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Charting a path through darkness: Marking the shloshim for Ezra Schwartz

30 days after the murder, the question we ought ask is not 'why?' but 'What do we do now?'

“A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

With that reading from the Book of Jeremiah, Rabbi Dr. Meir Sendor of the Young Israel of Sharon, Mass., opened his eulogy for Ezra Schwartz, the 18-year-old yeshiva student murdered in Gush Etzion, Israel. The thirty day mourning period (shloshim) for Ezra has now come to an end.

Like thousands, I was drawn to Ezra’s funeral. As the casket was carried from the synagogue to the cemetery, I walked close to Ari, Ezra’s father. In a moment that I hope was not intrusive, I hugged him. In tears I said, “All the people of Israel are with you.”

When horrors occur, we ask ourselves why this had to happen. In such moments, meaningful answers are difficult to grasp. We slip into feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

But everything must be taken in its turn. When we experience profound loss, we need moments – many moments, long moments – to cry, to grieve. Friends of the bereaved must be there to listen, to give comfort. All we can do is be present.

In time, we are in a better position to address the ubiquitous question: how can we respond to this horror, to all the horrors unfolding these days in Israel and throughout the world?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who founded Boston’s Maimonides School that Ezra attended, struggles with this question in his book Kol Dodi Dofek, published eleven years after the Holocaust. He argues that there are two dimensions in life. One is the dimension of fate (goral). Like one’s DNA, or fingerprint, we have no control over our fate. God understands the mystery of fate; we do not.

Though we have no control over our fate, Rabbi Soloveitchik continues, we do have control over our destiny (yi’ud). While fate is a passive existence, destiny is an active existence, one in which we confront both our environment and the circumstances into which we are cast. In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words: “According to Judaism, man’s mission in his world is to turn fate into destiny – an existence that is passive and influenced, to an existence that is active and influential.”

Echoing Rabbi Soloveitchik, Esther Wachsman, whose son, Israeli sergeant Nachshon Wachsman, was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Israel in 1994 (Nir Poraz, leader of the commando unit who tried to save him was also killed), recalled how she was overwhelmed with grief. She was able to move forward only by reminding herself that she had a choice: she could be a victim of her fate or initiate a new destiny.

Rabbi Harold Kushner popularizes this approach to evil by suggesting that, when evil befalls us, rather than ask, “Why?” we should ask, “What now?”

“Why?,” a philosophical question for which we have no answer, deals with the past—over which we have no control. “What” is a pragmatic question, one that is future vectored, over which we have some control.

Not only should we ask, “What do we do now?” we ought to ask, “What will God do now?” What does God do? With all my heart and soul I believe that, when people are challenged, God gives them the strength to transcend, to reach beyond their grasp, to do the impossible. Think of people who never leave the side of a child battling cancer. Think of those who have suffered a great loss: a job, a loved one, a limb.

I believe the ability of ordinary people to do the extraordinary is inspired by God above, and the part of God in us.

We saw this powerfully when, in yet another terrorist attack in Israel, a week before Ezra’s murder, Rabbi Yaakov Litman and his son Netanel were gunned down. They were father and brother to Sarah Techiya, who was to be wed in but a few days.

As she sat in mourning, Sarah Techiya said: “This evening, instead of wearing a bridal dress, I will sit on the floor with a torn shirt. But we will not be crushed.”

On front pages of Israeli newspapers she declared: “We fell, we got up, and with God’s help the wedding will take place next Thursday at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center (Binyanei Hauma). All of Israel is invited to get up from the dust and rejoice with us.”

And thousands came—some say as many as ten thousand. They were teaching a powerful lesson: never allow what you cannot do to control what you can do.

Even as one moves forward, there must be recognition that the pain will never be removed. There are “gashes” that cannot be repaired; they can at best be managed – all one can do is learn to cope. It is much like a person who enters a darkened room for the first time. Unaware of the layout, he/she trips over the furniture. But each time he enters the room, he learns more and more where the furniture stands. In time he becomes familiar with the room, and despite the darkness learns how to get around.

Rabbi Sendor’s eulogy for Ezra was stirring. Forever etched in my heart was his cantillation from Jeremiah at the outset, and his slow and haunting chanting of the ensuing sentences as he concluded:

“‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,’ declares the Lord. ‘They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your descendants,’ declares the Lord. ‘Your children will return to their own land.’”

Rabbi Weiss has children and grandchildren who live in Efrat, Gush Etzion. Another granddaughter, Shira, is spending her gap year studying Torah at Migdal Oz Beit Midrash for women in Gush Etzion.

About the Author
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y., and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and longtime Jewish activist for Israel and human rights.
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