| Magazine Feature |

My Brother’s Keeper

Mossad chief Dedi Barnea's secret weapon is his Breslover brother Zohar

Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Mishpacha archives

When Naomi Barnea gave birth to her second son in 1971, the country's landscape was filled with Lag B'omer fires.

And so, she decided to give him the name “Zohar,” in honor of the holy kabbalistic foundational work revealed on Lag B’omer by Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. More than 50 years later, Lag B’omer was still a momentous day for Rabbi Zohar Barnea, but this time the circumstances were like nothing he could have imagined.

Zohar Barnea is the brother of David (Dedi) Barnea, the clever, brave, and daring Mossad operative who was appointed to head the international secret service organization last June. Lag B’omer last year was just a few weeks before the appointment, and Dedi asked his chareidi Breslover brother to pray for his success at the tziyun of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.

Those prayers were not only answered when Dedi was appointed Mossad chief, but that very night, when Zohar Barnea and his 14-year-old son found themselves on the “staircase of death,” where 45 people lost their lives in Meron on Lab B’omer night. Reb Zohar and his son were spared, but the long moments during which he battled to save the lives of those around him, and the horrific scenes that he witnessed in the process, have left him traumatized nearly a year later.

But Zohar Barnea has been through a lot in his life, and he knows how time, and the accompanying spiritual work, can help the nefesh heal. He’s traveled his own journey, always aware, he says, that Hashem has constantly been holding him up. Why should this challenge be any different, he asks?

“There was a very secular atmosphere in the home I grew up in,” Rabbi Barnea tells Mishpacha, “but in the background, there were deep roots of emunah.” His grandfather, Reb Yehuda Brunner a”h, fled with his young family from Germany and settled in Bnei Brak, where he became an important public figure. His grandmother was related to the Belzer Rebbe and her brother Hy”d was a rav in Dzikov, who refused to abandon his community during World War II, even though he was offered a safe hideaway.

Yosef Brunner (Barnea), Zohar and Dedi’s father, was three years old when the family came to Eretz Yisrael. Yosef learned in the Hapoel Hamizrachi yeshivah in Bnei Brak, but, swept up by the spirit of the times, enlisted in the Palmach when he was 16 and fought in the War of Independence. He eventually reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, where he also began to work on technological developments. When his service was over, he went into the private sector working for Tadiran, although his technical know-how kept him a valuable asset for the military, and he was enlisted for weapons acquisitions.

“We grew up in a home filled with idealism,” Rabbi Barnea relates. “Our parents infused us with very high values, especially with regard to the personal example that they set. My father a”h developed certain technologies for aircraft that were game changers, but we only found out about many of the awards he received after he passed away two years ago. He held top positions in his company, but we always understood that to him, money was always a means and not an end in itself. On the other hand, he wasn’t cowed by anyone. Even when he had to mingle with very wealthy and powerful people, both in Israel and abroad, he never allowed prestige to confuse or sway him, and if he knew something was right, nothing could pressure him. I think that in a certain sense, my brother Dedi and I inherited this trait. It explains some of the independent and less conventional steps we chose to make in our lives — each one in his way.”

One of those steps was mitzvah observance. In 1983, when Zohar was 12, Yosef Barnea was sent to conduct negotiations with the US military, and the family moved to New York for a few years. Zohar was enrolled in the Modern Orthodox Ramaz school, and following a preparation course for his bar mitzvah, he decided to continue observing the mitzvos he’d learned about even after his 13th birthday.

“To me, it seemed like the most natural thing to do,” he says, although he didn’t want to upset his parents and so he pretty much kept under the radar. They realized how serious he was two years later when they were traveling back to Israel and Zohar was scanning the aisles looking for a minyan for Minchah.

“It was really remarkable, because I continued on in a very secular environment,” Rabbi Barnea relates. “But from the minute I began to observe mitzvos, I never considered stopping.” Even after returning to Israel, enrolling in a paramilitary boarding school, and joining the IDF’s Golani unit.

Brain Trust

When he finished his military service, Zohar decided to dedicate his time to learning in an organized fashion in yeshivah. In time, he married, and he and his wife, who came from the religious Kibbutz Sha’alvim, started their own family in addition to fostering and creating a home for close to a dozen teenagers. But somehow, he never felt that he’d found his own true home.

Until the spring of 1996, when he traveled to Ukraine to daven at kivrei tzaddikim. When he got to Uman, something shifted. “When I came to the tziyun, I felt enveloped in a pleasure and sensation I can’t even explain. But I knew this was the rebbe I wanted to be connected to.” Since then, he’s immersed himself in the Torah of Rebbe Nachman.

