“In the Face of Evil” – For Shabbat Toledot, November 21, 2014

“The encounter with death must precipitate a showing of protest, a bitter complaint, a sense of existential nausea and complete confusion. I want the sufferer to act as a human being, God says. Let him not suppress his humanity in order to please Me. Let him tear his clothes in frustrating anger and stop observing mitzvot because his whole personality is enveloped by dark despair and finds itself in a trance of the senses and of the faculties. Let him cry and shout, for he must act like a human being.”

This is a teaching about death and mourning from the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, one of the 20th century’s great rabbinic minds and the acknowledged founder of American Modern Orthodoxy. I choose to share the Rav’s reflections for two reasons. First, because they speak to me of exactly the overwhelming emotions I’ve been feeling following the massacre in Jerusalem this week. “Frustrating anger.” “Dark despair.” Second, because the Rav’s own grandson, Moshe Twersky, was one of the four Jews slaughtered during their morning prayers on Tuesday, along with the police officer who died protecting others from death.

It is almost incomprehensible to me, what happened: two Palestinian terrorists, cousins from East Jerusalem, setting upon worshipers as they recited their prayers for health, for sustenance, for peace. Armed with axes, guns and knives, they killed the officer and the four rabbis, and left eight others wounded – four in critical condition. The photos from the scene were almost beyond description: prayer books soaked with blood, tallitot soaked with blood, blood covering the left arm of one of the victims still wrapped in tefillin.

The Har Nof neighborhood where the attack occurred is not a hotbed of Zionist expansionist doctrine. It is not a settlement. It is not anywhere near the Green Line. It is a beautiful, quiet neighborhood in far West Jerusalem, largely populated by Modern Orthodox families, many of them (including the rabbis who were murdered) English-speaking olim from America and Britain. It is a neighborhood where one of the terrorists worked as a clerk in the grocery store near the synagogue – because, as one neighbor said, giving jobs to Arabs was just the right thing to do.

And so these murders are particularly shocking and confusing and evil. In recent days, several Israelis, including a 3-month old baby, have died at the hands of Arab terrorists – slashed with knives while they walked on the streets of Tel Aviv, run down by a car at a Jerusalem light-rail station. But this one feels different. This time, terrorists slaughtered people inside a synagogue, a sanctuary, a sacred space. It was not just an attack on Israelis. It was not just an attack on Jews. It was profane. It was blasphemous. It was, I believe, an attack on God.

It feels like it is connected as much with the past as with the present. It is of one with the accounts of the Aseret ha-Rugei Malchut, the Ten Martyrs, the 1st century rabbis whose deaths at the hands of the Romans we read about on Yom Kippur afternoon. It is of one with the slaughter of Rhineland Jews by the Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. It is of one with the Shoah. It is the slaughter of Jews – not for being Israelis or settlers or Zionists – but for being Jews.

Rav Soloveitchik calls this “experiential memory…[which] somehow erases the borderline separating bygone from present experiences. It does not just recollect the past, but re-experiences whatever has been…it actually merges past with present, or shifts the past into the present.” That’s what it means to be a Jew, right? To have that collective memory – that memory that contains so much pain.

To suffer in those memories as though they happened to us, as though they happened just yesterday. The rabbis of the Talmud distinguish between what it calls “old” historical mourning and “new” personal mourning. But an act like this merges the two.
And so must our response. As Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote, “[Man] must not take evil as something inevitable . . . just because such a response would be an exercise in futility.”

We cannot accept this attack as just another inevitable consequence of the conflict between Arabs and Jews. We cannot allow the world to shrug its collective shoulders and say – well, what do you expect, given Israeli occupation and settlement building? We cannot. There is no excuse – none – for an act so depraved and so heinous. And as we move from our immediate shock and revulsion, our response must be built on this premise. Again, quoting the Rav: “Emotions, like the tide, reach a high mark, make an about face, and begin to recede. The Torah has therefore recommended to man not only to submit himself to the emotional onslaught, but gradually and slowly to redeem himself from its impact.”

Redemption. Maybe that’s exactly the right word. The very earth has been tainted by the blood spilled on Tuesday. It is the world that must be redeemed. And so it is the world that must take action.

It seems to me that the Jewish approach to mourning that Soloveitchik writes about gives us a path ahead. Three stages, like the three stages of grief after death.

The first is what we call “meito muttal le-fanav,” when the dead lie before us. That’s what we went through on Tuesday. The horror over the gruesome photos and details. The anger over such betrayal of both humanity and Divinity.

The time period when, as the Rav teaches, we are supposed to scream and cry and moan, when we are permitted – even commanded — to vent whatever we feel inside. Even the desire for revenge. The world must allow us to do this.

The second period includes shiva, the 7-day period following burial, and sheloshim, the 30 days after. We step back from our everyday patterns and responsibilities, knowing that when we return to them, our lives will be different. The world must acknowledge this difference, that something fundamental has changed. Humanity is torn, like the black ribbon is torn. While we could stitch it up, it will never be the same. There will always be a scar.

From sheloshim, we enter the twelve-month mourning period. This is traditionally reserved for the children of those who have died. But in the wake of this slaughter, we all mourn together. If this was indeed an attack on God, then all of God’s children have both the honor and the responsibility of making it right. Yes, there are practical and political issues to be dealt with, from security to settlements to the bloody mayhem being unleashed throughout the Middle East. Issues we feel are intractable or simply out of our hands. But, as Rabbi Soloveitchik taught, the responsibility of the mourner is not just to feel but to act. “However alive the experience of destruction might be,” he wrote, “it is the intellect which commands the emotions to respond to the historical memories of a community.”

This slaughter must be placed in the context of our historical grief. Alongside the destruction of the Temple, the murders of the Rhineland, the flames of the Holocaust, it is clear evidence to the world that Jews are being slaughtered because they are Jews. There must be worldwide revulsion. There must be worldwide mourning.

There must be worldwide penitence for allowing – even for enabling – the unrestrained and unconscionable Jew-hatred that has swept across the earth like a plague and that has led us to this moment.

And we Jews must always hope the world will do the right thing. Our history – filled as it is with both our old, historical mourning and our new, personal mourning – may lead us to doubt this will happen. But we have not survived all of the efforts over all the centuries to destroy us just to give up now. As Rav Soloveitchik taught us:

The mourner is not the individual but the nation, the covenental community, which must never lose hope or faith. No matter how difficult times are, no matter how great the loss is, however dreary and bleak the present seems, the future shines with a brilliant glow full of promise. The messianic hope has never vanished; the people have never been enveloped by the dark night of despair.

Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2014, Audrey R. Korotkin


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