I heard the news about the three Israeli boys in an email. “It is with a tremendously sad and heavy heart that we inform you about the latest breaking news. The murdered bodies of the three kidnapped boys were found this morning…Hashem Yimkom Damam (May Hashem avenge their blood).” I was working at my laptop and I pounded hard on the table, “No, no, no!!! The tears began to flow and I pounded some more. The windows next to me were open and I imagine my neighbors heard me but I didn’t care…or maybe I wanted them to know too. Then I sobbed. I sobbed as if I were hearing of the passing of someone in my own family, someone close to me…
As an American, living in Los Angeles, my closest actual connection to the boys and their families is that a few weeks ago I had the honor of giving Lihi Shaar, the aunt of Gil-ad Shaar, a ride home one night. Within minutes of speaking with her, she was no longer a stranger but a new friend. She had shared with me that she had no family in Los Angeles and how alone she had felt when the news of the kidnapping first broke. I know very well what it feels like to have no family when you’re in the midst of great pain and tragedy and to feel alone…
After meeting Lihi, the “three boys kidnapped in Israel” became to me Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali and I began to speak and write about them that way. On Facebook I began to devote my page to mostly important stories about them and events in Israel. I sought out all the breaking news I could find. The more I learned, the more I began to care very deeply, like so many others. I prayed that they would somehow be able to return home, safe and healthy.
A few days before the news broke about the discovery of their bodies, a newly married friend in Los Angeles wrote a blog post about Israel and the three boys. The plight of the boys had stirred up many deep feelings in him. He wondered whether he now cared enough about Israel and what priority it should be in his new, married life. He noted that before this tragedy, he did not hear much talk about Israel and how helping Israel had not been “part of the equation” in his community. He noted how days and weeks had easily gone by without even any conversation about what is happening in Israel. Instead, he admitted, his primary focus has been on internal, personal matters, on building his new marriage, and helping his shul and his community in Los Angeles.
“Is it just me,” he asked, “or do so many of us, myself included, seem so self-involved these days, so focused and even overwhelmed about what is happening in our own lives that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to find time, energy, and space to connect with the global Jewish community?”
I related to some of what he wrote. In Los Angeles there is no end of things to busy oneself with; it is all too easy to get enmeshed with day to day life and the personal tests and struggles that G-d sets up for each of us…
But when I heard the news about the discovery of the boys’ bodies, I cried for a long while. After reading my friends’ blog post, a part of me was greatly relieved that I could cry; that I did indeed care so very deeply.
At one point I wondered, why am I crying when I did not know these boys? Why do I care so much? It’s hard to explain all the reasons for emotions, other than a place deep inside me had been touched. The boys faces had seemed so familiar, so much like the kids of friends of mine…The unthinkable had happened…We say Tehillim asking G-d to keep us safe, to protect us…and now it seemed there were no safeguards; no “safety switches” when things go just too far… Good Jewish boys had been murdered for no reason other than they were Jews…I was crying for the families, for Lihi…
Lihi had shared a story about her nephew, Gil-ad: When he was 13-years-old and about to have his Bar-Mitzvah, his parents had asked him what he would like as his Bar Mitzvah present? Gilad had said that all he wanted was to have a meeting with Rabbi David Grossman, Shlita. A brief meeting was arranged. Instead of lasting a few minutes, it lasted one hour and forty minutes. Gil-ad had asked the Rabbi, “How do we do kindness?…How do we do goodness and kindness on the highest level? How can I do more ‘Kiddush Hashem’?”
When senseless, cataclysmic tragedies happen like the murders of these boys, after the tears begin to subside, a parade of the ‘Why’ Questions follows: Why did this have to happen? How could G-d allow it? Why did G-d not save those young, beautiful boys? Why were evil mongers allowed to succeed? How does G-d want us to respond to the tragedy?
As the daughter of a holocaust survivor, I’ve spent a lot of time asking these kind of big ‘Why’ questions and I finally learned that there is no one, true answer that we can understand; that only Hashem has the real answers. We can only offer speculation and no one can say that they have the “right” one or the one meant for everyone.
One audacious Rabbi asserted that G-d had allowed the kidnapping of the boys as “punishment” for the recent changes in Israeli policy concerning the drafting of religious boys into the Israeli army. But had not G-d himself caused the Israeli policy to be changed?
A friend upon hearing the news of the discovery of the boys bodies, began carrying on about how the boys had been hitchhiking and how could anyone be doing that in such a dangerous location and that, maybe now, everyone in Israel will learn that they must stop hitchhiking. Did G-d cause the boys to be so tragically murdered merely to end hitchhiking?
A self-proclaimed liberal stated that while he believed in being tolerant, tolerance has a breaking point and that with the murder of the boys, his tolerance was now broken and that he no longer believes a peaceful solution is possible with the Palestinians who he has now decided to call his enemies. Was showing that peace is impossible with the Palestinians G-d’s reason for the tragedy? Is this something we did not know before?
In the news it was reported that combat soldiers from the Kfir brigade’s Lavi Battalion took upon themselves the mitzvah of wrapping tefillin daily in the merit of the three boys. Did G-d think that nothing less than such a horrific tragedy would stir the combat soldier’s to wrap tefillin?
