Hamas Underestimated Us and So Did We

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In 1977, after serving in the opposition for many years, Menachem Begin won the election that would make him Prime Minister.  Soon after, Begin was in the process of assembling a governing coalition when seven members of the Haredi party burst into his office, lashing out over something that upset them. Hart Hasten, a close friend and advisor of Begin recalled how Begin sat silently as they expressed their anger and agitation.  When they had finished, Begin paused and then calmly responded in Yiddish: Rabbosai, hobn ihr shoin gedavent minha, Gentlemen, have you already davened Mincha? Stunned by the response, they replied that in fact, they had not yet davened. So, Begin recruited Hasten, his chief of staff Yehiel Kadishai, and together with himself and the seven men of the Haredi party, they proceeded as a minyan to daven Mincha. By the time they were done, tempers had subsided, and the rage had dissolved. Begin had disarmed his political adversaries by pivoting to common ground, a shared reverence for Torah and Yiddishkeit and a united commitment to surrender in faith to Hashem by davening the afternoon prayer.  Against the backdrop of a holy Mincha prayed with the harmony produced from disparate voices, Begin resumed negotiations, ultimately succeeding in building a coalition.


I was reminded of this story this week as Rabbi Moskowitz, Rabbi Broide, and I traveled back to Israel for three days of hugs, chizuk, love, comfort, support and partnership that culminated in a Maariv minyan that reminded me of Begin’s Mincha. 


Our trip took us to army bases in the North and South in which our community sponsored meals and music and we distributed handwritten letters to the precious and heroic members of the IDF.  We encountered soldiers who had not been home in weeks or now months and who were sleeping on the cold floor.  We met a 51-year-old soldier whose service concluded eleven years ago but would not be stopped from continuing to voluntarily serve and who today is the driver of his group’s hummer throughout Gaza.  We sang and danced with units that were literally on their way back into Gaza to fight, including with a dear friend whose commander fell in battle that very night after our dinner together.  Rather than exhaustion, bitterness or resentment, we encountered positivity, resolve, tenacity, faith, optimism, hope, and a sense of purpose and mission that simply defy words.


We visited with injured soldiers in Tel Ha’Shomer hospital, one of whom was told he would be there for a minimum of a full year and another with metal rods coming out of one leg, his arm in a sling, and a patch over his eye.  They, and all the others we visited, were not down or depressed, despondent or dejected. They each had a separate and unique story to tell, but they all ended with a message of hope, positivity and unwavering faith that we will prevail. 


We spent significant time with a father of a 21-year-old fallen soldier, killed by a Hamas ambush.  He shared his and his family’s devastating sense of pain, loss, and grief but his overall message was one of duty, mission and purpose.


We met with a community from the South that has been displaced since October 7th and who don’t know when it will be safe to return to their homes.  In more than half of these families, the husband has been called up to serve and the wife is left living in a cramped hotel room with her children going to makeshift school and living without almost all of their things.  Instead of giving up or giving in, rather than expressing a desire or plan to move or relocate when this is over, they have pledged and promised to go home, to expand their community, and forge a deeper connection to the area in which they live.


We toured Be’eri, one of the communities hit hardest on that “Black Sabbath” as it was referred to us.  Out of 1,200 residents, 90 were brutally murdered, 30 were taken hostage and close to 90 soldiers lost their lives liberating the survivors from the more than 500 terrorists who infiltrated on that dark day.  The now-empty community is not open to the public but we were honored to be able to pay witness to the atrocities that took place there and now bear the awesome responsibility to tell the stories of what happened that day.  We saw burnt and destroyed homes, bloody sheets and bloody stains on the ground.  We observed cars, homes, a school and a clinic riddled with bullet holes.   We picked up bullets that are still all over the ground, a testament to the fierce battles that took place in that spot that so many died al Kiddush Hashem.  We walked by a Sukkah that still stands despite Chanukah having begun because there is no person, no time, and no will to take it down. 


And yet, despite all that we saw and heard had happened there, Naor and Yarden, the two men who took us around and who each lost loved ones that day, spoke with determination and resolve and offered statements that we are not going anywhere, we will bounce back and build, we are prepared to fight for existence, our homes and our Homeland. 


We stopped at the Shuva junction where three brothers started out a help center by putting together several extension cords and setting up one table to provide hot food for soldiers.  Today there are large tents, endless buffets of food, stations of clothing, laundry and more, all coordinated by extraordinary volunteers who feed more than 3,000 soldiers a week.  We met the amazing women of Gush Etzion who rotate baking special treats and stocking the pinah chama, clubhouse for soldiers who patrol their neighborhood.  We went back to Maslul to our friend Yaakov, the Makolet owner who essentially hasn’t seen his wife since October 7th because he feeds, cares for, and takes care of the needs of over 700 soldiers a day who come for respite between their battles in Gaza.  We met Moshe who voluntarily converted the garage behind his home on the Gaza border into a space for 40 soldiers to rest, sleep, and eat.


