The Torah community of Eretz Yisrael achieved a brief moment of unity this past week. Unfortunately, it took the tragic slaughter of eight young yeshiva students at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav to bring it about.
Who could have even imagined before the attack the circumstances that could bring the Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, Rabbis Rafael Shmulevitz and Yitzchak Ezrachi of Mirrer Yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Farbstein of Hebron Yeshiva, Rabbi Asher Weiss, and Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, executve vice-president of Agudath Israel of America to the campus of Mercaz Harav?
Or that would provoke the fiercely anti-Zionist Satmar Rebbe to proclaim of the students of Mercaz Harav, the flagship institution of religious Zionism, “When a disaster like this occurs, murderers penetrating into a yeshiva, it is as painful to HaKadosh Baruch Hu as the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash. This is a overwhelming tragedy for all of us. They were learning at that moment the same Torah we learn. The Gemara is the same Gemara.”
Speaking only a few minutes after the slaughter, Rabbi Reuven Leuchter, one of the closest talmidim of the late Mashgiach Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, said that anyone who did not understand the shooting in Mercaz HaRav as a threat to every yeshiva, anyone who tried to make distinctions between this yeshiva and another, is a dangerous idiot.
He compared such thinking to that of an imaginary Jew in Baronovich, who said to himself after Kristallnacht, that the Jews of Germany were all assimilated, and so their experience did not portend anything for Baranovich, and after the Nazis herded the Jews of Warsaw into a ghetto, that the Bundists were strong in Warsaw, but the Nazis won’t come to Baranovich. But the Nazis did come to Baranovich, and they killed Briskers and Bundists alike.
Those murdered seem to have been Divinely-picked to increase the identification of all bnei Torah with the magnitude of the tragedy. The bochurim who were in the Mercaz HaRav library when the assassin entered had all come to snatch a few extra minutes of learning while most of their classmates were preparing for a Purim party.
My son-in-law gives a weekly shiur in the Mercaz Harav high school in the framework of Ve’Dibartem Bam, an organization that arranges for weekly shiurim by avreichim in national religious yeshiva high schools in order to expose the students to the geshmak of yeshivishe lomdus. Normally, he gives the shiur on Thursday night. Last week, it was pushed forward because of the Purim party. Three of murdered yeshiva bochurim were past or present talmidim of his, though none of them needed anyone to spark their love of learning. Each was an unbelievable masmid.
At the Shabbos table, after the murders, my son-in-law described some of the qualities of these bochurim. Yochai Lipshitz, 18, was part of the furniture of the beis medrash. Whenever one entered the beis medrash, he was hovering over his Gemara, a big smile on his face. “Everyone came back tired from a hike – Yochai was in the beis medrash; everyone was at some kind of celebration – Yochai was in the beis medrash; everyone was studying for a test – Yochai was in the beis medrash.”
Yehonadav Chaim Hirshfeld, 19, according to my son-in-law, was an extraordinarily talented learner. Every month, he completed all of mishnayos – 18 perakim (chapters) a day. My son-in-law described his interest in hashkafic discussions with those whose path differed from his own, and how he pursued those discussions with a thirst to arrive at the truth and with genuine respect for another point of view.
It is hard to look at pictures of the smiling, baby face of Avraham David Moses, and imagine what kind of monster could have deliberately killed him. Only 16, he had already mastered a number of masechtos. Yet when he asked a question in shiur or sought to offer a solution, it was always with incredible modesty and with an effort to hide how much he knew. (I have included only the descriptions of the three talmidim to whom my son-in-law was close to. Equally remarkable stories are told about the other korbonos: Doron Meherette, 26, Roi Roth, 18; Yonatan Eldar, 16; Neria Cohen, 15; Segev Peniel Avichayil, 15, Hy”d)
THAT GREAT TRAGEDY has the power to unite us is, of course, not a new story. The Jews at the beginning of Megillas Esther are described by Haman, the master of evil speech, as an am m’fuzar u’m’furad, a scattered and dispersed people. The commentators have seen in this description a hint to the disunity and internal divisions among the Jews of the Persian Empire.
Only with the threat of annihilation hanging over them do the Jews of the realm acquire a degree of unity. First, the Jews of Shushan fast for three days for Esther before she presents herself, uninvited, to Achashverosh. Later, the Jews of the provinces gather together, in each place, to take vengeance on their enemies, who had been preparing their destruction.
In commemoration of the new found unity of the Jews of Persia, Mordechai and Esther decree the sending of mishloach manos ish l’reyahu – an expression of brotherhood amidst rejoicing.
If we ever hope to find a decree of unity in joy, and not in sadness, and to learn to appreciate the strengths of those whose approaches are not our own in their lifetimes and not just after they have been snatched away, perhaps the mitzvah of mishloach manos would be a good place to start.
Let us each undertake this year to send mishloach manos to someone outside our close circle, someone who might be surprised by our gift or who may not even know of the mitzvah at all.
Perhaps if we drew a little closer in happiness, we would not have to keep rediscovering one another in pain.
Published in Mishpacha March 19, 2008
Why not in joy?
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 notably 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 first brought together the Jews of Shushan and subsequently those of the entire Persian Empire. When Haman first describes the Jewish people to Achashverosh, 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 issues, the Jews of Shushan quickly find their unity. They all fast for three days in anticipation of Esther’s uninvited approach to Achashverosh. 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 within 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 medrash in Jerusalem.
But I think that the identification with the victims in Mercaz Harav went beyond “There but for the grace of G-d go I.” True, there should have been more haredim at the levaya (myself included). But who could have possibly imagined prior to the tragedy the circumstances that would bring the Belzer Rebbe, roshei yeshiva of Mirrer and Hebron yeshivos, some of the most respected contemporary talmidei chachamin, 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 the martyrs and of the faith and strength of their families in their grief. There has been nothing half-hearted or restrained about the praises 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 religious world: How the Belzer Rebbe secluded himself after hearing the news, despite the presence of thousands of his hasidim in Jerusalem to celebrate the bar mitzvah of his oldest grandson,, and how he went to the levaya and to visit the wounded in hospitals. How the Gerrer Rebbe, on his way to Jerusalem for a celebratory Shabbos with his hasidim, 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 the community’s isolation. There is, I think, a desire on the part of many haredim for more chances to connect with their fellow Jews in common purpose, 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 the founding of volunteer organizations serving the entire population, such as Yad Sarah and Ezer M’Tzion, 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 Yisrael, 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 issue a decree that all the Jews of the empire should send “mishloach manot ish l’reyahu – portions of food each man to his friend.” Having found a degree of unity in the face of an adversary determined to kill and destroy every single Jew, they now sought to preserve that unity amidst 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 mishloach manot is not to do something nice for one’s friends but to make new friends among those from whom one had previously felt distant. Perhaps if we each reached out today and sent mishloach manot to someone outside of our close circle, we could begin to discover one another in joy and not just tragedy.
This article appeared in Jerusalem Post Mar 19, 2008