By Mark S. Diamond
I have just returned from a week of learning at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. My cohort of 25 rabbis was privileged to study tefilla
(prayer) with some of the finest scholars and teachers in Israel, including Rabbi David Hartman
, Rabbi Donniel Hartman
, Melila Hellner-Eshed
, Rabbi Ariel Picard
and Micah Goodman
. We heard insightful analyses of Israel’s military, socioeconomic and political issues from journalists David Horovitz and Amotz Asa-El. And we traveled to Israel’s southern region to lend support and solidarity to residents of Ashkelon.
It would be an understatement to say that the prevailing mood in Israel is one of existential malaise. Hamas rockets continue to fall on Sderot and Ashkelon in the wake of IDF operations in Gaza. Much of the world condemns Israel for alleged war crimes even as it ignores Hamas’ steadfast policy of maximizing civilian casualties in Gaza. Iran’s successful launch of a satellite demonstrates advanced military capabilities to complement its leaders’ anti-Israel propaganda. Against this backdrop, Israelis voted in elections this week.
I found Israelis to be remarkably strong and resilient in the face of these and other challenges. A wounded IDF soldier I met at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital displayed quiet courage and determination to overcome his severe injuries. The families of Kehilat Netzach Yisrael (Ashkelon’s Masorti synagogue) send their young children to pre-school each weekday, with newly reinforced shelters spread across the grounds to ensure that no child has to run too far when the warning siren wails. They and their parents meet on Shabbat and holidays in a sanctuary with specially reinforced walls, windows and ceiling to protect against incoming rockets. When our hosts learned that I am from Los Angeles, they offered special thanks for our Federation’s generous support of their safety and security improvements.
Many Israelis I spoke with recited a litany of communal concerns and crises. Then, in typical Israeli fashion, they explained how life goes on, how they manage to achieve a sense of normalcy with daily routines and rhythms. Mah la’asot, "What else can we do?" they say.
We find in the Torah a similar lesson in overcoming crisis. In sefer Shemot we read that the newly escaped Israelite slaves arrive at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, with the waters ahead of them and the Egyptian army behind them. Moses immerses himself in prayer seeking Divine guidance to assist him in this terrible predicament. The Talmud notes:
In that moment Moses offered a lengthy prayer. The Holy One said to him, "My beloved children are drowning in the sea while you stretch out your prayers!" Moses replied, "What should I do?" God answered (Ex. 14:15-16), "Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your staff and stretch out your arm over the sea and split it…" (Talmud Sotah 37a)
Having spent a week studying the origins, nuances and complexities of Jewish prayer, I take comfort in God’s poignant charge to Moses. Prayer is a natural and praiseworthy response to crisis. And yet, as Moses discovered, crisis calls for decisive human action. Keep moving. Get on with your life. Confront life’s challenges and move forward. This is what I learn from the Torah. This is what I learned from my visit to Israel.
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is Executive Vice President Board of Rabbis of Southern California and a Fellow in the Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative