Answered Prayers?

For eighteen days, our people clung to the desperate Hope that Naphtali, Gil-ad and Eyal would be found and return to their families. That hope found indelible and ineffable expression In an unparalleled outpouring of prayer and loving-kindness that transcended almost every fissure in Israeli society, and fostered a sense of togetherness that was nothing less than numinous. This outpouring of love and caring, of support for the families of the young boys who’d been kidnapped, reached a crescendo at Sunday Night’s gathering in Rabin Square, wherein every sector of Israeli came together in prayer for our stolen sons.

The next day, we learned that the worst had happened. The boys had been gunned down in cold blood, within minutes of being abducted. Faced with this kind of absolute evil, all of us are wandering about dazed and numb. The reality is so awful, that it defies words. ‘Sigh in silence,’ as the prophet Ezekiel (24, 17) advised. Yet, we choose to speak; to try to give expression to the grief and the fear, the pain and the intense empathy we feel for these martyred children and their incredible families. ‘I will speak, that I may find relief,’ as Elihu b. Barachel said to Job (32, 20).

What, however, of the prayers that we offered with such intensity and such profound sincerity, for eighteen days? Where did those words go? True, as Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel said so eloquently, God is not our employee, and He sometimes says ‘No.’ Yet, the thought still gnaws away at us: Were our prayers in vain? Was this great coming together of a chronically divided people some great fata morgana, or is there something deeper here that we need to elicit, even beyond amorphous cries for continued unity?

I believe there is such a lesson, and it’s found in last week’s Torah portion, Huqqat. The Torah, there, discusses the procedure that a person must undergo to emerge from the impurity that is imparted by contact with Death. That procedure is unique in a number of ways. Usually, all one needs to do is to immerse in a mikveh. The initiative, and the action, are all that of the person who wishes to rid himself of the state and feel of impurity.

Things are radically different when it comes to emerging from an encounter with Death. Here, the Torah requires that one take the ashes of the Red Heifer (itself a mystery), and ‘And the pure person shall sprinkle [from the ashes in water] upon the unclean [person] (Numbers 19, 19). One cannot free oneself the terror and defilement that results from unmediated contact with Death, by oneself. One needs another person to sprinkle ‘living waters’ upon him, to extend a hand and help him to return to the land of the Living.

My teacher, R. Joseph Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik זצ”ל, explained that our encounter with Death is unique in that it not only makes us feel defiled from the outside, it traumatizes us to our bare essence. It reminds us of our mortality, something that none of us can imagine. We cannot imagine the world going on without us. No man or woman can liberate himself or herself from the nightmare that such awareness engenders. So, the Torah requires that others extend their hand to us, to purify us, and help to draw us back to Life, to Society, to Family, and to Friends.

What drew all of Israel together for eighteen days in hope, and now in our collective mourning, was the deep-seated awareness that this dastardly act of wanton murder touches us all in the most elemental fashion as Human Beings created in the image of God, as Israelis, and as Jews. We spoke of Naphtali, Gil-ad and Eyal as our sons, because they are our sons, as we are their parents and brothers. What drew us, and draws us, together is the awareness that we cannot emerge from the Valley of Darkness, without the help of our fellow Jews–no matter what their opinion or ideology. ‘And the pure person shall sprinkle upon the unclean person…and he shall be clean in the evening.’

Our prayers for our sons’ rescue went unanswered. They were, however, far from being in vain. They drove home a central principle of Judaism and Jewish History. We are inextricably tied to one another in this enterprise called the Jewish People. Yair Lapid was right, we need one another.

There is, however, more than that. Am Yisrael did not just gather in protest. It gathered in prayer; in Rabin Square, and in communities throughout the Land of Israel; on the Temple Mount in imposed silence and at the Kotel with shofar and cries of the heart. It did so out of the ultimate awareness that when Man encounters Death, when he encounters his own finiteness, even the help of other men is not totally sufficient to bring him back to the World of Purity and Life.

As Rav Soloveitchik noted, the verse can also be interpreted to read: ‘And the Pure [One] shall sprinkle upon the unclean [person].’ We do need one another, but together we need God to overcome the shock of our encounter with Evil and with Death.

Prayers that emerge from that awareness can never be said to have been in vain.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.
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