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Fear and Faith in Sderot

By:David Sultan Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fear. I had never known fear like the fear I knew last month. Thank God, at age thirty-three I’d never had to think that the next few days might well be my last. Yet there I was, standing in front of the Kotel, praying for dear life.

Was I a man with a death wish, heading on a perilous journey to a battlefront in some chaotic, foreign war-torn country like Iraq or Afghanistan? In a sense, I was on my way to the front line. But I was headed for Sderot, in Israel – the country Jews are supposed to run to for safety and refuge, not from.

I didn’t really know about fear and frontlines until I began preparing to go to Sderot. I started following the news much more closely, at the same time hiding the newspapers from my wife, Randi, so that she wouldn’t see what was going on.

And then there was the counting – every day the counting. Counting the number of rockets that fell on a particular day – 20, 30, 40, even 50; the number of people injured – one day 1, another 2, another 5; the number of people suffering from shock – one day 2, another day 5, another day dozens; the number of homes, buildings and cars destroyed, the number of businesses and lives ruined.

These were all just numbers until I realized I was actually going to Sderot, and then I started to figure out the odds. Fifty rockets in a day – what are the odds, in a town of 20,000 people, of nobody getting hit, of nobody’s home being damaged or worse, of nobody’s car destroyed, of nobody’s psyche shattered forever? Would you want those odds?

Dozens injured in a town of 20,000 over the past 6 years – call it 1 in 200; would you want those odds? Eight people killed in Sderot in that period from these attacks – now you’re talking 1 in 2,500, but still, would you want those odds?

The numbers went round and round in my head until the day approached.

It is unconscionable that in this era – when we Jews have our own country with a Jewish government and a Jewish army to defend ourselves – these attacks go on inside Israel, within the boundaries recognized by the entire world except for our most bitter enemies. And yet this is the life the residents of Sderot have endured for the past several years.

I was terrified to go for just a day and thought to myself, Can I even imagine what living like this, day in and day out, must be like? Can I imagine being too old or too crippled to get to the shelter in time?

Or not having enough time to grab all my children in the twenty seconds you have to get them to a shelter?

Or not having enough money to move out of Sderot to a safer place? Or not even having the money to construct a fortified room in my own house?

Until the rockets stop, there can be no real normalcy. Every second I was in Sderot I wondered, Would the tzevah adom come? And if it did, where would I run?

With every street or building we passed, Rabbi Dovid Fendel, the rosh yeshiva of the hesder yeshiva in Sderot, pointed out a crater in the road or a hole in a wall where a rocket had hit – even the campus of the yeshiva, where a Kassam had landed that Shabbos right next to where the students were davening.

Sderot is not an issue for the Israeli right or left or even strictly for Jews in Israel. It is an issue of utmost importance for Jews everywhere – whether they reside in Eretz Yisrael or in the Diaspora, whether they count themselves religious or non-religious.

I am not one given to undertake supporting a cause unless I feel it absolutely worthwhile. In this case I think it not just worthwhile but absolutely necessary. Sderot is the front line – it is a test of whether the world will once again watch our people be killed without justification and do nothing. It is a test of whether we Jews will have the fortitude to say enough is enough, we don’t care what you think, we have the means and the will to help and defend our people by ourselves if need be.

Our enemies need to see our will to live and to remain and to refuse to let them turn Sderot into a ghost town.

* * *

In truth, once our first hour in Sderot had passed without incident and it became clear that Rabbi Fendel was keeping us within a ten-second sprint of a shelter at all times, I began to breathe a little easier. And when I began to relax I began to see what was good. I began to see that there was hope.

We spent time meeting with the boys – really, the men – of the hesder yeshiva. These young men in their late teens and early twenties were truly extraordinary. We dined, we sang, we danced. How could we not have? It was Tu B’Shevat.

We knocked on doors in the neighborhood, doors of those who were strangers and those who were not, of Russian Jews, of religious Jews, of secular Jews – but all of them Jews – andgave them fruit baskets to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, to bring them chizuk, to strengthen their will to remain in Sderot.

These hesder yeshiva boys are the living dream of all that is and can be good. They fight in the army defending our people, they provide a social service network that the scared and scarred people of Sderot so desperately need, and they do it all l’shem shomayim, spreading the ways of Torah and derech eretz throughout the town by their caring and learning.

So I had reason for hope. If this is what these boys were capable of in those moments of despair, just think what they could do in a time of peace.

I addressed the students during lunch. The following is a small portion of my remarks; I think it says best what I think of them and what they are doing for all of us – and why the issue of Sderot is so important:

The Gemara in Eruvin 45a, with which I’m sure you are familiar, discusses when we are permitted or even obligated to violate Shabbat to defend a Jewish city from invaders.

If the invaders have come to kill, we are obviously obligated to violate Shabbat to fight them. But if they come merely to steal, we do not violate Shabbat.

