I am writing this just hours after learning of the tragic murder of three teenage boys in Israel. Eyal Yifrah, 19, from Elad, Gilad Shaar, 16, from Talmon and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, from Nof Ayalon יהי זכרם ברוך. The immediate aftermath of such national tragedy has elicited two ‘common’ responses:-
1) Israel must enact revenge. All arabs hate the Jewish people and the blood of these boys must be avenged;
2) It is our fault. We need to be better Jews. If we kept Shabbat better, if we didn’t eat non-kosher food, then this would not have happened.
I find both responses, whilst understandable, extremely unpalatable. Whilst it is clear that the perpetrators of such evil must be punished to the full extent of the law, we must not behave in the way that our enemies do. We are an Or LaGoyim and must therefore set a higher standard. We must not lower our own standards and we must ensure that innocent people are in no way harmed by our desire, however justified it may seem, to see these boys deaths going unpunished.
On the other hand, to blame ourselves is also undesirable. To suggest that we can understand the calculations of God and that these boys died as a punishment for our actions, is both egotistical (that we can understand God’s actions) and unhelpful (do we tell the victims families that had we all kept Shabbat it would not have happened?).
The greatest tragedy of Jewish history, the Holocaust, elicited many such responses, and many have tried to blame its occurrence on assimilation and the like. Others have gone so far as to ask where God was. For me, there can only be one answer. In Rabbi Dr Eliezer Berkovits’ masterful book, Faith after the Holocaust, he describes a situation of Hester Panim. God’s presence is hidden from us. This is not a new concept within Judaism, after all in the Purim story, another example of national tragedy, we are told by the Rabbis that God’s presence was hidden from the Jewish people (one proof comes from the fact that God is not mentioned at all in the Megillah that we read on Purim).
The result of this, according to Rabbi Dr Eliezer Berkovits, is that man is left to his own devices. Man, however evil, is allowed to express his free will. The Nazis carried this out on a grand macabre scale, the loss of three teenage boys is another expression of this. Man carried out these terrible atrocities.
So how do we, as finite human beings, bring the infinite, God, closer to us? How do we ensure that his presence is felt?
Esther Wachsman, whose son, Israeli seargent Nachshon Wachsman, was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Israel in 1994, recalled how she was overwhelmed with grief. She was able to move forward only by reminding herself that she had a choice: She could be a victim of her fate, or initiate a new destiny (See Rav Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek).
How do we as Jews initiate a new destiny? Perhaps this is what is meant by “ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה. Here I will deal briefly with Prayer as a tool to initiate a new destiny.
Rav Soloveitchik in his book, Worship of the Heart describes the basic function of prayer:
“Prayer finds its full exoteric expression in the spiritual act of lifting up one’s eyes – the inner cry of dependence upon God, the experience of complete, absolute dependence portrayed by the psalmist: “I lift my eyes towards the mountain, from where will come my aid?” (Ps. 121:1).
When man is in need and prays, God listens. One of God’s attributes is Shome’a Tefilla – “He listens to prayer.” Let us note that Judaism has never promised that God accepts all prayer.
Acceptance of prayer is a hope, a vision, a wish, a petition, but not a principle or a premise. The foundation of prayer is not the conviction of its effectiveness, but the belief that, through it, we approach God intimately, and the miraculous community embracing finite man and his Creator is born.
The basic function of prayer is not its practical consequences but the metaphysical formation of the fellowship consisting of God and man.”
This feeling of closeness to God is beautifully expressed by Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits:
“In its original form, prayer is not asking God for anything; it is not a request. It is a cry; an elementary outburst of woe, a spontaneous call in need; a hurt, a sorrow, given voice. It is the call of human helplessness directed to God. It is not asking, but coming with one’s burden before God. It is like the child’s running to the mother because it hurts. It is not the bandage that the child seeks instinctively but the nearness of the mother, to unburden his heart to the one of whose love he is certain. So the human being brings his sorrow before God: Look, O God, to what has been done to me, consider what has become of me. This is the essence of prayer….To pour out one’s heart before God means simply to tell God about one’s troubles. To pray means to make God the confidant of one’s sorrow and need. The asking and begging are natural enough, but they are of secondary importance. Decisive is the pouring of the heart because one has to; the pouring out of the heart before God because He is the nearest, because He is the closest, because He is the natural confidant of the human soul.” [ref]
What should our response be? We must pray in order to build our personal relationship with God. We must not be the victims of fate but rather the creators of a new destiny.
In times of loss of loved ones it is impossible to see light and beauty in the world. How do the families of these three boys go on living? After the death of his mother, Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote the following:
“To what can death be compared? To a person who enters a darkened room for the first time and trips over the furniture. Each time he enters the room, he learns more and more where the furniture stands. In time, he becomes familiar with the room, and despite the darkness knows how to get around.
So, too, death. There is a darkness in death that cannot be chased away. But it is possible to learn how to go on living despite the darkness that forever remains.”
יהי זכרם ברוך