Life, Death, and Reconciliation in Israel and Gaza

Life, and Death and Reconciliation in Israel and Gaza: Hayyei Sarah 5784

As it has been for many of us, for me, it’s been quite a tough time. I have felt pervasive sadness and loss interspersed with moments of joy. 

Sharon and I took a break to spend a couple of hours with some friends and take our minds off Israel.

We shared for a few minutes, talking about our kids, but then we were back to talking about Israel – what our kids were experiencing on their college campuses and sharing stories we had heard from our Israeli friends and family.

* * *

It’s hard not to be back in that space. 

There is so much pain. 

This week, I heard a podcast that shared the artistic displays throughout Tel-Aviv to call attention to the 240 hostages. 

They are beautiful and heart-rending.

Intensely moving and deeply painful to take in. 

There are also so many stories of loss, of heroism, and amidst the tears, embers of hope.


One story really got to me; it was about Reserve Captain Sagi Golan and his partner Omer Ohana were scheduled to get married on October 20, with the song “I Was Fortunate to Love” by Israeli star Ivri Lider accompanying them along the aisle.

On the morning of October 7, Sagi and Ohana — both high-tech workers — woke up in their apartment in coastal Herzliya and turned the radio on to hear the morning news.

On that morning, Golan “jumped out of bed, he didn’t get up,” recounted his partner Omer.

Even though nobody had called him up to report for duty, “He had his uniform in hand, he brushed his teeth, and within a few minutes, we were at the front door. He gave me a kiss on the lips, and he said [he’d be back in] ‘Less than a week.’”

For his compulsory military service, Golan had been accepted into the prestigious 8200 intelligence unit, whose graduates often go on to stellar high-tech and business careers.

But Golan had chosen to enter a combat unit, completing the course for Lotar — an elite special unit dealing with counter-terrorism.

Golan’s unit managed to rescue some of those under attack in Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the Gaza border towns that has come to epitomize the murderous rampage of October 7. 

In Be’eri, Hamas massacred more than 120 of its residents, among them entire families, and set homes on fire to smoke them out before gunning them down. And they took hostages.

Sagi Golan led his unit valiantly, although he and his soldiers were vastly outnumbered. Unlike other militaries, Israeli officers do not lead from the back, but they go first. “Aharai – after me” is the motto. After 12 hours of fighting, Sagi was hit by gunfire and killed.

Isaac Lider, whose song was to have been played at Sagi and Omer’s wedding, heard about Sagi’s death and came to perform his song in person at Sagi’s funeral, while their flowers that were supposed to be the tables at the wedding adorned the funeral instead.

The couple had planned to have children, via a surrogate. Golan’s sperm was frozen after he died. The Knesset on Monday passed an amendment recognizing LGBTQ partners of fallen IDF service members as widows and widowers, as is the case with heterosexual counterparts. 

According to his surviving partner Omer, this new law allows Sagi “to have a child, and embrace him with love.” 

Joy and sadness. Weddings and funerals. Birth and death.

* * *

Death frames this week’s Torah reading.

At the beginning, Sarah dies, and at the end, Abraham dies. 

It’s noteworthy to point out that there is life in death. Sarah’s death opens with the words “Eileh hayyei Sarah – this is the life of Sarah – it continues with her age at death and then repeats the phrase hayyei Sarah again – it’s as if the Torah is holding onto her life, to her memory – even as she dies.

In the midst of these deaths, we find the narrative about Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, finding a partner for his son, Isaac. When Eliezer returns to Canaan with Rebecca, it is love at first sight. 

Isaac marries Rebecca, and as the Torah states, he loved her – V’ye’eh’ha’ve’ha. This is the first time in the Torah we find love between two partners.

Death and life. Funerals and a wedding.

Sadness with sparks of joy.

These are some of the intense emotions we are feeling.

* * *

But there are other emotions, too: hurt, pain, and anger. I have been feeling all of these. It’s hard to keep others in mind when we ourselves are hurt.

