What Unites Us?

One of the symbols of Israel Independence Day is the annual Bible Quiz. Excited teenagers from around the world take to the stage to be tested on their knowledge of the Bible. When Yuli Edelstein presided as Speaker of the Knesset, he was chairman of the panel of judges for the quiz. One year he gave the following speech:

“I was once a prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, a country that no longer exists, thank God. I taught Hebrew and Judaism. I did not know as much as you, but I knew a little, and that was enough to teach other Jews underground. This did not end well. They put me in prison and afterwards in a forced labor camp. I was in Siberia, completely cut off, with no way of knowing anything happening outside, beyond the barbed wire.

“One day, after eleven hours in the freezing cold, we returned from harsh labor in the forest. The officer in charge of prisoner discipline called me over and said: ‘Just so you know, the safe in my room is full of letters for you from around the world.’ Then, with a sadistic smile he continued: ‘According to the law, you are not allowed to receive letters from abroad, and you will never see a single letter.’ No one could be happier than I was at that moment; Jews from all over the world were writing to me! I never did see a single letter, but afterwards, I met many people who told me: ‘We wrote you letters.’ People from countries all over the world, including the countries you have come from. Men and women, young and old, housewives and professors, rabbis and simple folk. People from all walks of life who had nothing in common, but were, nevertheless, truly united.

“We do not need fake unity, but authentic unity, and you already have it – unity in the most authentic common denominator that we have: the ‘Book of Books,’ the Tanach. One winner will be announced here today, but that’s not important. All of you have already won, because you studied well. I ask each one of you to take our shared heritage, the ‘Book of Books,’ and spread its message. When we know the Tanach and really internalize it, we will achieve true unity.”

We Are One Family

On the night of Holocaust Remembrance Day, 94-year-old Esther Greitzer, a Holocaust survivor, passed away. Esther was married but did not have children due to the experiments performed on her by the evil monster, Dr. Mengele.

On the morning of her funeral, there was concern that there would not even be a minyan, but in the end, hundreds of people came to the cemetery in Haifa to pay their last respects.

There was no immediate relative to say Kaddish for her, but in a certain sense, you could say that the entire nation of Israel said Kaddish for her, together with all the holy souls who perished in the Holocaust.

It was inspiring to see so many people, young and old — not relatives, but members of her family, the nation of Israel. This was an especially powerful ‘Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony.’

There is no one to sit Shiva for her, but a request was made to study Torah in the memory of Esther bat Yaakov.

By Your Blood You Shall Live

"Have you heard of Moshe Ben Porat?”

I receive many such inquiries, but this one startled me.

“We are writing a Torah scroll in memory of my father, Moshe Ben Porat,” Brachah Sagron wrote. “He came to us from Teveria to visit us in Ofakim for Simchat Torah. I had given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, and my father came to be the Sandak at the Brit of our first son. On the morning of Simchat Torah, after wrapping himself in his tallit to go to the synagogue, he opened the door and within seconds, terrorists murdered him at the doorstep. We thought to commemorate him with a sefer Torah.”

Brachah’s story gave me pause. In the country where I live, a grandfather had planned to be Sandak at his grandson's Brit and was murdered on his doorstep — and I hadn’t even heard about it?!

Before Memorial Day, I contacted Brachah and asked her to tell me more. Moshe Ben Porat had worked for years at the 'Amal' nursing home in Teveria. He was the cook, kosher supervisor, and mainly, a good friend of the elderly residents. On Simchat Torah, he had been staying in an apartment close to his daughter’s home, when terrorists took over a nearby house and shot him the moment he stepped outside.

“My mother had been upstairs with other people,” Brachah related. “It was a miracle that the terrorists moved on.”

At the time, Brachah had sought refuge in a large shelter, together with her husband and the rest of the family. “We didn’t know what had happened to my father. We thought he was injured. We heard that there were other victims, but by the afternoon it was quiet. Since the Mohel was with us, we simply went on with the Brit Milah. I cried nonstop.”

The boy was named Yisrael. It never occurred to Brachah that she should be naming her son after her father.

