In the Book of Psalms, it is written: «You turned my lament into dancing, you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy» (Psalm 30:12). Today, the opposite has occurred. Instead of our dances with the Torah, our people are burying their dead. Zman Simchateinu (the time of our joy) has turned into «זמן דמעותינו» (Zman Dma’otenu, the time of our tears) this year.
As I write these lines, we know of more than 150 lives lost, 1000 wounded, and dozens kidnapped. A picture is worth a thousand words, and videos are more powerful than any narrative. With every piece of news, with every image and video, I couldn’t help but recall the words of the prophet Jeremiah when he witnessed the devastation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians: «For these things do I weep, My eyes flow with tears: Far from me is any comforter Who might revive my spirit…» But unlike the prophet, who concluded his words by saying, «My children are forlorn, For the enemy has prevailed,» I am convinced that Israel will prevail. History has taught us much, albeit sometimes we fail to learn, but Israel will not go anywhere, the IDF will triumph… I have no doubt about it, but today, my heart is broken.
The image of that desperate mother in that Kibbutz, watching as Hamas (Imach Shemam, may their memory be erased) kidnapped her two sons. That young girl mutilated in a van with dozens of Palestinian extremists spitting on her blood-soaked body. Grandmothers being kidnapped in trucks. Photos of Israeli civilians shot on the streets by Hamas terrorists.The stampede at the party in the Negev when surprised by terrorists. The soldier they captured and brutally paraded through the streets of Hamas, demeaning his body. The desperate audio messages of entire families, holed up to avoid falling into the hands of the enemy. For them, Rachel weeps, and for them, I weep. For them, we weep together.
Just a few days ago, under the Sukkah of peace, we sang for Israel and for peace. We debated the Golda movie and remembered the Yom Kippur War. The enemy is sinister but also cunning… and they did not choose just any day. In the Gregorian calendar, the Yom Kippur War began on October 6th, and our enemies began their surprise attacks yesterday, on October 6th, 2023. Israeli news channels can’t stop comparing what we are experiencing today to the Yom Kippur War. Fifty years later, we are surprised once again. Fifty years later, a day that should have been a joyous celebration turned into a Yom Shoah uMeshoah, a day of catastrophe and desolation. Fifty years later, excessive confidence, government misunderstandings, and an enemy finding new ways to inflict harm infiltrated Israel by night, killing, maiming, ravaging, and kidnapping hundreds of Israelis.
This is the Simchat Torah War, fifty years after the Yom Kippur War. This is how history will remember it. Today, we were supposed to march with the Torah, but now hundreds of thousands of soldiers and reservists are marching with their weapons to every corner of Israel to prevent this war from spreading to multiple points in our tiny state. However, with these soldiers, with our soldiers, with our soldiers of the IDF, a Torah will also go to each of the battalions. «When you go out to war against your enemies,» says the Torah… The very Torah we celebrate today speaks of war. The prophets’ idealism is peace, but the Torah regulates war. We should never forget. It is a mitzvah to go to war when the enemy threatens our gates. It is not an option; it is an obligation, a Milchemet Mitzvah. The Torah, with which we cannot dance this Simchat Torah, reminds us that even in war, we must behave ethically… that we must always offer peace first, and even when we must face our enemies, the Ramban tells us, we must ensure not to behave like our enemies. We are not them. We must never forget. Our war is not against Palestine; it is against Hamas. Our war is not against Palestinians; it is against terrorists. And against them, we will prevail; I have no doubt.
Today, at noon, during the Shabbat lunch with my family, my son Noah asked me with great enthusiasm what time we had to come back to the synagogue to dance with the Torah and the flags… with tears in my eyes, I told him that today we wouldn’t dance in the end. We tried to explain to him, with our hearts heavy, that Israel is at war, and although we are safe here, our hearts are with the Jewish people and the nation of Israel, and we couldn’t act as if nothing were happening. Noah then asked if it would be like this every year, if we would never dance with the Torah again. Holding back tears, I told him no. That I had faith that next year and in the future, we would dance with the Torah again.
As the Jewish people, we know pain. As the Jewish people, we know tragedy. But as the Jewish people, we also know how to rise, how to recover, and how to find joy again. We are the phoenix of humanity. No other people have been attacked so many times, yet no other people have the resilience of ours. Today may be one of the most tragic days in Israel’s history, perhaps the largest pogrom in the history of the State of Israel. The images today are the ones we read about in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, the images of Cossacks invading shtetls in Poland, the images of pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Today, we have suffered many losses, and sadly, the numbers will likely continue to rise. Even at this hour, we speak of the missing, which, as an Argentine, doubly breaks my heart. But today, we have Israel, today we have the IDF, today we live in democracy across the world. This time, like every time, we will recover. We will mourn the victims, do everything possible to retrieve the kidnapped, learn from our mistakes, and dance again.
