Rabbi Joey Haber
On Shabbat, October 7, which in Israel was celebrated as Simhat Torah (in Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah are combined into a single day), Israelis who were still in the synagogue – and were not in bomb shelters or called for emergency military duty – read the first chapter of the Torah. Each year, on Simhat Torah, we complete the annual Torah reading cycle with the reading of the final portion, Parashat Vezot Haberachah, and we then immediately proceed to the beginning of the Torah, which tells of Gd’s creation of the world.
Rashi, in his comments to the opening verse of the Torah, draws our attention to the fact that in the story of creation, Gd is referred to as “Elokim,” a Name which refers to midat hadin – Gd’s attribute of strict justice, His meting out punishment to those who act wrongly. Later (2:4), however, the Torah says that the world was created by “Hashem Elokim” – using both the name “Elokim” and the Name of “Havayah,” which expresses Gd’s compassion, kindness and forgiveness. Rashi explains that initially, Gd planned to govern the world with strict justice, giving people precisely they deserve. But He then saw that the world could not survive if it is governed according to this unyielding standard, so He introduced the midat harahamim, the element of compassion.
Rashi here is teaching us that Gd’s governance of the world is characterized by a combination of din and rahamim – justice and compassion. We of course hope, wish and pray that He always shower us with blessing, with joy and prosperity. But this is not how the world works. For reasons which we can never and will never understand, pain and sorrow are part of our world. There is so much goodness in the world, so much to celebrate and be grateful for, but there is also a great deal of pain. There is both din and rahamim.
Anybody who thinks they know why Gd brought the unfathomable catastrophe that struck the Jewish world on Simhat Torah is terribly mistaken. I object very strongly to those who pointed to the two Shabbat-observant towns near the Gaza border that were spared because their gates were locked, as proof that the other communities were massacred because they did not observe Shabbat. Anyone who makes such a claim must ask themselves how they would explain the deaths of 45 of the most righteous, Torah-committed Jews anywhere, on Lag Ba’omer two years ago. We have no idea why Gd does what He does. All we know is that the world is run by “Hashem Elokim.” He bestows upon us an abundance of grace and kindness, and also, for reasons we’ll never know, He brings pain. We must humbly accept that there are things we do not and will not understand, and accept that pain is part of the human experience.
King David’s Song
One of the many crises which King David faced during his life was the armed revolt mounted by his own son, Avshalom. Unimaginably, Avshalom set out to kill David so he could become king, forcing David to flee from Jerusalem. David composed one of the chapters of Tehillim (3) as he fled, pleading to Gd for help. He introduced this prayer with the words “Mizmor leDavid” – “A song by David.” The word “mizmor” refers to a joyous, upbeat song. The Gemara (Berachot 7b) thus wonders why David would use this term to describe the impassioned prayer he prayed at such a painful moment. The Gemara answers that David knew that he would be pursued (as Gd had warned of punishment for the sin he had committed), and he feared he would be pursued by some lowly slave. He found a small degree of comfort in the fact that the revolt was led by his son.
The commentators ask, didn’t this make the ordeal even more painful for David? Would it not have been less devastating if somebody else, and not his own son, rose against him?
The answer given is that David was saying that he clearly saw this crisis as Gd’s doing. The fact that what happened makes no sense at all – in that a son rose against his father and tried to kill him – reinforced his emunah (faith). Something like this could happen only because Hashem decided it could happen. Events as tragic and senseless as this cannot be explained in any other way than as the hand of Hashem. David thus found a modicum of solace in his firm belief that Gd, in His infinite wisdom, decided that this should be done.
We can apply this concept to the unspeakable horrors of October 7th. I am certain that I speak for all of us when I say that the reports at first seemed to defy belief. It was all but impossible to accept that Israel’s state-of-the-art technology, world-leading military intelligence, and powerful army could not stop something like this from happening. Terrorists freely walking through Israeli towns and kibbutzim for hours, killing, torturing and abducting – it just makes no sense that this could happen. A tragedy – and military intelligence failure – of this magnitude is simply beyond comprehension. It seems impossible. And this should reaffirm our belief that Gd decided, for reasons which we will never understand and should never attempt to understand, that this should happen.
Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most famous Holocaust survivor, who wrote extensively about the atrocities he witnessed and experienced, described also his thoughts and reflections after the Holocaust. He writes that for several years; he spent every waking hour trying to figure out why Gd would do this to His people. He could not free his mind from the vexing question of how such an atrocity – the murder of thousands of Jews each day for several years – could take place. Finally, he writes, he came to the realization that this was the wrong question to ask. The question that he should be asking was not “why,” but “what.” Rather than wondering why Gd could let this happen – a question which has no answer that the limited human mind could comprehend – he should be asking, “What do I do now? What do I do about it?”
