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The Angel of Death and Elijah: Our Story of Grief and Joy

In the Jewish nation, horror and hope go hand in hand. As we move to Remembrance Day and Independence Day, we must hold space for pain, but not lose sight of celebration.

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

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The transition from mourning on Yom HaZikaron to celebrating on Yom HaAtzmaut is always jarring. But this year, it will be especially challenging, with more than 1,500 Israelis killed since Oct. 7, and the country at war on multiple fronts. For here in Israel, the painful memory of Oct. 7 isn’t merely a shared national story, but an ongoing personal grief carried by the countless friends and relatives of all the murdered, the wounded, the hostages, fallen soldiers and security personnel. Nearly everyone knows, at least to some extent, someone who has been killed or injured. 

Every individual is the loss of a world, causing the wave of their hopes and dreams to crash against the banks of the present. On the other hand, we also experience on a daily basis, the benefits and blessings of living in the modern state of Israel. Each and every one of us will have to navigate the transition from Yom HaZikaron to Yom HaAtzmaut, bringing into sharp focus a juxtaposition we face daily.

As we live through this moment in Jewish history, I feel haunted –  and comforted – by the words of a group of teachers in the Warsaw Ghetto. On Passover of 1942, they gathered together to conduct the seder, even in the midst of chaos, death and destruction. To help put the holiday in perspective, they wrote a brief introduction to the Haggadah, describing how that Passover, they “feel that knocking at their door, simultaneously, are both the angel of death and Elijah the prophet.” 

This pairing of Elijah — always recalled at the seder, and seen throughout the Jewish tradition as a sign of hope, resolution, and the forerunner of the Messiah – with the angel of death, an obvious sign of doom, is what we are again experiencing today.

I have experienced and heard about countless moments of this phenomenon of horror existing alongside hope and bravery, especially involving the 13 students and alumni we have lost from our network of schools and educational programs.  At a shiva, I heard a father speak of his son who fell in battle, and how they long enjoyed a shared chavruta; then to mention the last mishnah they learned focused on the prophet Elijah. 

Then there was 24-year-old IDF Captain Itai Seif, whose sister Shachar, a teacher in our school system, gave birth a month early. Itai was able to leave Gaza to carry his newborn nephew to Eliyahu Hanavi’s chair at the brit milah, only to fall in battle a month later, on Shachar’s due date. 

There was also the paramedic Amit Mann, shot dead by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 as she was treating injured people in a clinic on Kibbutz Be’eri. Surrounded by victims in the clinic under siege, she was aware her final moments were approaching, even as she worked to save lives. She texted her sister: “I don’t think I’ll get out of this, I love you.” 

I still think daily of Yehonatan Semo who fell in battle, only for the army to later find a letter in his pocket requesting that his organs be donated, an echo of how Elijah, throughout Jewish tradition, gives new life to many.

I hold especially dear the memory of Aner Shapira, packed into a road-side shelter with dozens who had fled the Nova festival on Oct. 7 as terrorists attacked them with grenades and gunfire. Aner stood up to the angel of death as he caught one grenade after another, valiantly tossing them back at the terrorists trying to kill them. As he emulated Elijah himself in defense of the Jewish people, the angel of death was there, too: As Aner died when one of the grenades he could not pick up quickly enough exploded on him.  

This week, especially, we are a nation of survivors who cannot yet make sense of these tragic occurrences. But in our darkest moments, there is some consolation in the knowledge that, even in the face of the angel of death, countless stories have emerged of redemption – one Elijah after another. As we prepare to mourn even more deeply on Yom HaZikaron and struggle to even think of how we can celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut at a time like this, it is imperative that we remember that it not just that the angel of death can sometimes come at the same time as Elijah, but, as the rabbis of Warsaw wrote, that Elijah can come alongside that angel of death. This should give us the perseverance to which we all aspire. 

Even in our moment of grief, we mustn’t lose sight of Yom HaAtzmaut, the redemption on the horizon and what we are collectively building.  In Israel, modern statecraft and the prayer for the Messianic age is one in the same. We must continue the work of Itai, Amit, Yehonatan, Aner and all the others. It is this work that we are chosen to do. 

In a well-known Talmudic story, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked Elijah: When will the Messiah come? Elijah said to him: Go ask him. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: And where is he sitting? Elijah said to him: At the entrance of the city of Rome. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked Elijah: And what is his identifying sign by means of which I can recognize him? Elijah answered: He sits among the poor who suffer from illnesses. And all of them untie their bandages and tie them all at once, but the Messiah unties one bandage and ties one at a time… Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to the Messiah. He said to the Messiah: Greetings to you, my rabbi and my teacher. The Messiah said to him: Greetings to you, ben Levi. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: When will the Master come? The Messiah said to him: Today. Sometime later, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi came to Elijah: The Messiah lied to me, as he said to me: I am coming today, and he did not come. Elijah said to him that this is what he said to you: He said that he will come “today, if you will listen to his voice” (Psalms 95:7).

Today, listening to the voice of God means having faith in the redemptive process that God has set into motion. We continue to build the country, through tears that we pray turn from sorry to only ones of laughter and joy.

Read this oped on the Jerusalem Post website

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