Thoughts on Toulouse: March 23, 2012

           We were horrified by the news from Toulouse this week, the brutal slaying of seven innocent victims of hate. Four Jews, three of them young children, and three French paratroopers were murdered in cold blood. And to learn that one of the victims, 3-year-old Gabriel Sandler, was named for Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, the Chabad emissary killed in Mumbai, added to our heartbreak and anguish.

            As often happens in the wake of terror attacks on our People, we see two religious responses motivated by very different emotional needs. Each is captured by a three-word Hebrew phrase: “Hashem yikom damam-may God avenge their blood” is one; “HaMakom yenahem otam-may the Omnipresent comfort them”-is the other.

            The impulse for the former is natural, an outgrowth of the justifiable desire for vengeance. For generations, Jews have prayed for God to render retribution for the blood of innocents. If you look in the siddur, you’ll find a passage that is recited in some communities nearly every Shabbat called Av harahamim-a memorial prayer for martyrs. But found side by side with rahamim-compassion-in this prayer is a hope for nekamah-revenge. Quotes from the Torah, prophets and Psalms are strung together as a way of urging God to bring justice to the perpetrators of evil. Av harahamim was composed in response to the slaughter of thousands of Jews in Mainz and Cologne in the First Crusades (1096), but for some Jews its words continue to resonate clearly more than 900 years later.

            At times, I feel the same emotional pull that motivates the call for nekamah, vengeance. When hearing that French police had surrounded the killer, I hoped not for his death in a blaze of glory (which is what happened), but rather that his brain serve the cause of scientific research (before he died, mind you, and without an anesthetic).  On some level, we want blood.

            But I struggle with this emotional pull to vengeance. The Jews who composed Av harahamim lived in a position of utter powerlessness. In the 21st century, Jews are, by and large, in a different place. The State of Israel is not weak, and the IDF is the sworn guardian of the Jewish People wherever they reside. In North America, we are particularly strong and safe. Even France, where Jews sensed a degree of vulnerability even before this attack, is home to the third largest Jewish population in the world, so it must be providing Jews some measure of confidence and security. French authorities moved quickly to apprehend the killer, and responded with sincere words and deeds of sorrow and comfort.

            Do we still need to ask God for vengeance?

            It’s a tough question. We have to note that there’s a fine line between nekamah, revenge, and nehamah, comfort. And when we turn our emotions and our thoughts to nehamah, we as a people can come together in remarkable ways. Eva Sandler, who is now bereaved of her husband and two young children, made an eloquent appeal to Jews around the world just days after burying her family. She called on us to use Shabbat candles, Seder invitations and other mitzvot as a way to bring light into the world. Coming from a woman who must be living in unfathomable darkness, this call for light is breathtakingly courageous. She who needs comfort, comforts us.

            But is that all we can do? Will lighting Shabbat candles make someone’s pain dissipate?

            Human emotions are complex and often conflicted. The religious expression of these emotions is sure to be equally textured. There is room in our hearts for hopes of both nekamah and nehamah, and as these impulses struggle with one another for attention, we prove ourselves to be Yisrael, a People up for a healthy struggle. May we have the strength to manage the inevitable inner conflict.

Bivrakhah-with blessing,

Rabbi David Wise