But, we must. 

Even when we are hurting, when we are mourning with our friends and family in Israel, when we are praying for our hostages, when we are experiencing vitriolic anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism here in America, our tradition reminds us to keep other people in mind. 

While it’s hard not to think of this moment as competition for victimhood, everyone is a victim of Hamas—innocent Gazans, Israelis, people of 29 nationalities who were killed or taken hostage… and us.

But both Israelis and innocent Gazans are victims. Hamas has killed our people, and it is killing its own people by making them human shields and then shooting them when they try to leave.

I am proud that Israel is doing so much to save innocents: opening humanitarian corridors protected by Israeli tanks preventing Hamas from killing their own civilians. 

Israeli commandos risk their lives to prevent more civilian losses by marking targets for bombing more exactly. 

But as I watch and read so much about Israel and what we, as Jews, are experiencing, I can feel the anger rising in me.

* * *

Thankfully, the Torah offers another way—a way of reconciliation – of seeing the humanity in others.

When Abraham dies, the Torah states that both Yishamel and Isaac bury their father. Yishmael, who has not appeared in the narrative since he and his mother Hagar were banished from Abraham’s home because Sarah had accused Yishmael of being a bad influence on her son Isaac; now Yishmael is back.

The Torah gives us a sense that they are working together. That they have reconciled. 

Given that Jewish tradition sees Yishmael as the progenitor of Muslims and Isaac, of Jews, this moment of coming together holds out for us a goal, perhaps just a hope, perhaps an elusive one, but it is what we should always hold out, and hold onto. 

That we should continue to hope and hold everyone in our hearts.

Yes, we must stand up for ourselves, but not do so in a way that allows us to become mired in hate. 

We try to hold on to a different vision, a vision of reconciliation, of people coming back together – however impossible that might seem today.

* * *

There is one other noteworthy aspect of this scene. We are told after the burial, that Isaac settled in a town called Be’er Lahai Ro’i – literally, “the well where the Living One sees me.” It’s an interesting town – most wells don’t see much.

It can also mean “the well where I see life.”

But this well has appeared earlier in the narrative. When Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, is mistreated by Sarah, she finds herself at the same well, where God comforts her. God “sees” her, sees her suffering. 

Later in the narrative, when Hagar and Yishmael are sent away, they are dying without water, God hears Hagar’s son’s cry, “seeing” her again and hearing Yishmael. And they are saved by a well.

And in this week’s reading, the Torah states that Isaac come from Be’er Lahai Ro’i – this well where life, where people are seen. Rashi comments that Isaac went there to bring Hagar back to Abraham so they could remarry. So they could reconcile.

This is a vision of a totally different reality. 

While there is much discord in these narratives, there is also this thread of hope that is woven into the text. 

People move apart, and they can come back together, to remarry, to bury and to mourn.

But first, they need to be seen. This well sees us, and that gives us life. To be seen, to be heard, is the first step in any healing process.

We must try to see Yishmael and Isaac, to see Hagar and Abraham.

It is not easy. When I think about Sagi and Omer, I am lost in their tears, but even as I know that Israel’s fight continues, I still try to hold both peoples in my heart, to stay in the unsettling place of nuance and complexity.

Amidst this horrible time, I try to hold both. I know I am struggling, but I am trying.

I am trying to hold the pain that so many feel in our community and beyond.

And it can be overwhelming.

But the Torah sets forth a vision of Isaac and Yishmael who became the ancestors of Jews and Muslims, coming together.

A vision of them and all of us being seen.

I see the rifts – they are here in our own community, between Muslims and Jews, between Jews of different perspectives, between people in our workplaces, among friends – all being pulled apart on this issue. And we cannot resolve it all.

But like the well, we can see the basic humanity of all. 

And we can hold onto both.  In doing so, we also hold onto hope. Like the living well, we try to see everyone.

To hold both joy and sadness.

And in so doing, let us find a way to hold onto hope.

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