It’s all too familiar for residents of Nof Ayalon, a small yishuv situated near the city of Modiin. Home to the sweeping Ayalon Valley and the venue where biblical Joshua made the sun stand still, Nof Ayaloners flock in droves tonight to attend the shloshim (the thirty day mourning period after the shiva) of Naftali Fraenkel. Could it be a mere month ago when we filed into the second floor shul, stricken with tears and anguish, filling the synagogue to standing room only? Is it possible? Isn’t this when our world first turned upside down and inside out?
The audience is quiet at half past eight pm and the evening commences with a video montage of Bibi Netanyahu mentioning how an entire nation stands together and understands what they are doing here – in this land. The screen next displays month-old footage of our three mother’s (Iris Yifrah, Bat Galim Shaar and Racheli Rachel Fraenkel) saying they are ”waiting for our sons to return”. A short video of Racheli stating: “We feel the accompanying hug of the nation and we are asking you to continue with your prayers.” There is a shot of the Kotel with three white chairs facing the camera, sporting three signs: “Reserved”, “reserved” and “reserved”. The screen turns a momentary black and then displays fresh pictures of Israeli soldiers being buried, the cries of additional Israeli mothers whom have lost their sons, too. Racheli’s image returns to the screen: “We will learn to sing without you….”
We’re barely able to catch our breaths and still reaching for tissues when members of the choir club of Mekor Chayim Yeshiva (where Naftali learned and was an active member of the singing group) rise from their seats. The young men walk quietly to the podium and turn around to face us. The large projector screen is to the left of them, displaying a large picture of the choir with Naftali taking center-stage. The picture had been taken very recently. The juxtaposition of the boys to the image of their full choir on the screen was striking. They were a part of a living canvas standing before us., Naftali’s presence hauntingly filled the negative space where he would have otherwise been standing tonight.
The evening proceeds with two of Naftali’s friends, Binyamin and Daniel, taking turns speaking about him. We learn that Naftali was a bright boy, good in biology, woke up early for minyans. The day before he was murdered, there was a school trip somewhere. The class came back famished and hit the dinner plates with full gusto. Naftali ate calmly, politely, in a civilized fashion. Of friendship? He knew everyone’s names. Even those of the boys in the younger grades. He was a friend to all. He was also a peace broker, a dorm-room mediator. And he liked to help people. He played guitar and composed songs for others. He brought life into the dorm room.
Next, the congregation rises as Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Yishai, father of Ruth Fogel, father-in-law to Rabbi Ehud (Udi) Fogel, grandfather to Yoav, Elad, and baby Hadas – all five brutally stabbed to death by terrorists who entered their home on Friday night, March 11, 2011, makes his way to the podium. His voice is soft and we strain to hear his consoling words. Rabbi Ben –Yishai speaks about a lesson he has recently learned. About not referring to a soldier as having ‘fallen’ in battle. “He has not fallen,” the Rabbi says, “but rather he has risen in battle. These precious soldiers have risen and even now they continue to ‘raise’ us.” What does lightening do? he asks, tangentially, but analogously, too. “It’s a fire from heaven, the lightening lights up while it simultaneously burns.”
There is another person next to the Rabbi. He holds a microphone in his hand. It is he who asks the Rabbi questions that will hopefully lead to answers that may yet console us. The Rabbi responds to a burning question with the answer: “I can reconstruct for you how one stays alive when loved ones are taken away in this manner. In those initial minutes (after his own family members were murdered), I did not speak of the light. We returned home on that fateful Saturday night. That Shabbat we talked about the Sacrifice of Isaac. Now additional parents have to go through the Sacrifice of Isaac. …But as one hand struck us, another hand supported us, and did not let us fall. It’s a special secret that with time, the pain deepens, yet becomes wiser and we are infused with special strengths that allow us to comprehend that the thick screen that separates this world from the next, is actually quite thin. These special souls exist, peering through thin screens and give us strength…I don’t know that parents get back to normal life. They don’t fully recover… At first the pain is a huge blow and you live in a fog, disoriented. The fog eventually dissipates and, when it does, you begin to understand… A few days after the shiva (his daughter’s, son-in-law and grandchildren), I received a request to comfort a family.” (A couple went to visit parents in Morocco and was killed en route, leaving a two year old son.) “Who can refuse such a Mitzvah? A young couple disappears, it’s one of the most difficult things. There were visitors at this shiva that tried to account for how this could happen. I told the family that this is trying to answer things that there are no answers to. All the stock taking of how it could have been played out differently serves only to rob us of our energies.” He continues. “I’ll tell you a story. It was during Pesach, after the murders of my family. The family got together for the Seder. I had my three grandchildren (from Ruth z”l and Ehud z”l ). My then eight- year- old grandson said that we should have a meal of thanksgiving. Why? Because he and his two siblings had survived the massacre! We are trying to disperse the clouds. He (my grandson) was right. For their sake, we needed to celebrate. You must feel the Yesh (what exists) just as you feel the Ein (what’s no longer there). We can’t let the Yesh be taken over by the Ein.”