Over the last 25 years, his life has been a roller coaster, but, he says, his emunah and attachment to the holy teachings always managed to keep him focused and grounded. He built a shul for struggling baalei teshuvah in his own yard, and he opened a successful grocery chain that became a vehicle for chesed as well as parnassah — many avreichim looking to make a livelihood were employed at one of the branches, and many poor kollel families received packages each week for Shabbos and basic needs. Reb Zohar soon became an address for gvirim from abroad who wanted their funds to go to needy families, and at his peak, he was running an annual chesed budget of several million dollars. Until his mazel changed, after he became entangled in a financial partnership that was his financial ruin, spending years in beis din trying to reclaim his losses.

Yet he understood that while so many things in life are fragile, family ties are sacrosanct. Despite their differences in life choices, Reb Zohar’s bond with his family, and especially with his brother Dedi and his two sisters, remains close and strong.

“Although my father grew up religious, he really did not like the chareidi community, to put it mildly,” Reb Zohar admits. “But during the shivah for my mother 16 years ago, Rav Nissan Dovid Kivak, a Breslover mashpia who I’m close with, came to the shivah house and spoke with my father. It wasn’t a long conversation, but it left a deep impression on him and changed his view of rabbanim. I don’t know what exactly Rav Kivak said to him, but I do know that the next day, my father put on tefillin and davened Shacharis.”

Still, how did it happen that two brothers who grew up in the same family environment took such different paths in life? And how do they preserve the closeness between them despite the gaps in hashkafah and emunah?

Dedi was born with the spoon of kibbud av v’eim in his mouth, and he fulfilled this mitzvah in an outstanding way,” Reb Zohar says. “His work in the intelligence field made it necessary for him to travel abroad often, and although no one ever asked questions, as soon as he returned to Israel, the first place he went was to visit was our parents. Dedi isn’t religious at all, and neither is our father, but every Erev Shabbos from the time our mother passed away, he would go to our father in Rishon LeTzion to bring him a Shabbos meal.

“From the time he was a little boy,” Zohar continues, “there was something special about Dedi. He is very talented and always does what he understands to be right. Like our father, he’s also a man with deep internal truths, who doesn’t buckle to the reactions of those around him, and isn’t swayed based on what they might be thinking about him. People around him have always appreciated him because he does what he believes in, and because he shows genuine respect to everyone he interacts with. Dedi has always been capable of accomplishing great things without saying much. But I don’t envy his enemies. He’s no pushover and no one can take advantage of him.”

It sounds like he’s the strong, reliable type we can trust and feel secure with as head of the Mossad. But Reb Zohar just shrugs and smiles.

“I really have no understanding of these matters,” he says. “Trust? I trust only in HaKadosh Baruch Hu, but if Hashem Himself chose Dedi as His shaliach, then what can be better than that?”

Night of Tears

Reb Zohar is a “Rashbi person,” as he says, one of those who regularly visits the tziyun of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron. And last Lag B’omer was no different — in fact, he had an extra mission.

“I came to Meron early, because Dedi asked me to daven for him,” he relates. “The candidacy for ‘D.’ leading the Mossad’ was up in the air. Although everyone knows his name today, at the time, no civilian knew who D. was.”

Around midnight, Reb Zohar and his 14-year-old son decided to make their way to the Toldos Aharon fire to participate in the dancing, which had already been going on for several hours.

“We walked against the direction of the traffic,” he relates. “At first, the pushing was normal. There is always crowding there, so I didn’t think anything unusual was happening. After a few more meters, we realized that we would not be able to advance like this, so we decided to turn around. In the security footage, you can even see me beginning to go back down. But then the pressure mounted more and more. We knew about crowding, but this crowding had no exit point, and so the pressure just got more intense.

“I heard screaming and felt the pressure,” he goes on. “A person with his back to the gate screamed in my ear, ‘I can’t take it anymore! I can’t breathe!’ I took off my hat and began to fan him, hoping that the air would help him. My son was right next to me and we kept eye contact. He was worried that his hat would get squashed in the crowding. Standing next to us was a Yid named Kirshenbaum, who screamed back, ‘Forget the hat, the main thing is to get out of here alive!’ Only then did I realize that this was not a regular crowding, but a life-threatening situation, plain and simple. I looked around and I realized that the people around me were not just complaining about the crowding, they were literally dying in front of my eyes. It was the most horrifying moment of my life.

“With siyata d’Shmaya, I was on the first row above the stairs, so the pressure was not directly on me. All around me, people were being crushed to death, but I was sort of in this side bubble, with a bit of protection. Then we heard loud booms. On our left, someone peeled back the aluminum from the hachnassas orchim porch. As soon as the aluminum was open, I was one of the first who got out of there, and then I immediately went back to help.

“At this point, I didn’t see my son anymore. But I knew I first had to rescue people from that human mountain piled on the stairs. I pulled people out, one by one. Some of them were already no longer among the living, Rachmana litzlan. Others were still breathing and needed to be rescued urgently. As people were toppling around me, I somehow remained standing amid the pileup.”

Reb Zohar and others started trying to help people out of the crush. He recalled helping Rabbi Avigdor Chayut as well as one of his sons, Shmuel.

“I pulled him out and began chest compressions on him,” says Reb Zohar.

