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Like many American Jews, I learned of the horrific terror attack on Israel while in synagogue.

The Saturday of the attack was the first day of a two-day festival, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, during which Orthodox Jews do not use electricity: no phones, no TV, no radio, no Internet, a complete news blackout. Even so, word about what was happening started to trickle among us. People learned the news from Gentile neighbors and would pass it on. At first, we heard there were 20 casualties, then 200, then 300. (It was not until the holiday ended Sunday night that we heard there were more than 700 dead, a number that has now exceeded 1,300.)

Nearly everyone at my synagogue has family or close friends in Israel. We didn’t know exactly what was going on. We also felt completely impotent, not knowing what, if anything, we could do. We couldn’t even monitor the situation.

The feeling of impotence was particularly acute at my synagogue in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Many who attend are former or current senior American officials. One former Pentagon official I spoke to, who almost certainly would have been called into the office had he still been in his previous position, listened in horror as I told him what I had heard from others. I could see him realizing what would have to happen next, but he, like me, could not even monitor developments in real time, let alone shape America’s response as he once might have. 

All of this impotence felt particularly humbling as we stood in the synagogue before the Omnipotent. With no ability to do anything else, we focused on our religious observances. We were in the midst of a holiday with significant prayer obligations, so we prayed and prayed. In addition to the standard prayers, our rabbi directed us to say additional psalms regarding the tragedy. When we spoke the traditional prayers for the dead, we added the newly departed victims of the unfolding terror. 

But praying is difficult in the face of such horrors. The situation reminded me of an exchange between Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Wiesel asked how one could believe in God after Auschwitz. The rebbe countered, how could we not believe in God, given the horrors of what man’s primacy brings? What else is there, other than God? 

Saturday night brought about Simchat Torah, a festive holiday meant to celebrate the completion of the annual Torah cycle, and with it, the restarting of the book of Genesis. The celebration is filled with joyous dancing and singing, something that seemed inappropriate given what was happening 7000 miles away. Our rabbi addressed this directly: Jews have always danced on this holiday, even during the worst tragedies. We would continue to dance, not because we were happy about the awful situation, but out of respect for the holy Torah. He also tried to give us comfort by reminding us of the meaning of the words in Genesis 1, “and it was evening and it was morning.” We were currently in a period of darkness, but morning would come again.

Throughout the day, I thought of what my parents and grandparents had gone through 50 years ago, when invading Arab armies threatened Israel’s existence while Jews prayed on the holy day of Yom Kippur. That too had been a time of darkness, but the light eventually returned. 

That night, as I went to sleep, I said the Shema prayer, the traditional prayer a Jew is supposed to say before going to sleep: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Still not fully knowing what was happening in Israel, I closed my eyes and said the prayer, knowing that hundreds of my fellow Jews would never again have the opportunity to do so.

Tevi Troy is a senior scholar at the Straus Center at Yeshiva University.

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Image by AgnosticPreachersKid via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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