There are certain issues where we need not always react. The Torah tells us that if we see a lost object, we must attempt to restore it to its rightful owner. This is the mitzvah of hashovas aveidah. Yet, the Torah also concomitantly provides justification for not getting involved. A kohein who spots a lost object in a cemetery need not enter. An aged scholar need not chase a donkey through the fields (Bava Metzia 30b). Sometimes there are exemptions from personal obligation. One person’s responsibility is another’s exemption.
However, the Torah also teaches that no one is absolved from dealing with a dead body. If there is no one to bury a corpse, even the kohein gadol must do so himself. If a body is found between two cities, the members of the Great Sanhedrin themselves must measure the distance to the nearest city. Then the elders of that city must obtain atonement – the eglah arufah – and declare in no uncertain terms that they are innocent of the horrible deed. They must state unequivocally that “our hands have not spilled this blood” (Devorim 21:1-9). Rashi quotes the Gemara (Sotah 45b) that we do not, G-d forbid, suspect the elders of murder. However, they are testifying for all to hear that “we did not see the visitor and send him off without food and accompaniment until he had safely left the city.” The lesson from the law of eglah arufah is that when it comes to loss of life, “every one of us must search our souls to ascertain if we personally carry any responsibility for the tragedy” (Birchas Yaavetz 4:209:6).
And so, I cannot stand by when there is, in fact, a dead body without asking myself, “Do I bear any responsibility for this tragedy?”
I have not come to lay blame, cast aspersions or denounce anyone. But Malky is crying out to every one of us. I would not dare to discuss this in a public venue except for the fact that her parents have bravely gone public, so we cannot be silent. Malky Klein a”h was a 22-year-old Bais Yaakov girl who overdosed after being rejected by various frum high schools. Her father, Avrohom Klein, was interviewed by Dovid Lichtenstein in a shattering although low-key discussion on his radio show. Since I do not know which schools or principals were involved, I cannot presume to have heard both sides.Nevertheless, the fact that Malky was so devastated after being refused admission by a number of our schools is incontrovertible. Furthermore, it is clear that she was not considered a behavior problem or a “bad influence” on the other girls. As a matter of fact, she was an extremely creative young lady and could have been an asset to her school in ways other than academics. She was merely a girl with learning disabilities or some other form of learning impediment. These schools, even one that had originally accepted her, refused her entry and, apparently, dealt her the death blow.
Am I missing details? Perhaps. But, unfortunately, Malky’s tragedy is not isolated and we have not dealt with her story and many others forthrightly or honestly.
At this point, for credibility purposes, I must present my credentials. I have been in chinuch for over forty years, was a principal in several schools, and still teach daily in a high school classroom. I spent over 12 years working hard for Torah Umesorah, without remuneration, just out of love for chinuch. I understand and appreciate the difficulties schools and principals face in making entrance decisions about potential students. Nevertheless, I now wonder if it is not our children who have gone off the derech or it is the parents who threaten a school that they will take their children out if a less-than-perfect child is accepted or not expelled. I wonder if menahelim and teachers are not under too much pressure to produce future gedolim and brilliant rebbetzins. I wonder if some of our beloved chinuch institutions have not lost their human focus and forgotten to measure from the corpse to their door which has been closed to “those children.”
To be sure, a number of wonderful individuals and organizations have come forward to accept achrayus for solving this catastrophe. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz of Yeshiva Darchei Noam and Project Y.E.S. of Agudas Yisroel, Judge Ruchie Freier and her B’derech organization, and Avrohom and Rivka Klein’s own involvement with the Yedidyah organization are just a few examples of what can be accomplished. But until we all accept the lesson of eglah arufah, this tragic situation will not be solved.
Judge Freier cites the shocking statistic of 70 similar deaths r”l in one year. I have spoken to leaders of other organizations, such as Rabbi Dov Silver of Madreigos, whose phones ring nightly with such circumstances all over the United States and beyond.
Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi (Birchas Mordechai, Devorim, page 382) poignantly cites the Gemara (Yoma 23a), which tells the sad tale of the two kohanim who were running up the ramp of the mizbeiach to be the first to perform a sacred act. In frustration, one stabbed the other in the heart with his knife to make sure that he would succeed. Rav Tzadok stood up on the stairs of the Heichal, reminding the assembled kohanim of the law of the eglah arufah. “In our case,” thundered Rav Tzadok, “who will have to offer the eglah arufah, the city of Yerushalayim or the Azarah?” Everyone began to cry. Then the father arrived, as his son was dying. He appeared more concerned about the knife becoming tamei (defiled) than the death of his own son. The Gemara concludes that to them, the defilement of the knife was a greater calamity than the murder of the young kohein. Rav Ezrachi explains that Rav Tzadok was chastising the kohanim for the fact that none of them could claim that they had not shed the blood, for their priorities and sensitivities were totally out of order.
Let me rephrase the question. Have we put our so-called frumkeit ahead of saving lives? Have we become so insensitive to the problems of others that we will make phone calls that can result in death? Are we indeed more concerned with our own purity and perfection that we forget that none of us are actually perfect (Koheles 7:20)?
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Dorash Moshe, page 98) points out that in the eglah arufah ritual, it is at first unclear who must make the declaration that “yadeinu lo shofchu.” The Gemara must come along and reveal that it is the kohanim. Why didn’t the Torah make this clearer?
Rav Moshe answers that the ambiguity leaves room for the responsibility of other leaders and everyone else who could have prevented the tragedy.
The Vizhnitzer Rebbe (Divrei Elokim Chaim 4:93), too, relates that he once heard the interpretation that part of the elders’ “confession” is that “our eyes did not see.” They admit that they did not pay sufficient attention to the process that led to the bloodshed. Have we paid enough attention to the profound pain of our children, our neighbor’s children – Klal Yisroel’s children – who are dying before our very eyes?
Not long ago, I had the sad experience of listening to the plight of a wonderful family in our community whose son had been refused entry to the yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael where most of his friends had been accepted. I was surprised, since he is a fine young man, with an excellent reputation. I called the rosh yeshiva, who was difficult to reach but finally accepted my call. He indicated that these decisions were made by his representative “in the field” who tested and interviewed the candidates. I reached the bochein, who proceeded to blame the rosh yeshiva, since he ostensibly merely forwarded the results of the test. Nothing I said made a difference. The boy went elsewhere and became a star talmid in a fine yeshiva. He has since built a beautiful Torah family, but I was left wondering: What if this young man did not get into another yeshiva? Would he be frum today? Would he be alive today? Would the rosh yeshiva or his representative care? What of all the fine girls who are rejected by several seminaries because their marks are not all perfect?
I would like to suggest that it is time for a process of cheshbon hanefesh and transparency. Sometimes, it is indeed hard for a school to be candid with parents. Sometimes, the school has received information that could be devastating, or perhaps it could be lashon hara or totally false. First of all, I believe that there must be some kind of responsibility for schools to answer to the community, indeed to Klal Yisroel. The worst thing is for parents and a young person not to have an inkling of what is wrong with them or why they have been rejected. Torah schools must be prepared to speak to someone, a family rov, the elementary or high school principal, as the case may be, or even someone of the rejecting school’s choice. But it seems to me to be unacceptable for schools to send out rejection letters – as euphemistically as they are sometimes worded – as if this was an adult applying for a job. These are sensitive young neshamos who are obviously more fragile than any of us thought.
Secondly, we must ask gedolei Yisroel to set guidelines for yeshivos and girls schools that will help avoid these tragedies. Obviously, schools that profess excellence and cater to those who seek academic excellence cannot water down their standards. But every school can tolerate one class in a grade that serves slower students. Within each class, there can be girls who receive resource room or tutorial help who will iy”H become wonderful Jewish parents and grandparents. If we truly care, there are many things that can be done. Let us do this for Malky’s neshamah and for all the Malkys who can still be saved.