Second Thoughts: Life After Mumbai

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04 Dec 2008

My son just called. The one who does his Reserve Duty in Israel’s Home Guard Command. His elite unit’s job is going in after natural calamities, accidents or terrorist attacks, shoring up buildings and pulling people out. He called to say he’s on his way to the airport. They may be on their way to Chabad House in India. He’s already visited Kenya and Turkey and almost made it to the Far East after the Tsunami. (“Join the Navy and see the world!” said the U.S. recruiting sign in my younger days. I must say, it never appealed to me.) Now, at least, it’s specifically to help Jews. If only such help was unnecessary. For both Jews and non-Jews alike. It all leaves me in a state of confusion.

You’ve probably heard the various commentaries discussing the after effects of Adam and Eve’s sin. How suddenly, Evil and Good were no longer absolutely clear; how everything was now a confused mixture of good and bad which had to be painstakingly identified and separated.

Well that’s how last Shabbat felt at the OU convention. It was a heady and loving mixture of joy – people, shiurim, prayers and gourmet food – mixed with foreboding, anxiety and apprehension. Smiles and good cheer side by side with tears and leaden hearts.

We watched the TV coverage in our hotel room until it was time to light the candles and welcome the Shabbos Queen. They had just broken into Chabad House in Mumbai and were simultaneously announcing that the Indian commandos had cleared the house of terrorists while, in the next breath, saying (for what seemed like the hundredth time in the two horror-filled days), that No, No, not quite yet. The job was not yet over.

“Close the television,” I told my husband. “I don’t want to enter Shabbos knowing for certain what happened. Better to remain in a state of anticipation and hope until Motzei Shabbat.” Even though we knew the news would not be good. And it wasn’t. The light of Shabbat was darkened in Mumbai. That week, the Shabbos Queen came dressed in black. The Midrash speaks of two angels who accompany the Shabbos Queen into our homes each Friday night – one to curse and one to bless. In Mumbai last Shabbos, even the angel of bad tidings must have cursed what he saw. The Angel of Blessing could only cry. And so did we.

How do we face such a horrible reality? Such obscene savagery? Naomi Ragen wrote that people “who have not seen this with their own eyes” refuse to understand the depth of evil represented by the Muslim-terrorist threat. “Perhaps,” she says, “it is impossible for the average human being to understand the depths of such evil.” Perhaps. There’s too much cognitive dissonance for the mind to contain. It happened before when even the Jewish world refused to believe the stories being told of the Nazi activities in Europe. The face of pure evil is too frightening to face.

We sat in the large ballroom-dining room at the convention, asking for second helpings of gefilte fish. We helped ourselves to more of the colorful array of salads. We talked, laughed, sang zemirot. While underneath it all, the soul seethed, churned, screamed. I wanted to stand up and scream too, to put a stop to the chit-chat, to make everyone open their Tehillim (although I imagine the majority of the people present had been saying Tehillim without my help). I wanted to stampede into the burning Chabad house and root out, extinguish, kill, destroy that burning Evil. And then I wanted to scream even more because my fantasies were so ridiculous, so impossible. The only possible thing I could do was sit and cry…. and say Tehillim.

Like Aharon HaKohen at the death of his sons, we cannot ask too many questions. And if we insist nonetheless on asking, there will be no answers. We can only remain silent. Vayidom Aharon. But not mute, unthinking silence. Our silence must shout emuna – acceptance, humility, belief. G-d is good and although His Goodness is not always manifest to our eyes, that is the result of our own constricted, imperfect vision. This is our test.

A story was written about a Jew who decided that being a practicing, believing Jew in the midst of plenty was no proof of anything at all. A Jew must know where he stands, must test his mettle, meet challenges – nisyonot like Abraham our Father. So he left everything behind and went out to wander through years of utter poverty and much suffering. He had to see if his faith stood the test. I remember thinking what mad mind could think up such an adventure, to throw away G-d’s good gifts in order to test himself in such a manner. (Mine is not an adventurous soul. I find everyday, comfortable living to be enough of a challenge!) Yet sometimes, even as we sit in our comfortable homes or in luxurious hotels we find ourselves confronted with evil and madness and we are required to react. Somehow.

And in the midst of our confrontation and confusion, life goes on. Children must be fed; the sick attended to; commitments met; work done. Weddings take place, births come unannounced and deaths, l’havdil, require permission from no one. And Shabbos comes every seventh day, no matter what. So you go on with life, eat your gefilte fish, ask for seconds, carry on your conversations, all the while saying your Tehilim. You carry the heavy and confusing mixture of joy and sadness, thankfulness, trust and fear, all at once, all together, all mixed up in one terribly human package, relieved only by tears.

I cry for the poor Indians and for all the other dead and wounded as well, but I admit – I cry mostly for my own. Nor do I feel guilty admitting it. So few other people in this world cry over Jewish blood. Blood is life. Ours has irrigated the face of the world. But we live. The Torah commands us: B’damayich chayii… In your blood you shall live. It is written in the form of a command – chayii – Live! We do. Am Yisrael Chai.

P.S. In the end, my son’s unit came home. A different unit was sent in their place. I am glad.

© 2008 Yaffa Ganz. Yaffa Ganz is the award winning author of more than forty Jewish juvenile titles including Sand and Stars – a 2000 year saga of Jewish history for teen readers. Her latest book – “A Different Dimension” published by Hamodia Publishers – is an anthology of essays on contemporary Jewish life.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.