Some Personal Reflections on Sukkot in Yerushalayim

15 Oct 2015

There is nothing as incomparably, magnificently festive as Yerushalayim just prior to, and during Sukkot. The city is illuminated by the incandescent sunshine of the pre-rainy season. Everywhere one looks, sukkot in infinitely varied sizes and styles dominate the streetscape. The markets are filled with yom tov shoppers, pushing and shoving in the finest Israeli tradition. My wife and I joined the holiday frenzy in Machane Yehuda, stopping at Mamlechet Halvah to load up on a family favorite.

We were in Yerushalayim not only to celebrate the Chag, but also the bar mitzvah of one of our grandchildren. As he leined parshat Haazinu just steps from the Kotel, our joy was boundless. During Chol Hamoed, like most Israelis and visitors, there was an opportunity for tiyulim (trips). Each of us has a particularly memorable recollection of these opportunities to see and appreciate the uniqueness of our homeland. My special moment was our family’s visit to an army base housing OKETZ, the K-9 unit of the IDF. We marveled at the extraordinary training received by bomb-sniffing dogs, and were moved by a unique cemetery for canines killed in the line of duty. Every chayal (soldier) we met stressed that a human life had been saved for every dog’s life lost. When we visited the kennel housing these special animals, I paused for a moment at a nondescript sign hanging on the door. It was a list of instructions for the halachically appropriate way of handling the dogs on Shabbat and Yamim Tovim. It is the essence of our Eretz Hakedosha that these brave young men and women can, at once, uphold her Torah and insure her peace and security. May Hashem guard and protect them.

On October 3, during Chol Hamoed, the joy and beauty of the Sukkot holiday was shattered by the brutal murder of Rabbi Eitam Henkin, age 31, and his wife Naama, age 30, as they drove in the Shomron with their four young children; the youngest was 4 months, the oldest a 9 year old. Rabbi Henkin was a brilliant Torah scholar, his wife Naama a gifted graphic artist and designer.

The violence has now spread across Israel – from Yerushalayim to Petach Tikva, Gush Etzion, Kiryat Gat, Tel Aviv, Afula, Kiryat Arba and elsewhere – bringing countless new attacks and new tragedies; and ever more families mourning the loss of loved ones. How do we persuade the world to take notice; to care? How do we persuade the world that these heinous acts are not – and can never be equated with – political actions by rivals on the geopolitical stage. If only we could take the world by the neck and shake it until it recognized that these acts are murders, perpetrated by madmen filled with the hatred of Jews – murderers no different than marauding bands of Crusaders; murderers no different than rampaging Cossacks; murderers no different than those that slaughtered six million Kedoshim because they were Jews.

palestiniancartoonToday, these murderers are nourished by the culture of hate that permeates the Palestinian media and is embedded in their schools. Just look at the picture to the right — a caricature displayed prominently on Palestinian social media, depicting Jews walking on a knife blade towards a grave shaped like, in their words, “Greater Palestine.” The headstone reads: “Cemetery of the invaders.”

The world’s silence in the face of such unmitigated hatred is deafening. Worse, it is sickening in its blatant hypocrisy. After a Palestinian in the Old City slashed an Israeli woman and her infant son, and stabbed her husband to death, together with a Rabbi who had rushed to their rescue, and was halted in his rampage only when he was shot, the BBC headline read: “Palestinian Shot Dead After Fatal Stabbing in Jerusalem; 2 Israeli Victims Also Killed.” The Palestinian Authority’s official announcement condemned Israel for killing a seemingly innocent Palestinian, without ever mentioning the brutal, unprovoked murder of Israelis. Watch the video, it doesn’t lie. The stabbed mother, Adele Benita, described from her hospital bed how Arab bystanders had “murder in their eyes,” laughed and spat at her as she sought to run, bleeding, from the scene of her husband’s murder. Following the murder of the Henkins, hy”d, Palestinians handed out sweets, waved PA flags and launched fireworks in celebration. Watch the video, it doesn’t lie. UN chief Ban Ki-moon condemned the killing of Palestinians, but failed even to mention the Jewish victims.

We live in a world of perverted moral equivalency, where brutal murders are equated with the most careful efforts to maintain security. It is only in a world of such demented parallels that our State Department condemns the violence, and urges “all sides” to avoid escalating tension. Evenhandedness is praiseworthy, but only when both antagonists are similarly situated. When they are not – and as we have seen over and over in the past days and years, they most assuredly are not – evenhandedness is a moral abdication; evenhandedness in the face of murder and unadulterated hatred must be exposed for what it is. There are not two sides to every story; there is only justice and decency.

At Rabbi Eitam Henkin’s levaya, he was eulogized by his brother, Dr. Yigal Henkin. His words should echo like a clarion call to all who seek to reduce the murder of innocents to just another manifestation of political controversy:

“… it was not blind fate which took the lives of Eitam and Naama. They are “Harugei Malchut,” the term used for those who died as part of the unceasing struggle of the Jewish people… Eitam and Naama were not killed by “terror.” They are victims of an act of hostility. Human beings driven by hatred went out to the road in order to murder Jews, and they succeeded.”

Immediately after the conclusion of yom tov, I, together with Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU Executive Vice President Emeritus, Rabbi Avi Berman, Director of OU Israel, and Mr. Norman Schmutter, paid a shiva visit to Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbanit Chana Henkin in their home in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Yerushalayim. I first met Rabbanit Henkin when she stayed in our home some twenty years ago, on one of her first trips to the United States to raise the funds for what would become Nishmat, that truly extraordinary educational enterprise and Makom Torah. She and her husband are remarkable individuals and have dedicated their lives to the betterment of Klal Yisroel. It was impossible to find adequate words of nechama (consolation).

Outside the Henkins’ building three Druze men stood in flowing white robes, one the father of Druze policeman Zidan Sayif (who was killed trying to rescue the victims of the Har Nof massacre). Inside, a young man whose parents had been murdered in a terror attack twelve years ago had come to offer words of consolation. I could not help but recognize the growing – the ever growing – fraternity of mourners, united by the common bond of pain and loss and the consequences of senseless hatred. When will it end? When will this fraternity dissolve for lack of members? When will we stop visiting parents and grandparents, husbands and wives, to offer words of condolence to those who cannot be consoled?

And where are our own leaders? Why have they not condemned – in a clear, unequivocal and forceful way – the indiscriminate slaughter of Jewish innocents. I have been to the White House several times in the past year? On one of those occasions, the President turned to the representatives of the major Jewish organizations assembled in the Roosevelt Room and, in a highly emotional moment, stated solemnly that he would consider it a personal moral failure if Israel’s security was diminished on his watch. But Israel’s security is more than the power of its army and air force and missile defense system. Israel’s security includes – indeed, it rests upon – the safety and well-being of its citizens; the ability to drive from place to place without being stoned; the ability to walk freely and confidently in the Old City; the ability to daven in shul without fear of attack; the ability to live a peaceful, normal life where 9 year olds don’t say Kaddish for saintly fathers and mothers murdered because they are Jews. The moral failure, Mr. President, is in not telling it like it is; without equivocation; without moral equivalency when there is none; without covering for unmitigated hatred through the niceties of diplomatic discourse. May God grant you the wisdom, and the courage, to speak the truth and protect its sanctity.

May Hashem bless us all, and may the mitzvah of ve-samachta be-chagecha be fulfilled in fullness and in universal joy.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.