Lament, Loss, and Lesson (Hopefully) Learned

Even though almost a week has passed, the horror of the terrorist attack at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav still lingers in my broken heart.

The stories. The names. The pictures.

It’s all just too much to bear.

The thought – which try as I might, I cannot get out of my mind – of yeshiva students sitting in front of their seforim, studying, “talking in learning,” and celebrating the onset of Chodesh Adar when the terrorist attacked is just so painful to think about.

The fact that this evil was perpetrated in a yeshiva, of all places, which is supposed to serve as an oasis of kedushah magnifies and exacerbates the tragedy. It is reminiscent – in a sense – of the powerful depictions of our enemies, during the Churban, entering the holiest of places to perpetrate the most sinful of acts. It’s not just what happened, but where it happened that makes it so horrific.

And yet.

And yet there are glimmers of inspiration emerging, slowly but surely, from the families and friends of the latest kedoshim. I never cease to be amazed at the heights which some people are able reach – especially, it seems, in Israel – in the most trying of circumstances.

The most salient question for the rest of us, however, is what we will take away from this latest episode in our blood stained history. It’s not enough to lament or even to cry. We must find meaning even amidst the madness. As the Rambam (Laws of Fasts 1:1-3) famously comments, our charge is to respond to tragedy by searching for lessons to be learned and ways in which we can better ourselves.

But what message can be taken from such misery?

Perhaps it is the following:

Parshat Pikudei begins by declaring that “These are the accountings of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of Testimony which were counted by the word of Moshe” (38:21).

Rashi, in a well-known comment, cites the teaching of the Midrash Tanchuma (#5) that suggests that the repetition of the word “Mishkan” is in fact a play on words and can be vocalized as “mashkon,” or collateral. The double reference is thus a subtle allusion to the two Batei Mikdash, two Temples (Mishkan), which God had taken from us as a form of collateral (mashkon).

In other words, our sins have created a debt that we owe to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the repayment of which must come in the form of teshuvah, repentance and spiritual rehabilitation. As a guarantee that we, as a people, will do our part, God has “taken” the Temples as collateral to be returned (i.e, the Third Temple) only after we repay our debt.

Rav Zalmele Volozhiner (brother of the legendary Rav Chaim) raised a very basic problem with this homiletical comment of the Midrash.

When discussing the laws of loaning money on collateral (Shemos 22:25-26) the Torah admonishes the creditor not to hold on to the debtor’s personal effects at times when those items are essential. The famous example given (see Rashi’s comments to the verse as well as the more extended discussion in Bava Metzia 114b) is when night clothing or bedding is used as collateral and the ruling is that such items must be returned to debtor at nightfall.

In light of this ruling, wonders R. Zalmele, why hasn’t God “returned” the Beis HaMikdash? After all, if the collateral must be returned when it is needed – even if the debt has not yet been repaid – then certainly He should have given us the Temple which we so obviously need.

R. Zalmele powerfully answers that the secret is found in the Torah text itself which explains why the creditor must return the collateral: “so it shall be that if he cries out to Me, I shall listen, for I am compassionate” (v. 26). Because the absence of the collateral is so painful to the debtor that he cries out in distress, there is a moral imperative to return it – if only until daybreak.

The reason that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has not seen fit to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash and “return” our collateral therefore must be, says R. Zalmele, that we are obviously not in anguish over its absence and we have not cried out for its return. Were we to “cry out to (God)” over the Churban HaBayis and would we viscerally and truly feel that there is something missing in our lives without the Beis HaMikdash, then God most certainly would have responded – “I shall listen, for I am compassionate.”

Put simply, if Hashem hasn’t yet given us the Beis HaMikdash the reason is only because we don’t want it badly enough.

When reflecting on this unimaginable tragedy and the subsequent events of the last few days, I am struck by the outpouring of grief that I have seen, heard, and read about. There is something – perhaps what I alluded to above – about this terrorist attack that touched more people more deeply than other attacks. It’s as if the collective heart of the Jewish people has been ripped in half.

