By Leah Garber
It’s been 47 days that my breathing has been shallow, constantly on the verge of crying, and I am wrapped in deep sadness and tremendous worry—paralyzing restlessness.
In the last few days, with the hostage deal that was approved by the Israeli government last night, a strong sense of distress is now part of this storm of emotions.
One quote from the High Holidays prayers hovers over me, not letting go—“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed—how many will pass from the earth.”
Just two weeks before the October 7th massacre we were all standing by open arks at synagogues around the world, wrapped in the holiness of Yom Kippur, and with great intention, we recited the prayer Unetanneh Tokef (Let us Speak of the Awesomeness), the central poem of the High Holidays, which is considered one of the most stirring compositions in the entire liturgy of the Days of Awe.
According to the story, Unetanneh Tokef was composed by an 11th-century sage named Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. Rabbi Amnon was being pressured to convert to Christianity. As a delaying tactic, he requested three days to consider the offer; immediately, he regretted intensely giving even the pretense that he could possibly accept a foreign religion. After spending the three days in prayer, he refused to come to the archbishop as promised, and when he was forcibly brought to the archbishop’s palace, he begged that his tongue be cut out to atone for his sin. Instead, the archbishop ordered his hands and legs amputated—limb by limb—as punishment for not obeying his word to return after three days and for refusing to convert. At each amputation, Rabbi Amnon was again given the opportunity to convert, which he refused. He was sent home with his severed extremities.
This event occurred shortly before Rosh Hashanah. On that holiday, as he lay dying, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried into the synagogue, where he recited Unetanneh Tokef with his last breath.
And here are the words that Rabbi Amnon whispered, out of enormous pain and great intention, and ever since, for hundreds of years, have been whispered by Jews around the world:
“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed. how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”
Leonard Cohen, one of my favorite artists, after visiting Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, added another dimension of emotion to this prayer with his unique voice, in his version of “Who by Fire.”
So, you see how this powerful yet eerie prayer, which symbolizes the fragile existence of human beings, gives me no respite, now more than ever.
Two weeks prior to the deadly day in October, we raised our eyes to the sky, to the Creator of the world, surrounded by angels from above, asking that our fate this year will be good, that we will be blessed, that we will live. Little did we know that two weeks later, 1400 slaughtered people would join the ranks of his angels. Their fate was sealed.
My thoughts are drawn to the abductees, who have been hidden for 47 days in hell on earth. I find myself again and again imagining their reality, sensing the torment of the darkness, their distress, fears, and the loss of hope. Which are alive? Are they suffering from a cold? Are they hungry? Thirsty? What about the injured, the sick? Who is lonely more than the others, perhaps held in solitude, longing for a hug and a soft, caring touch while lost in despair?
As the Israeli government, flesh, and blood ministers, were carving out destinies, arguing over the details of the hostage deal, weighing the numbers—who would be released, who in the first stage or who in the next—I was thinking, how can a human being deal with such moral decisions? How can it be imagined that anyone has the ability, the moral sense to determine that so-and-so will be released today and others at a later phase? When dealing with evil, when negotiating with the devil, there is no other choice but to realize that the hostages’ fate, their life or death is what’s at stake…it is unfathomable.
I have no doubt that babies and children must be released immediately and certainly, with their mothers. Next, the elderly and the sick. But what about the soldier who, more than anyone, may be injured, suffers, and we don’t even know? What about the young woman, who apparently looks fine, but has been tortured in a way that her soul is forever scarred and needs immediate aid? How can they be asked to wait for the next deal, to spend even one more night in the hands of human monsters? Plunged back into the abyss of the unknown.
And the devastation is even greater, understanding that when dealing with Hamas, Israel is committed to releasing terrorists from Israeli—criminals who harmed Jews—in exchange for innocent babies, children, and women who were kidnapped from their homes on the morning of a holiday, just because they are Jews.
Earlier this week, a JCC executive directors solidarity delegation met with the Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Amichai Chikli, who shared the philosophical teaching of the late Professor Shalom Rosenberg, an important scholar whom I had the privilege of personally knowing. Professor Rosenberg noted that since the dawn of history, the Jewish people have been persecuted. From the time of Pharaohs, kings of Egypt, who enslaved the Hebrews in hard labor for 400 years, through Haman of Persia, who planned to destroy the Jewish people, and later the Spanish Inquisition which put Jews on the stake and burned them alive to Bohdan Khmelnytsky who led a massacre of thousands of Jewish people in the 17th century, to the Babi Yar massacre during WWII, to the Nazis, the drafters of the Third Reich’s “final solution” through the terror and murderers committed by Hamas.
If in front of this dark list of pure evil stands the Jewish people, who represent the opposite of our aggressors—the pursuit of peace, adherence to justice, compassion, concern for the weak, the desire for Tikkun Olam, repairing the world—then it is a privilege to be the object of persecution by these pure evil forces. A privilege to represent everything they are not.
On Yom Kippur, we prayed for life. If only we knew then we should also pray for freedom. Today, our prayer, a prayer shared by millions in the world, is BRING THEM HOME NOW! Our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, our parents held captive by Hamas—our people.
Tomorrow evening, while sitting around beautiful Thanksgiving tables with family and friends, sharing gratitude for the great good in your lives, in all our lives, please add a prayer for peace so that next year, when we look back at the terrible fall of 2023, we can give thanks for the victories that followed—with all the hostages who were brought back home, safe and sound. For the peace that will have finally arrived.
Together, united, we will overcome.