Earlier this week, upon hearing the devastating report confirming that a group of young Jewish men had murdered Muhammad Abu Khdeir, I felt as if someone had plunged a knife into my heart.
I could not manage to shake off my feelings of sadness and depression about the poor child who was murdered, and about the fact that it was Jews who murdered the boy and maliciously set him on fire.
They did what our worst adversaries had done to us. I write these words with a certain degree of caution, assuming the information we have is correct, but in any case, this piece of news shattered the faith I had placed in every Jew.
A story that I vividly remember from my youth involved a Holocaust survivor whose entire family had been killed.
He asked his rabbi, a fellow survivor, “Where is God’s chosen nation? How could God’s chosen nation be sentenced to die in so many terrible and unusual ways?” His rabbi replied: “That is exactly what our being chosen is all about. The very fact that no Jew ever murdered a non- Jew simply for being a non-Jew proves that we are God’s chosen people.”
Last week, that ethos was shattered, as the killers tarnished the memory of Jewish martyrs from across the generations who sanctified God’s name, killed simply because they were Jews. This value was corrupted by evildoers who cruelly murdered a helpless boy and burned his body simply because he was an Arab.
How could this happen? Where did these wild thorns spring up? One prominent sin in our nation’s history is described in the story of Achan, who violated the ban on taking loot from the city of Jericho. After that sin, the Jewish people suffered a defeat during the Battle of Ai.
When Joshua tried to understand the reason for the defeat, God told him: “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed My covenant that I commanded them by taking of the spoils...”
How did Israel sin? After all, it was only one person who sinned. Why does God pin the blame on the entire nation? The answer is hinted at in the Talmud: “This shows you that there is not a family containing a tax thief, in which they are not all tax thieves; or containing a robber, in which they are not all robbers; because they protect him.” (Shevuot 39a) After such a heinous sin is committed, all of society needs to take a close look at itself, since it certainly appears that the general atmosphere had given these wild thorns legitimacy to carry out their heinous acts. No sin ever occurs in a vacuum.
Following the discovery of the bodies of our kidnapped boys, calls for revenge expressed over social media and other forms of mass communication, which were supported by a number of spiritual leaders and prominent educators, created an awful atmosphere that motivated those cowards to murder Muhammad Abu Khdeir. It was for good reason that the sage Avtalyon said: “Sages, be careful with your words, lest they bring about the obligation of exile, and you become exiled to a place of vile waters, and the students who will follow you will drink from them and consequently die. This will result in the desecration of the Name of Heaven.” (Avot 1:11)
In last week’s Torah portion, we read of Bilam’s blessings to the Jewish People. In one of those blessings, Bilam speaks of the nation’s forefathers: “Let my soul perish like the righteous [yesharim].” In his well-known preface to the Book of Genesis, the Natzivof Volozhin asks why the forefathers of the nation of Israel were called yesharim, “upright,” and not tzaddikim, “righteous,” or hassidim, “pious.” He explains: “The Holy One Blessed Be He is upright, and he only tolerates those who are righteous not only in their relation to God, but also in the ways of the world as well. Those who do not act crookedly even if it is for Heaven’s sake, as this would lead to the destruction of Creation and normal existence.
And this was the merit of the forefathers, who, in addition to being righteous and pious, were people who loved God to the fullest extent.
That is to say, they were involved with the nations of the world, even the worst of idol-worshipers. Everywhere they went, they did so with love, and concerned themselves with others’ welfare.
Such kind behavior was the very purpose of Creation. Just as we saw how Avraham prostrated himself on the ground to pray for Sodom, even though he so despised them and their king because of their wickedness... nevertheless, he desired their continued existence!” Uprightness (“yashrut”) is an essential character trait for the Jewish people. It is a trait that leads one to dealing kindly with any and every human being, and desiring the well-being of a fellow man, especially when that human being is an innocent child who had never hurt anyone.
The spirit of the Jewish nation was severely harmed when Muhammad’s ruthless killers trampled on the trait of uprightness.
We, as a society, must repudiate and rid ourselves of incidents like “price tag” attacks and other acts of violence that tarnish Israeli society and imperil our future here. We cannot express any form of understanding or justification for these types of acts. Granting legitimacy to acts of revenge and verbal violence plants the seeds of violence and the next murder. Even though these incidents are marginal, and do not reflect the character of the overwhelming majority of Israeli society, they endanger our future presence here, in the State of Israel, and it behooves us to combat this phenomenon in any way we can. This struggle against violence in Israeli society should be led not only by security forces and the judicial system, but also – and mainly – by spiritual and social leaders, for whom the primary value of yashrut, uprightness, is a guiding principle.
The writer is executive director of the Beit Hillel rabbinical organization.