This has been a difficult week for the Jewish people. It was nearly impossible not to be touched by the plight of the three missing Israeli boys and not to then feel heartbroken to learn that they had been killed.
Like many mothers and fathers who followed the unfolding story, my first instinct upon hearing the news was to hug and to hold my children. This, on one hand, was a selfish act and, on the other hand, an act meant to express solidarity with the now grieving parents.
Last Friday night, my eight year old daughter joined me for lighting Shabbat candles. We each spent a few extra moments praying for the three boys. Afterward, as we finished setting the table, we got into a deep conversation about belief in God that evolved into my explaining that just because we ask for something doesn’t mean we are going to get it. I was drawn back to the devastating events twenty years ago when Nachshon Wachsman, z”l, was kidnapped and murdered. His parents’ response was to say to the world that they should not despair that all of the prayers and all of the mitzvot had been in vain. Rather, they declared with the greatest faith that God had heard their prayers, but that the answer to their request had been no. It was a powerful declaration of faith. My daughter listened to what I had to say and seemed to understand the complex concepts I was mentioning.
The news that the bodies of the three boys had been found reached me while we were on vacation. At what I felt was an appropriate time, I called this child over and said, simply, “Honey, God said no.” She blinked and said, “The boys?” I nodded and told her they were dead and then moved the conversation along after giving her a firm hold.
When I read more and learned that the entire time we had been praying and rallying and hoping, the boys were already beyond a miracle, I wondered if I should say something more to my daughter. God cannot undo a fait-accompli, so perhaps I had given her the wrong explanation in telling her that God had said no to our prayers since, by the time the global Jewish community found out, it was tragically too late. At the same time, I did not want her to ever think that praying is ever a vain act.
For the past two days, my mind keeps returning to this tragedy. Tonight it occurred to me that this week’s parasha is parashat Balak, which is all about curses being turned into blessings. Balaam hated the Israelites, so when he was hired by Balak, the king of the Moab, to curse the Children of Israel, his enthusiasm was based on his own personal desire to do so. Try as he might to curse them, however, each utterance that came out of his mouth was a blessing.
What does this have to do with the terrible events of this week? It is the fact that Balaam is a prototype of our enemies. They thirst to destroy the Jewish people. Their acts may cause us pain, but they also bring us strength. Three and a half weeks ago, before the kidnapping, I followed much of the news from Israel tangentially and said the morning prayer service only on the rare mornings when the time presented itself to me. When I heard about the kidnapping, I sought out the news, I cried from a sense of connectedness with my fellow Jews, and I made the time to say the prayers.
Balaam’s most famous blessing has been demonstrated once again. “How glorious are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel” (Numbers 24:5). No matter where we set up our homes, we are one people. No matter how many differences we have to “discuss” among ourselves, we are one nation.
There are calls for revenge, that is inevitable, but the vast array of responses are tearful reflections on what could be done to make the world better. Most simply put, it seems to me that even as this is not the first such horrible event, the Jewish people cannot comprehend how any human beings can act with such utter cruelty.
The parasha of Balak concludes with a lesson that is very difficult to process. The wicked who hate the Jewish people will not desist just because they fail to destroy us. When Balaam’s curses failed, he tried to lure the Israelites into immoral behavior that he knew would lead to the Israelite’s downfall. Sadly, many succumbed, but many more stayed strong.
The enemies of the Jewish people today would like little more than to see us sink to their levels of unmitigated violence, but if we do so we are berated by world opinion. Time and again we choose the moral high ground, which is not always the easiest path.
It is impossible to understand a mind set that can condone the murder of schoolboys, and it is harder still to see the kidnappers being hailed and honored as heroes.
On the other hand, when you see the tens of thousands of Jews who have rallied to support and give strength to the suffering families, I truly see how goodly the tents of Jacob remain to this day.