We met and were briefed by Brigadier General (ret.) Amir Avivi who shared tremendous insights into what happened, what is happening, and what he believes will happen next.  He ended by telling us that while Hamas dealt us a devastating blow that horrible day, they made a gross and fatal miscalculation.  They saw the vociferous debates over judicial reform, the political rancor and deep divide between the left and right, religious and secular, and they predicted that Israel would react to an attack by blaming one another, splintering, and falling apart. They didn’t understand and could never predict or even comprehend the level of unity we would experience, how together we truly are, how much more we have in common than could ever divide us. 


Hamas were not the only ones who grossly miscalculated.  The Jewish people went to sleep on October 6th bitterly divided, but after the events of October 7th, woke up on October 8th a new people, a united people, an am echad k’ish echad b’lev echad, one nation, one people with one heart. 


They didn’t know what we are capable of, what we can accomplish when we come together, who we are at our core when all is on the line.  Said the General, the secular are having a spiritual awakening and the Haredim are coordinating unprecedented networks of national service.   The world and Hamas thought that the Jewish people were fractured and this would be the ultimate blow that would divide us.  They, and to a certain extent we, never imagined how united, driven and unstoppable we could become. 


And that brings me to our special Maariv at the end of our trip. We were at Knesset offices for meetings when suddenly someone realized the time for Maariv had come and asked if we would join a minyan.  As we began Borchu, I looked around the conference table.  Sitting to my immediate left, with a long beard, curly payos and black velvet yarmulka was United Torah Judaism MK, Yisrael Eichler, essentially the head of the Haredi party.  Sitting to my right was  MK Michael Biton of National Unity Party, who had been sitting in the room and borrowed a kippa from someone so he could help us make the minyan.  Across from me, wearing his kippa serugah sat Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich.  Not individuals in a borrowed kippa, kippa seruga, and black kippa, disagreeing on important ideology and policies, but a united coalition in that moment in prayer, faith and love of our people. 


As we davened, I thought about the miracle of Chanuka and the rededication of our holy Beis HaMikdash after defeating an evil enemy.  In that moment, I was deeply moved by the fact that we are back in Yerushalayim, davening Maariv in the modern center of power, doing so with sovereignty, self-determination, and self-defense. After 2,000 years of running from pogroms, persecution, and attempted exterminations, we have returned to our homeland with the chance to be active participants in shaping our destiny. 


Our parsha describes that Yosef’s brothers hated him to the point that v’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom.”  The Ibn Ezra explains, “v’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom – afilu l’shalom.”  It isn’t that they just couldn’t talk about the issues they disagreed about.  It isn’t just that they didn’t want to be close, loving brothers.  It isn’t just that they couldn’t debate respectfully.  “Afilu l’shalom” – they couldn’t even give each other a shalom aleichem.  The hatred and intolerance had grown so deep that they couldn’t stand to even extend greetings to one another or to be in a room together. 


Rav Yehonasan Eibshitz in his Tiferes Yonasan has an additional insight.  When we disagree with people, we withdraw from them and stop speaking to them.  We see them as “the other,” different than us and apart from us.  As our communication breaks down, the dividers rise up, stronger and stronger and we can’t find a way to break through them. 


The antidote and answer is in our hands and we remind ourselves of it three times a day when we pray.  Our practice of taking three steps backward at the conclusion of the Amidah comes from a Gemara in Yoma (Daf 53) which states, “Hamispaleil tzarich she’yafsiah shelosha pesios l’achorav v’achar kach yitein shalom. The one who prays must take three steps back and only then pray for peace.” R’ Menachem BenZion Zaks (in his commentary on Pirkei Avos) explains that we cannot pray for, nor achieve, peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others and their opinions, their tastes and personalities. After stepping back, we ask “oseh shalom bimromav, God, please bring peace,” and we then turn to the right and to the left. Explains R’ Zaks, achieving peace and harmony means bending towards those on the right of us and those on the left of us, acknowledging them, engaging them, and making space for them. That is a prerequisite to the shalom, the peace we crave.


In our few days meeting, touring and volunteering, we witnessed the impact of the worst of humanity and we watched the best of humanity.  The atrocity that took place was unimaginable, but so is the will and faith of our people. If we want shalom, peace, we must be capable of speaking l’shalom, not just tolerating a fellow Jew but learning to love them and maybe even daven Mincha or Maariv together too.