In his bestseller Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander shared the story of his near-death experience and the week he spent exploring the World of Truth before returning to his body and his family down here on Earth. What fascinated me was one specific feature he found up there: Every so often he’d see bubbles popping up from the firmament below and on each bubble was the face of the friend or family member who was praying for him at that very moment.
Based on that heavenly model, just try and imagine how many millions of bubbles have been popping up over the last two weeks for Eyal and Gilad and Naftali. Imagine the teens engulfed in those bubbles, with the beloved faces of their parents and sisters and brothers, their grandparents and friends from school. But also millions of bubbles filled with the faces of all of us who knew them only by their smiles and yet, as the days went by, began to feel them as our own sons. It is of no heavenly import I am guessing that our prayers for the last 12 days had been focused on the moment they’d walk into their mothers’ kitchens where kisses and hugs and their favorite foods awaited them. That’s what we prayed and pleaded for, but of course that is not what they got.
But prayer, no matter how sincere and heartfelt, is not, as my rabbi likes to remind us, a candy machine where you stick in quarters and out drops the Reese’s Cups. Instead, as it’s been said many times, though G-d always answers our prayers, sometimes just sometimes the answer is ‘no.’
Because we are mere mortals, just a bit higher than the animals, we are commanded to grieve. “It’s not fair!” we call out from the depths of our hearts, shaking our small human fists at our Creator. “But we’ve been so good,” cried out one Jerusalemite when she heard the sad news. “We’ve prayed and prayed. We’ve shown such support, we’ve shown such unity! So why does it have to turn out this way?” And she cries for us all.
But because at the very same time that as humans we are not only allowed but commanded to rail against cruel fate, (Wasn’t it Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who famously said that each Jewish tear is infinitely precious to G-d?), we are also holy souls currently clothed in a body, much closer to an angel than to our neighbor’s poodle. Which means we humans were given just enough sechel to recognize that there is another, bigger way to see reality, and that everything that goes on down here is the express design of the Master of the Universe.
And as a bonus, we Jews were given the Torah as a blueprint so we can do the job of healing the world as G-d’s agents and in His name. Nice work if you can get it.
This week we mark the twentieth yahrtzeit of a man who knew that truth and wrapped his life around it, inspiring millions for 44 years with his brilliance and dogged devotion to each and every Jew. The Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. This yahrtzeit reminds us that the Rebbe, along with the other holy tzadikim and tzadikot in Shemayim (Heaven) are welcoming the boys’ sweet souls with great love. They are their tour guides, taking them by the hand and showing them all the splendors of that world. Twenty years after the Rebbe’s passing, his presence is felt more strongly than ever. His teachings continue to inspire and guide, and his insights remain uncannily fresh and relevant, as though imparted today. In one way or another, all of our lives are affected by his visionary leadership.
This week marks another milestone in my life as well: my one-year birthday, a full rotation of the sun, since I was born again, this time as an Israeli citizen. And, curiously enough, this triple tragedy serves to remind me of how blessed I am to be here. How blessed I am to live in a country that is, warts and all, our people’s holy homeland promised to our forebears by no less that the Big Guy Himself thousands of years ago.
But He’s also made it abundantly clear that we need to prove that we deserve to keep this land, by hearkening to His laws and His words, by being kind to each other, by supporting each other in the sweetest of times and the tough ones too.
So, from our most basic humanity, we must perform the service of the heart, because it is from our hearts and our minds that we love Him and each other, serving Him down here on planet earth.
But, after we wipe our tears and blow our noses, we need to say, “You know, G-d, you really are in charge down here and have Your own reasons for everything You do. So even though our grasp of Your world is frankly limited, gift us with enough understanding and strength to continue to beseech you for the wellbeing of our loved ones and our people. Like the Rebbe and the other greats of our people, let us be Your partners here in this wounded world.”
Yes, after those animals stole our children, we went further than we had ever gone. We prayed and prayed and we came together with a single voice, old and young, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular. We were unified in a shared vision, of the boys in their mothers’ kitchen once again, eating and laughing with their brothers and sisters. We could in fact see them there. But the truth is, though they will never again return to those kitchens, our prayers, our unity and our tears were not in vain. Because, in the words of those great British tzadikim the Beatles, the love you make is equal to the love you take.
We also know we can’t stop now. The families have told us that the suddenly united and supportive Jewish world has strengthened them throughout their ordeal, an ordeal that will never completely be over. So they will need us still. But most of all we need each other, to remember how this loss dissolved the walls that separate us like frost under the noontime sun.
We need to step up to the challenge of delighting in Torah and performing mitzvot with a full heart and an open mind. And maybe, just maybe, naming our newborn sons Eyal and Gilad and Naftali, little boys destined to serve their Creator in joy and peace in this holy land.
Those boys looking down, they deserve no less.