The search for the three Yeshivah students kidnapped in Judea and Samaria 10 days ago has left many feeling paralyzed, and yet others galvanized.
In his Haaretz blog post last week, the talented Rabbi Eliyahu Fink shared that his congregation in Venice, CA would assign three empty chairs at the front of their sanctuary to the students. During Shabbat prayers, these unoccupied seats would act as a “gesture of solidarity,” and “make place for Israel’s three missing young men.”
Rabbi Fink’s thoughtful and classy move has caught on. The most notable congregation that followed suit was Sinai Temple of Los Angeles, which displayed three empty chairs upon their Bimah last Shabbat. Indeed, the abduction of Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal has left an immense sense of emptiness.
While I think Rabbi Fink’s idea is nice, I cannot help but object. After all, there is no lack of vacant seats in synagogues these days.
In the early 1970’s, the late Senator Frank Lautenberg the then National President of the United Jewish Appeal, approached the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, seeking his endorsement, and the Chabad movements cooperation, with a campaign. Lautenberg proposed that families set aside a chair at their Passover Seders in memory of a victim of the Shoah. The Rebbe thought it was a lovely idea, however one that he would be disinclined to endorse. Instead of leaving an empty space, the Rebbe suggested that an extra chair be filled with a Jew who otherwise would have not attended a Seder. This would be a true tribute to those lost, and a victory against our enemies.
Rabbi Fink is a gifted and likable fellow. He is an avid blogger, and social media superstar. Nevertheless, last year, the very capable 32 year old sought help to boost synagogue attendance. Fink turned to National Geographic’s reality show, “Church Hoppers,” in which evangelical pastors help revamp and revitalize struggling congregations. I don’t know if it was a PR move, or a sincere attempt to revive his Shul. Assuming the latter to be the case, it is puzzling that someone like Fink isn’t drawing a sizable crowd.
Leaders with Fink’s capabilities should and could be filling seats each Shabbat. They could fill seats not only for the three boys, but for Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Guy Hever, Zvi Friedman, Yehuda Katz and Ze’ev Rotshik. Rabbis like Fink should be the antidote to synagogue nonattendance. Their synagogues ought to have standing room only.
This week, the parents of the missing students received a “book of Mitzvot” from Chabad Rabbis in Israel. It detailed some three thousands deeds of kindness performed by Jews throughout the world in merit of the boys. Naftali’s parents, Avi and Rachel Frankel reacted by revealing that receiving the book was “the most moving thing that we have received until now”.
Propping up empty chairs is wonderful, filling those seats works wonders. Darkness should be countered with light, not gloom. When the cup is half empty, it is left for us to fill it up.