Center Field: Too many heroes, martyrs and angels

Labels like “hero” and “martyr” give the lives – and tragic deaths – extra meaning.

Pigeons resting inside a crevice in the Western Wall (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
Pigeons resting inside a crevice in the Western Wall
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
Our beloved homeland’s summertime blues is clouding over my family’s annual vacation.
We left Jerusalem still mourning the two Druse policemen ambushed by Palestinian murderers emerging from the Temple Mount – proving that Palestinian terrorists, like most Islamists, don’t respect Islamic holy places as sacred but only invoke religion to justify their sadism. We are disgusted by the slaughter of three innocent people as they celebrated Friday night dinner – illustrating yet again how Palestinian demagoguery incites Palestinian savagery. And, more personally, my kids are mourning the drowning of a friend from their Bnei Akiva youth movement chapter in Jerusalem.
Amid this jumble of emotions, I am celebrating what I now think of as my two birthdays: the day on which I was born, and the day two summers ago when I survived a near-death experience. We were on a family holiday to Norway, walking the ice glaciers, wielding sharp axes to get traction in the ice, when I took a wrong half-step and catapulted sideways into a deep, deadly crevasse. Although I ended up suspended upside down, the safety ropes held, the axe I was wielding failed to injure me and I even succeeded in saving my eyeglasses.
I’m thinking a lot about that moment as my children mourn their 18-year-old friend Yonatan Adler, who was crossing a narrow bridge over rushing waters outside Tbilisi, Georgia, last week. Like me, he slipped and fell. Unlike me, he didn’t survive.
My kids describe him lovingly as a “real Bnei Akivan,” in the best sense of the term – pious, idealistic and altruistic, earnest, high-spirited and well-meaning. They describe how devastated so many of their friends are – how dozens sat together last Shabbat, singing quietly, with various friends sharing memories between songs.
Our discussions, struggling to make sense of this tragedy, get drawn into the currents of conversation humans have been trying to navigate for millennia. We try to explain, in the words of the book by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, “Why bad things happen to good people.”
We wonder where God and righteousness and justice fit in. And we ask the questions from the High Holidays: who shall live and who shall die? We wonder why I was saved, and this wonderful kid wasn’t. Who in their time and who before their time? We wonder about celebrating a 97-year-old’s birthday and burying an 18-year-old the same summer. Who shall be exalted and who shall be laid low? We wonder why one friend survives a near-fatal car accident on his post-army trek and while recovering meets the woman who is now his wife, yet another one is run over by a distracted driver and will never walk again.
We talked about our beloved “ghosts” – our loving memories of friends whose lives were cut short by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by succumbing to the rules of gravity, or chance.
But while wondering we also appreciate the wonders. Eighty-four Israelis mobilized to help search for Yonatan when word of the accident spread. More broadly, the best I can tell my kids as a father is “be grateful for the good in life, and live every day to the fullest – but not the dumbest.” Life is a blessing – and offers amazing adventures. You should trek to Georgia when you are 18 and walk on ice glaciers, even when you’re the father of four. You cross the bridge holding the safety rope – which is what Yonatan did. You hire a guide and have safety equipment – which is what I did. You live your life and hope for the best.
We struggled with the way we frame different deaths. We call Hail Stawi, 30, and Kamil Shnaan, 22, the two Druse police officers murdered in the line of duty last week, “heroes.” They and thousands of others who have fought for Israel sacrificed everything so we can live freely, happily, safely. We call Yosef Salomon, 70, and his children Haya, 46, and Elad, 36, who were slaughtered at the Shabbat table, “martyrs.” Indeed, the despicable Palestinian incitement that preceded the crimes, the premeditated nature of the murders and the hatred rooted in millennia of antisemitism that motivated the killer, located these three people historically with so many others Jews killed for being Jewish. Labels like “hero” and “martyr” give the lives – and tragic deaths – extra meaning.
What, then, I asked my kids, do we call those who die in random accidents, including from fatal illnesses when young?
Thinking about my life – my “ghosts” – I propose we call these people “angels.” I am under no illusions that dying young means you always lived virtuously. But when we mourn these people we honor their goodness, the wonderful things they did.
So, in a world lacking role models, thirsting for inspiration, and diminished by the deaths of genuinely good people like these innocents, let’s call them angels. Let’s honor the good they did in their lives – and define them as cherubs, at their purest, like rosy-cheeked celestial children. Let’s celebrate their strengths, perpetuate their values, mimic their virtues. Let’s, when we’re ready, learn from their struggles and faults too. And let’s hope, pray, and do everything we can, to help their grieving loved ones delight in their angels existentially, even while we – and most especially they – miss them desperately, daily.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.