There are no words. As I sit down to pen an article for my column, I find myself at a loss. I usually like to write a post-chag round-up describing the exciting events and the beautiful atmosphere felt in the country, but this year it felt as though a gray cloud was our constant companion, hovering over us as we did our best to celebrate the chag. This was literal as well as figurative, as we were pummeled with thunder and lightning storms, most unusual for this time of year.
What can I possibly say about a mother shot to death in cold blood, along with her two daughters, as they headed up north to a family tiyul on Chol HaMoed? What can I write about a brother and sister killed as they were swept up in a roaring flood in the southern Aravah? What about the freak accidents and fires the world over, which claimed multiple lives and caused untold physical and emotional harm? Keeping up with the steady stream of tragedies became an unwelcome challenge. Yom Tov activities and festivities were interrupted by calls for T’hilim and heartbreaking levayahs. I am left speechless.
While I struggle to get my words out under these circumstances, Rabbi Leo Dee, who just lost his wife and two daughters to terror, does not seem to have this problem. Since the tragic terror attack, he has been sending out messages of strength and unity to Jews all over the world. He asks that everyone do what they can to make the world a better place.
Nati, a resident of Efrat who davens in the same shul as the Dee family, described what took place in shul on Yom Tov Acharon shel Pesach. At night, the Dee family entered shul standing tall, with their heads held high. The next morning, Nati entered the shul a few minutes before davening. The Dee family was already there. Rav Leo approached him, gave him a warm hug, and wished him a chag samei’ach. During the davening, the tension in the shul was palpable, as people struggled with their conflicting feelings, their simchas Yom Tov mixed with their sorrow. The baalei t’filah were having trouble finding the balance that would be appropriate for the kahal.
Then it was time to say Hallel. They did not sing the first mizmor. Then came “B’tzeis Yisrael miMitzrayim.” Once again, the chazan didn’t sing. It seemed that there would be no singing this year. There was a great sense of sadness and pain in the shul. People were crying. At that moment, Rav Leo got up from his seat and quickly walked over to the chazan. He gently put his hand on the chazan, hugged him, and whispered something in his ear. The chazan immediately began to sing in a way that uplifts the soul. Then the k’hilah sang the rest of Hallel together. After davening, Nati asked the chazan what Rav Leo had said to him. Rav Leo had asked that the chazan make the davening joyous! And so it was joyous, a bit sad, but mainly comforting.
Many learning initiatives have been established in memory of Lucy, Maia, and Rina Dee. A shiur is scheduled to take place in the shul in Efrat every night during the shiv’ah. People from all over the world have joined a WhatsApp group that will learn one perek of T’hilim every day. A girls’ high school in the Jordan Valley plans to build a beis midrash to be used for learning and davening.
Girls who had been hosted over Shabbos by the Dees when they were in seminary initiated the “Dee Pirkei Avot Project.” The girls were inspired by the Dees who would learn Pirkei Avos every Friday night and discuss how to incorporate the principles they’d learn into their lives and use them to make themselves better people. New WhatsApp groups for these initiatives are continuously forming, because they keep filling up due to the high demand.
It’s hard to know what to make of all of this, but Hashem is sending us a message. So many of the recent tragedies have involved siblings of the same family. Messages that circulate display touching photos of Asher and Yaakov Paley, killed several weeks ago in the Ramot terror attack, Hillel and Yagel Yaniv of Har Bracha, recently killed on Route 60 in Huwara, Maya and Rina Dee, killed in the Jordan Valley, and Ma’ayan and Sahar Assor of Teveriah, who were killed in the flash flood.
In his daily halachah video, HaRav Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Safed and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, mentioned that many have approached him asking him to address the issue that so much tragedy has befallen groups of siblings. While HaRav Eliyahu feels uncomfortable making statements about the cheshbonos of Hashem, he believes that we can’t ignore the fact that Hashem is speaking to us about achavah, brotherhood. Our sense of achavah has been hurt. People have been saying that we are not brothers. This is exactly why the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim did not treat each other with respect. We don’t listen to music during this time to remind ourselves that we cannot continue with our lives as usual. We need to change. HaRav Eliyahu asked that everyone make a special effort, especially during S’firas HaOmer, to strengthen our sense of achavah.
Much effort continues to be placed with this goal in mind. The mother of Hillel and Yagel Yaniv requested that, in addition to the shlissel challah (challah made in the shape of a key for the Shabbos immediately following Pesach), this year we should also make a challah in the shape of a heart, challat ha’achdut, and give them out to our neighbors for the sake of unity. Meetings continue to be held to bridge the gaps between the camps and increase love between one another.
When the Aravah Road was closed due to flooding on Chol HaMoed, thousands got stuck between the gushing streams. Netanel Ellinson, head of the pre-military training academy in the Aravah, described what took place that night. Residents of the area opened their homes with big hearts and hosted the stranded in the dead of night. Nobody asked their “guests” whom they voted for and to what sector they belonged. One heart opened to another with simple hospitality. The road of the Aravah turned into the road of Areivut (responsibility). Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh.
Despite our differences, we are all brothers, and in times of need, we are there for each other. With Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron upon us, we are reminded that our enemies don’t differentiate between us. Let’s hope that we experience no more tragedy and that we can celebrate only good times together as brothers.