by Rabbi Adam Roffman
When I was in day school, each spring, we would gather on the large front lawn of our synagogue’s campus for the annual balloon ascension. Scores of young children and teachers would march in formation, clutching dozens of strings in both hands, each one tied to a colorful balloon tagged with the name of an individual who had bought a raffle ticket for the event. With great anticipation, we waited for the signal to release the balloons up into the air; a sea of reds, blues, yellows, and greens. Finally, we returned to our classrooms and began an even longer period of waiting to see whose balloon would travel the farthest.
As the weeks passed, we received phone calls from countless individuals in nearby counties and even neighboring states, telling us that they had found a deflated piece of rubber with a piece of cardstock attached that read, “Please call Solomon Schechter Day School in Pikesville, Maryland and tell us where this balloon was found.” Finally, winners were announced and prizes given out. Year after year, we looked forward to such a beautiful and joyful event, until, of course, the unfortunate environmental impact of balloon ascensions became clear.
The image of those balloons has stuck with me though, and I was reminded of them again when I clicked on a link in the Times of Israel about the recent wave of attacks launched into the air from the Gaza border, balloons loaded with incendiary devices. More than 7,000 acres of land have been burned as result and the balloons have traveled, in some cases, more than 50 miles before wreaking their havoc on Hamas’s favorite target—Israeli civilians. And though I have been following these incidents and their effect on the residents of southern Israel for some time, the sheer terror of this particular method of destruction didn’t really hit me until I looked closely at the image of Hamas fighters embedded in the article, holding polka-dotted orbs of color.
My teacher, Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky, a bible professor at JTS and now Dean of List College, holds a particular interest in images and incidents of horror in Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and has taught about the subject for many years. One of her keenest insights is that fear is often most palpable when the familiar or comfortable is subverted or weaponized. You may have seen the movie trailer or ads, last year, for Stephen King’s It, a story that begins with a child following a homemade paper boat down a flooded street to a storm drain where an evil creature in the guise of a clown entices him with a gift—a balloon. It’s the transformation of these seemingly innocent, childish items into harbingers of dread that makes the story so bone-chillingly terrifying.
Now imagine yourself in Ashkelon, or Modi’in, or Jerusalem, watching, as a white balloon, imprinted with the words “I love you” or “Habibi”–my friend—drifts slowly towards you. As it comes more into focus, the smile on your face melts into an expression of concern and then sheer horror when you see the foreign object attached to its string. It’s that moment when delight turns into apprehension and then dread that, I imagine, gives these terrorists a sickening sense of satisfaction, as our homeland burns and our people scatter.
Warmongers have been using scorched-earth strategies for millennia, targeting not just the soldiers on other side, but every man, woman, child, object, and blade of grass in their way. But the tactics used by Hamas go far beyond the duplicity of a Trojan Horse. This is cruelty in its most perverse and sickening form.
In this week’s parasha, God floods the earth with rain, washing away a world that had corrupted itself, save for the small family and pairs of animals tucked safely away in, what must have been, a very crowded ark. It is telling, however, that the symbol God gave us that He would never again bring such destruction upon the earth is a rainbow, a sight that only comes in the aftermath of a deluge. God transforms what had been an instrument of terror into a symbol of hope. He took what we had reason to fear the most and used it to inspire confidence in his protection.
May we see the day, and soon, when, for our brothers and sisters in Israel, a balloon becomes what it was always meant to be–a beacon of joy and celebration.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share