By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
And Yisro rejoiced because of all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom He had delivered from the hand of the Egyptians. And Yitro said, Blessed be the Lord, who has saved you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of Pharaoh, who has saved the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. (Shemos 18:9-10).
The scene and the circumstances could not have been more horrific. A young mother, a treasure, is home with three of her six children. As the terrorist tries to push open the door to get at her family, Dafna pushes back, trying to close the door. Ra’anana, Dafna’s seventeen year old daughter, describes what happened next. “I saw the terrorist stab my mother and she struggled with all her might so he would not come into the house and hurt us. At one point the knife got stuck and the terrorist could not get it out. Our eyes met. He looked at me and I looked at him. He kept trying to pull out the knife and it was clear to me he wanted to come and hurt me too.”
When the fifteen year old Palestinian attacker could not pull his knife from Dafna’s body, he ran, leaving the lifeless Dafna and her children behind.
When the attacker was apprehended the next day, his father declared that he was, “proud of him.”
Tears stream down my cheeks as I write these words. I am unable to block the image of this brave, wonderful young woman struggling so heroically and so futilely against this demon. Beyond the hurt and sadness this has caused, I ask myself, “What do we do in the wake of such a horror? Beyond our hurt and our tears, what becomes of us and who we are?”
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In Shemot, when Yitro rejoices over all the good that Hashem had done to Israel, we find ourselves confronted with a seeming paradox. Va’yichad is correctly rendered “rejoiced” in the translation; however the Midrash brings a different understanding to the translation. In Sanhedrin, a connection is made between va’yichad and chidudin (his flesh became covered with goose bumps because of the distress he felt at the downfall of Egypt.) This understanding gives us a different sense of who Yitro was. He was, we know, a ger and, as such, takes offense at the insult of his ancestors up to ten generations. That is a long time to feel the heat of any trespass. And yet, Yitro is truly and thoroughly thrilled by the redemption of Israel.
He feels the weight of generations of sadness and insult even as he is elated by Israel’s redemption. How is he able to balance these seemingly contradictory emotions? Was it the contradiction itself that prompted Yitro to give voice to “Blessed are you…” Boruch HaShem even before the Israelites who had been redeemed from the hand of Pharaoh?
* * *
How do we reconcile the conflicting emotions that we all wrestle with? What lesson did Yitro teach us by giving voice to Baruch Hashem…before the Israelites? After all, the Israelites praised God as soon as they crossed the Yam. Shirat Hayam stands as the ultimate expression of praise. To this day, we recite it daily to reinforce the truth that no day is without miracles and no day should pass without our giving expression to His praise. And yet… and yet it was Yitro to utter Boruch HaShem, to actually bless God’s wondrous redemption of the Jews.
So again, what lesson did Yitro teach?
I would suggest that the lesson that resides in the blessing, resides precisely in the crucible of the contradiction between joy and sadness, redemption and slavery. When the Children of Israel sang God’s praise at the Yam, they only did what would come naturally to any person; they sang and rejoiced and were thankful to God for His sustenance and goodness when the sun was shining! Who would do differently? Freed from slavery and rescued when their backs were to the mighty sea?
But what about when the sun does not shine? What about the times when darkness grips at the soul with icy fingers; when grief wracks the heart and tears burn the eyes?
What about when an angel like Dafna is taken from us?
Yitro’s lesson is the essence of the Jewish people. “A person is obligated to bless Hashem for the bad just as he blesses Him for the good.” Life is anything but a long stroll along a delightful garden path on a Springtime day. It is, indeed, a narrow bridge. We make our way through life enduring the slings of heartache and appreciating the moments of grace.
In our daily prayers, before we speak the declaration of our faith, Shema Yisrael…, we recite the blessing, Yotzer Or… “Blessed are You, Lord our God… Who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all.”
“Forms light and creates darkness…” is an accessible understanding of the spectrum of God’s majesty, but why “…creates all”? We would be wise to remember that the source of this part of the blessing comes from a verse in Isaiah, “… makes peace and creates evil.” The rabbis saw fit to change the ending to, “makes peace and creates everything.” The lesson is clear, before reciting Shema we best remember that there is only one God. He is Borei et hakol. He creates all. He is the God of the beautiful, Spring day and the newborn child as well as the storm clouds and Kaddish.
It is from this understanding that the Sages extol Yitro for his perception. He may have had goose bumps over the downfall of Egypt, but at the same moment he understood that the downfall came from the same God who redeemed Israel from Egypt’s hand. Baruch …borei et hakol!
Perhaps we, the children of ma’aminim b’nai ma’aminin need the eyes of the outsider in order to see it.
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Each morning, I sit at my computer and prepare to visit Arutz 7 to see what is happening “at home.” To be candid, I often pause before opening the web site. I cannot bear the terrible news that I so often find there… so it was the morning I learned of the slaughter in Otniel. Dafna’le, as her husband lovingly referred to her in his farewell to her, Dafna’le, the epitome of goodness, a nurse, a caregiver, a carer.
The tears would not stop.
How do we find the strength…? How did her husband find the strength in his eulogy to say the words, “Dear Father, I have no second thoughts about You at all, give us strength, be present at our home, let us feel your warm embrace, your love.”
These are the words of a tzadik!
I look for such strength and wisdom more and more, as it feels as if the burden of our sadness has grown nearly unbearable in these few months since Sukkot. In this regard, I cannot help but believe it to be an inspired blessing that I find myself reading, studying and reflecting on the words of Sherri Mandell in her book, “The Road to Resilience – From Chaos to Celebration”. Her son, thirteen year old Koby, was brutally murdered by terrorists along with his friend, Yosef Ish Ran, on May 8, 2001.
Her words and wisdom humble me; her insight and compassion astonish me. In particular, listen to the poetry and meaning she finds in the Sukka:
We experience joy not only in our expansions but in realizing the true nature of existence. One of the happiest holidays in Judaism, Sukkot, is a time of joy where we also recognize our own vulnerability. During that week, we build temporary huts… This holiday period is referred to as “the Time of our Happiness.”
We eat and sleep in huts built with three walls, whose roofs must be open to the stars, permeable. Sukkot teaches that our dwelling on this earth is temporary and insecure. When we live outside, we leave not only our comforts but our feelings of permanence. We can’t lock our sukka, and we are vulnerable to the sun, the rain, winds, animals.
But there is great joy in being in a sukka. We are out of our routine, out of our homes, exposed. In the Zohar, the sukka is referred to as the “shadow of faith” (Zohar 103a). Those of us who have dwelled in loss know that we are vulnerable, but we are also privileged to comprehend our true human condition, our humility and impermanence. Sukkot teaches us that this world is like a sukka, the World to Come the world of eternity.
The lesson Sherri Mandell teaches is that resilience is not overcoming, it is becoming. We are becoming. That is our task in life.
We live at a very frightening time. Stabbings and attacks throughout the country, as well as near to where Jews went up to the Temple of old to share with God. How can we embrace the glory of our Land and the pain of these attacks? How can we bless God?
Sherri Mandell helps us understand. Yitro’s example leads the way.
Sukkot is the happiest of holidays and yet it is one fraught with vulnerability. It is life. The question is not “how can the two coexist – good and evil, joy and sadness?” but rather, how could they not, for the contradiction is the essence of life.