Following a long legacy of men of faith who confronted heaven and defended their People in times of crushing despair, I take my position at the stand.
It is a delicate craft, this defense, one easily misunderstood. But, at the risk of almost certain misinterpretation, I train my steady gaze on the visage of the Berditchover and speak my truth from the depth of our sorrow.
Master of the Universe, I come before You with a broken heart.
It is post-Meron. Three days after 45 of our very best were suffocated to death a few feet from the kever of Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai. They had come to that place for You, to bring honor to your tzaddikim, to grow closer to everything good and holy. And yet, as these pure Jews streamed out of the Toldos Ahron lighting in search of further inspiration, moments after singing Ani Maamin and accepting Ol Malchus Shomayim, tragedy struck in the most horrific way. There was no enemy. No one was at fault. And in a particularly cruel turn of irony, the cacophony of horrified screams and final whispered prayers was set to the music still exuberantly echoing from the bandstand, “Ki Tov Hashem, for the Eibishter is good.” The highest joy instantly turned into the deepest sorrow. What was to mark the triumphant return of am Yisrael post-Covid to our full glory has instead become one of the darkest hours our generation has known.
I won’t ask where You were in those terrifying moments. I won’t attempt to challenge Your apparent absence from an event entirely devoted to letting You in – a seemingly devastating contradiction to the Kotzker’s famous principle – or wonder where Rebbe Shimon’s power was in this literal “shaas hadechak.” Those questions have already been asked – are perpetually asked – throughout the history of our glorious nation. They have become part and parcel of our collective consciousness and we will answer them now as we always have – by faithfully forging onward, by living, building, and thriving on the very ashes of our destruction – not despite the questions, but specifically because of them. I am acutely aware that You, Your Shechinah which rests within our souls, are suffering right along with us as well.
No, it is not You who is on trial, and I am not the prosecutor.
But, as we desperately try to make sense of what has happened and produce an explanation for this seeming injustice, it seems that the Jewish nation has been placed on trial in the court of public sentiment. If nobody else will, I feel that I must serve as the defense attorney.
While I believe there is an Answer to the questions highlighted above, I refuse to accept that there is anything we could have done to possibly deserve this. It seems obvious that a productive and justified punishment must necessarily be less cruel than the act it intends to punish. Otherwise, what distinguishes between the initial act and the response? I am willing to swear by my life that not even the lowliest Jew could have ever dreamed of perpetrating something even remotely similar to what happened in Meron. None of our communal difficulties, errors, and challenges – including the prevalent charge of our metaphorically “stepping on each other” – come even close.
Everybody is speaking about the achdus-unity at the levayos and other shared expressions of mourning, a positive outcome of this tragedy. They seem not to remember the scenes in Meron mere moments before the tragedy unfolded, where Jews of every affiliation united as one to rejoice, to celebrate, to link arms and grow closer to You. The achdus expressed in the days following the tragedy was not an effect of our re-doubled efforts, of our working on ourselves. It was natural, effortless, a flowing stream of essential oneness that is every-present, while, due to external powers, not always able to be expressed. Have we so soon forgotten the incredible unity expressed at the most recent Siyum HaShas, achdus that did not require a tragedy to evoke? We are improving in this respect, improving all the time. We don’t need tragedies to wake us up – especially when the overt effects of these purported wake-up calls never, ever last.
I ask You: Who else do You have in the world? Which other nation has been dragged through centuries of inquisitions, pogroms, a Holocaust, decades of terror, and endless pain only to remain firm in their faith that, despite all evidence to the contrary, You are Good, that Your Torah is true, that everything that happens is for the best? See the response of our nation to the current tragedy. Everywhere one looks, he will find universal, unquestioning acceptance, staunch emunah, chizzuk and inspiration. It seems that, at this point, there is nothing You could do to throw us away from You anymore. We will not question. We will not seek to hold You accountable. We will not budge. But of course, You know all of this already. How many more tests could we possibly need to pass? We are already refined, we are already prepared for the great revelation, we are already – as we are – a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.
I am reminded of a story in which a Breslover chassid came to Rebbe Nachman to complain about his spiritual challenges. The Rebbe tried to give him chizzuk, but he refused to accept it. “I am truly bad,” he insisted. “Nothing you say will convince me otherwise.”
After a few more tries at encouraging this Jew, the Rebbe bowed his head and said, “You know what? You are right. You are truly hopeless. You are rotten to the core.”
Immediately, the chassid’s eyes filled with tears. “But Rebbe,” he cried, “It can’t be! Surely I have some good left in me! Surely I am still worthy of Hashem’s mercy!”
With shining eyes, Rebbe Nachman lifted his gaze and smiled, for his strategy had worked.
Master of the Universe, I simply cannot accept that in addition to dealing with the trauma of our loss we are expected to bear the burden of an unexplainable guilt, of our somehow being at fault for what has happened. I believe with all of my heart and soul that there is a Reason for what has happened, but not one that any of our current explanations can ever justify. Perhaps, as in the story, Your pushing us away is intended to elicit our defiant certainty that we are indeed deserving, that we are ready for redemption – not due to any post-tragedy improvements but in our very essence, as we are. I hereby testify publicly and with full confidence that Your nation is holy, that Your nation is pure, that Your nation is yearning to be good and is trying their very best to actualize this desire in the difficult arena of 2021.
Part of not understanding Your ways is not making any attempt to explain them. But simply to remain silent, like Ahron HaKohen. To absorb the shock, pain, and grief into the complex and nuanced process of our faith instead of rushing to minimize it by assuming responsibility for something we had nothing to do with.
Father in heaven, please accept my tear-drenched words with the sincerity they are offered. My heart is utterly shattered over the pain of my nation I so desperately adore. Grant us the strength to continue to improve in the way we have already been improving, irrespective of this horrible and unexplainable tragedy. To justify is to minimize, to limit the unfathomability of Your Thoughts. Let us find strength, instead, in our essential goodness that needs no further fixing, in our preparedness for the true Answers to our suffering as we toe the threshold of redemption.
Tatteh, forgive my hubris and the brazenness implicit in my words. We are suffering Tatteh, suffering in ways that defy expression. But at the end of the day, I want You to know that we love You, no matter what. We love Your Torah, no matter what. And despite the pressure many of us feel to make sense of the tragedy by taking the blame, we will continue to love, respect, admire, and take pride in Your nation of which we are blessed to be a part – no matter what.