While the family and friends of the kedoshim, hy”d, feel this pain most intensively, it is clear that the “circle of sorrow” is spread wide and far. As one yeshiva student from England wrote to the families – who are all strangers to him – “your pain is my pain and your loss is my loss.” I believe that this expresses the feelings of most Jews.

But here is the rub.

We all feel this way now but what about when our memory of this tragedy inevitably fades, will we still feel a sense of loss?

When an attack of these proportions occurs it’s a reminder – even to the most Zionistic among us – of just how inadequate our current situation is and of just how incomplete our “return to Zion” is at this moment.

The modern miracle of the return of Jewish sovereignty to our ancestral homeland is an unqualified blessing. But the many wonderful benefits of contemporary Israel can lull us into forgetting that, fundamentally, as long as the Beis HaMikdash is not yet rebuilt and until the Melech HaMoshiach is enthroned in Yerushalayim, we are in a state of national churban.

This was the essence of Rav Soloveitchik’s adamant refusal to alter the “Nachem” prayer even in the glowing aftermath of the Six Day War and it remains as tragically true now as it was at that time and it will remain true until we herald the final and complete redemption.

The massacre at Mercaz has graphically reminded us of this truth. There is a palpable – even if unarticulated – sense of churban and there is a collective yearning for geulah. This is the awareness that R. Zalmele was referring to and these are the feelings that he correctly diagnosed as being typically absent from the Jewish people. .

We have the understanding now. The question is, what next?

If we go forward with a renewed and reinforced awareness of our galus and the incalculable loss of the Beis HaMikdash, then maybe – just maybe – we will have responded correctly to this tragedy and in so doing be one step – hopefully not a small one – closer to the geulah.

May we soon merit the complete fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy (8:4-5):

Old men and old women will once again sit in the streets of Jerusalem . . . and the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets.

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12 Responses

  1. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > Put simply, if Hashem hasn’t yet given us the Beis HaMikdash the reason is only because we don’t want it badly enough.

    No, it’s because we haven’t corrected the root sin that caused its destruction, Sinas Chinam.

    The pain of this tragedy will fade and by the time Tisha B’av comes around – the day set aside for remembering that Sinas Chinam in the first place – we will be back at each other’s throats again.

    That’s why we’re still sitting here in Golus.

  2. Ori says:

    The problem with fighting Sinat Chinam (= baseless hatred) is that Yetzer haRa (= the evil inclination) keeps coming up with reasons for hatred.

  3. Nachum says:

    “That’s why we’re still sitting here in Golus.”

    No, you’re sitting in Golus because you haven’t moved to Israel. The ultimate Geulah may not have arrived for any number of reasons, but don’t blame Klal Yisrael for something you have the power to personally change.

    When the Geulah comes, I have a sinking feeling most American Jews will go nowhere. It happened when the Second Bayis was built; it’ll happen when the Third will be built. Unless, of course, the Third won’t be built unless we all change first. But I see no sign of that.

  4. Daniel Shain says:

    ” we are obviously not in anguish over its [the bais haMikdash’s absence and we have not cried out for its return.”

    It’s hard to believe that with all our suffering over this galus, there has not been enough anguish and yearning for yemos haMashiach and for national redemption. However, the concept of a Beis HaMikdash and Korbonos and Avodah is so foreign to us that it’s very difficult to have a visceral feeling for it’s return, even if we yearn for it intellectually.

    The Gemarrah is Sotah says that Talmud Torah has the power to protect from harm (magen u’matzil). Zecchus of Torah was able to protect the Sotah from the waters that she would drink (at least postpone the harmful effects). How do we understand this concept in light of the murder of the bochrim while they were learning?

  5. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > No, you’re sitting in Golus because you haven’t moved to Israel. The ultimate Geulah may not have arrived for any number of reasons, but don’t blame Klal Yisrael for something you have the power to personally change.

    And you’re not in Golus? Do you get to visit the Temple Mount and watch the Olas Tamid being offered? Is there a real Sanhedrin in the Lishkas HaGazis darshaning out our legal needs? Are there no more non-Jews living in Yerushalayim?

