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Unlike some, I was not at all surprised by the first siren Simchat Torah morning.

It just so happened that my seven-minute walk to shul was accompanied by constant booms in the distance. People who came to shul 10 minutes earlier than I did not hear these booms. Having been in Israel for the previous three military operations against Hamas I quickly realized something was wrong. These were rockets landing or Iron Dome explosions. My mind wandered to 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021, noticing what a short interval this was between major Hamas attacks (remember, Southern residents receive rockets on a monthly, if not weekly, basis). So when the siren went off less than two minutes after I entered shul, it only confirmed my thinking. Lulled into the false sense of security provided by the Iron Dome and the IDF, I figured we were in for something, but didn’t think much of it.

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Like Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or the kidnapping of the 3 boys in 2014, this is one of those “where were you when” moments seared into each of our memories. There is an added, tragically unique dimension to the Simchat Torah pogrom though; namely, where were you when you realized the scale of this tragedy? For many Israelis, at least, that answer only came in stages, due to the combination of Shabbat/Simchat Torah observance and the shockingly scarce amount of information available even on secular news outlets.

For me, once the siren wailed for a third, fourth, and eventually about a dozen times in quick succession, I knew something was not just wrong, but very wrong.

The next signal was when I heard from the shul rabbi that multiple shul members were called up to the IDF reserves. Even worse, they needed to be driven to their bases by family members due to the urgent nature of the call-up. Such an urgency seemed unprecedented. I knew something was not just very wrong, but very, very wrong.

And once I heard from our Shabbat guests – who heard via a Filipino aide – that there were many direct rocket hits as well as “a couple people kidnapped, maybe a soldier,” my mind immediately flashed to 2006, when the 2nd Lebanon War started in response to a cross-border murder of three and kidnapping of two IDF soldiers by Hezbollah. It was now clear that something was not just very, very wrong, but very, very, very wrong.

So in shuls whose members are IDF reservists, Simchat Torah did not proceed as usual. In some shuls, hakafot were moved from after the Shacharit service until after the Mussaf service, allowing as many members to participate in the essential parts of the service – including the completion of the Torah, starting the Torah anew from Bereishit, and Yizkor. In ours, hakafot did of course take place – and with great spirit – but with a disproportionate amount of songs relating to themes of G-d’s protection, the Jewish nation’s eternal existence, and not being afraid. In other shuls, the rabbi interrupted hakafot to lead a public Mi She’beirach for each reservist called up, praying for their safety and success before sending them on their way.

But of course, despite all these signals that something was very, very, very, wrong, nothing in my wildest imaginations conceived of the full horror that confronted me upon opening the news motzaei Simchat Torah.

The following 24 hours saw the largest military mobilization in Israel’s history, and alongside it, an entirely voluntary civilian national mobilization. Messages were flying urging the delivery of non-perishable foods to reservist units, who were stuck eating MREs. Donations poured in to the Lone Soldier Center, but there was no one to buy the items. Out went calls for volunteers to shop in bulk, to organize, to drive to bases across the country. Tragically, though we didn’t know it when shopping, five lone soldiers had already been murdered.

Within two days, word spread that the IDF had fully restocked and well-intended donations were even going to waste. In heartwarming gestures, multiple soldiers I know personally called for donated food/hygiene supplies to be rerouted to homeless families displaced from the South.

It became clear that while most bases had all the necessary food supplies and basic equipment, each base had varying deficiencies of lifesaving medical supplies or advanced protective equipment. Why not let the IDF take care of this? There isn’t one clear answer, but it seems that certain supplies requested go beyond what the IDF supplies and other supplies simply can be resourced quicker through private donations due to the unprecedented amount of reservists called up.

For donations to be effective, though, someone needs to be in direct contact with a unit’s logistics coordinator to monitor and update what to purchase. Cyberwarfare means donors need to know their money is in good hands, and though Whatsapp messages requesting donations abound, trustworthy, reliable operations are difficult to verify. One such operation is manned by Jonathan Teitelbaum, formerly of Fair Lawn, N.J.. Despite making aliyah just one year ago, he has integrated strongly enough to Israeli society to be the go-to person for his co-workers serving on reserve duty. A small show of support on day 1 has snowballed into an operation supplying over $40,000 of equipment, such as CamelBaks, tactical military-grade watches, and thermal clothing, with US tax-deductible receipts available to boot. The goal is no waste – items are purchased only if specifically requested by a unit.