There is no sense in asking why Gd allowed our enemies to perpetrate such a gruesome atrocity on October 7th. We will never have an answer. Instead, we need to ask ourselves how we should respond, what we must do now in the aftermath of that unspeakable horror.
Countless wonderful people across the world – including here in our community – have shown that they know the answer. Over 150,000 Israelis dropped everything and flew to Israel to join the reserves and fight. An Orthodox Jewish man went to the El-Al counter at JFK and stood with his credit card, paying for 250 tickets of reservists hurrying home to defend their country. A non-kosher restaurant in Tel-Aviv koshered its kitchen so that it could prepare free meals for soldiers, so that even the religiously observant soldiers could enjoy them. Pictures circulated of soldiers in their tanks with their rifle, their equipment – and a Gemara. An enormous facility in Tel-Aviv was filled to capacity with people preparing boxes of food and supplies for soldiers. A command center was set up to help locate the missing. Israelis waited for hours on line to donate blood to the wounded. Shuls and study halls all over the world were filled to capacity with all kinds of Jews united in prayer on behalf of our imperiled brothers and sisters.
Everybody can do something. Some people can fight in the war, others can donate time, some can donate money, some can offer counseling and encouragement. But there’s also something else that each and every one of us can do – change. We can all become better. We can all grow. This is also part of our obligation at this time – to work on ourselves, to strive to be better.
Before Gd created Adam and Havah, He announced, “Na’aseh adam – Let us make man” (1:26). Many commentators noted that Gd appeared to be speaking to someone when He decided to create the first human being. Rashi famously explains that Gd “consulted,” as it were, with the angels, in order to teach us about humility. But the Imreh Emet offers a different interpretation, explaining that Gd here addressed the human being that He was about to create. He was telling him, “We’re going to make you together. I’ll create the physical form, and grant you great capabilities and potential, and then you will work to harness all this potential and become great.” We are here in this world to grow, to work to be better, to continue the process of our own creation.
When we ask ourselves, “What now,” what we should be doing in response to the dreadful tragedy that has befallen our people, we need to look into ourselves and see where we need to improve. We must hear the call of “Na’aseh adam,” and commit to continue “creating” ourselves, making ourselves better.
Grabbing Hold of the Torah
The horrors of October 7th would be unthinkably tragic on any date, but the fact that it occurred on Simhat Torah, one of the most joyous and festive days of the year, added to the pain and shock that we all experienced. Might there be something we can take from the date of this unspeakable atrocity? Was there perhaps some message that Gd was sending us by bringing this calamity upon us specifically on Simhat Torah?
We celebrate Simhat Torah by joyously dancing with the Sefer Torah, celebrating our connection to the Torah. This day teaches us that we need to hold onto the Torah tightly, and with steadfast devotion. If Gd decided that this tragedy should befall us specifically on Simhat Torah, He perhaps was sending the message that when we confront challenges, we need to tighten our grip on the Torah. In order to respond properly to this tragedy, and to the ongoing threats and dangers to our people, we must grab hold of the Torah, and redouble our efforts to study and observe it.
Baruch Hashem, our community has grown in its Torah observance over the years in leaps and bounds. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of work to do. Too many families, congregations, and institutions are plagued by strife and petty infighting. We tolerate far too much hatred and friction. Additionally, we tolerate far too much immorality, and inappropriate behavior. If one would have been in our synagogues early on weekday mornings during the first part of Elul, in August, he would have been moved and inspired by the large turnout for the special Selihot prayers and learning. But if that same person would have walked around on Shabbat and Sunday afternoon during those weeks, and see how people were spending their time, he would have no idea that it was Elul, a time for introspection and growth. We need to do better.
Reciting several chapters of Tehillim each day on behalf of our courageous soldiers and the wounded is beautiful, but it’s not enough. We need to make concrete changes in our lives. We need to tighten our hold of the Torah. And this includes resolving to be kinder, more understanding and less critical of other people, and to conduct ourselves in a manner that is consistent with Torah law and Torah values.
If we succeed in making real changes, then we will emerge from this horrific situation better and stronger people, and a better and stronger community. We can bring honor to our fallen brothers and sisters by approaching this tragedy as a wakeup call to grow and improve, to renew our commitment to one another and to Hashem.
May Gd bring comfort to all those who are grieving, restore the health of those who are wounded, assist our beloved soldiers who are heroically fighting to defend our nation, and swiftly bring us Mashiah so that we may never know more pain or sorrow, amen.