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Of Faith and Fortitude: How Devorah Paley Energized a Nation

Yaakov and Asher Paley, H”yd. Following their murder, Jews from across the globe sent letters to Devorah describing how the tragedy inspired them to take on mitzvot in the boys’ names. Seeing that the tragedy was a catalyst for Klal Yisrael to come closer to G-d was an extraordinary source of comfort for Devorah and her children. Photo: Elchanan Kotler

With the unprecedented brutality of the October 7 massacre, the memory of previous terror attacks has receded. But few can forget Devorah Paley and the faith she exhibited in the aftermath of her sons’ murder. 

An unassuming Chareidi woman from the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem, Devorah Paley became a national icon of faith and fortitude in the days and weeks following the terror attack in February 2023 that claimed the lives of two of her sons, five-year-old Yaakov Yisrael and seven-year-old Asher Menachem.  

Tens of thousands were moved by this mother’s ingrained faith and by her insistence that the tragedy had meaning, even if the meaning was concealed. “No one said it would be easy, but when you know Hashem is with you and there’s a plan, that gives you a lot of strength,” said Devorah. While her deep-seated emunah gave her the ability to cope with the pain on a personal level, it became obvious that the Jewish public had taken the tragedy to heart and sensed a message in it for them, too. Reporters showed up at the shivah house with cameras and microphones. Devorah’s words of emunah were broadcast worldwide. “My father said to us, ‘Hashem is gozer umekayem. It doesn’t just mean Hashem fulfills His word. It also means that when He decrees a difficult ordeal on us, He’s there to be mekayem us, to sustain us.’” 

Devorah’s words struck a chord, and the response from Jews all over the world was overwhelming. Asher’s motto—“Don’t say ‘oof,’ just say kuf” [Don’t say ‘ugh,’ say chapter 100 in Tehillim, Mizmor Letodah, which speaks of gratitude]—is now printed on bumper stickers. In advance of the sheloshim of her sons, 10,000 women from all sectors of Israeli society registered for a Zoom to hear words of chizuk from Devorah. (The broadcast was ultimately canceled because she gave birth that morning.)

Not in Vain

The Friday of the attack, the Paleys were about to travel to a family Shabbat sheva berachot. A terrorist from East Jerusalem drove a car at high speed straight into the crowd of people waiting at the bus stop. Yaakov Yisrael was declared dead at the scene, and Asher Menachem died of his wounds the next day. Their father, Avraham, also critically injured, was taken to a different hospital, unconscious and unaware of his children’s fate. [He miraculously recovered and was released from the hospital three months later.]

“There’d been the usual argument about who would travel by car with me, and who would go by bus with Abba,” Devorah recalls. “I remember Yaakov standing by the door just before leaving, saying ‘I don’t want to go by bus, but I’ll do what you say, Ima.’ He was a good boy. . . . 

“And I felt that if he’d been asked if he was willing to be a korban for Am Yisrael, he would have said yes. I realized very quickly that [my sons’ deaths served as] a korban. But a korban has to be brought with kavanah, with intention to come closer to G-d. The word korban itself connotes closeness. Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted to bring the boys close, and to bring the Jewish people closer to Him. If this tragedy hadn’t brought us closer, then the sacrifice would have been in vain. If it had to happen, I needed to know it wasn’t in vain.”

And indeed, it was not in vain.  

Devorah shows me a bundle of papers, several inches thick. The bundle consists of letters from Jews all over the world and across the religious spectrum letting her family know that they decided to keep Shabbat or wear tzitzit as a merit for the boys’ neshamot. Some of the papers include lists of individuals and the resolutions they have taken upon themselves as a merit for her sons’ neshamot and for her husband’s recovery: to get up earlier, to be more patient with their children, to upgrade their learning and davening, and on and on. 

In one of the numerous videos circulating on the internet, a few teens come to pay a shivah call, and they each tell Devorah the mitzvah they have taken upon themselves in memory of her sons. One of the teens says that he will show greater respect to his friends, another promises to put on tefillin.

Seeing that the tragedy was a catalyst for Klal Yisrael to come closer to G-d was an extraordinary source of comfort for Devorah and her children. “Every positive act, every resolution to do good, and every meaningful initiative in their memory gives me solace,” she says in a recorded conversation with the well-known media personality Sivan Rahav-Meir. 

“Someone asked my daughter, ‘Don’t you have questions?’ And she answered, ‘We never got the chance to ask questions because we saw the answers right away.’”

Tough Training

Devorah was raised and schooled in an environment that inculcated emunah. But it gets grittier than that.

Emunah,” Devorah says, “is from the same root as imun, training. We were put through some tough training exercises. Four years ago, my brother-in-law passed away after a two-year illness. He left seven kids, some of them still very young. That was on my husband’s side. . . . And then, two years later, my brother died. He had eight children, and a newborn granddaughter. It was on Simchat Torah, after all the dancing and the divrei Torah. He went to sleep that night and never woke up. . . . Both families were very badly shaken.

“But in the aftermath of those tragedies, we spent a lot of time talking about emunah, this world and the next world, and techiyat hameitim. And for me personally, it was a preparation, because many of the ideas I absorbed at that time were integrated into my outlook.”

