By 2LT Jeremiah Rozman, USA
The Three Weeks are a sad time for us Jews. They mark a solemn mourning period as we remember the bloody siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of our Holy Temple, the Beit Hamikdash. To be clear, these are not the first nor the last in a series of calamities that have befallen and continue to befall the Jewish people. We Jews have experienced and celebrated great triumphs, but alas, the fate of exile, galut, is that these great joys are so often tempered by great tragedy.
This year, as my brothers and sisters and the entire nation of Israel recently celebrated its great victory in gaining independence after thousands of years, their joy was shattered by the brutal hacking to death of three Jewish fathers by two axe-wielding Arab terrorists. In the past, every article I have written has been from an analytical perspective, from logic, with the goal of finding a practical solution to solve problems as best we can. But the truth is that if our long history is any guide, these problems will only be fully resolved with the ultimate redemption—geulah. For this reason, I am writing from my neshama, my soul. For as we learn in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, “We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it” (2:21). Therefore, in my view the question and paramount struggle for each and every Jew is how do we “arise and shake the dust off” over and over again? My answer is that, as this lyric from Lecha Dodi signifies, the long work-week of thousands of years of galut will eventually end with the Shabbat of geulah. This means that victory is assured. Reassured in that we carry on our work while our souls keep thirsting from “a dry and weary land without water” for a time when our souls imbibe water that is only sweet, unmarred by bitterness.
If this introduction comes off as depressing, those who know me would not expect it. Everyone close to me knows me as an indomitably happy person who sees the best, and I am. But that is not completely accurate. Throughout my life I have been motivated not so much by sadness or joy as by the attribute of sternness (gevurah). Perhaps this explains why I have served in both the Israeli and US Armies. When I was a young child, well before my bar mitzvah, I would read about the Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis and dream about being a warrior who avenged our nation’s spilt blood. I knew the story of my father, may his memory be a blessing, who fought to provide Judaism in the Soviet Union and faced violence and persecution at the hands of the KGB. When I was a 14-year-old student in a Lubavitch yeshiva in Montreal, terrorists killed thousands of Americans in the 9/11 attacks. I saw the videos of terrorist supporters dancing and handing out sweets on 9/11. Our yeshiva suddenly had a formidable-looking security guard, perhaps six foot six with a bald head, pistol and a kippah.
I followed the unfolding horrors of the Second Intifada. I watched the murderous ecstasy of the terrorist who showed his bloodsoaked hands to a cheering crowd after lynching a Jew in Ramallah. I followed the hundreds of suicide bombings, the Merkaz HaRav attack that left yeshiva students and their holy books lying in pools of blood.
In 2008 I walked into the Gaza Strip as part of the Golani infantry brigade in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Scared but driven by a feeling of gevurah, I dreamed of vengeance as I witnessed my friends blown up in a mortar attack, and later when I comforted my friend who lost three of his childhood friends in a friendly fire incident. Paradoxically, my fear of entering Gaza was completely lifted by a strange, and in my opinion, divine occurrence. For an unknown reason I felt an unexplainable compulsion I had never felt before as a Russian rabbi spoke to our company before we set off on foot through the barrier. I felt strangely driven to speak to that rabbi. When I did, it turned out that he was the rabbi who had married my parents in the Soviet Union and worked with my father to build mikvahs, teach Hebrew, and conduct kosher slaughter in direct opposition to Soviet law. He did not know that my father had passed, but it was clearly a sign from Hashem that my father and his fighting spirit was watching over me and my unit. I felt entirely reassured and entered combat with a sense of calm.
For most of my youth, my main driving emotion was rage. It was rage and vengeance that connected me with Judaism. In all honesty, it was by far the leading aspect of my spiritual connection to my religion. But as I’ve aged, I have been surprised to increasingly feel a sense of weariness accompany this rage. The first time I felt this was after the Fogel family massacre which occurred after I had already finished my IDF service. I watched a music video by the soulful Israeli singer Amir Benayoun that he had written for the Fogel family. In it, images of babies, toddlers, children and the father, lying among blood soaked toys, played to the lyrics of the stanza of Lecha Dodi: “Hitnaari, mei’afar kumi, livshi begdai tifartech ami,; Shake the dust off, arise, put on the garments of your glory, my nation.” I tear up as I write this. But as I think about my new weariness mixed with rage, it does not lead me to feel hopeless or to tire from fighting. Rather, it complements the rage, augments it and bolsters my will to fight. The brief bowing of the head in weariness gives greater strength to arise, straighten up and fight harder. Furthermore, it adds humanity to the fight. I think that if I am weary at the age of 34, how weary are those who continue fighting that are my elders, those who witnessed multiple wars, the Munich Massacre, the Holocaust? Yet they soldier on, and with joy no less. In recent years, as I read Lamentations, which is the story of the cruel murder of the Jewish leaders at the hands of the Romans, I feel that weariness tempered with rage ultimately leads to a resolve to keep joyfully anticipating redemption.
Believe it or not, I was inspired to write this not at shul, or watching Israel commemorate its fallen on Yom Hazikaron, but while I was scrolling through Instagram. As I scrolled, I came across a video of the Rebbe singing Tzama Lecha Nafshi, which translates as “my soul thirsts from a dry and weary land” and the Chassidim singing along, “ay ay yay yay yay.” This was the first time that I gained the ability to articulate what I have been feeling for years—the weariness of thousands of years of suffering, plain as day in the Rebbe’s voice, and the resolve to keep striving toward redemption in full faith that it is assured as the Chassidim responded to the Rebbe’s words with their singing. As the Rebbe sang, I imagined the dead from Yom Ha’atzmaut who were barbarically slaughtered: The three fathers, Yonatan Havakuk,
Boaz Gol, and Oren Ben Yiftah, who between them leave behind 16 children. I see the children in the dust of despair, a son of one of the murdered asking, “When will you pick me up from kindergarten?” I see the rabbis and Jews lying dead in bloodsoaked prayer shawls in the aftermath of the Har Nof massacre, and I see the remorseless faces of the Arab terrorists. I feel despair but also hope in the Rebbe’s voice as he sings. The two Yom Ha’atzmaut terrorists eventually turned themselves in following a manhunt. They calmly said they had “conducted an operation.” They will likely go on to receive good food and humane treatment in an Israeli prison as they are heralded as heroes by large portions of their community. They may use their time in jail to achieve a Bachelor’s degree, or perhaps even a Master’s. They and their families will be supported for life, by the very entity that the world tells Israel it must relate to as a “partner for peace.” And the cycle continues, but not forever.
The point of my writing is not to suggest a solution. This time I will not suggest policy, concessions nor an iron fist. Rather, I urge all of us Jews to sing along with the Rebbe, to continue yearning for redemption, to keep arising and shaking the dust off, hastening redemption
through acts of kindness and to stay strong and find joy in our inevitable, guaranteed victory. Despite the historical pattern of suffering, I now see it as my duty to wake up each morning, don my tefillin, raise a proud and ethical Jewish family, keep fighting and find joy in our struggle.
My fellow Jews, victory is assured. Let your weariness inspire you to carry on, living proud, happy and inspiring lives. My fellow soldiers, clean and don your weapons and despair not. It is our lot to face joy mixed with suffering until the final redemption, may it come speedily in our days.
Originally published in the Summer 2020 Jewish-American Warrior.