Are any of these the answers to why the tragedy of the boys happened? Are all of them the answers, as well as untold more stories like them?
Who am I or anyone else to know what was on Hashem’s mind?
But I believe that our not having answers to the ‘Why’ questions does not excuse us to turn around and go about life in “business as usual mode” in response to the tragedies.
A friend and I were talking about what happened a day after the bodies were found.
“It’s sad. Very sad. That’s all I have to say about it,” she said and then changed the subject.
I think that G-d did not let the murder of the boys happen for no bigger purpose than for all of us to be very, very sad. I think G-d wants much more of us. But what is it that He wants? And why seek our attention in such a horrific way?
We say in Judaism that everything happens for a reason and that there are no coincidences, even though we may not understand the reasons at the time or possibly ever. We also say in Judaism that we are to look for and pursue the good in every situation, and to always strive to be a Kiddush Hashem; a person who causes a sanctification of G-d’s name in the world. Even in the face of tragedy, we can work on pulling ourselves together and striving to respond in a manner that will cause the most good.
In the case of Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali, we can be proud that this is exactly what we, the Jewish people have sought to do. Anyone following the tragedy has surely noticed the extraordinary unity that has been taking place in Jewish communities throughout Israel, the United States, Canada and everywhere else that Jews are able to gather.
In Tel Aviv, the night before the bodies were discovered, 75,000 Israelis joined to light candles, sing and to show support and their love for the families of the boys. At the funerals, thousands attended and sang songs and said Tehillim. At the funeral of Naftali Frenkel, his father said, “There hasn’t been a show of unity like this in Israel for years.” Even at a summer camp in central Pennsylvania, they organized an “Erev Shira,” a night of song where young Israeli and American campers sat on the grass singing and crying together, spelling out with candles, Am Yisrael Chai and Gil-ad, Eyal and Naftali…
Yet we must not content ourselves with our newfound Jewish unity and return to complacency. Rather, we should continue asking the very hard questions: why is Hashem causing us to strengthen and unify ourselves as Jews so fervently at this time?
If we look out at what is happening in the world, it seems easy to see why G-d would want us to join in unity and strength as never before. Following the murder last week in Israel of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir, Israel is in chaos and it is said to feel like a third intifada. Anti-Semitism throughout Europe is rampant and has risen to heights that resemble the state of the world when Adolf Hitler began to put in place his ‘final solution to the Jewish question.’ Radical extremists and terrorist organizations are taking root increasingly in countries around the globe. Iraq is unstable and could easily trigger a new war of who knows what proportions. Russia’s Putin takes bolder and bolder steps to amass power and to enlarge his territorial grasp. Intermarriage among Jews is now the highest it has ever been. The list could go on for days.
In the face of a world in crisis on so many fronts, it seems clear that our primary hope lies in our unity. Unity is what gives us power and strength. With unity and strength, who knows what the Jewish people can inspire and accomplish in the world, just as we have inspired and accomplished such great, miraculous things throughout our history: the creation of the state of Israel, the Six Day War, the Raid on Entebbe…
But what do we mean exactly by this “unity”? What is “unity”?
Clearly, there are different kinds of unity. There is “internal unity” and there is “external unity.” Internal unity is the unity and strength we each have within ourselves as individuals; external unity is what we create when we join together in communities. Within this external unity there may be differences amongst us in our political opinions, language, personal tastes and culture, but we are united and strong as to our commitment to the survival of the Jewish people and the survival of our Jewish homeland, the state of Israel.
It seems to me that it is very hard to have strong external unity without also having strong internal unity, the same way that it takes two strong individuals to create a strong marriage.
Within a day of the boys’ funerals, some began to complain that our tremendous Achdus (Unity) was already dissipating with the news reports that Jewish extremists have been arrested and are suspected to be responsible for the brutal murder of a 16-year-old Arab boy. To others, already our unity is broken and we are again fighting amongst ourselves, or worse, running or hiding from our Jewish identity in shame.
But as I see it, our true unity is not a fragile, evanescent force that can vanish overnight. It does not fluctuate depending on what is reported in the news, like a stock fund. It is not subject to the ever-changing vicissitudes of politics. It is not subject to being destroyed by anyone else. It is internal and indestructible within our hearts and souls. But, like a muscle, it must be exercised, developed and strengthened.
How do we build and strengthen our true unity? We increase our service and commitment to G-d, Torah and Mitzvot. We become solid, good, kind, loving individuals who act according to our Torah. We work on building the good, no matter where we are on the religious spectrum. In this way we build ourselves into strong and powerful individuals so that when we come together, we can build strong and powerful communities and a strong and unified nation. In this way, we create true external unity; a unity that no one can destroy. In this way we can stay on track, with G-d on our side and avoid the dangers of lowering ourselves to the morals and methods of our enemies.
In the merit of Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali may we grow ever stronger in our internal unity with G-d, Torah and Mitzvot and in our external unity as a people. May our unity enable us to battle off the forces of evil, hate, and terror and re-create in its place a world rooted in peace, growth, and love.