Another national mobilization has been blood drives. Despite about 10% of the potential donor pool – the reservists – unable to donate, nearly as many blood units have been donated the past two weeks as were donated the entire 2023! My wife reflected upon donating blood the day after the massacre:

“Five hours waiting in line, in the sun. We are all in shock, reeling from the news coming in. So many unknowns. So much uncertainty. How many dead, how many wounded, how many kidnapped. Our heads are spinning. Yet we stand in line. To give our blood. Religious, secular, Anglos, mizrahi, ultra-Orthodox. We are all here. We may have different ideas, different colors and stripes. But all our blood is red. Two Jews may have three opinions, but we have one heart.

“It’s wartime and I think of other times of war. Hundreds waiting in line for food rations. For papers. For water. And here we are, thousands of people of people waiting for hours. But not to receive anything. Rather, to give our blood. To send life to our attacked brethren. Hamas seeks to take our blood, we seek to give it.”

The carnage left by Hamas was so severe that the death toll alone does not convey it. Graphic details and videos can, deepening one’s identification with the pain of the bereaved families, but the secondary traumatization they cause is not a healthy tradeoff for many people. Some statistics can make one feel the loss, such as 25% of Kibbutz Nir Oz being murdered or three generations of one family being kidnapped to Gaza. But most striking for me was Rav Elyada Goldvicht’s report, a humble individual I am grateful to call my teacher. I hadn’t known, but he serves with the chevra kaddisha of the IDF, burdened with the gruesome task of identifying the murdered, seeing the barbarism and butchery of Hamas up close. He called to our attention that although Jewish law assigns supreme sanctity to the deceased and their prompt burial, over 50 bodies from Kibbutz Be’eri were still not released for burial as of this writing. Why? There simply are no family members to attend the burial whose whereabouts are known! A couple days later, Rav Elyada gave an incredibly sensitive interview on CNN, which ended with the anchor tearing up.

Hamas’s savage use of human shields is well-known, yet I absorbed a new dimension to my understanding of that sickening tactic. Background: Army units across the country are staying in makeshift locations such as wedding halls and hostels, apparently for lack of space on bases. In a WhatsApp group, I saw an army unit was moved from their base to a large school in Beit Shemesh.

I assumed, wrongly, this was due to lack of space. But no. It turns out I have a friend in that unit, who revealed the true reason. Since UNWRA gives Hamas free reign to operate out of their schools, what better place to train a reservist unit than a school building?

Yet, amongst these horrors of the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, I have had the rare privilege to draw inspiration directly from a Holocaust survivor. George Lowenstein is a child survivor, one of few who escaped via the Philippines. A synagogue president for three different synagogues in America, he made aliyah to Jerusalem three years ago, where we are blessed by his active presence in the community.

I sit next to George in shul. After the first siren, he remarked, “I’m reliving my childhood, when the Japanese would incessantly bomb us.” George was supposed to come to us for lunch on Simchat Torah, but after the third siren, he headed home and apologized for canceling. Thinking he was shaken up, I called later in the week to check in and let him know the neighborhood youth were ready to assist with anything such as groceries or pharmacy trips.

Boy, was I wrong. “I’m living through my youth again. I’ve already lived through one war against the Jews already and I am not scared,” George declared. “The sirens and fighter jets don’t phase me. I only went home on Shabbat to check on my wife, who can’t easily make it to shelter.”

“I will take care of myself as I usually do. People have invited me for Shabbat meals and, like you, called to check in and offer help, and I’m grateful for the community’s support. But in fact, I just came back from a shopping trip, so no, I do not need help.” Dramatic. Strengthening. Energizing.

This week, a thought suddenly popped into my head. What will be next Simchat Torah? Will we dance? Will we mourn? Probably both, but it’s a discussion for a different time. What is relevant now is to make sure Hamas does not rip out our soul, our connection to the eternal Torah. As we start the new cycle of the weekly Torah portion, let us commit to studying the weekly parsha so that amidst the mourning that will surely be, we can complete the Torah in memory of all the martyrs, on their yartzeit, Simchat Torah 5785.

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Rabbi Chaim Goldberg has semicha from RIETS and a graduate degree in child clinical psychology from Hebrew University. Aside from practicing psychology and teaching Torah at various yeshivot/seminaries, he runs Mussar Links, a non-profit dedicated to publishing the Torah writings of Rabbi Hillel Goldberg.