A day after the searing emotions of meeting IDF senior commanders Thursday on the Gaza border, I braced myself for something even more torturous. My family and I went to the home of Ofir and Bat-Galim Shaer, whose son Gil-Ad, 16, was one of the three Israeli teenagers whose kidnapping and brutal murder precipitated Israel’s third Gaza war.
We walked in, not knowing what to say and found something totally unexpected. In front of me were two of the warmest, kindest parents I have ever met. They smiled; they were hospitable; they were friendly. We were there to comfort them but it was they who comforted us.
I asked them how the family was doing. They said their five daughters miss their only brother so much, especially the youngest, only four, who asks about her brother constantly.
I told them I was upset that some rabbis in the US and Israel were implying that the murder of their son was a hidden blessing. If the boys had not died, Israel would never have known about the extensive Hamas tunnels. Terror strikes from the tunnels would have murdered hundreds of Israelis. So while tragic, the boys’ murder had a silver lining. “I feel,” I told them, “that this kind of justification minimizes the tragedy. We Jews are supposed to protest to God these seeming divine miscarriages of justice, not submit our heads in silent resignation.”
Incredibly, the parents disagreed with my objection. “As parents,” Bat-Galim told me, “we miss our child every moment. But we also want to know he did not just die in vain. If his horrible death can preserve life, if it can be redeemed in some way, then we have to give it meaning.” They could not see it as just a black hole.
By now my wife and my daughter’s eyes were completely red. My elder daughter, Chana, had to leave the room. She could not compose herself. But Gil-Ad’s parents were models of composure. They were positive, determined, optimistic.
Bat-Galim continued, “In the wake of our son’s murder, and the Hamas rocket barrage against civilians, the world is now seeing Hamas for what it is. They’re becoming more understanding of Israel’s position. True, we still have to find the right words to express our position better. Israel is still not fully understood. But the European nations and the Americans know that today it’s Israel, tomorrow it will be them.”
This was courage and faith of a caliber I had only once before witnessed. A year before the fateful Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a Palestinian terrorist murdered a pregnant mother named Tali Hatuel along with her four young daughters. I visited the bereaved father, David Hatuel, at his parents-in-law’s home eight days after the horrific murder. Like Ofir and Bat-Galim, he did not question God. To the contrary. He felt that God had been kind to him.
“Are you really not angry at God?” I asked him. “He allowed your whole family to be taken from you.”
“Rabbi Shmuley,” he said, “I had 12 years with a woman I loved. Most people don’t have even that. I’m grateful for all loving times God gave me.”
This is a characteristic of Israelis that one sees over and over. It’s not that they have become inured to death, although it’s quite common to meet Israelis who have lost a brother, parent, best friend in war or terror attack. To the contrary, Israel’s culture is infused with life. Israelis harbor such a firm conviction about the justice of their cause, and they are so deeply connected to their land, that they have come to accept that losing their lives is sometimes necessary, even as they fight like lions to defeat their enemies and protect life.
Bat-Galim told me, “When my son died, I did not question God. His ways are inscrutable. Rather, I questioned man, not God. The Palestinians terrorists who did this, [I ask] how could they have? What did they gain from murdering three defenseless teens? Where was their conscience? Where was their humanity?” “But at the same time,” she continued, “I don’t want to think about them. I haven’t looked them up on the Internet. I don’t want to know the biographical information of the murderers. We want them caught, of course. But it’s my son that I want to think about, not his inhuman killers.”
As we spoke, a small American group arrived from New York to comfort them. Rather than hurrying us along, Ofir and his wife brought food and drink outside to their porch and had the group wait. They returned to us, showing respect and patience.
These were people who had buried their son just a month earlier in one of the most high profile murders of the last decades. How could they be so warm? So resilient? So optimistic? Based on my own books on suffering, I could not agree with them fully. I felt that Judaism had taught the world to wrestle with the divine, to challenge God when people suffer, to question God when the righteous are murdered. That’s what the word “Israel” means: he who wrestles with God. I feel that we cannot give meaning to death, lest we make peace with it. Death should be something we abhor.
I told a rabbi friend in New York who said that the death of the three teens is a blessing because it exposed the tunnels, “Israel could have found out about those tunnels, through intelligence, informers, or surveillance. It didn’t take boys dying to discover that. And you’re dancing daringly close to the Christian idea that death is redemptive. A teenager isn’t supposed to be in heaven. He’s supposed to be at his parents’ dinner table.”
But agree or disagree, standing in front of Gil-Ad Shaer’s parents, I know that I was in the company of heroes. Moral giants who wanted peace to follow their son’s death.
“We have to stop Hamas,” they said. “Not one country would allow the firing of rockets on their cities. But as for revenge, we reject all calls for vengeance. We want Israel to be safe. We want civilians to stop being murdered. That would be enough.”
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the founder of This World: The Values Network, the world’s leading organization promoting universal Jewish values in politics, culture and the media. The international best-selling author of 30 books, he recently published The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.