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The Talmud and October 7 | Shabbat Shalom 24 Tevet 5784

By Doron Krakow

The Talmud and October 7

Among the most remarkable characters I have encountered in my travels in Israel over the years are the search and rescue folks. Israel is a country of hikers. Of climbers. Every school and youth movement, every army unit, every club and summer camp. Everyone, it seems, takes to the trails. In the footsteps of the Bible. Across Israel’s varied and amazing landscapes. From sea to sea and from the border with Lebanon to the tip of the Red Sea in Eilat, they’re out there. Every once in a while, there are mishaps. People fall or lose track of time and get lost in the dark. Flash floods. All kinds of things. And, when people are missing, the local search and rescue team finds them.

There’s something unique about these folks. They’re intuitive. Creative and tireless. Like Sherlock Holmes, they find clues where others don’t. Masters of the terrain, they seem to know every inch of every trail and every stone and gully beyond. They know the people who live and work in the most remote parts of the country. The isolated farmers. Bedouin. The commanders of far-off military outposts. Many are veterans of IDF reconnaissance units—having been trained in survival tactics. And they love the people. They love the land. I know if someone I loved went missing, they’re the ones I’d turn to.

On October 7, thousands disappeared. In the chaos of the slaughter—people frantically fled in every direction. They hid. They closed themselves into saferooms and storage facilities. They’d been at the rave. They’d been camping. Early morning bikers and trail walkers. People who lived there. Some who worked in the area. Others just passing through. Countless lives suddenly scattered in the chaos. Taken. Murdered. Who could be sure?

That same day, a friend who heads one of these rescue squads was summoned to the office of a senior IDF commander and given an unusual assignment: Assemble a special unit comprising the best search and rescue people in the country—and do it today. Here’s a list of 4,000 names. People whose whereabouts are unknown. Find them.

So, it began.

By late afternoon, the unit had assembled and was already at work. Phone calls, texts, and social media came first. Then they headed to the hospitals. Untold numbers of victims had been arriving throughout the day. Many unconscious or hysterical, without identification. In the mayhem of the killing fields, they’d abandoned backpacks, wallets, and phones. One by one. Place by place.

Night turned to day, and as the terrorists were gradually driven from their roosts in and around the communities that dot the Gaza envelope, search opportunities grew. Survivors emerged from safe rooms. And then—the bodies. Headless. Mutilated. Burned. Some murdered as they fled their homes. Others’ homes were incinerated with families still inside. Still more people, gradually discovered as house by house, vehicle by vehicle, and structure by structure, they searched for survivors and victims.

The terrorists themselves provided clues as they proudly posted videos of their crimes, including the kidnappings, to social media channels of every description. They’d taken hundreds. Holocaust survivors. The sick and disabled. Whole families, including babies. Concert-goers and soldiers. Why these particular people? No obvious reason. Too many others were slaughtered or abandoned or murdered on the way to the dungeons of Gaza. The total number of those taken has changed and changed again as the search for clues, for details, and for new information continued—and continues to this day.

My friend and his new unit devoted themselves to paths not taken by others also tasked with investigating the scenes and circumstances. They tapped into their personal networks to gather surveillance footage from gas stations, dashboard cams, and utility installations. They mapped the discovery of every victim, every survivor, every physical remnant left behind. Drones were deployed and witnesses interviewed, often again and again. They dug into the lives of those still missing to learn about tendencies, habits, and eccentricities. How did they come to be where they were when the attack began? Had they arrived by car? Their own or someone else’s? Which way did they go when the panic started?

It was painstaking. Every day they dug in further, and when they reached the limits of a particular strategy, they brainstormed another. And another. Day after day. But for them, the calendar never advanced. Every day—October 7. They lived it over and over and over, 18 hours a day, week after week. Slowly but surely, the list grew smaller. Thousands turned to hundreds. Hundreds became dozens.

They convinced the religious authorities to open the grave of a victim whose severely disabled daughter was still missing—convinced there was no way he would have left her side. He’d been incinerated by the killers and once exhumed, further examination revealed that her remains, in fact, had been intermingled with his. She’d burned to death in her father’s arms.

Another of the victims had been burned to death in his home in Kibbutz Be’eri. His remains were discovered near the door toward which he must have fled in a last desperate attempt to escape the inferno. His wife was among the missing and presumed taken, but my friend’s unit, undaunted by the conclusions of others, returned again and again to the home where it was determined that the temperature in the center of the conflagration had reached 1600 degrees Celsius—a heat so intense as to leave virtually no trace of even teeth or bone. Additional forensics revealed that she had been closer to the center of the house than her husband, and there she’d also paid the ultimate price on that terrible day.

When I visited my friend’s unit for a second time not long ago, they were at work on yet another new approach. They had mapped the locations from which every known hostage was taken and that of the surviving eyewitnesses in those same locations so they could review the accounts of what they’d reported having seen—and in so doing, the team was able to discern from several conflicting accounts that presumptions that had been made in a number of cases were not entirely accurate, clearing the way for renewed explorations of other theories. Two of these explorations revealed the deaths of additional victims, once more reducing the list.

They began with 4,000 names. Four thousand. Each one a world. Each one part of a family. A son or daughter. A mother. A teacher. A friend. Around each one was a circle of people whose world was shattered that terrible day. Shattered. Their broken lives in pieces until their loved ones were found. Until they returned. Or, for too many, as time went by, until their remains were identified—a chance for desperately needed closure. One by one, nearly 4,000 were found. Four thousand worlds. Countless thousands of others for whom each completed search made possible a day after.

But not yet for everyone. Not for those still in the clutches of their murderous captors—or those who love and long for them. Not for the ones still among the missing. Though now few in number, each of them is a world of his or her own, a world in torment. And not for my friend and the members of his unit or their families. For them, every day is October 7, and come Sunday, they will have lived it 100 times—and it will remain October 7 till the last of the missing is found.

The Talmud tells us that “He who saves a single life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” These long and terrible weeks have taught us a great many lessons, including that saving a life isn’t only a matter of keeping the angel of death at bay…

May these remarkable rescuers, these heroes, complete their task soon, and may they revel in the long-awaited sunrise of tomorrow.

Shabbat shalom | שבת שלום

Doron Krakow
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America

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