    The difference with me is that I live in the physical Golus. We all still live in a spiritual one, even those only a few blocks away from the Kotel.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I, who live in EY, agree with you that we are in Golus. But just remember the criticism leveled by Chazal against those holy Jews in Bavel who refused to heed the call of Ezra to come up when they could. For us today it is so much easier to get on a plane and come. Soon your dollars are going to be worthless and still you support the continuing state of Golus by staying there. If all the Jews were to pick up and come back home, the next shmitta could be d’oraissa, adding to the kedusha of EY and that surely would push things along. Isn’t this the sort of thing Hashem wants us all to do?

  7. Morey Schwartz says:

    The tragedy of the deaths of 8 young men, the soldiers who were killed by a land mine the week before, and all of the other deaths that occur here in Israel at the hands of our sworn enemies need not always turn into searching for how we can blame ourselves.

    Don’t blame Hashem -and stop blaming each other.

    These murders are the result of being a nation that is in a constant state of war with our enemies. War is never pleasant, and when it is a war against terrorists, the casualties are always going to include innocent civilians.

    Let’s spend our energy thanking Hashem for the opportunity that he has given us to return to Eretz Yisrael, to defend Jews throughout the world, and to learn His Torah and observe his mitzvot freely.

    Let’s appreciate what we do have and pray and work toward making it better.

    Shavua tov.

  8. shmuel says:

    Criticism? By Chazal? You mean the rabbis who lived in Babylonia instead of Israel?
    My dollars will soon be worthless? Sounds like you’re praying for that. Strange prayer. When that happens, will we American Jews still support you and your families to the tune of millions in donations, and the American government, will it still give Israel $3 billion a year? Israel is an absolute shnorrer country. Can’t get by a day without American political, monetary and military support. So we’re serving the team by being here, voting, paying taxes, influencing administrations to be nice to you in Israel. And this is the thanks we get? Next time shnorrers from Israel meet me at home or in shul begging for worthless American dollars to marry off their children, I’ll send them right back to you in Israel. I’m sure you can do a better job of supporting them than we can.

  9. Ellen says:

    Dear Shmuel,

    Don’t let them get you worked up. But really – Who is supporting Israel? You, or you as Hashem’s agent?

    What did Mordechai say to Esther? There’s always a salvation, it just depends who wants to play that role.

    We all need to realize it comes from Hashem. Of course there’s hakarat hatov. Whether an individual is doing his best for klal Yisrael – and himself – in the diaspora versus Israel is a personal evaluation, and I’m sure your considerations are deeper than the number of checks you sign or how many times you go to the voting booth.

    With best wishes for the real nahafoch hu (reversal of roles),

  10. Shlomo from Baltimore says:

    Wow, I just caught up on all the comments. Let’s all settle down and respect each other, wherever each of us lives.

  11. Ori says:

    Ellen: What did Mordechai say to Esther? There’s always a salvation, it just depends who wants to play that role.

    Ori: At the time the entire Jewish people lived in the Persian empire, IIRC. This is different from the survival of any subgroup of the Jewish people.

    Jews in Eretz Israel are not safe from disaster. They were not protected during the destruction of the second temple, the Bar Kochva rebellion, the times of the Byzantine empire, or the Crusades. At the risk of sounding like I lack emunah (which I do), it’s quite likely they are not safe today either.

    Without the words of an authenticated prophet, I see no reason to assume that Israel’s survival is guaranteed. It’s possible that in a century most US Jews will move to Israel. It is also possible that Israel’s surviving Jews will have to move to the US.

  12. David Rosenbaum says:

    “When an attack of these proportions occurs it’s a reminder – even to the most Zionistic among us – of just how inadequate our current situation is and of just how incomplete our “return to Zion” is at this moment.”

    Actually, I think we who live here in Israel do not need that reminder. We are painfully aware of the absence of the bet hamikdash. It seems to me you’re bursting through an open door. We’re not confusing atchalta d’geula with the full ge’ula.

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