Michael Bernstein

Anguish and Anger after Har Nof

Blood, soaked into the ritual garments and streaked on the floors, marks the place where the lives of five human beings were torn away.  Four of them were devout Jews in the midst of their prayers in Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. The other an Israeli Druze police officer who was acting to to protect them.   Their attackers were a pair of terrorists, Palestinian cousins from another neighborhood of Jerusalem, who used knives, axes and a gun to murder these victims and seriously injure others in an early morning attack on Tuesday.

Far from the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem where sacred sites of different faiths sit one on top of the other, Har Nof is a quiet neighborhood populated predominantly by Orthodox Jews.  The synagogue attacked was what is commonly called ultra-Orthodox, or in Hebrew, Haredi.  Ariel Kupinsky, Rabbi Avraham Goldberg, Rabbi Kalman Levine, and Rabbi Moshe Twersky all lived on the same street and were devotees to Torah, living by its precepts as well as studying and conveying its teachings to others.  Zidan Saif, the Druze police officer who was first to respond, sacrificed his own life to save the lives of others.   Their killers, whatever they may have been before, committed themselves to mayhem and bloodshed decimating the gathering for peaceful prayer while shouting words in Arabic that should be dedicated to the glorification of the One G*d, not the shattering of G*d’s precious vessels.

Already the men have been laid to rest, the books and he talittot and tefillin have been removed, the blood scoured.  However, the images will remain, recalling the nightmares endured throughout our history and evoking outrage, anguish and anger.  Not only against those who wielded their weapons with such cruel purpose, but for anyone who could in any way condone this atrocity, let alone pass out sweets and cheer on violence against human beings out of disdain for who they are.

Anguish and anger.  This week we open the Torah to read how Rebecca bears twins in her womb whose violent movements cause such pain that she cries out, Eem ken, lama zeh anochi, “If so, then why am I?”  We do not know the precise meaning of her question.  Some commentaries speculate that her suffering has caused her to question why she wanted to give birth or even why she wants to go on living.  But at the heart of her words is a raw lament: Why? Why must it be so hard? Why must it be so painful?  How long, ad matai, must we suffer.  The answer she receives is simply that she bears the future of two nations destined to oppose another.

The Sages, however, read into the situation to try to figure out why bearing the two is the cause of such immediate suffering.  They imagine alternatively that the two are either running into each other to fight or that they are running in opposite directions: Jacob toward any place to learn Torah that his mother passes;  Esau toward any chance for idol worship or to sate the bloodthirstiness that will become his hallmark as a game hunter. And yet, there is also a tradition that these two personalities are notable, not as describing the fate of different nations, but as a struggle fought within ourselves.

One of those slain in Har Nof, Rabbi Moshe Twersky, was both a descendant of a cherished Hasidic dynasty and the grandson of  Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the magisterial pillar of Modern Orthodoxy in America and the heir to the great Lithuanian tradition of Torah study.  Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that the enmity between Jacob and Esau was indicative of a perceived schism between the life of Torah and the world that needed to be confronted in the fields ruled by hunters.  In a seminal talk about Zionism, he argues that in fact it is necessary that Torah not be limited to a rarefied world, but be brought to bear even in the field, even in the world exposed to the brutality of Esau.

Israel, the modern State as we know it today, can embody this conjunction of drawing from the strength of our Torah, in many forms, and take responsibility for projecting strength in the world.  The merciless assault in Har Nof looks momentarily like a pogrom, deadly sprees of violence that throughout history have been carried out against Jewish communities by or with the complicity of the authorities.  But already Israel is responding not only with our people’s resolve to survive, but with the power that comes from having a Jewish State.  With the strength necessary for the defense of the nation and the moral authority to exhort that the response is to seek justice, not revenge.

I renew my prayer for the kind of peace that is very difficult to envision on days like this.  For now though, even as we cry out in pain like Rebecca, I support and affirm the necessity of the State of Israel,  which allows us to vouchsafe the protection of our people, and participate in the birthright and the blessing of Jacob.
May the lives and memories of Rabbis Moshe Twerski, Kalman Levine, , Avraham Goldberg, Ariel Kupinski and Officer Zidan Saif forever be a blessing. May all of the murderous ones be thwarted and brought to justice.  May the bereft be comforted and the broken find healing.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga. Michael received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and is an alumni of the Rabbis Without Borders second cohort. and was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. Michael specializes in Jewish philosophy, especially that of Emmanuel Levinas and focuses on how to see the directives inherent in Jewish tradition as meaningful, ethical, and relevant.
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