The people of Israel are not strangers to suffering and tragedy. In our long history there have been countless sorrows that have befallen Jews, both individually and communally, in countries throughout the globe. Today as we sit in sorrow and mourn the deaths of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frankel zichronam livracha (their memory should be a blessing), we all must ask ourselves: how we can transform this tragedy into a meaningful experience that will in some small way help bring comfort to our people?
In his work, Out of the Whirlwind, Rav Soloveitchik writes that though in Judaism there is a metaphysical and esoteric ethic of suffering, there is also a practical Halachik perspective which is more grounded in the here and now. The halachik ethic of suffering is comprised of three essential parts: “Firstly, evil does exist, and evil is bad. The world in which we live is not free from deformities and inadequacies…Second, one must never acquiesce in evil, make peace with it, or condone its existence. Defiance of and active opposition to evil, employing all means that God put at man’s disposal, is the dominant norm in Halakhah…Man should actively interfere with evil. Man is summoned by God to combat evil, to fight evil, and to try to eliminate it as much as possible…The third proposition is faith. If man loses a battle in a war, the topical Halakhah has always believed, based on an eschatological vision, that at some future date, some distant date, evil will be overcome, evil will disappear…” (Out of the Whirlwind, pg. 102-103)
Similarly, Maimonides explains that when suffering occurs to the Jewish people, we must all rally together and with one voice champion for deliverance. He writes, “It is a positive Torah commandment to cry out and to sound trumpets in the event of any difficulty that arises which affects the community…Conversely, should the people fail to cry out [to God] and sound the trumpets, and instead say, ‘What has happened to us is merely a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence,’ this is a cruel conception of things…” (Laws of Fast Days, 1:1-3) From Maimonides and Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings, two main concepts quickly emerge: firstly, rather than fleeing from the concept of evil in the world Halacha acknowledges its presence and implores man to fight against it with all of his might. Secondly, when tragedy does strike, do not mistake it as coincidence or chance – beneath the sorrow and anguish there is a lesson that must be taken to heart.
While the IDF and security forces were in the midst of searching for our brothers, the nation of Israel read the Torah portion of Korach. I believe that there is a powerful message to be learned from the beginning of that Torah portion which highlights the necessity of Jewish unity. In describing the beginning of Korach’s rebellion against Moses’ leadership, the verse states, “Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben.”(Bamidbar 16:1) The commentaries elaborate on an interesting grammatical point; the verse states that Korach ‘took’ when it would have been more correct to state that he ‘went’ or ‘gathered’ the other members mentioned. Rashi explains that the word ‘took’ is specifically used in order to illuminate an important aspect of Korach’s rebellion. He writes, “He took himself to one side to dissociate himself from the congregation, to contest the [appointment of Aaron to the] kehunah. This is what Onkelos(The Aramaic translation) means when he renders it וְאִתְפְּלֵג,’and he separated himself.’ He separated himself from the congregation to persist in a dispute.” (Rashi Commentary 16:1) The nature of Korach’s rebellion and the severity of his transgression was not simply that he questioned the authority of Moses but rather that in doing so he intentionally separated himself from the community of Israel.
In order to fully grasp the magnitude of Korach’s mistake, the true definition of the Jewish community – of Knesset Israel — must be understood. In his essay “The Community,” Rav Soloveitchik eloquently writes: “The community in Judaism is not a functional-utilitarian, but an ontological one. The community is not just an assembly of people who work together for their mutual benefit, but a metaphysical entity, an individuality; I might say, a living whole. In particular, Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity, endowed with a life of its own…However strange such a concept may appear to the empirical sociologist, it is not at all a strange experience for the halakhist and the mystic, to whom Knesset Israel is a living, loving, and suffering mother. The personalistic unity and reality of a community, such as Knesset Israel, is due to the philosophy of existential complementarity of the individuals belonging to the Knesset Israel. The individuals belonging to the community complement one another existentially. Each individual possesses something unique, rare, which is unknown to others; each individual has a unique message to communicate, a special color to add to the communal spectrum.” (The Community, Tradition 1978, pg. 9)
Furthermore, there are numerous verses in Tanach that relate to and describe the Jewish people as a unified entity rather than as a group of individuals in a plural form. In Genesis 12:2-3, God promises Abraham: “I will make you into a great nation… All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” While the Torah refers to all of the other earthly peoples as families, the Jewish people are instead termed a nation – in the singular. Similarly, the verse in Yeshayahu writes, “This people I formed for Myself; they shall recite My praise.” (Yeshayahu 43:21) As King David said, “Who is like Your people, like Israel, one nation in the Land.” (Shmuel II 7:23) The true nature of the Knesset Israel is so much grander than the sum of its parts. And the potential inherent within the Jewish people as a collective nation transcends that of the individual; it is a unique Divine entity in and of itself. When we internalize this concept, we can fill our unique destiny.
Unfortunately, throughout our history we have at times failed in this goal. To our detriment, we have not always been unified or connected to one another. The Second Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred, and the rifts and divides in Jewish society have effected every community in the Diaspora as well as in the Land of Israel until today. However, over the last 19 days, Jews from all over the world and across the religious spectrum gathered together as one nation to pray, hope and give comfort to each other for the pain that we all collectively feel. The outpouring of love, care and unity that has come about because of this tragedy is truly remarkable. For 19 days the Jewish people stood united as one, and all of the superficial differences which normally divided us fell away. Let us not allow this feeling to become lost; let us not revert back to the old ways. The love and care for one another and the sense of unity and community as a Jewish people must stay with us.
In the days ahead, may we merit to have the strength and fortitude to stay dedicated and united. Let us recognize that that which connects us is so much greater than that which divides us. In this way, the merit of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frenkel will truly be for a blessing. May God comfort us among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and May we know no more sorrow.