TRADITION QUESTIONS breaks from its usual format this week so Chaim Strauchler, reporting on his recent visit to Israel as part of an RCA Rabbinic Mission, can focus on one of the biggest questions facing the Jewish world. Click here to sample this series in its typical form.
In the aftermath of October 7, we have been hearing a lot about ahdut, the much-desired and often elusive Jewish unity. When attacked both physically and ideologically because of a common Jewish identity, we certainly feel the need for one another more keenly. Yet, there is more to ahdut than self-preservation.
I recently traveled to Israel for a Shul Leadership Mission organized by the Orthodox Union and TRADITION’s publisher, the Rabbinical Council of America. We met with displaced families from the towns surrounding Gaza. We traveled to hospitals, where we visited with injured soldiers and their families. We consoled families who had lost loved ones. We heard from parents whose children are being held hostage by Hamas terrorists. These interactions were meaningful to the Israelis whom we met. Why? What did we Jews from America really do? Why is it that our visit mattered to these poor, suffering, traumatized Israelis? What was our contribution amidst all their tremendous sacrifice? What do such small formal gestures really accomplish?
In meeting with families who had lost loved ones, we witnessed their demonstration of insurmountable faith. What is the source of their faith? They saw themselves as part of a tzibur in which their loss was Am Yisrael’s loss, their story is Am Yisrael’s story—and therefore Am Yisrael’s ultimate victory will be their personal salvation. They are not alone in their suffering. In traveling across the world to be with them, we confirmed a critical element of what sustains them amidst their loss. Their son or daughter did not die in vain. Jews around the world notice them, grieve with them, join themselves in a common experience. Now and in the future our nation will draw strength from their sacrifice. Their children ultimately lived, and tragically died, for something bigger than themselves. That “something” continues within and is valued and respected by the Jewish people.
I spoke with an I.D.F. officer whose job is to inform families that their child has been severely injured or fallen in combat. He explained the mindset with which he accomplishes this impossible task. He embodies the entire State of Israel as he goes through the dreaded motions.
I spoke with a soldier who gathered remains from the massacres in Otef Azza. He shared the dvar Torah that helped him calm himself as he carried out his tragic yet holy duties. He focused on spiritual wholeness above amidst human brokenness below.
I spoke to the injured rehabbing at Tel HaShomer Hospital—their unit came under terrible fire, seven out of nine were injured. They all survived. They each humbly gave credit to one another for their own survival.
When we are part of something bigger than ourselves, we understand our suffering differently. The ability of soldiers to risk their lives, the ability of families to accept that sacrifice, the ability of a society to come together amidst pain and suffering emerges from a conception of the self, different from the lonely isolated individual of Western society. When we see our lives as part of a people, we can draw inspiration and spiritual sustenance from the larger narrative of which we are all a part. Questions of justice and life’s meaning amidst so much suffering become ever so slightly more easily grappled with. This occurs when we rise above the small story of our own person and immerse ourselves in the epochal destiny of our people.
We felt this truth when we visited the Rubin family of Akko, whose son Amichai fell fighting terrorists on October 7 outside Gaza. Yishai and Batya described a 23-year-old who always had a smile on his face. He was a ben yeshiva who sought to understand everything he learned deeply and differently. He was committed to a life of mission on behalf of Am Yisrael. He was evacuated from the battlefield with severe injuries and was declared brain dead upon reaching the hospital. His parents chose to donate his organs to save five additional lives beyond those of his comrades on the battlefield and the many lives within the community that they had defended.
In describing their son, they hinted toward the challenges that all parents face in raising a child. The immense pride that they took in his life reflected a moment of return and ultimate wholeness, a fulfillment in some small way described in the verse, “He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents” (Malakhi 3:14). This reconciliation is being experienced more broadly in Israel and amidst Jewish communities around the world. We are witnessing the commitment of children and parents to our people and to our common story in ways that we could not have imagined two months ago. Ahdut runs horizontally in time among the Jews of any generation; ahdut is a vertical path through history connecting generations. Authentic Jewish unity calls us to partake of the Jewish story in order to see ourselves differently. Throughout the world, Jews of all religious commitments are rethinking their part in that Jewish story.
Chaim Strauchler, an associate editor of TRADITION, is rabbi of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.