Philip Reiss

Four boys, three fingers, two maternal hands, and the face of the One

Tuesday, July 1, 2014. The day Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel were laid to rest.

As a father and as a researcher whose work aims to advance child welfare, I was sickened to my core that night when I saw images of Palestinian children doing the three-finger salute celebrating the boys’ kidnapping. In a podcast recorded shortly before the three bodies were found, Rabbi Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion, not far from the site of the kidnapping, had spoken of the rejoicing over the suffering of innocents by militant strains of Islam as not only a human crime, but a theological one. “God’s image… is being vandalized,” he declared. “…This is a challenge to the true face of haKadosh Baruch Hu [the Holy One, Blessed be He] in our world.”

That Wednesday morning, while putting on my tefillin, I realized that we Jews, too, have a hand ritual of three. As we wind the hand strap three times around our left middle finger—forming the first letter of one of God’s holy names, but also of the word shalom—we recite the words of Hosea (2:21-22):

  I will betroth you to Me for ever;


I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, loving-kindness and compassion;


I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.

hand-tefillin This photo is my response to those social media images, and to Hamas and its allies and enablers around the world. This is my left hand saying: Though you may hate us, for God’s sake stop your acts of inhumanity—or with God’s help, we will.

Tragically, shortly after I wrote these words it became necessary to add a lament for a fourth senseless killing, that of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. The strong warning against revenge by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, whose yeshiva Gil-Ad and Naftali attended, does not deny the reality that vengeance has a certain place in Judaism (see Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 33a). But that place is very carefully circumscribed. The key, as Rabbi Steinsaltz explains, is to understand vengeance as a prerogative of God, not of vigilantes. That Jews could stoop to the level of the Hamas murderers is the ultimate desecration of God’s name—and demands the most powerful response we can muster.

Let us dedicate our hands not to random vengeance, but to “righteousness and justice, loving-kindness and compassion.” Let us draw inspiration from the eloquent hands of our heroic sister Rachel Fraenkel, in that heart-rending picture of her first address to the media, when the world was introduced to this remarkable exemplar and teacher of Jewish faith. With her condemnation of the revenge killing as “the shedding of innocent blood in defiance of all morality, of the Torah, of the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country,” and with the heartfelt condolences she offered to the Abu Khdeir family, Mrs. Fraenkel yet again pointed the way for us all.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, whose translation of Hosea was quoted above, concluded an “in memoriam” essay with the prayer: “May the God of life, in whose image we are, teach all humanity to serve Him by sanctifying life.” Isn’t this the God we should all be raising our children to worship?

About the Author
Philip Reiss is a Professor of Statistics at the University of Haifa. He made aliyah, with his wife and their three children, in 2015.
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