Rabbi’s Monthly Message

Standing with Ancestors and Israelis on October 7

A Message from Rabbi David Lerner (April-May 2024)

“And it is this that stood up for or stood by our ancestors and for us;
since it is not [only] one [person or nation] that has stood [against] us
to destroy us, but rather in each generation, they stand [against] us to
destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be God, rescues us from their hand.”

Called the V’hee she’amdah, this is one of the central texts of the Passover Haggadah. On one of the most joyful nights of the year, when we narrate the story of our people’s freedom, we also sing this unusual song of praise. In the Maggid portion of the Seder, the section dealing with telling of our redemption from Egypt, we find four distinct parts (four is a big number at the seder). Each follows the same pattern, there is a question or questions, an answer, followed by a song of praise.

The second telling contains the four children and their questions, followed by a spiritual answer that explains how we became Monotheists after being idol-worshippers. After that, we lift our glasses of wine as we sing V’hee Sh’amdah. While we do not drink just yet (we wait until all four tellings are complete – “filling” our cup with learning and conversation), we enjoy a moment of song and celebration. There are two sides to this song of praise. The first part explains we had been given this promise generations ago: God would save us. The Divrei Negadim, most commonly attributed to the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew, 16th century), explains that this is logical since V’hee Sh’amdah “explains the previous statement, that the promise which God made to Abraham was that our enemies would not destroy us.” Just as Abraham would be protected, so would the Israelites centuries later.

The second half drives home the point that we have enemies. Many. In every generation, people have risen up against the Jewish people. Although this text was most likely written in the 8th century, it is certainly true today, 1,200 years later. Sadly, the events of the last century drive this home. In the first half, God is simply standing with us; it is not clear what this means. Is God standing before us like an offensive lineman protecting a vulnerable quarterback or is God standing with us, cheering us from the sidelines, a la Rabbi Harold Kushner’s concept of God as a cheerleader? We appreciate the support, but we are pretty vulnerable alone on the field.

In the second half, all is clarified. God will save us from the hands of our enemies who stand above us to destroy. There is a nice parallelism between the two halves – God stands with us and then God prevents the enemies who are standing over us. There are two types of standing here: standing over someone in a menacing, threatening manner and one akin to standing shoulder to shoulder together as one. As is the case with many texts that speak of God’s redeeming us, I struggle with the V’hee Sh’amdah. Given Jewish history, why have there been so many times when God did not save us? Why didn’t God save us during the Holocaust? Where was God on October 7 for those who were raped, butchered, slaughtered, killed, burned, and taken hostage?

* * *

Of the many places I visited in my two recent trips to Israel in January and March, Kibbutz Re’im just a few kilometers from the border with Gaza, near the Re’im forest where the Nova Music Festival was held, stands out. My first cousin, Dr. Alon Lapidus – who works as a family physician in the low socio-economic city of Sderot – the “capital” of the Gaza border envelope and the target of thousands of rocket attacks over the past 24 years – accompanied me on my tour of the region. Alon has been working in the region for the past two and a half years and completed his residency training there under Dr. Nechushtan who was Alon’s preceptor. Dr. Nechustan was born and raised on Kibbutz Re’im, and replied immediately to our request to come and visit him on the Kibbutz, where he has remained to guard since October 7.

Even though the Kibbutz was closed to the public, he graciously took us around and introduced us to Harel Oren, the commander of the Kitat Konnenut, the Home Front Protection Force. Every kibbutz has a Kitat Konenut, a group of volunteers who protect these communities. They date back to the time before the founding of the state when every kibbutz had to ensure its own safety.

On October 7, at 6:30 am, as the air-raid sirens started going off continuously, every member of Kibbutz Re’im started receiving texts about the intense rocket fire (this happened in every community along the Gaza envelope and beyond). Little did they know, this was the cover and a diversion of the real attack.

Residents of these towns and kibbutzim are used to rocket attacks which have been fairly constant over the last 17 years since Gaza was taken over by Hamas after Israel unilaterally pulled out to the international border in 2005. The members of Kibbutz Re’im headed to their “safe rooms,” fortified rooms in each home that provide protection during missile attacks on their neighborhoods – with a sense that something was different.

