AN UNSPEAKABLE MASSACRE
Tuesday morning, November 18, 2014, 7:15am: Two men, with guns, knives and axes, burst into a synagogue in the Har-Nof Neighborhood of Jerusalem, Israel. Within a few minutes, five holy men were brutally murdered, and – nine more were injured. A Druze police officer was killed in the melee.
The scene was gruesome, beyond imagination. Lifeless bodies, wrapped in prayer shawls and Tefilin, were lying in pools of blood. Sacred books, soaked in blood, were scattered among bullets shells, meat cleavers, and axes.
“Sometimes, God is beyond understanding,” my mentor, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once shared with me. Indeed, our finite, human minds, will never fully comprehend the infinite G-d. Still, our shattered hearts cannot contain the pain.
THREE LESSONS, AND RESPONSES
Yet, within every tragedy there is a lesson to be drawn. And while we cannot reason and understand, we can – and must – learn and respond. So, as we reach the conclusion of the Shiva period for our victims, here are three humble thoughts:
1. Absolute evil exists, and it must be fought, with unwavering determination. It is about time we stop offering excuses for evil perpetrators about their ‘challenging upbringing’ and their ‘poor life situations’. Evil is not a relative force; evil is absolute, and it must be treated as such. Too often, we rush to justify – or, at least, explain – why evil happens. “The terrorists live in dire, and oppressing circumstances,” many suggest. Others blame the culture in which they live in. “It’s not their fault,” someone told me the other day. “These terrorists are brainwashed, that’s all.”
But if it isn’t ‘their fault’, then whose fault is it? Is it the fault of the innocent victims?
It is high time we recognize evil for what it is. In the words of King David, “those who love God, and goodness, hate evil” (Psalms 97:10). Indeed, to know good, means that we must also be able to know, recognize, and hate evil. For if we cannot do so, with utmost clarity, how will we ever be able to stand up to it to ensure that good ultimately triumphs?
2. The people of Israel dwell alone. “Lo, it is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations (-Numbers, 23:8-9).” This massacre, and the world’s indifference to it, seem to confirm these Biblical words, by the prophet Balaam.
Nonetheless, Balaam’s words were not a curse; rather, they were an important proposition. Balaam was suggesting that our people will only thrive if we learn to recognize our apartness, our individual Jewish identity, and our unique purpose of “being a light unto the nations.” In fact, this is how leaders are formed. They set themselves apart in order to focus their attention, and actualize their talents and skills in the best of ways.
It is time, therefore, to focus and dedicate ourselves to the Torah’s teachings, to our values, to our traditions. It is time we live up to who we are, and to the holy nation and illuminating leaders we were called to be.
3. Choose life! Amidst the terror of Tuesday’s massacre, a fascinating juxtaposition appeared: Here stood a group of worshipers who were immersed – and passionately dedicated to – life. There stood their murderers, determined to destroy.
We are told to “choose life, so that you and your children may live,” (Deuteronomy, 30:19). But these evil men chose carnage and annihilation. The sanctity of life that we cherish so deeply disturbed those who hate it so fervently.
The Israeli Government will certainly do what it can to eradicate this evil and prevent any further attacks. But our response must be more personal; it must speak to the values that fill our souls. Where there is evil and darkness, we must create goodness and light. We must respond to this act of terror that sought to destroy a house of God, with acts of prayer and good deeds that seek to re-establish the house of God, in our hearts, in our minds, and in our homes.
This is a quiet heroism – there are no flamboyant shows, no dramatic gestures that capture attention. It is not enough to focus on what we are fighting against; we must also know what we are fighting for.
Without a doubt, goodness, and life, will then eventually prevail.