By Rabbi Uri Pilichowski
My neighbor doesn’t work in an office. He created a niche company that offers adventure experiences to Israelis and visiting tourists. His experience in the outdoors have taught him certain life skills that are needed by the IDF during emergencies.
When he drives off in a rush, especially on a quiet Shabbat, there’s no need to check the news to know something has happened. We returned from prayers on Saturday and one of our children told us our neighbor had rushed off early in the morning. That was the first sign something was wrong.
Israel recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. The overwhelming majority of Israelis weren’t alive for the war and have no memories of it. They sensed that Israel is invincible. The idea that it could suffer a devastating surprise attack seemed as ancient as the Bible.
It was felt that the only existential threat was from a potentially nuclear Iran. Israelis has grown accustomed to this threat. They grew confident in the knowledge that Israel’s intelligence services, military and political leadership have taken steps to protect Israelis from an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Israelis saw Hamas, Hezbollah and smaller terrorist groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad as threats, but not serious ones. The frequent terror attacks from Palestinians in Judea and Samaria were more of a nuisance than a cause for real worry. Even the biannual rocket attacks from Gaza weren’t seen as a significant threat.
Friends, students and even family would often ask me if I felt safe in Mitzpe Yericho, and my answer was always yes. Even though our town isn’t surrounded by a fence, we have top level security and a 45-year history of no incidents. We had nothing to fear.
The dream and objective of the Zionist movement was to build a state where Jews would be safe from antisemitic persecution. Even before the Holocaust, the early founders of Zionism sensed that an unimaginable threat loomed over world Jewry. They recognized that the only way the Jewish people could remain safe was to create a state of their own. Thus, Jews around the world would always have a place of refuge.
The Zionist dream was achieved and millions of Jews have fled to safety in Israel. But at the same time, Israel became a target itself. The same danger from which it sought to protect its people has now reared its ugly face within the shelter of the state itself.
This past week, the State of Israel and its people celebrated the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The week was a joyous time with family and friends. An attack on Israel was the last thought on anyone’s mind.
As the news of Saturday’s massive Hamas invasion of southern Israel began to circulate in communities around Israel, the first reactions were shock and disbelief. Surely, the numbers were exaggerated. An attack of this magnitude couldn’t happen in Israel.
Memories of the Yom Kippur War flooded in, along with the sense that history was repeating itself. Was it possible that the intelligence services failed to detect an attack that must have required months of planning? The news of the unspeakable slaughter and atrocity in the south was too much to contemplate.
I stood outside my house on late Shabbat afternoon. Our family was supposed to host community children who had stayed up late Yom Kippur night studying Torah. Our town’s security force had told everyone to stay home.
With no guests, we stood on the street waiting for news. As mayor of our town, my wife spent the day participating in security briefings over Zoom. If the cancelled party, my wife on the phone, and the worry on my children’s faces weren’t enough to make me understand what was happening, watching my young neighbor, changed from his festival clothes into his army uniform, a large rucksack on his back, kissing his pregnant wife and two small children goodbye broke me down in tears. This was the Yom Kippur War all over again, and our sense of invincibility was shattered.
Perhaps that sense was an illusion the nation now knows to be false. Attacks on the Jewish people have been a feature of our history. For millennia, we have often made the mistake of overconfidence, only to see it lead to tragedy. As Rabbi Eliezer the Great taught, the Jewish people have no one to rely on but God. During this time of tragedy and challenge, we turn to Our Father in Heavan and ask for Israel’s suffering to end, our enemies to be vanquished and peace brought to the land.
Just as Israel eventually recovered from the Yom Kippur War, Israel will recover from the Simchat Torah attack. The Jewish people will overcome these horrific tragedies. Though the scars and trauma will remain, we are a strong people of faith. Our history is full of tragedy and yet the God of the Jewish people has always saved us. The Jewish state of Israel and her people will rise once again in glory.
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. The author of three books, he teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.