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 drawing his last breaths and the knife still lodged in his son’s chest. The father asked the onlookers to remove the knife from the boy’s chest so as not to render it impure. The implication is that if the boy had died while the knife was still wedged in his chest, it would ineligible for future use by priests.
The anonymous author concludes with a powerful chastisement and lesson. He writes, “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 author was saying, what is the purpose of following the laws if you get so caught up in the fulfillment of the law that 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 the 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, N.Y.
In Mumbai, well-organized and trained terrorists loaded with plastic explosives, grenades, and automatic weapons, stormed multiple sites frequented by westerners. These terrorists, of suspected Pakistani origin, fired indiscriminately at crowds, blew up cafÃ©s, 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. And in a city of 18 million people and a Jewish population of less than 10,000, they targeted a Jewish center, the Chabad house, as one of 12 places to wreak havoc and brutalize and kill all inside.
The Mujahedeen – guerrilla warriors engaged in a “holy war” for the sake of Islam and in an effort to uphold the teachings of the Koran – 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 ongoing, it is clear that these were radical Islamic fundamentalists.
Is this what the Koran teaches? To kill innocent people in hotels? To attack Jewish houses of worship and murder women and defenseless rabbis and visitors? To bomb cafÃ©s? To fire guns and launch grenades randomly to hit the innocent?
I am confident that is not what the Koran 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 Koran – and more important, the spirit of the Koran – have lost the focus on the teachings of Islam and its purpose. Does this religion call for such unfounded hatred, such random violence? No. These young, impressionable guerrillas 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 see even a semblance of its spirit or purpose. What a shameful tragedy: the senseless loss of life and the loss of the possibility of sharing the positive spirit of the religion of Islam.
Seven thousand miles away, this Nov. 28, known as Black Friday for the post-Thanksgiving shopping incentives and frenzy, tragedy struck in Valley Stream, N.Y. A Walmart store was preparing to open its doors to eager shoppers. A large and burgeoning crowd assembled outside the doors. A few minutes before the doors were scheduled to open, the crowd of more than 2,000 became unruly. They pushed and shoved, and the doors of the Walmart bowed and then shattered as the wild mob shoved their way in, five minutes before the store was scheduled to open. In the process, they trampled a young Walmart employee, Jdimytai Damour. 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, without care and 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, for 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, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa. 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 Chanukah 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 – for values, not valuables.
The priest from the Talmud who asks us to remove the knife from the seizing child before it becomes impure does not understand the spirit of the law. The mad men and women who blow up cafÃ©s and storm synagogues and brutally murder 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. 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. We must condemn these acts. 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 world.