Since October 7, Devorah has visited many shivah houses herself. She’s consistently found that where there is emunah, the bereaved wives and parents have a wellspring of strength to draw from. But when the mourners aren’t grounded in emunah, there is anger, blame, accusations and meaningless agony: it’s the government’s fault, the army’s fault. . . why didn’t they prevent this?

“One woman asked me, ‘aren’t you angry’?” says Devorah. “I told her that when there’s meaning, there’s no anger. Along with the sacrifices, there are countless stories of hashgachah pratit. We’ve all heard them.”

Even nonobservant soldiers fighting in Gaza, and young people who were spared from the massacre at the music festival on October 7, have talked about how strongly they felt that Hashem was looking out for them. In a video that was widely shared, a bareheaded young man tells a reporter how he and his girlfriend managed to escape by car from the massacre, and then hid for six hours in a lavatory, repeating the first pasuk of Shema Yisrael nonstop. After they finally emerged unscathed, he found a ring on the ground, inscribed with those very words. Ever since then, he has worn the ring on a chain around his neck. “Nobody can tell me now that G-d doesn’t exist or that He’s not here,” the man says.

In advance of the sheloshim of her sons, 10,000 women from all sectors of Israeli society registered for a Zoom to hear words of chizuk from Devorah.

Devorah’s hashgachah pratit came in a subtler form. “Just for one example,” she relates, “at first we weren’t aware of how serious my husband’s condition was, because we were so caught up in the shock of losing the boys. And afterwards, we were too busy doing all we could for him to spend a lot of time dwelling on the loss [of the boys]. So we weren’t hit by everything at once.”

She compares this to the story of Yosef’s journey to Egypt when he was sold into slavery. The Torah mentions that the merchants who bought him were transporting fragrant spices, and Rashi famously explains that Arab traders more commonly dealt in foul-smelling commodities like tar and fuel, but Hashem made sure that Yosef would have a pleasant fragrance to accompany him.

“Of course everyone asks: What difference does it make what Yosef smelled on the way to Egypt? Does a person who’s being sold into slavery really care what the merchandise smells like? Were the people abducted on Simchat Torah really interested in what they inhaled on the way to Gaza? But the point is that this was Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s way of letting Yosef know that He was with him. If a foul odor wasn’t part of His plan, then Yosef wasn’t going to smell a foul odor. We, too, were able to sense that Hashem was with us throughout our ordeal.”

Devorah emphasizes another source of strength, both for her in her situation and for Klal Yisrael in the present crisis—gratitude. “When you recognize all the good things in your life and focus on them, you open the way for more blessings.”

Just after the sheloshim for her two sons, Devorah gave birth to another boy. Her husband, conscious after two weeks in a coma, was able to be in a wheelchair at her side for the delivery, and in gratitude for these gifts, they named the baby Yonatan Refael.

Brotherly Love

The attack that killed Yaakov and Asher was the first incident in a rash of attacks in which pairs of siblings were murdered—Hillel and Yagal Yaniv, Maia and Rina Dee, and several others, Hy”d. During that period, the sense of brotherhood between Israelis was at an all-time low. The struggle between left and right, brought to a head by the controversy over the government’s proposed move to curtail the power of the Supreme Court, appeared to be escalating toward civil war. 

“A number of people pointed out at the time that this was no coincidence,” Devorah says. “When those young lives were taken from us, Hakadosh Baruch Hu was speaking to us. We needed to remember that we are all brothers.”

On October 7, everyone got the memo. The internecine quarreling stopped abruptly. Beyachad became the buzzword of the year. And in the wake of the war, many thousands of Jews in Israel and overseas have embraced their Judaism or tightened their hold on it.

Devorah paid a shivah call to a woman whose daughter was murdered on Simchat Torah. “We really hoped our korban would be the last,” she told the mother. “But sadly, there have been many more. . . .”

“Why?” the anguished mother asked.

“Because Hakadosh Baruch Hu lo mevater lanu—He won’t give up on us. He loves us, He knows what we’re capable of, and He wants to bring more of us closer to Him,” Devorah responded. 

Devorah never meant to be a public figure, but she does her best to fulfill the role she’s been thrust into. She was surprised when one journalist dubbed her “eim shel kedoshim.” It sounded so lofty, and she’d never thought of herself in such terms.

“But when I thought about it,” she says, “I realized that we are all supposed to be kedoshim. The concept of kedushah means we are differentiated. We’re different from all the other nations, set aside for a unique purpose, to bring light to the world. And that’s all of us in Klal Yisrael. I heard a rav say it’s not true that we’re a weak generation, as we’ve often been called. Why would Hakadosh Baruch Hu subject a weak generation to such difficult trials?

“Yes, it’s painful, yes, we still have to daven for rachamim,” Devorah says. “But at the same time, we understand that it’s not random . . . there’s a plan and a purpose.

“Asher was born on Tishah B’Av, which is why we also gave him the name Menachem. He used to ask why he couldn’t have a party on his birthday. I would tell him that one day—may it be very soon—his birthday will be the happiest day of the year. We’ll be celebrating in the Beit Hamikdash, and we’ll be able to look back on everything we’ve been through and see how it was all part of the process.”  


Yocheved Lavon is a freelance writer and Hebrew-to-English translator living in Jerusalem. She made aliyah from New York in 1976.


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Responding to Crisis: A Historical Approach by Dr. Henry Abramson

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A Laughing Matter by Carol Green Unger

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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