THE GREAT EMBRACE: A CALL TO COMFORT, A CALL TO ACTION

This week the World Zionist Organization (WZO) launched a campaign to encourage as many individuals as possible to write letters to the families of Eyal Yiftah, Naphtali Frankel and Gilad Sha’ar, the murdered Israeli teenagers whose bodies were recovered this past week. The WZO will deliver the letters to the families personally at the conclusion of shloshim, the 30-day mourning period that began the day of the funerals.

Even a message of a single line will be be appreciated. Write a note yourself and encourage others to write as well. Messages may be e-mailed to wzoInfo@wzo.org.il, or posted to: Office of the Vice Chairman, World Zionist Organization, Post Office Box 92, Jerusalem 91000 Israel.

The text that follows is the letter which I have written to Naphtali’s parents, Rachel and Avraham Frankel, Eyal’s parents, Ori and Iris Yiftah, and Gilad’s parents, Bat-Galim and Ofir Sha’ar, and shared with members of the congregation this past Shabbat morning:

Dear Rachel and Avraham, Bat-Galim and Ofir, Ori and Iris,

My name is Jonathan Lubliner, and I am a Masorti — or as we say here in the States Conservative — rabbi. Though I am writing this letter on a Friday afternoon, it is my intention to share it with members of my congregation, the Jacksonville Jewish Center, at Shabbat services tomorrow morning. I will also encourage them in the week ahead to write their own letters to you as part of the World Zionist Organization’s חיבוק של אמונה, “The Great Embrace” campaign to reach out in solidarity to your families.

As a congregational rabbi I frequently encounter death. Much of the time the deceased are men and women who have lived full lives and die in the ripeness of their years; sometimes they pass away peacefully without pain, at other times it is only after suffering a protracted and debilitating illness. On occasion, our community also confronts exceedingly painful tragedies — cases of murder, suicide, the death of the young, whether due to violence or disease. No matter the circumstances, I always remember the example of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar: “ וַיֵּֽשְׁב֤וּ אִתּוֹ֙ לָאָ֔רֶץ שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים וְשִׁבְעַ֣ת לֵיל֑וֹת וְאֵֽין־דֹּבֵ֤ר אֵלָיו֙ דָּבָ֔ר כִּ֣י רָא֔וּ כִּֽי־גָדַ֥ל הַכְּאֵ֖ב מְאֹֽד — They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering” (Job 2:13). The silent presence Job’s friends offered was their greatest gift; when they opened their mouths and sought to explain the reason for his tragic losses, however, they brought not comfort, but quite the opposite. Having lost a child myself, albeit under dramatically different circumstances, I remember feeling impatient, even angry, at those who sought to comfort me with platitudes and pat explanations such as “God must have wanted her” or “Only the righteous are taken so young.” Though undoubtedly well-intentioned, they who seek to comfort in such ways arrogate to themselves a role that belongs to God alone. “הַנִּ֨סְתָּרֹ֔ת לַֽה’ אֱלֹקֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹ֞ת לָ֤נוּ וּלְבָנֵ֨ינוּ֙ עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם. . .” is what the Torah teaches us: “The hidden belongs to the Lord our God, while only that which has been revealed concern us and our children” (Deuteronomy 29:28).

I do not understand God’s presence or absence in Eyal’s, Naphtali’s, or Gilad’s deaths. My wife, Susan, and I can only feel your brokenness and sorrow as ones who have also experienced the loss of a child: we are all too familiar with the self-recriminations of “if only I had . . .” as we fall prey to the mistaken belief as parents that we are somehow omnipotent or omniscient where our children are concerned: aren’t we supposed to protect them from all harm? Shouldn’t we be able to foresee all potential dangers that may come their way?  We, too, know what it’s like to look at other young people of the same age and wonder, “What would our daughter be like if she were alive now?”

Yet while the ache never disappears entirely, one day dawn arrives to temper the long night of grief. You will let go of the tightness you carry in your stomach, the weight upon your shoulders; yes, life will forever be different, but you will again love the precious life God has graciously given you, you will feel the love of all who are near and dear healing the rawness of your soul. The scars remain for they are the price of love, but come one day — and for each of us the journey is different — you will thank God for the sunshine and the light of morning. I have read the words you have spoken to the world in the last few days, and know you have faith in a God who is rofeh Yisrael, a healer of Israel’s heart, and a healer of your own.

We are truly an “am k’sheh oref,” a stiff-necked people, as the Torah calls us. Fractious and argumentative, we hold divergent opinions about the fate and future of the territories, the best way of living with the Palestinians, the definition of what it means to live in a Jewish state, the relationship between haredim and hiloni’im, the ultra-Orthodox and the secular, and what role Diaspora Jewry should play regarding Israel. Yet when Eyal, Naphtali and Gilad were kidnapped, and later when their fate became known, in an instant those differences were set aside. It did not matter whether one was Orthodox or not, religious or secular, hawkish or dovish. At a visceral level we were reminded of the truth of the talmudic assertion, “כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה — All Israel is responsible for one another” (B.T. Shevu’ot 39a). Throughout Israel and the Jewish world we felt a collective sense of shock and loss because the Jewish people truly have, if you will, a sympathetic nervous system which connects our capacity for shared celebration or grief.

