Sderot. Where innocent Jews live under the constant threat of rockets. Where parents make bedrooms out of bomb shelters for their children so they won’t have to lift them up and out of bed each time. Where kids won’t play more than ten feet from their apartment for fear of a tzeva adom, a red alert. Where people – children and adults – are constantly on the lookout for shelter, whether walking to shul or going from the car to the grocery store.
We arrived in Sderot Thursday evening, twenty minutes before Mincha. Ten minutes into davening, a tzeva adom. Though we were in a reinforced shul, my heart skipped a beat or two. The children were rushed in and the davening continued. No pause. While I was ready to talk about what went through my mind, this obviously was routine.
Later, we dove into the community’s Purim celebration. My friend Steven Shamah and I were with Zionist Organization of America Brooklyn Region President Rubin Margules and New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind. Thanks to fresh popcorn, cotton candy, intense dancing and a fire-juggling chassid, residents could take a break for a few hours from the fatiguing fear.
After the juggling show we visited the local hesder yeshiva, one of largest in Israel with over 500 students. The dancing, hugging, crying and celebrating were inspiring. The festivities continued on Friday before Shabbat. We delivered mishloach manot to a Givati army base near the border and danced and drank our way through several homes, singing and celebrating and bringing good cheer to families clearly in need.
Before Shabbat Mincha our host, Alon Davidi, took us on a leisurely walking tour of the city. Closing my eyes for a moment, I could forget that Sderot was under constant attack. I imagined a once peaceful city. But all too soon, reality intruded – the reality of streets lined with community shelters, some incongruously decorated in pastels of green, blue, and yellow, and at least one painted in angry dark purples and reds, making the resulting devil-like image all the more striking set against the tall green trees behind it.
As if our experiences in Sderot had not been authentic enough, suddenly, as we turned back for Mincha, there came again the chilling sound of tzeva adom, tzeva adom, tzeva adom. The jarring words seemed to make their way into my very bones. Fifteen seconds, I recall. It isn’t enough time. What can you do in fifteen seconds? Fifteen seconds to run, to hide, to seek cover from a rocket.
We sat low to the ground against a concrete wall and waited. I prayed, hoping the rocket would not land in front of us. The rocket landed outside the city and we were “safe” to continue on to shul.
I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to live in Sderot, nor do I pretend to think I went through some sort of life-altering experience because of those fifteen seconds. But the experience of celebrating Purim with so many people who are thankful for literally every day they live was indescribably inspiring. The inner strength they exude, the warmth and kindness they emanate, the faith they have in Hashem despite the havoc in their lives, should serve as a role model for all who strive to live a God-fearing life.
On Shabbat I heard a nice d’var Torah from Dov. In Parshat Shemot, Pharaoh decreed that all newborn Hebrew boys be killed. Yocheved could not bear to do this to her son, so she put Moshe in a teva and let him drift down the Nile. When Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, went to bathe in the Nile, she saw the teva and pulled it ashore. The pasuk says, “V’hinei na’ar boche” – “and behold the young boy was crying.” The Ba’al HaTurim says the young boy crying was not Moshe but Aharon, who watched as his brother fell into the hands of an Egyptian. Surely, he thought, his brother would die. But Batya heard the crying and had mercy and took him in. Interestingly, the gematria of the words “na’ar boche” equals that of “zeh Aharon hakohen” – “this is Aharon Hakohen.”
We can learn from this that it is not enough to simply say to ourselves, “Oh what a pity for those people who are suffering; it’s terrible what they are going through.” We should make every attempt to feel their pain and empathize with them, as one would with one’s own brother. Doing so will, hopefully, ignite our inner strength and cause us to take action.