Signs of the Times

After Corporal Gilad Shalit was taken captive, a small notice appeared in our Jerusalem synagogue. Above Shalit’s Hebrew name, Gilad ben Aviva, was a hand –lettered request to recite Psalms and to pray for his safe return. When young Eliyahu Asheri was kidnapped a few days later, his name, Eliyahu Pinchas ben Miriam, was added to the notice.

Then came the tragic news that Asheri had been murdered by his captors. The country was saddened and once again stunned by this latest evidence of the depravity of our enemies. When I walked into Shul the next day, the sign was still there, but the name Eliyahu Pinchas ben Miriam had been crossed out with two brisk, horizontal pen strokes.

I was taken aback. I turned to a fellow worshiper and said, I realize the boy is gone, but how could anyone do this kind of thing – to strike through his name? Isn’t that terribly insensitive? Why would anyone do that?

The man shrugged his shoulders. You’re right. It is kind of grotesque. But listen, the kid is dead. Those are the facts. What can you do? That’s how it is.

Technically, the man was right: that’s how it is. The strike-though was in keeping with reality. Eliyahu Asheri was in fact dead. There was no longer any point in praying that he be spared, because, for whatever ultimate, mysterious reasons, he was not spared. So his name was crossed out. The facts, after all, had changed, so why not change the notice? There was a certain grim, logical consistency in that point of view.

I tried to be fair, to put myself into the mind of the striker-through. Maybe it was not insensitivity at all. Maybe he was so hurt by what had happened that he expressed his pain in this impetuous way. Or perhaps this was his crude way of informing everyone, in case they had not yet heard the news, that Eliyahu was no longer in life. Or was he a neurotic stickler for precision and propriety who was telling us not to recite Psalms for the welfare of someone who was now beyond the reach of prayer?

But try as I might, I could not comprehend: to put lines through this innocent teenager’s name, to summarily cross it out with the stroke of a pen as if he and his life no longer mattered, as if it were an error to be crossed out? Perhaps there was no point any longer to pray for his life, but does not this behavior display a callousness towards human life, a certain crassness and insensitivity?

All right, I said to myself, don’t over-react, don’t overdo it . This was just an isolated case; why get upset just because one unthinking person perpetrated a foolish act?

A few days later, on Shabbos morning, I walked into a different Shul. On its bulletin board appeared an identical hand-lettered sign, with identical wording. But on this sign, the name of the murdered boy was not crossed out. It was crudely gouged out with a scissors. The sign now bore the Hebrew name of Gidon Shalit plus a ragged, gaping void underneath his name where once had been written the name of Eliyahu Asheri.

Which act was more insensitive, I am not prepared to say. The lined out name at least allowed one to see the remains of the original name underneath. On the other hand, the cut out name had some symbolic meaning: that gaping hole represented the hole in the collective heart of the country, and especially in the hearts of his grieving parents.

I pointed out the sign to a passer-by. He agreed that it was rather brutal to do it this way, but, he added, the poor kid is no longer with us, and somehow the name had to be removed. What else could have been done?

What else could have been done? Here is what could have been done:

a) Don’t touch the name. Do nothing. Out of respect, just leave it alone.

b) Don’t touch the name. Just add zichrono liveracha/may his memory be for a blessing ( or just the Hebrew z”l) to the name.

c) Don’t touch the name. Just add zichrono liveracha to the name, plus another line asking people to pray for his martyred soul.

As far as I could tell, very few people seemed disturbed by these mutilated signs – at least outwardly. They glanced at them and then went about their business without comment. Whatever feelings they might have had, they were not expressing them, Perhaps this is because Israelis do not normally display their emotions , but I do hope they were upset within themselves.

I have no idea of what happened to the many similar notices that were surely put up around the country, but my own personal prayer is that what I saw in Jerusalem is not a surface indicator that we Israelis – who are essentially good , kind, charitable and considerate people – have somehow become desensitized to the feelings of others. Granted, if in fact we have become desensitized it would not be surprising, given the suffering we have already experienced — the many wars, the exploding buses and restaurants, the ubiquitous suicide bombers , the many killed and permanently maimed victims, the excruciating evacuation of Jewish settlements. It would be understandable if after all this we have become inured to sadness and grief, and have permitted a tough, self-protecting shell to envelop us so that the pain of those around us not intrude on our lives. This would be understandable, but I pray that it is not happening to us, for if, God forbid, it is happening, then our enemies have dealt us a serious blow.

All Israel prays for the day when Corporal Shalit’s name will be removed from that sign – only because he will have returned safely to his family, And we pray for the release as well of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were just taken prisoner on July 12. At that blessed moment we can all join in and gently take down all the notices bearing the names of Gilad, and Eliyahu, and Ehud and Eldad – thanking God for the liberation of those still alive, and praying that He grant peace and rest to the soul of the one who has entered eternal life.

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5 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    it’s like the culture shock of Israelis using german products, driving german cars etc. when no one from our circles in the USA would do that.

    I think there are a couple of dynamics at play :

    – general culture gap between amercians and israelis. Israelis are not as sensitive as we are. american culture is very tuned in to the art of positioning, spin, couching things the best way. this is not a skill / value of the israeli culture

    – they have more of a “right” based on who they are, where they live, and what they are doing on behalf of the rest of us. when they are in the army and someone nebach dies, they have to deal with things much larger and more gruesome than striking through a name. whereas these sensitivities are perhaps appropriate for uswho aren’t really dealing with the realities, you can make a case that they are less applicable to israelis

  2. Nachum says:

    Rabbi Feldman, maybe these people *meant* for you to be troubled in this way?

  3. mycroft says:

    I have had somilar feelings in the US in a related issue. There is aphysician who treats alot of very sick people. He comes to schul with a big list that he gives to the Gabbai to say a misheberach for. I recognized that unfortunately a couple of names had gone to the olam haemet-he crossed off the names. I felt it was a lack of sensitivity-he could produce a new list. So the issue Rabbi Feldman is also in the US-maybe not in southern hospitality of Atlanta-but I’ve seen it here.

  4. Seth Gordon says:

    In the same vein: once, when I was a gabbai, I was saying the mi-sheberach for relatives of a man who had just had an aliyah, and read off, from the card in front of me, the list of his relatives–including his wife, who had died around a year before then. Ouch!

  5. David Gerstman says:

    I keep my own list of names for the Yehi Ratzon in Refainu. I cannot bring myself to cross out names. Maybe, now I am unfortunately no longer mentioning about half the people on the list, I’ll make up a new one.

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