Today is Yom Hazikaron for our fallen soldiers and victims of terrorist activities. I can’t begin to describe the sorrow in the air and the painful heaviness in my entire being! And before any of this can melt away, tonight the calendar will abruptly throw us into the jubilant celebrations of Israel’s 67th birthday.
A tough year has passed since our last Yom Ha’atzma’ut message. Three high school yeshiva students were kidnapped and brutally murdered, followed by a long and horrific war, in which we won in the military battlefield but totally lost the world’s sympathy and understanding for having to respond to the cruel terror imposed on us. It was only a few months ago that my sister, still in her white wedding dress, rushed out of the „Just Married“ car in the middle of the highway to seek shelter from a passing missile. This traumatic summer was then followed – though totally not connected – by an unexpected and vicious election campaign, during which we all witnessed a very unpleasant clash between our prime-minister and the president of our closest ally and friend. Meanwhile, the ugliest internal Arab/Moslem war is raging all around us, reminding us in what neighborhood we are living, and also spilling into European cities, once again threatening Jewish safety there. Finally, Israel’s 67th year of existence is coming to a close with a huge question mark looming over our heads in-lieu of Iran’s nuclear plans.
How then do we shake off the pain and heaviness of Yom Hazikaron, and celebrate tonight with great joy?
We just do! We have to! And… We are so good at it too!
But the real secret to my genuine optimism comes from knowing something that many tend to forgot: the story of this country is an amazing saga and its people a real wonder! I get to meet this country’s story and its people daily. With 120 Bnei Mitzvah a year, I get an opportunity to meet and really get to know the entire spectrum of Israeli society. Though I was born and raised in this country, served as an officer in the IDF, etc., etc…. I have the privilege of engaging very closely with 120 different families every year, in a very special and unique way, and hear a huge cross section of family stories and sagas, both recent and distant. Stories of courage, of perseverance, of joy and grief. I get to hear about their dreams for their kids, their fears and concerns. I get to hear the many voices of Israel, as they unfold. But mostly, as the Rabbi of V’Ahavta, I get to hear their blessings!
I want you to be both envious and proud of us. This Spring alone we had the privilege of „doing“ a Bar Mitzvah for the grandchild of one of Israel’s Nobel Prize Laureates, two Bar Mitzvahs for grandchildren of two Israel Prize Laureates (all the three grandparents participating in the event, of course), a Bat Mitzvah for the great grand-daughter of Israel’s very first Chief of Staff (who later served as the president of the Technion), and a Bat Mitzvah for the great grand-daughter of one of Israel’s leading Zionist „giants“, after whom streets and schools are named in every town in Israel. And then there was the Bar Mitzvah for the first born son of one of Israel’s top ranking officers, who suffered a severe head injury in Gaza, in a clash with terrorists a few years ago. Not one eye was left dry when the paralyzed father, supported by senior officers and his courageous wife, mumbled the words of the Aliyah LaTorah blessings, and though we couldn’t make out any of the words he was saying, we all knew that God surely could, that God surely understood every syllable and every word, and that the blessing was 100% Kosher in the eyes of God.
There is another story that I really want to share with you, but my staff says it will make this letter too long. So I tell it in the “P.S.” at the bottom of this letter. I HOPE YOU READ IT!!!
When you meet and talk and celebrate with all of these living testimonies, Israel is no longer a news item. It is a fabric of greatness. And then, when you transform it all into a Jewish blessing, it is easy to shake off the sadness and gloom and celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut with great delight.
Tonight and tomorrow, we will celebrate Israel’s 67th birthday. There is so much to celebrate. So much to be thankful for. Dear friends and supporters of V’Ahavta, through our holy work, we get to bear witness to this great nation, this great People, the great saga called The State of Israel, and the sacrifices that so many people made to ensure its survival. But that’s not all. We get to TRANSFORM IT ALL INTO A VIBRANT JEWISH BLESSING, IN WHICH ONE GENERATION OF HEROES PASSES ITS BLESSINGS TO THE NEXT, REMINDING THE YOUNG ONES THAT THEY ARE BEARERS OF A GREAT STORY!
PS A lovely story: After every Alyiah LaTorah we do a personal „Mi SheBeirach.“ I ask the Oleh LaTorah for a spontaneous blessing: What would they want to ask God to bestow on the Bar Mitzvah child? Three weeks ago, this sweet and somewhat fragile grandfather, who was tearing for a reason other than what I was thinking (I thought he was just „kvelling“ over his grandson’s coming of age), asked that his grandchild remember that he is the last male in the Perel family to continue the family name, since the entire family was destroyed in the holocaust. „What a heavy burden“, I thought to myself. But then my mind started ticking really fast… the family’s last name is Perel. I know of a few men who carry that last name. So, before chanting the Mi SheBeirach, I asked the grandfather: „last male? What about so and so…?“. He responded, „No, that’s the Hungarian lineage. We are the Polish branch!“. „Ahhh“, I said. But my mind was not at ease. Perel. Perel. Perel. Why does this last name sound so familiar to me? As I started chanting the blessing: „Mi SheBeirach Avoteinu…. Ve Imoteinu… Hu Yevarech et Shlomo, ben…..“ it suddenly struck me: Shlomo Perel! My voice started breaking a little bit, my mind went wild and my heart almost exploded. Shlomo Perel… But of course! Born Solomon Perel… nick-named Sally!!! When the blessing was over I immediately asked him, „are you by any chance familiar with the film `Europa, Europa`“? He smiled and said, „of course. That’s me. It is my story!“ I told him that thousands of teenagers throughout the country know his story, not from the prize winning movie (which came out in the 80’s…), but because I have told and re-told his story, about this extra-ordinary Jewish kid, who, for six scary and heroic years, passed for an Aryan German orphan – in a Nazi army base and then in an elite Nazi Youth boarding school, and whose one biggest threat was… his circumcision! That „unfortunate“ identity mark imprinted on his flesh almost gave him away time after time. And here he was, here in Israel, in our very own town, in our very own V’Ahavta synagogue, blessing his only male grandchild (he has four delightful female granddaughters), with the blessing of continuing this covenant, this „Brit“, here in Israel, between the Perel family and God and history. I did my share to ensure the continuity of the Jewish People and of the great Perel family lineage, he said, and now, my grandchild, it is your turn.