Rabbi Chayut, who became an unwitting spokesman for the families, and his son Shmuel survived, but another son, Yedidya a”h, died, together with Moshe Levy a”h, Rabbi Chayut’s talmid whom he took to Meron with his own children.

Throughout those horrific moments, a feeling of dread encompassed Reb Zohar: What had happened to his own son, who he’d lost track of in the tumult?

“I can’t describe the horror I felt during those moments,” he recalls. “I asked passersby, but no one could help me. At one point, I began to relax a bit, because I had helped clear away the injured and the casualties who were in the spot where we’d been standing, and I didn’t see my son among the dead. So I started feeling a bit hopeful.

“About an hour later I was able to make telephone contact with my mechutan, who lives in Meron, and he told me that my son had come to his house in a state of trauma, and had gone straight to sleep. That was when I suddenly felt drained of all the adrenaline. Everything hit me. I fell apart. I became extremely weak — my limbs became heavy, and I simply fell down where I was standing.”

I Sit in Darkness

Reb Zohar speaks candidly about the darkness, the shock, and depression that engulfed him afterward. “I was in a deep state of post-trauma,” he says. “At first, I didn’t even know what was coming over me. Everything literally looked black, and no matter how many windows we opened, all I saw was darkness. I’ve been through a few traumas in my life, but it took me time to detect the signs. For the first week or two, I didn’t function at all. I literally couldn’t walk. I stopped working, I kept seeing the events before my eyes. It’s almost a year later, and I’m still not myself.

“Throughout that time, I saw the holy faces of the victims in my mind. But in reality, it didn’t look holy at all — it was a frightening scene. A part of me remained buried under that pile of people in Meron.

“On Erev Shabbos — the day after — I sat at home enveloped in such gloom that it was unbearable. My wife said to me, ‘Zohar, you’ve got to be strong. Let’s think only good thoughts.’ It was hard for me, beyond my capacity at the time. But I listened to her advice, and we began to think and speak about only good things. In the middle of the seudah, I said to her, ‘Bring me a sefer, let’s read something at the table.’ She stuck her hand out to the bookcase and pulled out a Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah.

“I opened the sefer randomly, and right there was a translation of the words of the Zohar: ‘Rabi Chiya opened his mouth and said: My eyes have seen what I have never seen in my life… It is better to die in the fire of good gold that burns at the site [of Rashbi] who throws sparks in every direction, and every spark rises to three hundred and seventy merkavos, and each and every merkavah is divided into tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands.’ (Zohar – parshas Shemos, 14)

“I jumped with joy. I saw this as a sign that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is with me every single moment. It gave me tremendous chizuk.”

A few weeks later, some old army buddies Reb Zohar still keeps up with came to his house to try to get him out of his black hole. “One of them is a secular leftist, the other belongs to the national religious community. They are serious and successful people — former Golani commanders — and although our worldviews are so different, there was so much love in that step that they took. It was really a message for all of us. Sometimes we fight among ourselves, letting minor issues block us from seeing all that we have in common with one another.

“My friends and I sat in a pizza shop and talked. That was the first step that helped me understand that I had to do something to help myself. That I couldn’t continue this way.

“Good people recommended a range of therapies with their popular initials, but ultimately, I went back to the oldest modality. I call it TMS: Torah l’Moshe miSinai.

“I rechanneled my hisbodedus, going out to the fields and really sharing my anxieties with Hashem. Hisbodedus brought me back to life. It restored my sanity and it gave me a feeling of connection and envelopment you can’t get from anything else in the world.”

Reb Zohar says he tapped into another memory, a method he used years back when going through another trauma.

“Chazal teach us that for every middah that Hashem endows you with, thank Him. The recognition that each and every thing is from Him, including the most difficult and complex experiences, gives a person emotional fortitude. I remember how at that time, I went out to the fields of Tzfas in the middle of the night, and I shouted into the darkness: Thank You! Thank You Hashem that with Your benevolence, You granted me this challenge!’

“I always tell my children that in the years when I lived in America, I was in school with kids from some of the wealthiest Jewish families around. During my military years, I got to know some of the strongest people around. And later, I also got to know some of the most intelligent people around. But at the end of the day, you can be the most gifted and skilled person and be depressed — unless you realize how everything is exactly the way it’s supposed to be, timed and activated to perfection, and as long as Hashem is breathing life into you, He wants you around for a reason. That means that there’s no better configuration for me than the specific event that happened to me, even if to me it looks so harsh and dreadful. This recognition was the first stage of my healing, it’s what got me out of bed.”

And that’s how, a few weeks back, Reb Zohar once again went to Mount Meron.

He stood there, at that same place where it had all happened, closed his eyes, and then cried out: “I thank You Hashem specifically for what happened here, in this place! I believe with full emunah that HaKadosh Baruch Hu will show us the nechamah, the consolation, for these things, and a time will come when we will see clearly that this, too, was all for good.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 906)

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