During Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014, which was aimed at halting the rain of Hamas rockets and mortars on Israel’s southern population, Hamas captured the remains of two soldiers who were killed in action. Staff Sgt. Oren Shaul was killed when an anti-tank missile destroyed the armored personnel carrier in which he was traveling, and Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was captured during an attempted kidnapping when terrorists emerged from a tunnel in the Gaza Strip, was declared killed in action by a special IDF commission. For over two years now, Hamas has refused to return the remains of either Shaul or Goldin, holding them as bargaining chips to extract concessions from Israel. As we learn from this week’s Parashah, a parent’s inability to bring a child to his final resting place can cause terrible emotional trauma.
After Yosef’s brothers decided not to kill him but instead sell him into slavery, they devised a plan to convince their father than Joseph had been killed. They took the special “Coat of Many Colors” that Jacob had weaved specially for Joseph, dipped it in goat blood and sent the coat to their father, who recognized it immediately. Yaakov arrived at the only logical conclusion: “It is my son’s coat; an evil beast has devoured him; Yosef is without doubt torn in pieces.” (37:33)
Following a prolonged mourning period, Yaakov continued to mourn for his beloved Yosef. Although his children tried to console him, “he refused to be comforted,” and declared that he would mourn for Yosef for the rest of his life. Commentators wonder why Yaakov refused to be consoled, even many months after Yosef was lost. While no parent ever fully recovers from the loss of a child, why did the sands of time fail to dull Yaakov’s pain even many months later? Rashi, (on verse 35) quoting the Midrash, explains that “the living cannot be consoled for the living.” Somehow Yaakov sensed that Yosef was not truly gone forever.
Yet, Rashi’s comments point to a truth about a parent who must mourn without the ability to bury a child. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein explained that, “According to many psychologists, seeing the body carries great significance for a number of reasons: First, witnessing death allows a person to comprehend its finality, and its unalterable nature. A normal human being cannot comprehend such a final and absolute fact until he sees the dead with his own eyes. Secondly, a person who has not seen the death with his own eyes can continue to hope that perhaps, maybe, maybe—the dead remains alive. Perhaps it is an inconclusive rumor…It is possible that Yaacov hoped whether consciously or unconsciously, that in the end it will turn out that Yosef is indeed alive.” Yaakov could not be consoled because he never experienced the psychological and emotional closure that comes with the trauma of burying his son. Therefore, the pain does not ebb, but instead remains a constant anguish that never fully dissipates.
It is this pain that the parents of Goldin and Shaul have suffered for the past two years. Since Israel declared the two soldiers killed in action, the families, and especially Simcha and Leah Goldin, have campaigned tirelessly for the return of the two sons’ remains to Israel for proper burial. This past June, following a request from the Goldin family, Israel’s Defense Ministry officially changed the classification of the two soldiers to “fallen soldiers with the status of missing prisoners.” Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sergeant Oron Shaul were previously classified as “fallen soldiers whose burial place is unknown,” and the family felt that the earlier official status “sent the message that Israel viewed Hadar’s case as closed even though his body had not yet been recovered.” In September, the Goldins traveled to the United Nations in New York to lobby the international community to pressure Hamas to return their son’s remains. According to the Israeli news website Mako, at a conference late last month marking the 30th anniversary of the abduction of IAF pilot Ron Arad, Major General Hagai Topolansky, head of the IDF’s Personnel Directorate, acknowledged that there has been a “stagnation” in the negotiations with Hamas. “After two years, we still do not see a way forward,” he said.
I don’t pretend to know how to resolve this terrible situation. Today Israeli policy is to withhold the bodies of Hamas-affiliated terrorists, clearly in a bid to compel Hamas to release the bodies of its fallen soldiers. I trust that the government really is doing all that it can in this challenging situation. At the same time, we must share in the suffering of the Shaul and Goldin families, who not only made the ultimate sacrifice protecting and defending the Jewish people, but must now live through the anguish that Ya’akov avinu himself suffered, unable to bring their sons to their final resting place.