Marianne Novak

Bring Our Boys Home–with Chesed

As I write this, my heart is breaking for the families of the kidnapped boys. I cannot imagine their agony. The boys are the same age as my oldest daughters. My son saw a picture of the boys and remarked, “they look like us.” They are us and we are them.

Many communities around the world have risen together in unprecedented numbers to publicize this tragedy.  My Facebook feed has exploded with news articles, blog posts, calls to prayer and general awareness through the hashtag- #Bring Back Our Boys. Some have added in their postings, Bring Back Our Boys- Alive.

The Jewish community has also come together to pray for the safe return of these innocent children who were simply on their way home from school. In my synagogue and synagogues of every type across the Jewish denominational spectrum  have held community Tehillim gatherings (recitation of specifics chapters of Psalms). Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the great Talmudic scholar and the headmaster of the boys’ High School, beautifully wrote a call for not only prayer but for greater holiness.  He writes, “If we can, each of us should take upon ourselves something additional and explicitly devoted for the sake and well-being of the missing boys.”

My social media feed has also erupted with many detailing the extra obligations, specifically prayers or added Torah learning, they have taken upon themselves to hopefully pierce the heavens and have the Almighty help us.  I was truly moved by the sincerity of these acts especially prayer as it takes a great role in our tradition to avert evil. Every Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we remind God that- Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedakah- Repentance, Prayer and Charity/Justice- will avert the evil decree.

What is interesting to note is that prayer is just one part of what we believe can change our fate. Prayer is intensely personal and although most of the traditional liturgy is written in third person, it is an obligation one takes upon oneself. Repentance is also personal. Tzedakah, however, takes one outside oneself. It is a commandment that demands selflessness. Acts of tzedakah and chesed  (basic human kindness) require one to step outside oneself and in many cases sacrifice oneself to help the other. It is in these acts that we show our greatest loyalty to the Holy One Blessed be He. Not through prayer and not through Torah learning but by helping other people, gemilut chasadim.

As I was reviewing the posts, one very disturbing one crossed my feed. A well meaning married Jewish woman publicized excitedly that her act of holiness to Bring Our Boys Home was to begin covering her hair. The comments praised her new act of holiness and then preceded to tell her where to find a good hair coverings or wigs.  It seemed that her belief was that if she did this thing for herself (and let everyone know about it), it would have the power to return the boys. This unfortunately reminded me about the recent directive of Haredi Rabbis in Lakewood who required the women of their community to cut their too long (too fashionable, too pretty, too sexy ) wigs. The Rabbis told the women that by doing so they would, by their increased piety, save lives. Reports to the community after the directive praised these women and said that their actions reduced completely the number of calls to Hatzolah (Haredi 911) and lives had indeed been saved.

Despite the fact that this was not  at all true (the ambulance service had been called as usual), this is not Judaism. We do not believe in magical thinking. We should not take the requests for more piety as a belief in magic. We should perhaps focus our holiness not on public acts of piety (e.g. Hey Look at Me. Look at my hair covering–(which paradoxically is supposed to increase modesty but clearly makes you stand out)I am more holy than you. It’s all about me!) but on the chesed and tzedakah aspect that demands selflessness and not selfishness. Let the prayer and Torah learning we engage in lead us not only to personal holiness but to increase the holiness and humanity in others.

Perhaps this well meaning woman who has decided to cover her hair can with her new hidden tresses increase her acts of tzedakah and chesed. I hope it leads her to greater to loyalty to God in they way she treats others and not just herself. I hope that all aspects of our tradition will lead us to holiness, greater kindness and greater love of our fellow human beings. And I hope beyond all hope that the next time I read my Facebook feed, I will see the smiling faces of those dear boys and their families and that we as a community can say Tehillim not out of anguish but out of joy and thanksgiving.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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