They were unaware that Hamas was breaching the border fence in 22 places simultaneously, after taking out Israel’s security cameras, and on the verge of raiding the region. Residents in the region started to get news from friends and the media that terrorists had infiltrated the country. Israelis were instructed to go into their safe room and lock the doors.

Around 7 am, Mr. Oren heard trucks driving towards the Kibbutz and was grateful that the army had come to protect them. But these were not Tzahal (the IDF – Israel Defense Forces) trucks, they were the infamous white pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on the back; they began shooting at the Kibbutz. Oren calls the regional IDF base – no one answers (little does he know that those bases have been overrun by 3-5,000 Hamas terrorists and others including civilians from Gaza).

Five of Oren’s volunteers answer his call. As he is waiting, Oren hears a large explosion at the back gate of the Kibbutz– the terrorists know how to get in and they are in.

Fifteen terrorists start the attack on the Kibbutz. At 8 am, Oren calls the regional council for backup. No one is coming. His small Kibbutz Kitat Konnenut is meant to hold off a handful of terrorists for 20-30 minutes at most – until the army arrives. But, they are not coming.

The terrorists then break through the main gate. They know what they are doing. They know the layout of the Kibbutz. Six pickups come in with eight to ten terrorists in each and from a third direction another 50 or so trained Hamas fighters come through. Harel immediately split his squad into 3 two-man teams and sent them off to three locations in the kibbutz, instructed to hold ground and engage sparingly so as not to waste valuable ammunition. They are surrounded by some 120-180 terrorists who are intent on rampaging and pillaging through the kibbutz houses starting with the Youth neighborhood where the 18-30 year olds live.

But Oren also knows his Kibbutz. He and his partner take up positions between the two halves of the kibbutz behind some bushes where they cannot be seen. Oren sees the terrorists and starts shooting, hitting four of them. He fires in a line so anyone who crosses the center of the Kibbutz gets shot. The terrorists do not realize where the fire is coming from and they get the impression that a much larger Israeli force is there. They stop and retreat.

By 9 am, he is running low on ammunition. At 9:30 am, he gets a call from the Southern side of the Kibbutz to help them hold off the attack there. Somehow, he holds his line of fire, getting weapons, helmets, and ammunition and bringing it to them. By noon, his initial force of six, which was joined by sporadic reinforcement over 6 hours (totaling less than 20 people armed with assault rifles) finally started receiving organized reinforcement.

At this point, the battle in the Kibbutz intensified as the Israeli forces started to actively engage the scores of Hamas terrorists in the Kibbutz. Security forces and Kibbutz members are killed and injured, and the small Kibbutz clinic is overwhelmed with the wounded that are being taken there.

As this was Simhat Torah morning, the clinic was not staffed. Harel summons Dr. Nechustan (the only physician on the Kibbutz and a retired Kitat Konnenut member) from his “safe-room” at home with his family, through the battlefield, to the clinic. There, together with one nurse, they will treat and evacuate as best they can, dozens of wounded over the next 20 hours providing life-saving treatment to many.

The battle goes on all day and into the night. There are still terrorists at 2 am – 19 hours after they first arrived. In the battle to save the Kibbutz, four soldiers, two guards, and seven civilians (among them five Kibbutz members) are killed. Two of Harel’s friends are among them. Five others are taken hostage. Another tragedy occurs when four young women who escaped from the Nova Festival to the Kibbutz are raped by Hamas, but many are saved. Most of the 1,000 Kibbutznikim survive.

Harel Oren and his Kitat Konennut stood in front of the attack, held their ground for hours, and saved their people from the hands of the enemy.

* * *

I don’t know exactly how God works, but at least on that day at Kibbutz Re’im, there was some kind of amazing bravery that came into the souls of those amazing volunteers and the soldiers who joined the fight. And they saved 1,000 souls. Perhaps that is God’s standing spirit. It flowed right through the brains and brawn of those brave men and women.

The enemies stood over them, but they stood with each other, saving their community from their enemies that come to stand over us in every generation.
When I sing this song at the Seder this year, I will sing it with great passion – standing with the heroes of October 7. Hag Kasher V’Sameah – may Pesah bringing freedom and peace into our world and may the hostages experience redemption and come home

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