July 21, 2024
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July 21, 2024
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On Tuesday, as the nation of Israel mourned the loss of the boys with individual funerals and a joint ceremony, local memorial services were held in Fair Lawn, where all the town’s shuls, from every denomination, joined together at Congregation Shomrei Torah. Another joint memorial was held in Englewood at Congregation Ahavath Torah. JLBC attended the memorial in Englewood, which was held between Mincha and Maariv services. As we went to press, another memorial was also scheduled in Teaneck for the following evening.

Every row in the Ahavath Torah sanctuary was filled with men and women. The assembled congregations were addressed by a number of rabbis. Rabbi Chaim Poupko, Associate Rabbi of Ahavath Torah, opened the memorial by recognizing the enormity of the pain and grief felt by everyone. “How can we explain such a tragedy to ourselves and our children?” he asked. We should look back to the traditional sources that have sustained the Jewish people for millennia. While Tehillim (Psalms) and Aicha (Lamentations) are often turned to at times like these, he devoted his shiur to study of Mishnah, and Pirkei Avot in particular.

The point of the memorial was to promote unconditional achdut, which the three boys generated within the global Jewish community. Rabbi Poupko pointed out the appropriateness of studying Mishnayot to remember the departed because the Hebrew spelling of Mishnah and neshama (soul) contained the exact same letters. He referred to the six levels of tribute to the dead, in increasing order of merit: reciting Kaddish, leading a service, performing a mitzvah in the name of the deceased, studying Torah alone, studying Torah in public, and studying Torah in public between Mincha and Maariv. That period of time is between the light and the dark. Light stands for clarity, confidence, faith, and hope. Night stands for confusion, pessimism, and doubt. Our lives alternated between these two states. We must recognize that our pain and anguish can only be responded to with emunah (faith).

Rabbi Zev Reichman (East Hill) said we were gathered to remember the beloved souls of the three boys. The root of the word Mishnah is the same as second. This implies that the Mishnah should be taught by frequent repetition, so that the precepts expressed become part of each person’s identity. And at the core of that identity is the neshama (soul).

He spoke about their devotion to the study of Torah at their yeshiva, which was founded by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. There the boys are offered a high level of learning, and are encouraged to express themselves creatively through media such as singing. He led the assembled in singing a Shlomo Carlebach tune for “Haneshama lach.” From this poem we should learn to exercise compassion for all other souls.

He asked why Pirkei Avot lays out the chain of tradition from Moses (the Written Law) to the sages (Oral Law). He explained that it is because learning from the actions of our ancestors is more affecting than simply studying books. We learn by example. He said that at this time, the whole Jewish people returned to the traditions of their ancestors. Even secular Jews would take out an old prayer book, perhaps last read by their own grandfather, and pray in congregation (tzibur). All mourners recognized that crises should not lead to doubt, but rather to renewed faith. He ended by reminding the congregants that the world is sustained by three pillars: Torah, prayer, and acts of kindness. If we practice all three, we can grow from this terrible experience.

Rabbi Menachem Genack of Shomrei Emunah said he was stunned and numbed by the news. How can we commemorate the boys? By putting their lives in context. He referenced the precept that we must say The Shma twice each day. Once at night and once early in the day. The Rambam said that if you miss one of these, you destroy the balance between them. The night-time Shma is to affirm faith even in the presence of adversity and even death. The morning Shma is to thank God for all that is good in our lives. Jews have been reciting the Shma in times of existential crises for millennia and our faith is undiminished. What we cannot understand with must accept with faith.

Rabbi Akiva Block of Kehillat Kesher said that Rav Hillel told his students to emulate the students of Aaron, the High Priest. Aaron was a seeker of peace and taught his students to foster a sense of unity, of brotherhood. Hillel thought that it is more important to learn from the example of Aaron than from the lessons of Moses. We have all remembered the boys with prayers, demonstrations, letters, and at our Shabbat tables and simchas. On Monday, a chapter was closed. Our hopes were dashed. But we should remember the gift that the boys left us. They are a shining example of Jewish unity and they brought us all together. No matter how different we are, one from the other, every Jew is your brother or sister. The pursuit of shalom is the boys’ legacy.

Rabbi Mordechai Gershon, assistant rabbi at the Benaroya Sephardic Center at Ahavath Torah, said the boys affected the whole Jewish nation. We cannot foretell what political and social responses there will be to their lives and deaths. But each one of us should look inward to change ourselves in accordance with the lessons that should be learned. In referring to Chapters 4 and 5 of Pirkei Avot he noted that we are advised not only to open our houses to sages, from whom we can learn so much, but to open them to everyone and feed the hunger of their spirits for Torah as well as the hunger of their bodies. In Chapter 6 we are admonished to judge others favorably. This may be the greatest challenge our people face. Our differences vanish in the face of our need for unity. Our prayers refer to us in the plural because we are all one people, one soul. We must recognize that we are all connected (araivim), and achdut (unity) will bring geulah (redemption).

Rabbi Poupko summed everything up by referred us to Chapter 2 of Pirkei Avot. Therein, a rabbi sends his five students out to discover what is a good person’s most important characteristic. They return with different conclusions, but the rabbi says that having a lev tov (good heart) encompasses all the others. His assignment sends them out of the walls of their study hall and into the world to deal with the tzelem elokim (image of God) in all of humanity. He was overwhelmed at the long lines of mourners who made a passage for the families of the boys. This follows our tradition of forming two lines that stand face to face. Here, we have the opportunity to see the dignity in others. We must not only sometimes leave the study hall, but go out of ourselves as well, and see others from their own point of view.

At their funeral, Gilad’s parents spoke about him and our need for unity. Gilad and the other boys broke down the barriers that divide us. We feel strongly about them now, but feelings always dissipate. We cannot expect to feel as deeply about the boys in the future as we do this moment, but we must think of how to restore our unity again and again. We can do that through love and warmth.

By Stephen Tencer

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