July 22, 2015

Remembering Gush Katif

Rabbi Haber

geirushYesterday, I had the privilege of leading some of the boys on the NCSY Summer Kollel on a Nine Days-oriented trip that included a visit to the excellent exhibit at the Gush Katif Commemoration Center in Nitzan.  I’ve taken others there as well, and have seen this exhibit several times now.  Still, each time I walk out powerfully shaken as I relive those excruciatingly painful days.

It’s been exactly ten years, as of next week.  Thinking about the difficult weeks leading up to the destruction of Gush Katif, I remembered an email that I wrote to my students the night after Tisha B’av 5765, hours before the expulsion began.  In the spirit of Tisha B’av, and in order to help others remember and/or learn about this event, I am republishing it here (edited very slightly for style to make it internet-appropriate). 

In the merit of mourning the destruction, may we merit the rebuilding of Gush Katif, together with Jerusalem.

Al Shever Bat Ami
(The Destruction of the Daughter of My People)

Dear Talmidot,

It is now 2:30 am on Motzaei Tisha B'av, and I cannot sleep.  It's not common for me to be unable to sleep (usually my problem is staying awake!).  But these are not common times.  Tonight, chaotic and often contradictory thoughts are racing through my head.

Fear.  Anguish.  Excitement.  Anger.  Hope.  Despair.  Confidence.  Confusion.

After a while as a teacher, you get to a stage when the only way you know how to learn something is if you teach it to your students.  At this point, talking to all of you is pretty much the only way I know how to organize my thoughts.  So, if you don't mind, please allow me to attempt to share these feelings with you.  I'm not really going to try to come to some conclusion or understand the huge historic events swirling around us.  That clarity, if it comes at all, will only be in the future.  I'm just going to try to organize the confusion in my head, and share it with you in the hopes that maybe some of you can do something positive with it.

Please excuse me also if I leave the balanced political discussions for another time - I simply can't talk about that right now.  At the present moment, all I can see is that a horrific tragedy threatens to take place, and I don't know what to do to stop it.

Each year during the Three Weeks, I attempt to use the halachically mandated practices of Aveilut (mourning) to bring myself to certain feelings of mourning for Yerushalayim.  Though I am generally somewhat successful, I have to acknowledge that there is usually a certain "artificial" quality to my feelings.  On this evening of the Tenth of Av, I must admit that I usually feel a sense of relief at the fact that by tomorrow afternoon this will all be over, and fight a semi-conscious excitement to just move on to my summer vacation and return to normal life.

But not this year.  Now my urge is to go back to sitting on the floor and to read Eicha and kinot all over again.  Or to get up and run someplace and do something - although it's not clear where to run or what to do.  It seems we've tried just about everything, and I intend to continue doing so in the days ahead (in a few hours I plan to go to Jerusalem and protest outside the Prime Minister's office, and perhaps a day after that to head down South.  And although I'm far from sure that any of this will do anything, I have nothing else to try.)

Thousands of years ago tonight, the Bet HaMikdash burned, sealing the fate of churban ha'aretz (the destruction of the land).  And now, at this very moment, an army is poised to begin another churban - thankfully a much smaller one, that cannot be compared to the destruction of an entire nation or to the many other horrific tragedies that we read about this morning in kinot.  On the other hand, this churban is in a sense even more painful, because the army who is to carry it out is our own.  Of course, we brought the previous churbanot on ourselves as well - but this time it is so clear and obvious.

This past Shabbat, my family finished Seuda Shlishit before Shkiya, as the halacha demanded.  After birkat hamazon, there was about a half an hour left before we would take off our shoes and begin the observances of Tisha B'av.  There wasn't much we could do at that point, so we went to sit out on our porch to get a bit of fresh air.  It's something I like to do from time to time, to sit outside in the cool evening air and enjoy the beauty of Eretz Yisrael.

As I was sitting on the balcony with my children playing nearby, watching the last rays of sunset fade over Kfar Etzion, a thought occurred to me.  All over Israel, I realized, people are doing the same thing - Seuda Shlishit is over, and everyone is just waiting for Tisha B'av to begin.  And probably at this moment in Gush Katif, there is a person doing pretty much the same thing I'm doing - sitting out on his porch with his children, spending the final moments of Shabbat enjoying the view in the place where he built his home.  Like me, he's marveling at the beauty of the same sunset (I see it over the mountains; he sees it over the sea.)  Like me, his awe and admiration for the physical beauty of the land helps him appreciate the great privilege of living in Eretz Yisrael.  Like me, he has a sense of comfort and satisfaction sitting next to the house he built to fulfill the mitzva of settling the land, knowing that the hardships are all worthwhile, and not wanting to trade this life for anything.

But of course, that's where the comparison ends.

You see, my reaction to the sunset was to say to my wife, "You know, it's really nice out here.  Maybe next week we'll eat Seuda Shlishit here on the porch!"  But when the man in Gush Katif thinks of next Shabbat....

Where will he be next Shabbat?  Will he still be in his home?   Indeed, will his home still exist?  Will he still see the view?  Will he even have a home, anywhere, with a view or without?  Will he have a shul to go to?  Will he have a job to go to next Sunday morning?  Will his kids have a school to go to in two weeks?

This morning, our Rav gave a brief shiur in our shul in which he stated that, should these events actually take place, he thinks there will be a halachic obligation on all Jews everywhere to rip their clothes and recite the bracha of "Dayan HaEmet" with "shem umalchut".  He said he thinks this is true even for one who thinks that this plan is a positive thing that will ultimately improve our situation.  Even if necessary or even good in the final analysis, a terrible thing is about to happen right now.

I'm a firm believer that as long as the tragedy has not yet happened, it is never too late to stop it.  "Even if a sharp sword is threatening a person’s neck, he should never despair of the possibility of Divine mercy."  At times, in fact, it seems so clear to me that something massively great, perhaps even Messianic, is about to happen.  Yet at other times, often just moments later, I find myself on the verge of despair.  And thus, I feel, urgent questions must be asked immediately.

How did this come about?  How did we bring ourselves to this point?  This, of course, is the question that the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) screamed in this morning's haftara, "al ma avda ha'aretz” - why was the land lost??!  I scramble and hurry to try to answer that question before it happens, in the desperate hope that it can yet be stopped.  For Yirmiyahu the answer was crystal-clear: "Al azvam et torati" – because they abandoned My Torah.  But today, we have no prophet to point his finger at the particular problem, and I for one am not wise enough to see it clearly.

Certainly, the deep divisions among the Jewish People have a lot to do with it.  One of the things that is most frustrating about the current situation is that the great majority of supporters of the Disengagement Plan do not seem to recognize the tragedy that is about to take place.  It would seem that even one who thinks that this will improve our strategic situation should cringe at the thought of Jewish towns being handed over to Arab terrorists, and should be given some pause at the sight of the celebrations that are already beginning in Gaza, pronouncing loud and clear that they view this as but one step on the road to Jerusalem.   Even if one feels politically that this is necessary, it would seem that he must still acknowledge the horrible injustice of thousands of people being forcibly evicted from homes and communities they built over decades at the cost of great sacrifice (and the request of all previous governments), and not even being given any realistic options of where to go and how to rebuild their lives.  As I have written before, I think these things should be beyond the debate and should be acknowledged also by the supporters of the plan, who can and should do so without diminishing their conviction that we must do this.

But largely, they aren't.  I see no outpouring of sympathy and compassion for the residents of Gaza and the Shomron - other than from a very dedicated and defined community of their supporters.  The feeling one gets is that much of the public just isn't very interested in what's going on.  And some segments of the population, and certainly the press, seem to even be celebrating.

Last week I went with my two daughters to Tel Aviv, to spend an evening handing out orange ribbons.  It was part of a nationwide effort - hundreds of teenagers and adults gathered in a big park on Rechov Arlozorov, right near the "Rakevet Tzafon" train station.  Smack in the heart of pro-Disengagement territory, trying to make a difference.  After listening to a brief inspirational talk by Rav Aviner, they fanned out to street corners all over Gush Dan, smiling at people, handing out orange ribbons and fliers, and trying to talk to the people.   And my daughters and I were among them.

We got different reactions from people.  Many people, even in Tel Aviv, were very supportive.  There were also those who disagreed but came to speak to us, and we had a few very significant conversations on the street with people who did not agree, but were interested in hearing our opinions and respected our convictions.  I thought that was extremely worthwhile as well, and I also benefitted from hearing their point of view.

But unfortunately, we also encountered a lot of anger, and even hostility.  Many people gave us dirty looks, clearly bothered by our presence and incensed that we had invaded "their" city.  A few people actually said some very hurtful things.  One woman even said something to the effect of: "Just get yourselves out of here.  First get out of Tel Aviv, and then get out of Gush Katif!"

All we knew how to do was to smile back at them.  But, I found myself asking over and over again, why the anger?  Even if we continue to argue about what we should or shouldn't do, why can't we at least cry together about what is about to take place?  I've been to many protests over the past year, and although they tried to present a forceful message and spoke with a considerable amount of anger, I have heard over and over again the message that this is still our government and our army, and that the soldiers who may come to expel us are still our brothers, and we must treat them as such.  And yet somehow, the deep divisions and even animosity are there.  And this is the closest I can come to answering the question of what is causing this threat of destruction.

A few weeks ago in MMY, Mrs. Mali Brofsky spoke very passionately at the Yom Iyun we held to try to address these issues.  She said the real "disengagement" is the spiritual disengagement that happened a long time ago - that we have become two separate people: a religious community committed to Jewish values and a secular community that feels very alienated from us and from what we represent.  This, she said, is the real cause of the problems we're facing.

There's no question that she is right.  But what to do about it?  How to change it?  She seemed to point the accusing finger primarily at our (Religious-Zionist) community, to decisions we made decades ago and the natural outcome of our actions.  She may very likely be right about this as well.  But I still don't know what we should have done differently - or more importantly, what we should be doing about it now.

So perhaps all there is to do is to return to the classic Jewish response to the threat of tragedy – repentance, prayer and charity.  This past week there was a remarkable prayer gathering at the Kotel.  I tried to go, but didn't make it past the Jewish Quarter to come anywhere near the Kotel.  There were simply too many people there (those who came a bit later than I did got stopped at Jaffa Gate.  The entire Old City was packed and there was barely an inch in which to move.)  I have never in my life seen so many Jews in the Old City (some people, like Rabbi Katz, who have been here longer than I do say they may remember one or two other times in the past, during very extraordinary events.  I don't have the statistics to check whether this was a record crowd or not, but it doesn't really matter.  It was powerfully impressive.)  There is absolutely no question that something like this makes an impact in Shamayim.  The outcome, however, is the exclusive decision of the Ribono Shel Olam, and nobody can know what will happen until it has happened.

One thing that this has taught me, though, is that all of Am Yisrael is connected, and everything that each of us does affects all of us.  And therefore, all of Am Yisrael, wherever they may be, must do everything in our power to increase tefillah, teshuva and genuine acts of kindness, especially those that bring different groups of Jews together on common ground and increase our common commitment to true Torah principles and values.

It's also clear to me that no matter how the current issue comes to resolution, the struggle over the values of Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael will continue for potentially a very long time, until the Mashiach comes.  Unless that happens tommorow (which, of course, is entirely possible and what we are waiting for), then we will continue to face these problems no matter what happens with Gush Katif.

And therefore, I think it's all the more important, and crucially urgent, for all of us to devote some serious time and energy to introspection, both on the individual and communal level, and think about what we can do to improve a situation that we don't even really understand.

Thanks for listening.

With prayers for salvation and complete redemption, speedily,

-r haber


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