Dear friends, what should we do here, as Jews in the diaspora?
- We stand together, we show unity, and we put aside our differences that have surfaced so much in recent months to understand that Israel and the well-being of its citizens must always come before any ideology.
- We donate, even symbolically; tonight, let us donate to Friends of the IDF or any organization you believe will help the State of Israel.
- We share our support and love for Israel on social media. We do not share videos or images of the murdered or kidnapped. We do not confront antisemites and anti-Zionists. We show our love and solidarity with Israel.
- We talk to our non-Jewish friends who may not follow the daily developments of the conflict and who sometimes have prejudices based on what they read in the press. We talk to them with respect, affection, trying to make them understand what this means. We seek allies; we need them.
- We educate our children; we tell them about the importance of Israel, we promote Zionism, both our own and that of those around us.
- Let’s call that friend in Israel or with family in Israel to show that we care about them, to show our support to their pain.
- And we pray. We pray together for our IDF soldiers, for the recovery of the wounded, for the return of the kidnapped, for peace in Israel.
Today, more than ever, I make my own the words of the medieval poet Yehuda HaLevi: «Libi ba-mizrach va-anochi be-sof ma’arav” (“my heart is in the East while I dwell on the edges of the West”). Today, my heart, and I know that your heart, is in Israel, even though our bodies are in the United States.
In a few moments, we will take the Torah scrolls from our Ark and listen to the melody of Vaheihi Vinsoa Aaron… This verse from the Torah tells us: «When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O יהוה ! May Your enemies be scattered, And may Your foes flee before You!» (Num. 10:35). The physical Torah, symbolically marches with the people of Israel even in times of war. In these times when images of horror bring out the worst in our hearts, the spirit of war, revenge, and hatred dominates us. Let us remember that we are heirs of the Torah that invites us to behave ethically even in times of war. It would be much easier to eliminate the enemy, to blow up the entire Gaza Strip and every terrorist enclave, but we are not them. We value the lives of the innocent who are also prisoners of Hamas terrorists. This Simchat Torah, we march into war with the ethics of the Torah in our hands.
Afterward, together, we will pray for the wounded, we will pray for the well-being of the Israel Defense Forces, and we will pray for peace in Israel. Then, symbolically, we will all join in a procession, a Hakafah with the Torah, as our ancestors did with Joshua when conquering the city of Jericho. We will open the Torah wide. We will place the Torah’s leather on our hands, and we will try to concentrate on a word, on a letter. That will be our letter, our word, this Simchat Torah. We will conclude the Torah reading with its last word: Israel. This is how our beloved Torah closes, with the word Israel. And for that very Israel, today, we will pray for peace and well-being. For the people of Israel and for the State of Israel. Immediately afterward, we will start again with the Torah’s first word, Bereshit, Genesis. Hoping that tomorrow will be a new beginning, that the worst of this war will be left in the past. Always trusting that new and better worlds are possible.
In the end, we will return the Torah to the Ark, singing דְּרָכֶ֥יהָ דַרְכֵי־נֹ֑עַם וְֽכָל־נְתִ֖יבוֹתֶ֣יהָ שָׁלֽוֹם׃ «Her ways are pleasant ways, And all her paths, peaceful.» (Prov. 3:17) Remembering that as the people of Israel, even in times of war, we never lose hope for peace.
To conclude, I take the words of the prophet Zechariah (8:), who, in the midst of horror, with confidence in God, said more than 2500 years ago:כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת עֹ֤ד יֵֽשְׁבוּ֙ זְקֵנִ֣ים וּזְקֵנ֔וֹת בִּרְחֹב֖וֹת יְרוּשָׁלָ֑͏ִם וְאִ֧ישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּ֛וֹ בְּיָד֖וֹ מֵרֹ֥ב יָמִֽים׃ וּרְחֹב֤וֹת הָעִיר֙ יִמָּ֣לְא֔וּ יְלָדִ֖ים וִֽילָד֑וֹת מְשַׂחֲקִ֖ים בִּרְחֹֽבֹתֶֽיהָ׃ «There shall yet be elderly men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares.»
May God grant us the strength, the resilience, and the wisdom to endure these difficult times. May He watch over our brothers and sisters in Israel, protect our soldiers, heal the wounded, and bring about a swift and lasting peace. And may we, as a community, always stand united, no matter the challenges we face.
בעזרת ה׳ נעשה ונצליח.
עם ישראל חי
Rabbi Uriel Romano – Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El