What does it mean to truly live in, to truly be in a moment? One day, when we are all up in heaven, perhaps I will have the chance to ask Noam Apter, 22, of Otniel.
Friday night: White tablecloths and china, the sweet light of the Shabbat candles, and the singing of Shalom Aleichem, a song of peace that begins every Shabbat dinner in every Jewish home. No matter where Jews have been, and how unwelcoming and challenging the world around them has been, they are still singing of peace on Friday nights.
And this particular Friday night in the Yeshiva at Otniel was no different. Except that while the students of this yeshiva and their families were singing of peace, no one heard the silent click of wire cutters slicing through the security fence.
Smiling faces, Kiddush over wine, and the blessing of the children; every Friday night for thousands of years Jewish parents have taken a moment to appreciate the gift of children sitting at the Shabbat table. It is a moment of dreams and joy, of potential and love. If we can bless the sweet delicious challot, and appreciate how blessed we are have to have bread on our table when so many in the world can only imagine such a luxury, how can we not take a moment to appreciate what a blessing each child is, and how many dreams each of them represent? Except that this Friday night, while parents were blessing their children with light, and seeing in them the majesty of creation, two other ‘children’, armed with M-16 automatic assault rifles and grenades, were making their way into the same dining hall bringing only darkness and destruction.
Otniel, a town in the Hebron foothills south of Jerusalem, is also home to a very special yeshiva, where boys add two years to their army service in order to combine army service with Jewish studies. While students and families sang and danced to traditional Shabbat tunes in the dining hall, Noam, along with Gavriel, aged 17, Tzvika, aged 19, and Yehuda aged 20, were in the kitchen getting the first course on to the serving plates.
In the blink of an eye, light became darkness and the sweet sound of Shabbat melodies was lost in the horrible sounds of gunfire. Two terrorists, members of the Islamic Jihad organization, entered the kitchen wearing IDF army uniforms and began shooting immediately.
Under fire, Noam Apter ran towards the door separating the kitchen from the dining room where over a hundred unsuspecting people, young boys and families, were welcoming Shabbat.
Wounded and bleeding profusely, with his last strength, he managed to lock both locks and throw the key away. He locked himself in with the terrorists, preventing them from entering the dining hall, and raining death and destruction on all those inside.
Noam Apter paid for this act of heroism with his life. The terrorists murdered him, and the other three boys with him.
It is difficult to imagine what pure terror such a moment must contain. To be at such close quarters, with no way of defending yourself, facing evil in its purest form, the range of emotions that must inevitably sweep over a person is impossible to describe. Many experience pure fear, the fear of the unknown. Some experience intense sadness, the sadness that comes with the awareness of endings; dreams that will never be realized, loved ones that will be left behind, goals never to be achieved.
And some, those rare few, experience challenge, the challenge that comes with the realization that life always means opportunity, and that we are always here for a purpose. How does a human being rise to such a level? How does one overcome every natural instinct of self-preservation, and so see his fellow human beings before him, that he is able to run towards danger, instead of away from it? If I ever get the chance, I will ask Noam Apter that question. There are those who, in a moment, achieve what most people strive to an entire lifetime to become.
You may think that this is a terribly sad story to begin Shabbat with, and this may be true. But there is also a deep joy hidden in between the lines of this story. Because hidden in between the lines of this story is the secret power of a given moment, and with it, perhaps, the reason we are still here as a people, after four thousand years of wandering and struggle, pain and suffering.
In this week’s portion, Bo, after two hundred years of pain and suffering in the darkness of Egyptian servitude, the family of Yaakov finally leaves Egypt, and, amidst the great Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people are born. And, perhaps no less important, we are given our mission as a people, as we receive our first mitzvah, the first commandment given to us as a people on the road to Sinai.
“And Hashem (G-d) spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying: This month shall be to you the beginning (Head) of the months, it will be the first for you of the months of the year.” (Shemot 12:1-2)
Incredibly, the first mitzvah given to us as a people is the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh, the sanctification of the new moon. One might have assumed, and maybe even expected a more ‘impressive’ mitzvah to get our journey as a people started: Shabbat, for example, or the mitzvah to believe in one G-d. We might even have understood beginning with one of the special mitzvoth associated with Pesach (Passover), like Matzah or the Paschal lamb (which actually does come next). So why is the first mitzvah given the Jewish people, the commandment to have a calendar (and begin it with this month of Nissan)
When you stop to think about it, a calendar is all about time. And this was really the first gift Hashem gave us as a people. Just prior to leaving Egypt, on the eve of the tenth and last plague, Hashem gave us the gift of time.
A slave really has no need for a calendar, because a slave really has no use for time. His time is not his own, he is essentially at the mercy of his master. He cannot plan, because his future is not his to determine. Tomorrow will be no different from today, which, as well, is indistinguishable from yesterday.
Only with freedom did we rediscover the value and the power of time. Because all of a sudden what we did today could make all the difference in who and how we would be tomorrow.
Right from the outset, Hashem wanted to teach us, that we always have the power to change, and that we are never ever doomed to be where we think we are stuck. We can always rise above where and even who we are, just like the moon, which is constantly changing and never ‘gives up’, waxing again just when it appears to be gone forever. And most of all, we learned the value of every given moment.
Rav Binny Freedman, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City is a Company Commander in the IDF reserves, and lives in Efrat with his wife Doreet and their four children. His weekly Internet ‘Parsha Bytes’ can be found at www.orayta.org