“Existence is not given meaning by importing it into a revelation from the outside.” Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd
Where are our boys? How do they fare? When will they see the faces of their loved ones again? When will they once more embrace their parents, their friends? These are the more immediate questions that crush our hearts as we fret and cry and pray over the fate of the three kidnapped teens.
Yet as the clock of their captivity ticks on and the bloggers and newscasters and commentators need to fill in the hours, other questions bubble to the surface. Questions that turn these innocent teens into “settlers” or “reckless hitchhikers”—instead of the scared and scarred young boys who have been horribly snatched from the ordinary. Read the talkbacks and comments. “Why were they hitching rides?” “What did they expect in ‘occupied’ Gush Etzion?” Some who ask these questions are doing little more than taunting the kidnapped’ friends and family—blaming the victim. They ask accusingly, “Why are you there?!” But there are others—among them these boys’ friends and classmates—who are also searching for answers. They are frightened and nervous children, too suddenly cognizant of dangers to which no child should be exposed. They wonder how they will get home after school, how they will continue their studies, how they can continue to live their lives when the wolves of terror are baying just around the corner? Their questions deserve careful consideration.
On Sunday morning, Naftali and Gil-Ad’s headmaster, Rabbi Dov Zinger, an unparalleled educator and man of faith, addressed just these concerns when, wrapped in talit and teffilin, he spoke to the hundreds of friends and students who had assembled in the Makor Chaim beit midrash to pray for the boys safe return. (In full disclosure, I should note that I have taught at Makor Chaim in the past, and study weekly with Rav Dov at present). He spoke of the Torah portion that had been read just the previous day. It deals mostly with the ill-fated mission of the spies Moses sent to scout out the land in which we now live. They described the country as an eretz okhelet yoshvehiah, which is usually translated as a “land which devours its inhabitants.” The spies were frightened by what they had witnessed in their brief tour of the still-to-be-conquered country. Perhaps as frightened as the young boys sitting in that study hall with tears streaming down their yet never shaven cheeks as they imagined their friends, who just three days ago were right next to them—in class, on the basketball court, in the dorm—and were now God knows where: swallowed whole by the terrible reality of the Land of Israel.
But Rav Dov, pointed out another way of understanding that phrase, one offered by Rebbe Nachman who read the phrase as “a land that ingests it inhabitants.” By this Rebbe Nachman means that just as food ingested becomes part and parcel of he who ate it, so too does living in Israel mean that those who settle there become part of the land itself. This is in contrast to the Biblical punishment meted out to those nations who dishonor His divine will: those who “the land will vomit out (Lev 18)”. These boys, assembled to hope and pray that they would see their classmates alive once more, were told what they already knew deep down. They are part of this Land, as it is part of them. These boys, lucky enough to spend years of their lives in the insulated greenhouse that is Makor Chaim, are young saplings sending down their roots deep into the horribly blood-stained soil of the Land of Israel, the land where Abraham walked and lived and toiled. From this land they draw their very sustenance. And so it is only natural that they study and play and, yes hitch rides, as if they belong right here—for they do.
Why they are here is why we are here—and in Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem. Not because this Land belongs to us, but because we belong to it. And many who blame and point fingers, who preach expulsion and dispossession, who want these boys (along with me and my neighbors) to be vomited out of our homes and our lives, do so because, like the spies, they are scared by what they see. Yes, it is a challenge to live surrounded by those who sink to the most diabolical lows in their efforts to tear us from our ancestral home. But it is a challenge that we face with pride and hope each day anew. In Tel Aviv, just as in Gush Etzion.
These yeshivah boys are growing up in the most un-absurd of ways. They are imminently attached—through history and word and deed, ancient and modern both—to the place they call home. They drink in the values of their heritage, and when the time comes, will, nearly to a man, answer the call to help defend them. And that, to their detractors who can only scratch their heads in wonder at the resilience of them, and of our nation as whole, may be the scariest thing of all.