The Mercaz HaRav Massacre
How does one experience great joy on what for me is the saddest day of the year?
As my son’s third yahrtzeit approaches, I can hardly believe it has been three years already. It seems like just yesterday I would wait in anticipation for him to arrive home from yeshivah, my ears pricked to hear him walk in the door. But sometimes it seems like an eternity since I last saw him.
Avraham David was one of eight boys and young men killed in a terrorist attack on Rosh Chodesh Adar, March 6, 2008, while learning in the library of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav. He was one of five boys who were high school students from Yashlatz.
Grief never goes away, but it changes over time.
So much has changed since then. The most obvious, for me and my family, is that Avraham David is gone. Grief never goes away, but it changes over time. Initially, there was great shock. Just hanging in there was an act of faith that, if God had a plan, He would be there for us. Now, three years later, life has a lot more routine. His brothers get to school on time, supper gets cooked, there is even time and energy for extracurricular activities for the kids and a dance class for myself.
I actually cry more frequently now. The greatest shock has passed, so now when I think of how much I miss Avraham David, what I feel is intense sadness. That feeling is always somewhere in the background, informing my decisions, and that is precisely why most of the time I am just busy living.
There is an expression, “When God closes a door, a window opens.” Going through a door is a way of getting someplace, or, metaphorically, not being “stuck.” When a door is closed to us, it is hard not to feel both lost and trapped. When God opens that window for us, He is providing us with a way of getting un-stuck. But it is our decision whether we take that window.
When leaving a room, people almost always choose the door. Not only is it convenient, it is habit. When a person takes the window, chances are they need to be a little more creative than usual. Who knows if this metaphoric window is even on the first floor? Not only that, but it forces a person to challenge his or her conventions, his or her expectations of what “ought” to be the way to leave a room, demanding a kind of emotional creativity, too.
Video: Interview with Rav Weiss, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yashlatz, right after the attack. Part 1.
Sometimes it is tempting to stay next to a door, hoping, crying and even praying that it will open again. The decision that most helped me and my family to cope with our loss was the decision to accept that the door had been closed: a big, important door had been irrevocably slammed in our faces. I made a firm decision to accept what we still had and to cherish its blessings. I decided to take the window.
This helped me enable my other kids to go on living, to grow and thrive, despite their own grief. Also, it opened up new possibilities for me. I no longer felt as limited by convention, and I found I cared a lot more about other kids, as well. I realized I wanted to connect with Avraham David’s classmates at Yashlatz. On the one hand, it is symbolic. They are “the boys who lived,” but it is also genuine. It is conventional for a mother to care mostly about her own children, but, as long as I’m taking the window, why not buck convention and care about other kids, as well, if I’ve got love to spare?
Proof that this was a good path was not long in coming. Approaching the first Shavuot after the attack, I was overcome with grief to think that Avraham David’s seat would be empty during Shavuot learning. It dawned on me that the high-schoolers would probably feel even worse, with five of their fellow students missing. So we baked cakes. My kids and I baked cakes in Avraham David’s memory for his friends to eat in the beit midrash on Leil Shavuot. Grief is a kind of love, so we expressed it in love, in a way that nurtured Torah and life.
For the sake of Avraham David’s memory and for the sake of life, I continue to invest as much as I can in my family, and also in Yashlatz. It is no coincidence that my pet project at Yashlatz is the new dining hall that is still in the planning stage, but that we hope to begin building soon. “Without flour there can be no Torah,” and if some of that flour is turned into cake, all the better!
I am discovering that there is joy in so much more than I would ever have realized.
Avraham David’s yartzeit falls on Rosh Chodesh Adar, the day on which we proclaim, “Mishenichnas Adar marbim basimchah – from the beginning of Adar, joy increases.” This injunction falls upon me no less than on all Jews. How does one experience great joy on what for me is the saddest day of the year? There is not one short answer to this, but the beginning of an answer lies in the change of path I have been forced to take. Although the day is associated with sadness for me, I am also discovering that there is joy in so much more than I would ever have realized.
Of course, this does not mean that we are happy Avraham David has died. It just means we can be happy even though we are sad that Avraham David has died. The window did not lead me back to the path that the door led to, but to someplace else that is full of my love for Avraham David, even though he is not in this world to receive it.
I believe that Avraham David’s soul is now in the light of the Divine Presence, and I also believe that somehow he still knows how much we love him and miss him. As for us, the window we took is full of the light of his memory.
Video: Interview with Rav Weiss, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yashlatz, right after the attack, Part 2.
Photo credits: Avraham David by Rebecca Kowalsky and group photo by Yashlatz
This article, reprinted with permission, first appeared Feb 22 on the Orthodox Union's Shabbat Shalom website and newsletter.