Gaza massacre: On Shemini Atzeret

By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried

Dear Rabbi Fried,

I know it’s been over a month since that terrible day in October when an unprecedented massacre took place in our holy land and so much has happened since then. Maybe it’s too late to ask this, but I have a lingering question (along with many other questions) about the timing of this horrific incident. The Hebrew holiday this happened on is Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Sukkot, which is Simchat Torah in Israel. What I heard in a class, and since then did my own research, is that this is supposed to be the day that G-d shows his greatest love for the Jews. After the High Holidays and Sukkot, he tells us “It’s hard to see you leave, spend one more day with me!” How could he allow this to happen on that day of all days?! There are so many other questions to ask, but this one stands out in my mind and has been troubling me ever since. Could you possibly offer me some consolation?

Thank you, Mark T.

Dear Mark,

It’s interesting that many have asked me the same question. I guess the seeming contradiction is glaring and as many noticed — it truly needs explanation.

What I am going to say is somewhat strong and perhaps difficult to swallow. But it is just my opinion, the way that I see it and understand the sources — but without prophecy we cannot truly say we know why G-d allows a specific incident to happen.

The root of the name of the holiday on the last day of Sukkot is “atzeret,” meaning “to hold back.” The rabbis explain this with a parable. A prince lives far away from his father, the king. He comes for his annual visit and the king throws seven days of parties in his honor. When it’s time to go back home, the king says, it’s difficult for me to handle our separation. Please spend one more day with me. The prince replies, I really have had enough of parties with others, I would stay if I could spend private time with you, my father. The king promises to have this last day as special alone time with his son and he stays happily for this private day. (Rashi to Numbers 29:36 and Talmud, Sukkah 55b)

The initial words, in Hebrew, expressing the king’s request to his son are “kasheh alai preidatchem,” which is usually translated as “your separation from me is difficult.” There is another meaning to this statement. “Your separation is difficult for me to endure”; not your separation from me, rather your separation from each other. (This would explain why the Hebrew preidatchem is written in the plural, rather than the singular.)

There are numerous references throughout Torah and rabbinic writings that teach how G-d only connects to and rests His presence among the Jewish people when they are one. We are able to truly connect to G-d as a congregation, not just as individuals. When we are separated, we lose that connection and hence, Divine protection. (See Sifrito Deuteronomy 33:5.)

Prior to this unspeakable tragedy the Jewish people in Israel were splintered so severely that there began to be talk about a civil war. From the moment those riots broke out and this unprecedented separation and hatred began I was in constant trepidation that something terrible was going to happen. We have a stark precedent in the destruction of the Second Temple due to hatred among fellow Jews (Talmud, Yoma 9b). This type of hatred would clearly, in my understanding, lead to the lack of Heavenly protection.

Since, however, G-d truly wants that loving connection with us, which can’t exist if we are splintered, He needed to allow something to happen which would bring us back together again since we weren’t doing it ourselves. (This is similar to the Yom Kippur War, when we also got an awakening from Above to repent since we weren’t doing it so well ourselves.) Since that horrible Shabbat, the divisions have melted, left and right are fighting together and working hand-in-hand to help each other and the war effort. It’s so beautiful to see, it literally brings tears to my eyes. We all have seen it and noticed it. Mega efforts are taking place to help each other with food, clothing, laundry, housing, monetary and emotional support, with total disregard for the religious or political leanings of the recipients. Untold thousands of soldiers have requested tzitzit to wear — for the first time — and thousands of civilians are spending day and night tying those tzitzit!

The Jewish people — the Princes — have come together and are reconnecting with their King, their Father in Heaven. May He receive that with renewed connection of protection, redeeming the captives, destroying our vicious enemies and bringing all of our beloved soldiers home safely and soundly. And may we have a lasting peace, seeing us staying together in peace for many years and generations to come.

P.S.: Anyone who would like to join in the efforts to help out with the many Jews from the south of Israel being brought to Dallas, monetarily or otherwise, please contact

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA–Dallas Area Torah Association.

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