Sally Abrams
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“Who by fire and who by water?”

This past year illustrated far too well the High Holiday prayer's catalogue of all the terrible ways to die

This year on the High Holidays it will be harder than usual to recite the Unetanah Tokef prayer.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it….”

I would love to stop right there and just let my heart overflow with gratitude for the three new grandchildren born into our family this summer. But this is a relentless prayer which forces us to think about hard truths. Most of all, we must face mortality, suffering, and the unknown.

Sometimes it is hard to relate to the various means of death enumerated in the prayer. Not this year. A world that has gone off the rails is providing me with hideous images for each. Here is what I will be thinking about.

“Who shall perish by fire….”

The home of the Dawabsha family of Duma, in the northern West Bank, was firebombed on July 31. The attack killed eighteen-month old Ali Dawabsha, his father, Saad, and his mother, Riham. The only surviving member of the family is four year old Ahmed, still hospitalized with severe burns.

From the beginning, Israeli authorities have asserted that this was an act of terrorism carried out by Jewish extremists, a charge echoed yesterday by a senior IDF official: “There is no doubt in the defense establishment about the fact that the perpetrators of the attack were Jews.”

What kind of monster incinerates a family sleeping peacefully in their home? What kind of perverted understanding of Judaism enables a person to believe that this act is pleasing in God’s eyes?

Rabbi Benny Lau, who leads a Modern Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem, asked these very questions at a Tel Aviv rally held a few days after the attack.

In the name of what Torah,” he asked, his voice cracking with emotion, “in the name of what God, does someone go and murder, do people go and burn a baby and his entire family? Whose Torah is this?”

This grotesque act generated horror across Israel’s political spectrum. Several suspects are now being held in administrative detention, an anti-terror measure seldom used on Israeli citizens. Time will tell as to whether Israeli security will crackdown as promised on the radicals who carry out “price-tag” attacks on Palestinian civilians.

Who by fire? Ali, Saad, and Riham Dawabsha.

“And who by water…”

A little boy washes up on a Turkish beach like so much driftwood. The searing image forced everyone to ponder, if only for a moment, what has been going on in Syria these past few years. To consider the level of desperation that would propel you and your children to cross the Mediterranean in the sort of boat we’d think twice about taking out onto a Minnesota lake. Over two hundred thousand people have died so far in Syria’s civil war, over half of them civilians.

They are not the only ones running for their lives. “Poverty and war in places like Libya, South Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria are driving migrants to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.”

Thousands have drowned thus far. This child made it impossible to ignore that fact.

Who by water? Aylan Kurdi.

Who by sword…”

Last fall, while praying in their Jerusalem synagogue, four rabbis were slaughtered by Palestinian terrorists. Barbarians emerged from the gates of hell and set upon these innocent men to satisfy blood lust and pathological Jew hatred. The murders were celebrated in Gaza, the terrorists praised.

An Israeli Druze policeman who came to the rabbis defense was killed as well.

In the same week that the Dawabsha family was firebombed, a sixteen year old girl was stabbed to death while attending Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade. The murderer was Yishai Schlissel, recently released from prison for carrying out a similar attack in 2005.

Who by sword?  Moshe Twersky, Aryeh Kupinsky, Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, Kalman Zeev Levine, Zidan Saif, Shira Banki

Who by stoning..”

If you think that the dangers of Palestinian rock throwers are exaggerated, imagine what it would be like to have a rock come crashing through your windshield as you drive along with your family in the car. In February, a four year old Israeli girl died of complications resulting from such an attack that occurred two years earlier.

Who by stoning? Adele Bitton

The Unetanah Tokef prayer concludes with these words:

But penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.”

In a beautiful explanation of this prayer, Helen Plotkin wrote this:

It is not the decree that is transformed, it is the badness of the decree. And “deflect” is a more precise translation than “cancel.” Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah deflect the badness of the decree by changing the focus from our powerless suffering to our power of response.

At this moment I cannot think of anyone who exemplifies the power of response more than Fayez Abu Hamdiyeh, a Palestinian man who saved five American yeshiva students from lynching just outside his home in Hebron last week. The young men were driving to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, took a wrong turn into a residential neighborhood, and were attacked with stones and a firebomb.

Abu Hamdiyeh, who sheltered the students until Israeli security forces could arrive, put his own life and those of his family in danger. He is now facing death threats himself.

This is my worldview,” he explained. “Either you are human, or you don’t do it and then you aren’t human.”

The essential teaching of this prayer, captured in just a few words.

Death and suffering are our fate because we are mortal, the ability to carry out transcendent acts of goodness is possible because we are human.

About the Author
Sally Abrams is Director of Judaism and Israel Education at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has taught thousands about Israel and/or Judaism in churches, classrooms, civic groups, and Jewish communal settings.
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