When I arrived in synagogue on Saturday morning for our Shabbat and Shemini Atzeret services, I had many things on my mind: making sure we had all the roles covered, keeping track of the additions to the service for the holiday, checking with everyone involved in setting up the space. I was preparing for a typical, if busy, day in shul when I heard the news that there were attacks from Gaza on border towns in Israel, people had been killed and taken captive, and that Israel had declared war.
For me, as I can imagine for many of those attending services for Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah over these last two days, I was sitting with conflicting emotions - shock, fear, uncertainty, anxiety, all at a time when we are meant to be in a celebratory mood. The period from Sukkot culminating in Simchat Torah is referred to as Z’man Simchateinu, the season of our joy, after all.
The truth is, as I shared before we read the Book of Kohelet on Saturday morning, the duality between happiness and sadness is with us all the time. In the words of Kohelet:
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven…
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing.
The words of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, a response to Kohelet, came to mind as well:
A man doesn’t have time in his life
To have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
A season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes (Kohelet)
Was wrong about that.
A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
To laugh and to cry with the same eyes,
With the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
To make love in war and war in love.
As Amichai’s words illuminate, we don’t always get to experience life sequentially. This weekend’s holiday was certainly one of those times. With the safety of family, friends, and our fellow Jews very much on our minds and hearts, it was understandably difficult to be present and connect with the ritual of the service.
As we began and allowed the words of prayer and the symbolic language of song to speak for us, I felt that for me, being together in community and joining our voices together was the best possible place to be in a moment like this.
Organically, our prayer leaders connected our individual and collective concern through kavannah - intention - and by choosing melodies that spoke to us.
We gathered our tzitzit together, while singing to the tune of HaTikva. Throughout our prayer service, we continually pray for protection - for us, for the Land of Israel, the city of Jerusalem, and for all of the people Israel. As I sang the words of the kedusha, I chose a melody associated with Psalm 30, a plea for divine help: “To you, Hashem, I cry out; to Hashem, I plead. Listen, Hashem and be gracious to me; Hashem, be my help.”
When the moment came to sing and dance on Simchat Torah, I wondered what the mood would be. Is it even appropriate to dance at a time like this? But as I attuned to the words of our songs of celebration, I realized just how much our most joyous songs are an expression of connection, resilience, and hope.
We sang am Yisrael chai - the people Israel lives. L’shana ha’ba’ah birushalayim habenuyah - expressing our wish for a fully redeemed Jerusalem. Even the song we sing to celebrate a wedding and at many other festive occasions is an expression of communal hope: Od yishama b’arei yehuda uv’chutzot yerushalayim kol sasson v’kol simcha kol chatan v’kol kallah - “May it be heard again in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the voice of gladness and the voice of joy, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.” The words of the song are adapted from the Book of Jeremiah and express a prophetic hope for a peaceful and joyful future for our people and the Land of Israel.
This is a prime example of one of the ways in which we have adopted our texts to connect our individual stories and our world right now with the bigger Jewish story. That story is a story of resilience, survival and hope.
Anytime we gather together in community is an affirmation of Jewish survival. Every time we join our voices in song, echoing the words of our prophets and sages, ancient and modern, we take our place in the story, affirm our connection to our people, the Land of Israel, and our dreams for what could be.
As we emerge from the holidays, our prayers are with all who are affected by the war between Gaza and Israel. We pray for refuah sheleimah - a full and speedy healing for all who have been injured and the safe return of those captured. We extend our condolences to those who mourn the deaths of loved ones and pray that they find comfort. We pray for the safety of all those affected by violence, and hope for a quick and just end to this conflict. May it we, the people Israel, and all the world find lasting peace.B'shalom,Rabbi Lindsey Healey-Pollack