Tuesday, November 18, 2014
I rarely write about events occurring in the Middle East. This morning is different. This isn’t political.
When I was little, my mother bought me a two-book series by Lillian S. Freehof (who, incidentally, was the wife of the eminent Reform scholar, Dr. Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof of Pittsburgh). In that series, Freehof took biblical passages, talmudic tales, and rabbinic exegetical texts, and wove them together to create fascinating children’s books telling the stories of Kings David and Solomon.
According to a talmudic legend that she described in her book, King David knew in advance that he was to die when he was 70 years old, and that his life would end on Shabbat. Rabbinic thought teaches that the Angel of Death has no power over someone who is studying Torah, and so, after he turned 70, David would spend the entirety of the Sabbath learning Torah, starting well before Shabbat began and finishing after its conclusion.
(Of course, he could not stall death forever, and the Angel of Death had to get rather crafty to distract him. How that happened is for another space.)
This morning, four people were murdered during morning services at a synagogue in Jerusalem. Many others were injured. Two men came into the synagogue, and armed with a pistol, knives, and an ax, desecrated the universe.
I’ve seen the pictures. I’ve looked at the blood splattered on the synagogue walls and splashed on prayer books. I’ve read quotes from medics detailing how these worshippers were murdered, wearing phylacteries and prayer shawls.
I wear phylacteries and a prayer shawl.
I go to synagogue.
And as I think of this tragedy, as I mourn for the dead, as I lament the state of the world, as I become frustrated by some of the initial reactions – and make no mistake here, whatever your politics, murdering civilians during prayer services simply cannot be justified, only unequivocally condemned – as I pray that such acts never happen again yet fear that they will, I suddenly realize that I have the privilege to pray today. These people didn’t. Now people will be scared to pray. Today people are scared to go to synagogue. They’re terrified. It’s called “terror” for a reason.
And I keep coming back to that childhood story that I read, teaching me that man cannot die when he is studying or reciting verses of Torah. And there is a link, an important link between learning Torah and prayer. In prayer, we speak to God. In learning, God speaks to us. In conversation with God, we are safe. We trust Him, speak to Him, argue with Him, confide in Him, fear Him, love Him.
Perhaps the message of the story is not that man physically can’t die when learning or praying. It is a message that we would hope goes without saying:
Man shouldn’t die during learning, during prayer.
What I believe the Talmud is telling us is that even the Angel of Death has respect for the opportunity that man has to converse with God. It is an opportunity in which, maybe, just maybe, man can find some peace with God.
This, then, is a key aspect of the tragedy. Today, people died in conversation with God.
Since this piece was written, a fifth person, Druze Israeli police officer Sergeant-Major Zidan Saif, died of injuries sustained in his heroic efforts to stop the attackers.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column began as a Facebook entry.