However, if the city in question is on the border, we violate Shabbat even to prevent them from stealing straw and hay from the fields.

Rashi explains why: If we allow them to gain a foothold on the border, it jeopardizes the security of the whole nation. How much more so when the enemy comes to kill in a border city; fighting to defend that city is the highest priority.

And indeed, here and now, that is the case.

It is here in Sderot that you the students of the hesder yeshiva are on the front line. The security of the whole nation is at risk. And by the whole nation I mean not just the state of Israel but the entire Jewish people.

Without Sderot there is no border; without any borders there is no Israel; without any Israel there is no place of refuge for Jews anywhere in the world. So indeed the security of the whole nation is at risk.

But you have all chosen to stay, to fight and to defend our people.

How do we defend a city? Swords and spears – in our day, tanks and guns – are a necessary part of it, as you are all too familiar with, being students of a hesder yeshiva.

There is also another, more powerful force. The Yerushalmi in Chagiga 1:7 tells the story of a group of rabbis who go to a town to tell the townspeople that the Torah scholars are the true guardians of the town. As much as military might is important, it is the zechut of Talmud Torah that will ensure the city’s survival.

We see the same idea in parshat Beshalach – we need both the bravery of Nachshon ben Aminadav when he led the way into the Yam Suf but also the merit of Yehoshua, the closest student of Moshe Rabbeinu, who led the battle against Amalek.

You are doing all of the above – defending your city, your country and your people through military strength and the study of Torah. And for that, Jews around the world are forever indebted.

Why am I here today? To tell you that you are not alone. That you are not forgotten. And that we will do all that we can to help.

And why am I doing this? Because we have no choice. Although you have been forced to shoulder the burden, it should not be yours alone to bear. Until the terrorism ends, we will help you fight.

As Rabbi Fendel told me when we first met, they will bomb and we will build. And we will keep on building.

We will help you build.

We will get others to help.

And we will build and build and build until they have no bombs or until they realize that we cannot be stopped.

My original intention was to come to Sderot around the time of Chanukah. Why? Because it is you, the students of the hesder yeshiva of Sderot, who are bringing light to the darkness.

You are the modern day Maccabees saving our people. You fight, you defend, you learn. You are whom I want my children’s heroes to be. It is you whom I stand before in awe.

Unfortunately I could not come to Sderot at that time, and since then we passed through Aseret B’Tevet – a time of darkness, of destruction, of events linked to the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash.

Which brings us to today – Tu B’Shevat, the holiday of trees. You are not just Maccabees, you are the trees of our people. Trees do not move. They take root and they stay. They grow and they bear fruit. If you cut off a branch, it grows back. If its fruit falls off, ten more trees grow from its seed. If there is a storm, a tree bends but does not break. And it is the branch of a tree that brings hope after destruction.

Just as the navi Zechariah comforts the people by promising them that once more old men and old women will sit on the streets of Jerusalem and watch children play, so too shall the men and women of Sderot sit and watch their children play. And just as another Beit Hamikdash was built after the first was destroyed, so too will there be restoration after this destruction.

Thank you, students of the hesder yeshiva of Sderot, from the Jews of the world. May Hashem grant you the strength to continue the fight.

This is the message I hope to bring Jews around the world. We must not abandon the people of Sderot. We must not forget them. We must give these boys of the hesder yeshiva the hope and the sustenance to help the others we cannot help.

So what else can we do for the hesder yeshiva and the residents of Sderot? Of course we should keep giving financially. We can make sure others know. We can make sure the media are aware that the “humanitarian crisis” was not created in Gaza by Israel turning off the electricity for a day – it was created by terrorists trying to kill our people just because they’re Jewish.

What’s worse – no lights in one’s house or no house to light because its been blown up by a Kassam?

But the most important thing we can do is let the people of Sderot and the students of the hesder yeshiva know they are not forgotten, that we will not abandon them, and that we will do all that we can to ensure that Jews in our homeland can live without fear.

Visit them if you can. If they can live there, we can visit. You will give them the chizuk to fight a battle that should not be theirs alone to fight – and you will be doing yourself as much a favor as you will be doing for the people of Sderot.

I started this essay by saying I had never known fear like the fear I knew last month. I’ll finish by saying I had never known faith like the faith I knew when writing these words on the way back from Israel, almost in tears.

When you think that the next day could be your last and you think about the wife and children you might be leaving behind, there is only one place to turn and only One in Whom to put your unwavering faith. Ultimately, who else but Hakadosh Barach Hu can help the people of Sderot?

And that is what I did, before my visit to Sderot, when I davened that morning at the Kotel. I still couldn’t help but wonder: Why me? Why did I need to do this? What was the purpose? Was it worth it?

I had my answer as we danced around that hesder yeshiva with those wonderful boys – the real heroes of our people. I watched in awe and knew. Yes, it really was worth it.

David Sultan lives in Manhattan, where he is a partner at Fir Tree Partners, an investment firm, and a member of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.

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