“It was chaos, a nightmare,” Brachah related. “The ambulance had taken him away with many other wounded and dead, and they didn’t know where the body was.” Only 10 days later, were they able to bury her father in Tiberias.

Why am I publishing this story now? For one thing, because it seems to me that we’ve begun to forget the sheer evil of our enemies (the world, including our friends, surely has). Second, I think it’s important to tell the stories of the families who received less recognition. And third, because of the message that Brachah asked me to convey: “I’d like to ask people to honor their parents more. You can lose them in an instant, and then face lifelong regret. We need to appreciate every moment.”

Lastly, this family’s story is not only personal but symbolic. Hours after the grandfather was murdered, the grandson entered into the Covenant of our Avraham Avinu, where we quote the verse, “By your blood you shall live; by your blood you shall live.”

Voice from Israel’s Walls

If you haven't been to Israel recently, you might be surprised to find the walls of this country covered with stickers showing the faces of young, smiling people who lost their lives since Oct. 7, alongside a one-liner that attempts to encapsulate their unique essence and irreplaceable personality. The stickers are everywhere – on car bumpers but also on the walls of train and bus stations, at the entrance to stores, and basically, in every public space. 

Still under the influence of Memorial Day, marked here in Israel last Monday, I decided to let the stickers speak for themselves. More than 1,500 precious souls have left this world since Simchat Torah. If each one could send us a message, what would it be?

I stood looking at the stickers on the walls of a Tel Aviv train station, and a common theme was the importance of a smile.

Staff Sgt. Yakir Levi: "Don't forget to smile."

Staff Sgt. Dor Lazimi: "Don't let the world change your smile; let your smile change the world."

Lt. Dekel Suissa: "Don't forget to smile when you wake up."

Staff Sgt. Yakir Hechster: "Where's the smile?"

Staff Sgt.  Roi Wieser: "Life is so much easier when you just smile."

And here are a few more messages, out of hundreds at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem:

Staff Sgt. Achiya Daskal: "Say little and do much."

Yehonatan Ben Keren: "We are constantly moving forward."

Lt. Ariel Reich: "May we go to sleep each night feeling that we did our best."

Sgt. Hillel Solomon: "Winners are not people who never fail, but people who never give up."

These days, on the Shabbatot between Pesach and Shavuot, we immerse ourselves in the study of Pirkei Avot, which is filled with memorable teachings on ethics and proper behavior.  Wise aphorisms are attributed to various sages, each one introduced with the words: “He used to say..” 

And today, the walls of our country are also crying out: “He used to say…”  “She used to say….”

If only we could live up to the inspiring words on our walls.

Consoling Insights

From the many speeches I heard at various formal ceremonies, the words of 15-year-old Evyatar Ne’eman stand out in my mind. Evyatar is the son of the late Dr. Eitan Ne’eman, the doctor from Soroka hospital who went out to save lives under fire and fell in combat during the war.

He wrote to me: “I discovered that there is no suitable material for teenagers to help them process bereavement and loss. So, together with a classmate, Chaim Bar Ilan, I decided to study the topic and write a booklet ourselves, for the elevation of my father’s soul.”

Frankly, I was astonished that in such turbulent times, when we all feel overcome by confusion, a recently orphaned boy, learning in yeshivah in Jerusalem, found a way to put things in their proper context. Here are a few quotes from the new booklet:

"It is very important to allow space for pain, for hard questions, for crying. But we are now in the process of birth. From all the contractions and suffering, we must remember that the pain of childbirth is necessary for the baby to eventually come out into the world. If we examine our history, we will realize that every time a great calamity happened to us, we grew even more from it. We have no idea what we will 'gain' this time, but as great as the calamity is, so is the salvation."

"A common mistake is to think that when a person ascends to Heaven, they lose their role and no longer act in the world. The truth is that when the soul ascends, it is gathered into the 'bundle of life.' It acts from there greatly for the success of the people of Israel in general, and for the relatives of the deceased in particular. When we have difficulties in life, the soul of our relatives continues to act for us 'behind the scenes'."

"The dead do not leave us. They watch over us and are aware of us. They rejoice in our happiness and participate in our sorrow. And when we do good deeds, they are proud of us."

Thank you, Evyatar. I’m sure that your father is very proud of you.