The mind reels from trying to wrap itself around the fact that fellow Jews could not only have murdered an innocent Arab teenager, but have done so by sadistically setting him on fire.
But there is no longer any escaping the fact that the murderers of Muhammad Abu Khdeir were in all likelihood Jewish.
As she has done so frequently in recent weeks, Rachel Fraenkel, still in mourning for her son Naftali, spoke for almost all Israelis in her message of condolence to Muhammad’s parents: “No mother should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Muhammad’s parents.... The shedding of innocent blood is in defiance of all morality, of the Torah, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country.”
Magnifying the evil of the deed itself is the utter senselessness of it. The perpetrators have thrown their own lives away. If convicted, there is far less chance that they will ever be freed from prison, than that the murderers of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, if captured, will one day be released in another Gilad Schalit-type scenario.
And for what? One could at least understand how those living in isolated areas and subject to repeated – potentially lethal – stonings by residents of a nearby village might contemplate burning down some of the village olive trees as a deterrent. But nothing connects Muhammad Abu Khdeir to the murders of the three yeshiva students.
Far from deterring any further murders of Israeli boys, the killing of an Arab boy in retaliation only makes such murders more likely and endangers Jewish children. As Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman summed up the matter, the murderers of Muhammad Abu Khdeir are rodfim (“pursuers”) against the entire Jewish people. The Internet is already rife with warnings to parents not to leave their children unattended or allow them to play in the nearby forest lest they be kidnapped by Arabs bent on revenge.
Besides increasing the danger to Jews in Israel and around the world, the perpetrators destroyed one of those rare moments in which the contrast between us and our neighbors was clear to the entire world, distorting the Torah in the process. Revenge in the Torah is, with but one exception – when the blinded Samson’s brought down the Philistine temple on himself and those mocking him – consigned to God alone.
In his commentary on the Av Harahamim (“Father of Mercy”) prayer, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that Jews have throughout history been both the most persecuted and the least vengeful of people: “Our people have entrusted to God and God alone the task of avenging the blood of their murdered fathers and mothers, wives and children. This promise sustained them and kept them free of bitter and burning lust for vengeance against their oppressors and murderers.”
At the three funerals of the Israeli teenagers, and the joint ceremony that followed, the speakers dwelt only on the qualities of the kedoshim (“sanctified ones”) and the magnitude of the loss represented by their premature deaths. There were no calls for revenge.
A visibly moved Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appropriately drew the contrast in his eulogy between “the society of the murderers gleefully celebrating the spilling of innocent blood. They sanctify death; we sanctify life. They sanctify cruelty; we sanctify mercy.” That cruelty is on full display today in Syria and Iraq, where Muslims do not just kill each other in the tens of thousands, but strive to do so in the most humiliating fashion.
Our enemies taunt us that they will prevail because “You love life, while we crave life.” They are right about our love of life. Israel today has the highest birthrate of any industrialized country in the world by a full child per woman, while birthrates in the Muslim world are plummeting at the fastest rate in recorded history.
But our enemies are wrong about the consequences of their death cult. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks recently stated, “[C]ultures that worship death die, while those that sanctify life live on.” Countries throughout the Middle East cannot feed their citizens.
They produce nothing of marketable value.
And were it not for oil, they would be poorer than the states of sub-Saharan Africa.
Israel, meanwhile, is at the cutting edge of every field of modern technology, science and medicine, and brings greater benefit to the world per capita than any other country.
Even in the wake of the murder of Khdeir, the contrast between those who sanctify life and those who sanctify war and death is easily made. The near universal reaction of Israelis to the murder has been deep revulsion. No one has passed around sweet candies or developed finger salutes celebrating the murder.
No city square, school or summer camp will be named after the murderers; they will not be hailed as martyrs by government leaders and held up as models by the official state media, and should they ever be released from prison they will not be greeted as national heroes by the president and prime minister.
Still the contrast between us and our enemies now must come with qualifications and footnotes, and we live in an era of sound bites.
But the greatest damage done by the perpetrators has nothing to do with Israel’s image among the nations.
Rather it has to do with what they stole from the Jewish people. They have robbed us of a precious moment of national unity. As we witnessed the nobility, strength and faith of the Yifrah, Shaer and Fraenkel families during their 18-day vigil, I doubt there was a Jew in Israel who did not experience of surge of gratitude for the privilege of being born into the eternal Jewish people.
As the prime minister said in his eulogy, the entire country understood the source of the nobility of spirit and inner strength of the three families: “You taught us a lesson that we will not forget – a lesson in faith and determination, in unity and sensitivity, in Judaism and humanity.”
To a group of little girls who approached her at the Western Wall to wish her well, Rachel Fraenkel gave a brief course in emuna peshuta (“simple faith”) that resounded around the country. She told them, “I want you to promise me that no matter what happens, you won’t be crushed or broken, that you don’t lose faith. We must remember Hashem [God] is not our employee. He doesn’t always do as we wish.”
During those 18 days, we learned that it is better to live in a country where Jews love one another and look for the good in their fellow Jews than in one filled with scorn for all groups not exactly like our own. Not a single prayer service ended without the recitation of special Psalms on behalf of Eyal, Naftali and Gil-Ad.
Nor did it escape our attention that the drama largely played out the weeks of the Torah readings of Shlah and Korah. The sins of the Jewish people recorded in those Torah readings hinted to what is in need of tikkun (“repair”). Shlah records the most damaging instance of lashon hara (“derogatory speech”) ever uttered – the spies’ false report about the Chosen Land. Our sages point to the need to build ourselves up at the expense of others as the driving force behind most lashon hara.
As both individuals and communities, we attempt to escape from confronting our own failings by turning our attention to the failings of others. We use those failings to salve our fragile ego. But how much happier would we all be if we directed our energies to repairing what needs repair in ourselves and our communities, focusing on what is admirable and worthy of emulation in others.
Korah records the wages of internal dissension and strife. Of all the many sins of the Jewish people in the desert, only Korah’s sowing of strife and disunity was punished immediately with him and his entire family being swallowed up by the earth without a trace, the Tolna Rebbe pointed out in his weekly drasha.
The rebbe challenged his audience with a question that should pierce every heart: “Imagine if you were to see these three [missing] youths near you without the threat to their life hanging over their heads. How much would you love them? How close would you feel to them? Does it have to come to a life-threatening situation for a Jew’s heart to be open to another Jew?” But our hearts were opened as we searched and prayed for the three yeshiva students and later as we collectively embraced their families in their grief and mourning. For having broken the spell of that precious moment of Jews clinging to one another, the perpetrators of the heinous murder of an Arab teenager cannot be forgiven.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.