There is a painful story in the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Yoma), that describes the murder of a young boy; a Kohein (priest). He was stabbed in the heart with a knife. The victim was convulsing on the ground, evidence that he was not yet dead. The boy’s father approached his son in seizure, just moments away from his expiration. He saw his son on the floor drawing his last breaths and the knife was still lodged in his son’s chest. The father asked the onlookers nearby to remove the knife from his chest so as not to render it impure and thus not usable by other Kohanim (priests), in the future. The implication is that if the boy had died while the knife was still wedged in his chest, it would render the knife impure and ineligible for future use by priests.
The anonymous author of the Talmud concludes with a powerful chastisement and lesson. He wrote, “It shows us that at times the Priests were more concerned with the purity of their vessels than they were with the spilling of blood.”
The Tanna, (author of the Talmud) was saying, what is the purpose of
following the laws if you get so caught up in the fulfillment of the law
you lose focus on what they are all about in the first place? What
value do pure vessels bring to the world when we cannot mourn the loss
and feel the pain of a murdered child? When we lose focus and
concentrate on the letter of the law without regard for the spirit of
the law, we lose value of fulfilling the law – which is a blend of
spirit and action.
There were two events that happened in the past week, divided by 7,000
miles but bound together in their sadness and loss of focus on the
spirit of their respective actions. One happened in Mumbai, India and
one happened in Valley Stream, NY.
In Mumbai, well organized and trained terrorists, loaded with plastic
explosives, grenades and automatic weapons stormed multiple targeted
sites frequented by westerners in Mumbai. These terrorists, of suspected
Pakistani origin, fired indiscriminately at crowds of people, blew up
cafes and entered people’s hotel rooms with the sole intention of
killing them. These sadistic beings looked their victims in the eyes as
they stole their lives away from them. And, in a city of 18 million
people and a Jewish population of less than 10,000, this terrorist group
targeted a Jewish Center, the Chabad house, as one of its 12 places to
wreak havoc and brutalize and kill all inside.
The Mujahedeen – guerilla warriors engaged in a “holy war” for the sake
of Islam and in an effort to uphold the teachings of the Quran – claimed
responsibility for these despicable acts. Why? What was their cause?
What was their beef with India, the residents of the hotel or the Chabad
house? While the investigation is still ongoing and details will be
forthcoming, it is clear that these were radical, Islamic
Is this what the Quran teaches? To kill innocent people in hotels? Islam
espouses at its core to attack Jewish houses of worship and murder
women and defenseless rabbis and visitors? To bomb cafes? To fire guns
and launch grenades randomly to hit women, children and the innocent?
I am not a Muslim but I am confident, that is not what the Quran teaches
nor what Islam encourages its followers to pursue.
What has happened here, as has happened in Madrid, London, Bali,
Baghdad, New York, Washington and Israel, is that radicals, people who
have twisted, mangled and raped the words of the Quran and more
importantly, the spirit of the Quran, have lost the focus on the
teachings of Islam and what its purpose is all about. Does this religion
call for such unfounded hatred, such random violence? No. These young,
impressionable guerillas were taught what to think instead of being
encouraged to think for themselves. These young radicals became so
caught up in a book and were offered a distorted understanding of their
religion, they could not even see a semblance of the spirit or purpose
of their law or religion as it was intended. What a shameful tragedy;
the loss of life, senselessly and the loss of possibility of sharing the
positive spirit of the religion of Islam.
7,000 miles away, this past November 28, known as Black Friday for the
post Thanksgiving shopping incentives and frenzy, tragedy struck in
Valley Stream NY. A Walmart store was preparing to open its doors to
eager shoppers at 5 AM. A large and burgeoning crowd assembled outside
the doors to be the first to shop and save on the Walmart bargains
offered. A few minutes before the doors were scheduled to open, the
crowd of more than 2,000 became unruly. There was pushing, shoving and
the doors of the front door of the Walmart bowed and then shattered as
the wild mob shoved their way through the front doors,5 minutes before
the store was scheduled to open. In the process, they trampled a young
Walmart employee, J. Damour. He was killed. The police and paramedics
valiantly tried to save his life, as the store surveillance testifies.
The surveillance camera also testifies that as the emergency workers
were performing CPR in the entrance of the store, shoppers could be seen
dashing for sales and walking around the injured man without pause. No
care and no concern for a man on the ground.
Hours after the holiday of Thanksgiving, where we gather around our
tables and proclaim our collective thanks for our gifts and bounties in
life; friends, family and football, we rush to the doors of retailers in
an act of greed? I am confused. Isn’t that antithetical to the holiday
we just celebrated? Have we even digested our turkey and stuffing before
we are lining up at stores trying to stock up on material goods? Making
matters worse, these shoppers were rushing to buy gifts for the
holidays; for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza. These were not people
trampling others in a line to buy bread and milk.
Is this the spirit of the holiday? Is this what we want from our holiday
season? Stampeding human life in a quest for material goods? Is this
what the miracle of Hanukkah is all about? Is this what the Christmas
spirit invokes? Sadly, we are so focused on the discounted television
and the half off microwave that we have lost our focus on what we are
shopping for in the first place – meaning not bargains, values not
The priest from the Talmud that asks us to remove the knife from the
seizing child before it becomes impure, while he might know the letter
of the law, does not understand the spirit of the law. The mad men that
blew up cafes and stormed synagogues and brutally murdered innocent
people in the name of Allah in what they think their religion wanted of
them, have no clue what the true spirit of their religion is about. And,
the shoppers so intent on grabbing a bargain for the holiday season that
they trampled over a human life to reach the sale items first, lost the
whole purpose of the holiday shopping experience.
I am afraid that as a world, we have lost our focus on the spirit of our
actions and their true purpose and meaning in our lives. These terrible
events separated by thousands of miles must serve as a wake-up call to
the religious leaders of the world to realign and refocus our spirit and
application of our religious law. We must condemn these acts and set the
coordinates for our worshippers to realize the splendor and beauty in
the spirit of the actions as well as the action itself. If we do not act
swiftly, we might never be able to recognize the value and significance
the spirit that religion brings to our individual lives and our shared