The moderator asks the Rabbi another question: What advice can you give in learning to cope in such a scenario?
The Rabbi mulls over the question and then responds that the questions after such an event are standard accounting questions. But if one attempts to stand on a higher plane, one can perceive what the three murdered boys, Elad, Gilad and Naftali (z”l to them all) gave to the nation. “The simple accounting is unavoidable. If I had been a better mother, father, grandfather… but maybe there is then a demand of us to climb and look at the view differently. A view of where we are standing, what strength they’ve given over to us… I just paid my respects at the shiva of the Ethiopian soldier Moshe Malko (z”l). I spent time with the grieving family. I looked at the grandfather. He sat there not speaking Hebrew. Next to him was the photo of his soldier grandson, tall, handsome and gentle. The grandfather came a long way – from Ethiopia. It took 2,500 years to arrive in Jerusalem. His grandson personified a dream. But G-d hugged him so tightly that he disappeared from our sight. Moshe’s grandfather and I were so removed from one another. He had come from so far away for his grandson to defend the Nation of Israel. It’s because of his grandson, that I met the grandfather and Moshe’s mother and sister. The grandfather couldn’t speak the language. But grandfather met grandfather. We were brothers and we hugged the hug of two souls recognizing one another. What connected us? Our grandsons, who reside above us. So many questions are superfluous. I found myself in a situation where we didn’t speak but we understood one another and we spoke so much. To ask why this happened to my grandson, to my daughter – one day we’ll ask G-d. G-d sometimes takes a family and gives them a faith experience. But I’m here for you G-d, even in the pain.”
The moderator asks: What is the role of a community? What are the lessons a community takes from this?
The Rabbi answers: “This event (the murder of the boys) is not a private experience, it’s been rather a public one for the family, for Nof Ayalon and for the nation. I want to correct something. The Nation of Israel gained people, we didn’t lose them. Yes, my own family wakes up in the morning wanting to call my daughter. To ask a how are you? , what did you cook today? I want to ask Yoav (his son –in-law), what Talmudic tractate did you recently finish? I don’t connect to the words ‘we lost them’. I told my wife, you know what will happen? There will be soul accounting for the generations. Our sages noted why the Temple was destroyed. Because there was not enough love. What is demanded here? We needed to see, and we did see, such love that if anyone says sinat chinam (baseless hatred) – no one will even recognize the concept! Everyone now is performing such chessed (acts of kindness). What do you do with the void? You fill it. You hug harder. I want to tell you about how to hug. One day, after the murders of my family, someone calls from New York. Can I visit you? this person asks. I’m coming to Israel on a plane and I’m planning to stay only for two hours and then I’m turning around and going right back on the plane. Can I come?” And this person came for two hours. Was there a question? Of course I’m coming. The merit is just being with you. The role of this community (Nof Ayalon) is to know that he is our own son. When someone comes into this world, no one knows him. Not even his own mother or father know him. What’s his name? A person leaves this world for a higher place. He bought his name (with his deeds), his role. When he was in the delivery room he was borne, yes, but nobody knew him. Today you ask anyone who is Naftali Fraenkel and someone would be embarrassed to say that they don’t know who he is. So what is the role of the community? To give love that resurrects. We support, we encourage the families not from a place of pity but from a place of true love. Bottom line, the three boys belong to the nation.”
The shul and it’s members exhale, but only for a moment. Now it’s Avi’s, (Naftali’s father) turn to speak. He speaks of daily life, family life. “We have kids,” he says, “we must go on.” He speaks about what this month has been like: The lack of sleep, the press parked continuously outside their front door, waiting for any tidbit thrown their way. The police told them they would not give them all the information at their disposal, but that what they would give over would be authentic, true. They knew a lot but they did not know everything. Politicians came to offer help but politicians are, in the end politicians – with what to gain. They had many, many, meetings with many different people who told them this and that. They wondered at times if they were being subtly manipulated to act in a certain way. At the end of the day, there were three grieving families, and a course of action was not always simple and, still, they had to make decisions in the face of media. Back then, they believed that what they did could still be significant. They couldn’t and didn’t know the boys had been murdered. Questions were thrown around. Was it a good idea to turn off Gaza’s electricity? Every decision meant there was another decision they did not go with.
Naftali’s father speaks about Nof Ayalon. “This is the time and place to talk about the yishuv,” he says. We were in a circle of our immediate family, and then the extended circle and then the circle of the yishuv. If we somehow succeeded in getting through this time, it’s because of the yishuv’s understanding, sensitivity and the way you took care of all of our physical needs – everything in the right doses. We received a big hug from you.”
The shloshim ends this evening with the soft melodies of Mekor Chayim’s choir, ostensibly learning to sing without Naftali z”l being physically here…