By the same token, I have no illusions that this sense of unity will prove anything but ephemeral — this is not cynicism, just the way of the world. People return to the ordinary rhythms of living for it is simply part of being human. And differences of opinion are not bad things, as our sages of blessed memory teach in Pirkei Avot, “כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם — All disagreements that are for the sake of heaven are of lasting value” (5:17). Still, Gilad, Naphtali and Eyal reminded us that the ties which bind us to one another are really there beneath the surface and cannot be severed; but we must bear in mind that only to the extent we cherish those binding ties and their indestructibility will our divergences of political and religious opinion truly be for the sake of heaven.

It may be that some of the letters you are receiving refer to your sons as martyrs. I confess I do not like this English word or the way the term is used in our time. The word “martyrdom” reeks of death and revenge, it is a wolf who hides in sheep’s clothing of righteousness. Eyal, Naphtali and Gilad are exemplars of Kiddush Ha-shem, of what it means to sanctify God’s name, but while it is their death that enables us to say this, it is the way they lived that defines their sanctification of the Holy One. Too often, when tragedy strikes we are preoccupied with how a person dies, not how they lived or what they stood for.  Everything I have read about your children — and I have a son who is no more than a year or two younger — tells me they were imbued with respect for Torah and were ohavei ha-briyot, lovers of all God’s creatures. They were decent and caring, yet also typical, wonderful (and maybe even occasionally exasperating) teenage boys. We cannot afford ever to forget this — their laughter, their smiles, the light in their eyes.

I know that your hearts have gone out to the family of Muhammed Hussein Abu Khedir, the 16-year-old Palestinian who was kidnapped and burnt just hours after your own sons were laid to rest. I was deeply moved by reading the words of one of the members of Naphtali’s family who said, “If a young Arab man was murdered for nationalistic reasons then it is a horrifying and disgusting act. There is no distinguishing blood from blood. Murder is murder, whatever the nationality or age may be. There is no justification, no forgiveness and no atonement for any murder.” If Naphtali, Gilad and Eyal died al-Kiddush Hashem, those who murdered Muhammed committed an act of hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. I wonder if the opportunity to embrace Muhammed’s parents — simply as fellow parents who senselessly lost a child to wanton violence — might not bring catharsis and healing to your families and his. Perhaps if more families could taste the salt of one another’s tears and see their pain reflected in the eyes of those whom they have been taught to call “the enemy,” we might be one step closer to an age of messianic redemption and a lasting peace in which “ וְיָֽשְׁב֗וּ אִ֣ישׁ תַּ֧חַת גַּפְנ֛וֹ וְתַ֥חַת תְּאֵֽנָת֖וֹ וְאֵ֣ין מַֽחֲרִ֑יד כִּי־פִ֛י יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת דִּבֵּֽר — Every person shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with none to cause him fear, for it is the Lord of Hosts who has spoken” (Micah 4:4).

I close with a prayer written by a Masorti colleague of mine, Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum, inspired by a verse found in Psalm 23: “גַּ֤ם כִּֽי־אֵלֵ֨ךְ בְּגֵ֢יא צַלְמָ֡וֶת לֹא־אִ֘ירָ֤א רָ֗ע כִּי־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּדִ֑י — Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Distributed to Conservative/Masorti rabbis throughout the world, I imagine it likely someone has already shared it with you. If I am correct, please forgive the redundancy — know that it deeply reflects all that we feel for you in this hour of sorrow:

With You I yearn for three youths
With You I seek their lives, their dreams
With You I gaze in awe at parents whose lips and hands are steadfast
With You I plead that the strength of love and kindness will grow in the land.

And with You I am soul-torn when I hear they are no more
With You I lament over brothers who will not return
With You I weep at the ruins of a human being who took another’s life
With You I tremble at the dark evil within him.

And with You I therefore lift up my soul to distance myself from vengeance and blood
With You I restrain myself so that the holiness within me will not be erased.
With You I hear the cry of children rising up from the earth
From amid the shards of humanity and nations and darkest evil.

And with You I pray
That I will once more regain my spirit
That I will again believe in humanity
That I will again hear every voice and sob,
The voice of a human in every place.

For You,
Who in every generation hears the cries of the blameless
Grant me the strength not to despair that I may proclaim:
Behold, I take upon myself the yoke of life’s kingdom,
a language of compassion and peace and love of humanity.
Grant me the strength that my soul not die, but live,
And perceive the Eternal light as it gradually bursts forth.

My God, I will again build
A home, a life, a world,
And your light will guide my path.
The full grandeur of humanity will again be revealed.
I will not be afraid. I will not fear.
I will not retreat, for You are with me.

And the life and holiness and gentleness which You have planted
In every person, every nation and tongue
In every creation of the universe,
They will comfort me.

Dearest Sisters and Brothers, Rachel and Avraham, Bat-Galim and Ofir, Ori and Iris, I pray that you will share s’mahot in the days ahead as you and your loved ones affirm life.  There will be weddings and births, graduations and b’nai mitzvah.  I pray that you will return to a life in which you and your family can celebrate without the scrutiny of the media, without being under the world’s microscope,  that you will be families once more rather than symbols of a nation and a people.  And when those hours of joy come — though we may never see them on television or read about them on the internet — still, our hearts will be with you then, please God, even as they are with you now in this hour of sorrow.  המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים — May God comfort You among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, all who mourn Eyal, Naphtali, and Gilad.

Amen.

 

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