Think Again: Why not in joy?

Understanding the haredi community's reaction to the Mercaz Harav massacre

It is part of human nature, I suppose, that external threats bring us together - the bigger the threat, the closer together. Only in Israel have the magnitude and multiplicity of outside threats not made our society generally less fractious, unless a general apathy is viewed as a sign of unity. Last night and this morning, we read in Megillat Esther how a decree of annihilation brought the Jews of Shushan and subsequently those of the entire Persian Empire together. When Haman first describes the Jewish people to Ahasuerus, he refers to them as an am echad m'fuzar u'm'furad - "a scattered and dispersed people." Many classic commentators have seen in those words a description of the disunity and internal divisions of the Jews of Persia. But once Haman's decree to destroy and kill every Jew is issued, the Jews of Shushan quickly find unity. They fast for three days in anticipation of Esther's uninvited approach to Ahasuerus. Later, the Jews of all the far-flung provinces are repeatedly described as "gathering together" as they prepare to face their enemies. THE HORRIBLE slaughter at Mercaz Harav two weeks ago brought a measure of momentary unity to the world of religious Jewry. In part, the feeling of closeness reflected a general awareness that the murderer could have walked equally unimpeded into thousands of minyanim and hundreds of crowded batei midrash in Jerusalem. But I think that identification with the Mercaz Harav victims went beyond "There but for the grace of God go I." True, there should have been more haredim at the funeral (myself included). But who could have possibly imagined prior to the tragedy the circumstances that would bring the Belzer Rebbe, heads of the Mirrer and Hebron yeshivot, some of the most respected contemporary Torah scholars, and the head of Agudath Israel of America to the citadel of religious Zionism? Who could have imagined the fiercest ideological foe of Zionism in all its varieties, the Satmar Rebbe, telling his followers - two days after eight yeshiva students in religious Zionism's flagship institution were mowed down in the midst of their studies - "When a tragedy of this magnitude occurs - murderers penetrating a yeshiva - it is in Hashem's eyes comparable to the burning of the Temple. They were learning, at that moment, the same Torah we learn. The Talmud is the same Talmud"? FOR TWO weeks, the haredi press has been filled with detailed stories about each of the martyrs and about the faith and strength of their families in their grief. There has been nothing half-hearted or restrained about the praise lavished on the murdered students or their families. The haredi press has been similarly filled with stories of the community's leaders reaching across the divide in the Orthodox world: How the Belzer Rebbe secluded himself after hearing the news, despite the presence of thousands of his hassidim in Jerusalem to celebrate the bar mitzva of his oldest grandson, and how he went to the funeral and to visit the wounded in hospitals. And how the Gerrer Rebbe, on his way to Jerusalem for a celebratory Shabbat with his hassidim, turned around upon hearing the news, and declared that it would be impossible to celebrate after such a tragedy. Rabbi Avrohom Schorr, one of the most respected Torah scholars in Brooklyn, speaking after the savage murders, was almost inaudible through his sobbing. "What did you do after you heard the news?" he asked. "Did you go on with life as usual? Did you eat supper as usual? HOW COULD YOU?" A rabbi from Queens flew to Israel to make a shiva call to each of the bereaved families. And many of us in Israel did the same. WHAT WAS at work in the haredi community was, in part, a desire to reach across barriers and to break out of its isolation. There is, I think, a desire on the part of many haredim for more chances to connect with their fellow Jews, and the terrible events at Mercaz Harav provided one such opportunity. That desire for a closer connection with non-haredi Jews perhaps explains the wildly disproportionate involvement of haredim in founding volunteer organizations serving the entire population, such as Yad Sarah and Ezer Mizion, and a host of medical referral organizations. It also explains, in part, the communal impulse to try to engage secular Israelis in Torah study. The concept of Klal Israel, of all Jews sharing a common history and a common mission, is a live one in the haredi community. But it is also an abstraction. And like any abstraction, it requires the reinforcement of concrete experience. AFTER THE events of Purim, Mordechai and Esther issued a decree that all the Jews of the empire should send mishloah manot ish l'reyehu - "portions of food each man to his friend." Having found unity in the face of an adversary determined to destroy every single Jew, they now sought to preserve that unity amidst their rejoicing. That would be a good lesson for us as well. Unity need not be only a by-product of fear or sadness. And it is not necessary to wait for tragedy to discover the considerable merits of those who follow a different approach. One major halachic authority writes that the primary purpose of mishloah manot is not to do something nice for one's friends, but to make new friends among those from whom one previously felt distant. Perhaps if we each reached out today and sent mishloah manot to someone outside our close circle, we could begin to discover one another in joy and not just in tragedy.