Today was our first day of studies at this year’s Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Torah Seminar devoted to the theme, A Time for War; A Time for Peace. A powerful day of learning ended in a disturbing climax with a crowd of 300 plus rabbis and lay leaders assembled in the courtyard for a lecture by Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Some of us had learned the news that the bodies of Eyal Yifrach,19; Gilad Shaar,16; and Naftali Frenkel,16 had been found just a few minutes after Rabbi Hartman began his talk. As usual, Donniel’s talk was inspiring. Yet, I confess that I found it difficult to focus. It was not because of his words, but rather because of the dark shroud I could feel descending on Israel and her people.
Our gathering closed with Rabbi Hartman announcing the news. Clearly most in the crowd did not yet know the news as a significant gasp rose from the crowd. That gasp gave way to sobs and silence. My teacher and colleague Rabbi Ed Feinstein stepped forward to recite the El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer, which he followed with us joining in singing Hatikvah. I was not prepared for the flood of tears that spontaneously fell from eyes.
Walking home to our apartment with my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Jacob Herber, we noted the absolute silence of the city. To me, it felt quieter than Yom Kippur. Save for an occasional car, the reality of the collective sense of grief and mourning into which Israel has been plunged once more weighed heavily. Eerie was the first word that came to our minds.
At the end of a day learning about our tradition’s understandings of shalom with Rabbi Hartman, and an incisive analysis of the current realities from Tal Becker, this is a harsh coda to assimilate. As in nearly every other Israeli home, my apartment-mates and I are sitting and watching Israeli news, even as I write these words. As Israel does in times of crisis, there is a sense of unity in the sadness as reality sinks in. Only last night tens of thousands gathered with the families of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali in Tel Aviv in a massive assembly to pray for the safe return of the boys.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, save for the funerals of three teenagers. I know it will bring quiet and tears. I know that there will be a collective heaviness in this complicated holy city and beyond. I’ve been here during other difficult times. I have been a part of this nation in both times of joy and bitter mourning.
I don’t know — I can’t even begin imagine what the days ahead will bring. While no one has claimed responsibility for the abduction of these three teenagers 18 days ago, Hamas has not concealed its delight concerning the abduction. I arrived in Israel just before Shabbat. Each day has brought an increase in missiles fired from Gaza into Israel. On Saturday night one missile hit a paint factory, resulting in huge explosions and fires. Thankfully it was Saturday night and the factory was empty. The missiles were launched by different factions in the Gaza Strip. Initially, it seemed that Hamas was not launching missiles. This morning the news came that Hamas had joined in firing missiles.
While other nations have been speaking out with messages of consolation for Israel and the families along with strong condemnations of the murder of the three teens, our American government has so far been reserved in its response. And our leaders are calling for restraint on the part of Israel.
I admit to being conflicted. I want to know why President Obama’s voice is absent at this time. I know that many will say “It’s about time you came to your senses.” I’m not responding politically at this moment. I am immersed with Israel in grief. But just Rabbi Ed Feinstein helped console us at the Institute a few hours ago, and just as messages have been heard from France, Great Britain and others, I note with great disappointment the absence of our President’s voice. That role has been left to spokespersons. Unacceptable!
Sitting here, I know that I don’t want to see another war erupt. At the same time, I know that terrorists cannot be left to believe that the lives of Jewish teenagers come cheaply. Just this afternoon my teacher Tal Becker told us, “I get my identity from my doubt. I am deeply passionate about ambivalence.” He was speaking about the reality that in the search for peace no one can claim certainty when it comes to answers and resolutions. His words struck me this afternoon, and now they are echoing in my ears and heart. Soon I will go to sleep. Even without this evening’s tragic news my head would be spinning from today’s intense learning. Now it will spin with the lessons given their exclamation point by the deaths of three teenagers. As the father of a 16 year old son, my heart breaks for the families of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. After holding their breath for eighteen days (there is no irony lost on me in that number), they now face tomorrow gasping for breath. Tomorrow will be a day of funerals and torn garments. It will be a day of tears, shrieks, wailing and broken hearts. And the next day, who knows? I only know that we will return to our studies about War and Peace. And what of our tikvah, our hopes and our prayers for peace? Who knows?
Centuries ago a Psalmist wrote, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May all who love her prosper.” Those words are multivalent. So is Tal’s ambivalence — and my conflicted feelings. This much I do know – this is a very sad time — for three families in particular; for Israel as a nation; and unfortunately I expect it will become even sadder before light breaks through the darkness.