports of the brutal murders and the extreme sadism of the terrorists. Shock, heartbreak, and anger competed for control of my heart.


I was visiting Israel as part of a group from Kehilath Jeshurun and Ramaz. But this was no ordinary trip; our group made multiple difficult visits, where we could see the hurt and suffering of Israel up close.


One stop was at Shurah, the army base tasked with processing the 1200 people murdered during this massacre. Rabbi Bentzi Mann, who was first called to serve at this base on October 8th, spoke about the overwhelming task of identifying and securing a dignified burial for the dead. He told us that during the first days of the war, refrigerator trucks that ordinarily transport chocolate milk and yogurt were filled with bodies instead. When they would open the doors to remove the bodies, blood would come pouring out. Now, every time he sees a yogurt truck, Bentzi is reminded of death.


These difficult stories were everywhere we went. We heard from people who had witnessed the murders of their loved ones. We spoke to the families of hostages, and visited the wounded in hospitals. We saw firsthand the pain and horror Israelis are experiencing.


At the same time, this heartbreak was mixed with inspiration. We met heroes who on October 7th, rushed down to the south on their own accord to take on the attackers; we met medics who risked their lives to pull the wounded out of the battle zone.


At one point, we stopped at a gas station. Coincidentally, it turned out that Masad at the cash register, from Israel's Bedouin community, was a hero who had saved the lives of 14 people on October 7th. We visited grassroots organizations that are helping evacuees from the north and the south; we met with doctors who have been working 16 hours a day, and volunteers who have given up their jobs to help those in need full-time. This sense of unity is what is holding Israel together right now.


Most inspiring is that Israelis still have dreams. On Shabbat in Jerusalem, we read Parashat Vayetzei, which begins with Jacob's dream. Dreams have long been a metaphor for hope, with Aristotle calling hope “a waking dream.”


Jacob's dream is the ultimate vision of hope. It is of a ladder on which angels are going up and down, symbolizing that God is sending His emissaries to watch over Jacob. 


This vision comes to Jacob at the lowest moment in his life, when he's being chased away from home, and his brother Esau wants to murder him. 


And now Jacob has his dream, from which we learn that it is at the worst moments in time, one needs to dream the most. As Langston Hughes put it:


Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.


Jacob holds fast to his dream; and that changes his perspective. Rashi explains that after he wakes up, Jacob's “heart lifted his feet up,” because he was now filled with hope.


Jews have always understood that you are what you dream. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev points out in his commentary that the Hebrew word for dreaming, “chalom,” is similar to the word for healing, “hachlamah.” And that is because dreams of hope can give a tattered soul the strength to continue forward.


Right now in Israel, there are still dreams amidst all of the nightmares. On Shabbat morning I joined the aufruf of Yoni, the son of dear friends. At the Kiddush, Yoni, a soldier so devoted he had to be pushed to go home for Shabbat by his commanding officer, gave a D'var Torah. In Jacob's dream, there is a ladder whose feet are on Earth, and whose head extends into heaven. Yoni explained that this is symbolic of the times we are in. Even if the ladder is stuck in our muddy and ugly reality, our heads must always be in the skies, filled with vision and values.


This vision is one and the same with Isaiah's, who tells us that one day swords will be beaten into plowshares. And, as Yoni reminded us, we must not forget this, even now. Yes, it is a horrible time; unquestionably there are many Palestinian civilians who are suffering profoundly in this war. Of course, it must be pointed out where the blame lies. They are largely in harm's way because Hamas has turned all of Gaza into human shields; Hamas relishes civilian casualties, because they are of strategic value to this terror group. Supporters of Israel are sometimes reluctant to speak about the tragedy of Palestinian civilian casualties because it has been weaponized by Hamas and its enablers.


But that is no reason for us to forget Isaiah's dream; and there are so many who have not lost sight of this vision. Eli Beer, the CEO of United Hatzalah, has a son who is a medic and serves in an elite combat unit. The soldiers don't have their cell phones while on duty, and often can only speak to their families sporadically for a very short time. When Eli spoke to his son, he asked him to share the highlight of the previous week; and his son told Eli that he had found a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who was injured, and he had treated her and sent her in an ambulance to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba. Isaiah's dream is still alive even during this bitter War.


There are many other inspiring dreams everywhere. I met Shelli Shemtov, whose son Omer is one of the hostages. She told me that she's keeping his room exactly as Omer left it, cluttered and messy. She said that when he gets home, (and I emphasize, she said “when,”) she will hug him, then kick him in the behind and tell him to go back to his room and clean it up.


What an inspiring mother, what a powerful dream.


Racheli Fraenkel, who spent Shabbat with our group, spoke to me about the Day of Unity which she and her husband established after the kidnapping and murder of her son Naftali in 2014. She mentioned to me that this year, and in the years to come, this day will be even more important. Israel was on the brink of a civil war just days before this war; unity was a distant possibility. Now, after this catastrophe, we must dream once again of unity.


In Kfar Aza we were taken around by Doron Libstein, whose late brother Ofir had been the head of the regional council. Ofir was among the first people murdered. Doron took us to the spot Ofir was killed, and asked us to sing Hatikvah, Israel's anthem of hope.


And Doron has hope. He wants to help Kfar Aza rebuild, and become bigger and better. He wants to bring more people to this beautiful corner of the Negev, and fill it with life and vibrancy once again.


That is Doron’s dream. And we all must dream with him because it is dreams that have kept the Jewish people alive.


We know that at the worst of times, we need dreams more than ever. And now is one of those times.


Now is a time to dream.

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