Published in the Jerusalem Post (9.7.2014)
Few are Guilty but All Are Responsible
[Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets]
Just as millions of Israeli Jews prayed for the safety of our three sons and showed unprecedented unity and moral character as no nation has ever shown, let us now sit shivah and mourn the terrible atrocity that has been committed by a few of our sons.
Nothing worse could have happened to us than seeing our children become murderers. This is a chilul HaShem (desecration of God’s name) of enormous proportions.
The damage done to our people, the Torah, and the Jewish tradition are beyond imagination. While all of Israel, across the political spectrum, has unequivocally condemned this act, we must ask ourselves how we have failed. How have we created a society in which children could descend into such savagery?
In the book of Joshua, we read of the tragic story in which one Israelite, Achan the son of Carmi, violated the ban on taking any spoils from the city of Yericho after it was captured by the Israelites. Because of this, the people of Israel suffered a calamity when they subsequently tried to capture the city of Ai. They were totally defeated, and many were killed. The text relates that the hearts of the troops sank in utter dismay (7:5). When Joshua asked God why this happened, God answered: “[All of] Israel has sinned. They have broken My covenant… and they have taken from the spoils; they have stolen, and have broken their trust…. I will no longer be with you if you do not uproot this evil from your midst” (7:11-12). We are taken by surprise at the severity of God’s response, accusing all of Israel, while actually it was only one man, Achan, who defied the ban. How can we understand God’s wrath (7:1)?
The answer is that few are guilty, but all are responsible. By simply maintaining our innocence we are guilty of striking a major blow to our moral standards in light of what man has done. Our responsibility for what others do lies at the heart of our humanity. When there is complacency, and surrender to evil, we violate our very existence. All are involved in what some do. When we lose the capacity for outrage, we pave the road to violence. When we behave morally but fail to make morality the very essence of our lives, we have lost our souls. If we do not express outrage, shock and contrition when a small immoral act is perpetrated, we invite murder into our community. When we disregard human and Jewish values, it will come back to bite us. When murder takes place in our community, all our hands are stained with blood.
This barbaric act that has been carried out compromises us Jews in ways that are as yet beyond our comprehension. That our young people dare to burn another human being to death violates Judaism as well as the memory of all our Jewish brothers and sisters who were murdered in the crematoria. It makes a mockery of the very holiness of our three sons who were killed for no other reason than being Jews. There is no defense for this violent act.
But let us not make the mistake of believing that we have sunk to the level of our enemies. We do not dance on the rooftops of our homes when a Palestinian boy is killed. Nor do we incite, in our classrooms, hatred and violence against Arabs. We do not brainwash our children to become martyrs by strapping bombs on themselves and killing Arabs. Nor do we name city squares after Jewish terrorists. And while there are some Jewish fools who want to avenge the murder of our three boys, we did not start throwing stones or Molotov cocktails. We did not burn tires or destroy railway stations in Arab towns. Instead, more than one hundred thousand of us walked in total silence behind their coffins, without a word of revenge on our lips. We do not celebrate the deaths of our enemies. We have no mothers expressing pride in their children for killing people.
But still, a breach has been made in the wall of our Jewish dignity, and it is not easily mended.
Much self-critique and razor-sharp scrutinizing of morals will have to be done. We should leave no stone unturned until we get to the heart of what has happened that allows such a terrible crime to take place in our midst. Something is rotten and it must be addressed as quickly as possible. We need to ask ourselves why, even in some religious schools, Jewish values are not taught in a way that students understand “Israel shall do no iniquity” (Tzefaniah 3:13). There is no point in educating our children on the importance of Shabbat and kashrut while failing miserably when it comes to teaching them dignity and the sanctity of all human life.
We must do more to make Israeli Arabs realize that we want them to have equal rights once they behave as civilized citizens. But they must also be aware that they are much better off in Israeli society than in any Arab country.
Under no circumstances are we allowed to differentiate between Jew and Arab when it comes to punishment for murder. “There shall be one law for you” (Vayikra 24:22). Murder is murder, and we must have zero tolerance for any such violation. In fact, we should re-evaluate our stance on capital punishment for Arab and Jew alike.
Basically, we have to realize that the American government and the European countries are responsible for this sad state of affairs. Their conciliatory approach to Hamas ultimately leads to disaster. As long as this barbaric organization is not completely annihilated, there is no chance that Arabs and Jews will live together in peace. World governments must refuse to give any help to societies whose schoolbooks teach hatred for Jews and who dance in celebration when Jews are killed. Few are guilty, but all are responsible.
In order to express our strong condemnation of what happened last Wednesday, we should all sit on the floor for an hour, recite the Lamentations of Yirmiyahu the Prophet, and make it clear to our youth and to the world that murder has no place among us; that we are a nation of greatness and that we will never give in to the evil in our midst.
Perhaps one day the nations of the world will begin to see their own hypocrisy, double standards and cowardice.
We Jews will not surrender to evil, moral mediocrity, false security or deceptive comfort.
“The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Earth Is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe).