May 19, 2019

Different Heroes

“Od lo avda tikvataynu.”

A poster of Moshe Dayan hung in my childhood bedroom. Growing up in the light of the Six-Day War, I adored this new Jewish hero — tough, cocky, a Jew without fear. A generation later, we venerated Yitzchak Rabin — the warrior peacemaker, the realistic visionary, the taciturn prophet. This year, I celebrate a different kind of hero and a different kind of courage.

Every Israeli child knows someone who has been killed. Every child has a cousin or a playmate, a teacher or a neighbor who has been killed or maimed during the onslaught of terror. For every fatality, there are dozens who are brutally wounded, and hundreds of traumatized family, friends and neighbors.

What happens to kids 9, 10, 11 years old who are attending funerals on a regular basis? Or who are regularly visiting friends in the hospital trauma center? What part of their childhood is lost? What part of their innocence is betrayed? What happens to parents who want to protect their children, but there’s nothing they can do? The teacher of my friend’s 12-year-old daughter was killed in one of the bombings. My friend went into her bedroom that night to console her.

She looked at him with eyes suddenly so much older and said, “Don’t worry, Abba. I understand.”

Such is life in Israel these days.

Purim in Israel was different this year. Usually, a Mardi Gras delirium takes hold of the country for a day or two. Streets fill with costumed Queen Esthers and righteous Mordecais, as well as species of Spider-Man and Superman. Shopkeepers offer each passerby a “L’chaim!” Everyone has a party to attend. This year, however, security officials requested that masks not be worn on the streets and in public places, and that costumes remain simple, for fear that terrorists might take the opportunity and turn a festival of joy into an eruption of destruction. Such is life in Israel these days.

But there were masks — gas masks. Fearing the poisonous intentions of Saddam, Israelis were once again issued gas masks — even small children — and ordered to prepare sealed rooms in their homes and businesses. So Holocaust survivors must watch their children and grandchildren prepare to meet poisonous gas attacks. Such is life in Israel these days.

We think of heroism in flashing images of courage and daring: A Queen Esther or Judah Maccabee who risks it all to save the people. There is another image of heroism. It is the heroism of sustained resilience. There is heroism in a tenacity of conviction facing a steady surge of evil, rising and falling like the tide, but — like the tide — never subsiding. Perhaps this is a more authentically Jewish form of heroism: the steadfast refusal to surrender to the darkness, to collapse into despair — the refusal to give up the dream.

This week’s Torah reading begins: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him” (Leviticus 21:1).

The Chasidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, read the verse as a warning against the defilement of the soul. The soul is defiled, its essence violated, when it is infected with the bitterness and rage that comes with senseless suffering and tragedy. Ironically, only those who hold out faith that human existence is ultimately meaningful are susceptible to this bitterness. One who believes that life is absurd and meaningless is never disappointed, never shaken. Without expectations or dreams, he knows no tragedy. The Ishbitzer taught that those who — like the priests, sons of Aaron — would serve God, are commanded to find the resources to resist the defilements of despair and darkness. Despair is the ultimate denial of God; surrender to darkness, the ultimate blasphemy.

This week, we celebrate the heroes who have given us the miracle of the State of Israel. We also celebrate those whose names are not listed in books or commemorated on plaques — heroes of resilience and resolution who cling to our ancient dream despite the relentless tide of evil. Od lo avda tikvataynu. For their sake, we haven’t lost our hope.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.