Three summers ago I was in the U.S. visiting family, but my heart was home in Israel. It was that terrible summer when three Israeli teenagers – Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali – were kidnapped, and for eighteen emotional days we didn’t know what had happened to them. Israelis from every political and religious affiliation joined with hundreds of thousands around the world to pray that the boys would be found alive and well.
#BringBackOurBoys trended on social media. These boys became our boys and we all wanted nothing more than to see them come home safe and sound. But after those eighteen days of unity and faith, we all received the devastating news which the police had suspected all along – the boys had been shot and killed by terrorists on day one.
Our nation was devastated. I was devastated. My young children were devastated.
Then, as I scrolled down my social media feed looking for more news – since the boys had both been kidnapped and disposed of pretty close to my hometown – I saw a picture which had just been posted by my friend Lisa. It looked like Lisa and some other women from my town were in an ancient building. I realized that it was about two in the morning in Israel. What in the world was Lisa doing? Where in the world was Lisa? And why did she have that twinkle in her eye when she, of all people, takes our nation’s losses the hardest?
Lisa had captioned her picture: “The beginning of something amazing. Stay tuned.”
It turns out that Lisa and those other brave women were doing what we Jews do best – turning darkness into light. On the night after the boys were found murdered, these women decided to establish new life. Close to both the location of the kidnapping and the place where the bodies were hidden is a hill, which although it belongs to Israel, had never been settled. There is no permission to build permanent homes in that particular place for political reasons. So it had essentially been turned into a large garbage dump.
Lisa and these women decided that it was time to regain this precious piece of Israel. They cleaned, planted, built, and invited others to join them. Their dream was to create a forest teeming with life. A place tourists could visit, learn about Israel, plant trees, and enjoy the beautiful Holy Land. It would be a beautiful place to celebrate lifecycle events such as births, weddings, and bar or bat mitzvahs. It would serve as a space where local families and friends could gather for a barbecue or just enjoy being together in our precious land.
Three years later the forest of Oz VeGaon is just that. And it is only the beginning of what is yet to come.
This week I had the pleasure of attending the circumcision ceremony of a dear friend’s grandson. The ceremony was held on a pleasant summer morning in the forest of Oz VeGaon. At every circumcision ceremony, just before the baby boy receives his name, the guests recite a variation of Ezekiel 16:6, “Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, ‘Live!’” The Jewish translation of the original Hebrew is slightly different. The verse ends, “through your blood you shall live.” We recite this last part twice at a circumcision, stressing the directive to live.
The meaning of this verse, especially at a circumcision, is that while spilled blood can often mean the loss of life, it can also signal new life. On a figurative level, the verse also teaches us that it is through our blood – through our suffering and in spite of our suffering – that we will continue to live and thrive. God calls us to live, and so we do – no matter what.
Giving up is never an option. We will rebuild and press on no matter what comes our way. This is the Jewish way and the reason why we are still around today, with God’s help, after millennia of persecution and attempted extermination.
As we recited this verse at the ceremony, I thought of the boys for whom the forest is named. Whose spilled blood has inspired new life. Whose short lives inspired a nation. Whose legacy continues on in the beautiful space that has been so lovingly – and fiercely – created in their memory. I thought of Israel and all Israelis who continue on and thrive in spite of everything. As we sang and celebrated, I looked over at Lisa who was also present at the celebration, and the biblical words reverberated in my head: “through your blood you shall live.”
Yes, we shall.