In defiance of the mighty Roman Empire, which destroyed Jerusalem and our Temple, Rabbi Akiva taught Torah to his disciples, for which he was arrested and brutally murdered on a bed of nails. In his last moments he said the words of the Shema and became one of the greatest symbols of Jewish martyrdom in history. And yet the Gemara tells us that as he was dying the angels in the heavens cried out before G-d the terrible question: “Zu Torah ve-zu sechara” – “This Torah and this its reward?!” At this time of agony, as we see the pictures of the pure shining faces of Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel, and of their bereft parents, when we see the sad, lonely, flag-draped coffins, we can almost hear the angels in heaven thunder in protest: “This is Torah and this its reward?!” But we remember in our grief how the Gemara describes G-d’s response that the angels be silent; we remember the brave and unflinching faith of Rabbi Akiva and generations of Jews who, in the spirit of King David’s Psalms, walked “in the valley of the shadow of death” and did not fear “for G-d is with me.” And so too at this time of terrible pain, we bow our heads before G-d in humble, yet resolute, acceptance of the tears of this unredeemed world.
Our Torah teaches that anyone who dies defending the mitzvot, like Rabbi Akiva, or who sacrifices his life defending the Jewish people, as thousands of Israel’s brave soldiers have done, or any Jew who is murdered merely because he or she is Jewish, like the six million martyrs of the Holocaust, is considered holy, someone who died al Kiddush Hashem – for the sanctification of Hashem’s name. We are taught that their souls ascend to the loftiest heights of Gan Eden into the close embrace of G-d Himself, and they become immortal heroes of Jewish destiny.
Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naftali left this world as heroes of Am Yisrael – of the Jewish people, heroes who died al Kiddush Hashem because they were murdered for one simple reason, and one reason only – and that is that they were Jewish. The last words of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl were famously, “My mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, I am a Jew,” and shortly after uttering these words his abductors slit his throat. Daniel Pearl was murdered for being a Jew, and he died al Kiddush Hashem. Gil- Ad, Eyal and Naftali were murdered for being Jewish, and they died al Kiddush Hashem. They join generations of Jews brutally murdered by enemies across thousands of years and different continents who had one common vision, complete destruction of the Jewish people.
At moments of such unspeakable horror, the enemies of the State of Israel reveal their true vision and philosophy. They do not fight about borders or statehood, but about the very fact that there is a sovereign Jewish state on the holy land of Israel. By definition, any Jewish presence in Israel is offensive to Hamas and others who seek Israel’s complete destruction. So they kidnap and murder young Jewish boys, as anti-Semitic villains have done throughout history. When Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naftali died al Kiddush Hashem, they fell on the front lines of a war declared against the Jewish state by those with a savage and evil ideology who seek the complete destruction of the Jewish people.
But as happens so often in history – such as during the time of Nazi Germany – when the Jewish people are under attack, the battle is one which is a prelude and a warning of impending danger to the other nations of the world. These three brave young men died on the front lines of battle in defense of the Jewish state – in fact, on the front lines of the battle for human civilization.
Their kidnapping and murder demonstrate clearly the savage and evil ideology that drove the perpetrators of these unspeakably evil deeds for all the world to see.
The same evil, savage ideology that drives and motivates Hamas, drives and motivates Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Kenya and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (formerly ISIS) . This evil can only be stopped if the civilized world recognizes it for what it is. Our three boys died in a battle between the forces of dark savagery and the forces of morality and civilization.
Acknowledging that Gil- Ad, Eyal and Naftali died al Kiddush Hashem helps us to see them as heroes and to be inspired by their sacrifice, but it doesn’t remove the awful pain – we remain broken- hearted. Their holy heroism demands that we respond by creating a Kiddush Hashem of our own – spreading the light and goodness of our Torah, recommitting ourselves to Jewish destiny and preserving the awesome Jewish unity which these three boys inspired.
We can draw strength from realizing that the Roman Empire is gone but we still learn the teachings of Rabbi Akiva, that in spite all the pain and sacrifices of Jewish history, we are people of miracles who have carried our Divine mission with inspiring success and tenacity, and that, through Divine intervention and in defiance of every expectation, we have outlived all of our savage enemies and overcome the greatest odds imaginable.
We take comfort in knowing that Rabbi Akiva himself was surely waiting in heaven to welcome Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naphtali. They would be able to discuss with him the Torah they were learning in yeshiva just before they left this world. It was the same Torah that Rabbi Akiva learned and taught. We take comfort in knowing that our mother Rachel, who is buried not far from where they were murdered, was waiting for her three boys with open arms – Rachel “who weeps for her children,” who weeps for all our pain, and who certainly joins us in our prayers as we plead before G-d to bring about the ultimate Kiddush Hashem, to redeem our world, speedily bringing us to the time when, as the verse says, “He will wipe away tears from all faces.”
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.