Challenging God when teens are murdered
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Challenging God when teens are murdered

The response of many rabbis to the tragic murder of three teens in Israel has been more spiritual than physical. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s response to the murder of the three older boys, whom I understand he knew personally, is moving. Rabbi Steinsaltz is one of Israel’s greatest luminaries. But his commentary, which was published online in the Times of Israel, also is odd. It requires a rejoinder.

Rabbi Steinsaltz says that now they are no longer alive, the boys are “attached to the Almighty’s mantle, in a closeness of everlasting fondness and permanent remembrance before Him.”

Such ideas sound more Christian than Jewish. We are a nation that values life, not death. We do not believe people are better off in heaven but that they have a mission here on earth. The place of these three young martyrs is not at the Almighty’s mantle but at their parent’s dinner table, and at soccer games with their siblings.

Rabbi Steinsaltz goes on to defend the notion of prayer, saying that those who supplicated God for the safe return of the teens should not feel forlorn because “each and every prayer that was said created some kind of an elevation in all the higher worlds, and these requests and supplication will bring light and deliverance.”

Respectfully, this is not what we need to hear at present. Nor was it the path of the Lubavitcher rebbe, to whom Rabbi Steinsaltz just dedicated a biography. To the contrary. The word “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” We have a right to challenge God, to ask him why our prayers for these boys was met with silence, why our supplication seemingly was ignored. God himself commanded us to “choose life,” and we have a tradition that tells us that He commands us nothing that He Himself does not practice. So why did God not choose life this time?

Rabbi Steinsaltz says that “these prayers are there, and they are a source of grace and mercy for us and for the entire world.” How so? The boys are dead. They deserve to be alive. They were good, religious kids. Their only sin was to want to spend the Sabbath with their families, obeying the Ten Commandments by honoring their parents.

I am a religious man and an Orthodox Jew. But religion is degraded when it offers empty platitudes and empty comfort.

Rabbi Steinsaltz’s words smack too much of religious resignation and humble spiritual submission. The rebbe was famous for asking “ad mosai?” Until when? How long? How long, oh Lord, will innocent children die at the hands of terrorists? How long will the Jewish people be the target of murderers? And how long will you allow it, oh Lord?

Moses famously challenges God to remove his name from the Torah if the Almighty will devour the Jews for their sins. Have we learned nothing from his spiritual audacity?

Rabbi Steinsaltz rightly inveighs against any thought of revenge, and indeed, if a revenge killing was carried out with the tragic murder of the Palestinian child found dead in the woods – and as yet we know no details – then this action is an utter abomination against all things Jewish and it is repugnant in the extreme. My Jewish heart goes out to his Islamic parents.

But even so, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s advice that our principal response should be to “do Kaddish” is appropriate for the grieving parents who have suffered an unmentionable tragedy and whom we seek to comfort in their moment of unspeakable pain.

But it is inappropriate for the rest of us. Our response must be renewed vigilance. Israel must strike at the terrorists who did this, so that they can never harm innocent children and teens again. Israel must sow fear in the hearts of the wicked, so that they know that Jewish blood is not cheap, that every murdered child comes with an awesome price.

Rabbi Steinsaltz says “each and every one of us should also act as best he or she can in order to do Kaddish – by studying more Torah, by fulfilling one more mitzvah, by our physical actions or by giving of our time and money to those in need.” That is good but secondary advice. Now is not the time to focus only on doing the ritual mitzvot. Now is the time to protect and safeguard life.

Now is the time for Israeli special operation forces to weed out the terrorists. Now is the time for the brave men and women of the IDF to hunt down the killers and utterly uproot their terror network.

For 3,300 years the Jewish people have performed the mitzvoth. We have been the nation most devoted to God in the history of the world. We have produced rabbis and scholars, pious people and religious devotees. And still they have murdered and killed us.

Now is the time for military resolve. We built an army to keep us safe, so we never have to rely on other nations for protection. We need God’s salvation at every moment. We need God’s deliverance at every second. We need’s God’s love for our very lives.

But the Torah is clear. “And the Lord will bless you in all that you do.” In this context doing means supporting the brave men and women of the Israel Defense Forces so they may find the terrorists and neutralize them, so that no parent has to ever say Kaddish prematurely, God forbid.

Rabbi Steinsaltz says that “although our hearts are filled with weeping, we should also make sure that they will also be filled with joy…. Let us thank God, rejoice in our being the chosen ones, and endeavor to fulfill our mission with faith and joy.”

I disagree. Now is the time for weeping and for physical resolve. Joy cannot come to us until we take action to safeguard Israel’s citizens so that they can live in their land in peace. Israel has no quarrel with our Arab brothers and sisters. But we will wage eternal war against those who seek to murder us, as they did these innocent teens, simply for being Jewish.

We are not chosen to die but to live. And rather than thanking God, we should be challenging the Almighty to send the Messianic redeemer so that, as the prophet promised, at the end of days “death will be consumed forever.” Only then will there be complete joy.

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