Together with the entire Jewish people and all people of decency and good will, we were shocked and horrified to learn of the vicious murders of the three boys on whose behalf we had been praying so fervently, Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel. There are no words of comfort that can be said at this time, nor should there be; we are told by the Talmud not to attempt to express comfort when grief is still fresh, when the deceased is still “in front of us”, as is literally and figuratively the case.
This week, I had to teach the Daf Yomi Shiur, and the page being studied is one that strikes too close to home at this moment. The tractate is Taanis, which in its whole is a volume devoted to the Jewish response to crisis, and today’s page in specific addresses situations which provoke intense communal response. Included in that discussion are examples that are too painful to read today, including the death of children and the death of three individuals in one time period.
Also included in that discussion – in the middle of a mishnah, otherwise filled with technical details of halakhic procedure – is the story of Choni HaMeagel, a man who was perceived as particularly close to God, and was asked to pray on behalf of the Jewish people. The story is told of him going back and forth with God, making his supplication in one fashion and another, at times getting the result that he asked for, and at times not.
It may be that this story is interwoven within the mishnah’s legalistic discussion in order to convey that an integral part of the mandated response to communal crisis is not only the halakhic details, but also the stories and the history of what Jews have done at these moments. Their ongoing struggle to find the words and deeds to express their fervent wishes towards God is a continuing component of what happens and what must happen during the darkest of times.
Choni’s story had a happy ending, while our story of the past two and half weeks had the saddest ending imaginable. But perhaps Choni’s experience is instructive nonetheless in displaying Jewish prayer as an ongoing conversation, as a continuing effort to engage in an introspective experience where, independent of the outcome, we seek to progressively transform ourselves and to grow throughout the exchange so that we walk more perfectly with God, whatever His ultimate decision may be.
These past eighteen days have borne witness to what is widely acknowledged as an unprecedented unity among the Jewish people. At this moment, as we shift from a community that beseeches to a community that mourns, it is crucial that we continue and deepen the spiritual engagement that has been a source of national pride and partial solace. To continue to strive to walk more perfectly with God, in whatever way is most necessary and meaningful for us as individuals and as a community – whether it means to take tefilah more seriously; to engage more deeply and regularly with the study of Torah; to take greater pains to act with care and concern and sensitivity to the needs of those around us; to be more careful in the manner in which we speak about and to others – is the most we can do at this point to do honor to the memory of three innocent and holy boys.
The period of the three weeks has begun early for us this year. The time in which we as a nation are bidden to introspect upon our communal unity and how it must be repaired and enhanced has been moved up, and the challenge to see through the tears to a path towards individual and communal elevation is a profound one. It is my fervent hope and prayer that our leaders, both in Israel and America, will do what is necessary to bring justice for what has taken place and to prevent any future horrors and suffering, and that we, for our parts, will through our own behavior and our very lives bring some measure of comfort, when it is appropriate, to three grieving families and one grieving nation.