Were Our Prayers in Vain?

July 1, 2014

6 min read


The entire Jewish world is plunged into mourning.

Tisha B’Av came early this year. The whole Jewish People is plunged into mourning, a mourning as deep as our hopes were high, as dark as our prayers and unity were bright.

Monday night just before Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller’s weekly class in my home, I was putting out cold water and cups. Rivka, one of the students, came close to me and whispered in my ear, “I had dinner with someone from the Prime Minister’s Office. There’s going to be bad news tonight.”

I looked at her quizzically. She nodded portentously. I ran to the next room to my computer and logged onto Internet news. There in the headline where, for 18 days, we had read the word, “boys,” now there screamed the gruesome, horrific word, “bodies.” “Bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teens found.”

I screamed in anguish. I had thought they were alive. I had thought they were being held as hostages, kept safely for a prisoner exchange. I collapsed into tears of shock and grief. When I collected myself enough to go into the living room, I found Rebbetzin Heller sitting there with her head in her hand, and 20 women weeping.

One of the students offered the information that the boys were found in a field ten minutes away from the place were they were kidnapped, and that they were murdered immediately, within the first hour.

They were already dead before we even knew they were abducted? Before prayers throughout the world stormed heaven for their safe return? Before Jews of every religious and political stripe united in a way we have not seen in years? Before the three mothers appeared at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva pleading for support? Before 15,000 Israeli soldiers, not much older than the boys themselves, spent two weeks without sleep or showers combing every basement and tunnel beneath the terrorist stronghold of Hebron? They were already butchered, their young bodies lying in a shallow grave miles north of the search area.

And in the ocean of our mourning, a question rises up like a sea monster: Were our prayers and our good deeds and our unity in vain?

My friend Tamar lived with her family in Columbia. Her older brother, married with two children, was kidnapped. The kidnappers demanded a million dollars ransom. Tami’s father scraped together the funds and paid the ransom, but her brother was never returned. Six months later they learned, from a man kidnapped together with her brother who escaped, that the kidnappers had murdered her brother before the ransom was even paid.

Were our prayers and good deeds and unity a ransom paid for the safe return of three youths who were already dead? Were our massive spiritual efforts wasted?

Even the night before the bodies were found, nearly 100,000 Israelis assembled in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv in a rally for the youths’ safe return. Celebrities sang songs of yearning and courage, the crowd recited a chapter of Psalms, and the parents of the boys spoke. Iris Yifrach, the mother of Eyal, addressing her missing son, proclaimed, “The whole nation is uniting, everybody is worried about you, waiting for you. …I turn to our precious Am Yisrael – all types and stripes of Jews – we are going through this terrible time together. Let us all support one another.”

Then Racheli Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali, uttered words that in retrospect turn our bones to tears: “Somewhere, there are three kids, living kids, not symbols. There is no chance any of us will give up. The love that we feel here is giving them life.”

They were already two weeks dead. The outpouring of love and goodness of millions of Jews worldwide could not undo the evil of a cabal of vile Jew-haters.

So out of our ocean of mourning, the sea monster of doubt rears its head and mocks: Your prayers and good deeds and unity were in vain.

“Jews Don’t Pray”

Rabbi David Aaron, teaching a series about prayer, exclaimed: “Jews don’t pray.” The word “prayer” comes from a Latin word meaning “to beg.” The problems inherent is that concept of prayer are that we don’t have to tell God what we need, because God is omniscient, and it is futile to try to change God’s mind because God always gives us what He knows is best for us.

On the other hand, the Hebrew word for appealing to God is “l’hitpallel.” It is a reflexive verb, indicating that one is acting on oneself. Through our prayers, we don’t change God; rather, we change ourselves. Since God always gives us as much good as we can contain, through tefilla, prayer, we make ourselves into bigger vessels to contain God’s blessing.

No one can doubt that after 18 days of prayer, good deeds, and a radiant unity not seen in years, the Jewish people is bigger than it was before that frightful night. We are changed. We have transformed from a bickering tribe to a united family. For 18 days, our hearts beat in unison. Our prayers were not an appeal rejected, but a force of love so hot that it melted the iron walls between us, a wind of yearning so strong that it blew off the masks that camouflage our truest selves.

But what of Eyal, Naftali, and Gilad? According to Judaism, the soul of one killed for being a Jew rises to high levels in the “World of Truth,” the spiritual realms where souls go when they exit the physical body. The suffering of Eyal, Naftali, and Gilad ended at the moment of death. Their luminous souls are enjoying the spiritual bliss reserved for those whose great feats in life or martyrs’ death has earned them closeness to God in the world of eternity.

And we, the families of the boys, their friends, their neighbors, and all of us, are left to suffer their loss, to mourn the tragedy of their young lives cut short. Our Bible tells us that there is, “a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

Tisha B’Av came early this year. It is a time to weep and a time to mourn. But if we can only hold onto the unity we achieved in these 18 days, then in its merit the Redemption will come, and it will finally, finally, be a time to dance.

United in Grief: A compendium of articles and reflections

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