Sunday, Sep 19, 2021

The End As We Know It

I should have started this column earlier in the day. It would have been much easier to write something about the president appointing the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, the maker of both Tide® laundry detergent and Pampers®, to clean up the mess at the Veteran Administration's healthcare system.

It would have been easier to find a lesson from a few billion people interrupting their normal routines only to fixate themselves on a United Nations worthy of countries who have sent grown men to spend hours running after a black and white ball, and when finally reaching it, all they do is kick it away.

 

But I started too late. By the time any ideas formulated in my mind, the news came flying in my face. At first rumors. Then snippets. Then the harsh reality. My fingers were gripped with paralysis and my stomach had the same gut-wrenching feeling it had almost three years ago to the day, when the rumors, snippets of information and then the brutal finality of Leiby Kletzky’s gruesome murder became a reality.

 

It would be poetic of me to say that the feeling of queasiness and nausea was cubed by the threefold brutality of the horror, but I truly don’t know if I have the capacity to measure the sinking awful feeling of despair and sadness that is indeed so personal and private.

 

I was invited to a wedding tonight. I was graciously invited by the baal simchah, who is a neighborhood friend, and I was both honored and a bit surprised by the invitation. It will be a big chasunah, and I should be there, but I just do not feel up to going. I won’t lie. I am normal. I can’t say that my life was overcome by the tragedy to the extent that I did not resume normal function of daily life. If every tragedy, even to fellow Yidden, would force us into true mourning on each occurrence, I think we would not be able to function normally. Yet, I am sure that the simchah will not be lacking without me, and I would rather vent on a keyboard than on a dance floor.

 

I am angry. I am upset. And I am really beginning to worry.

 

I hearken back to the severity of Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s charges about Amaleik, and my sophomoric approach of course stifled by my shame in learning about the draconian charge to Shaul. I hearken back to all of the Ribono Shel Olam’s charges for the eradication of the forces of Canaan, from both the physical avodah zarah aspect and the human toll of those who were not subservient to the rule of Noachidic law.

 

Again, the naiveté of the American kid, a brain filled with baseball and ice cream cone images, muddled the Torah vision that was forged by the Creator of all life and death.

 

And I fast forward once again to relatively modern history.

 

There was once a moral code. Principles. Universal concepts. Rules of engagement. We have officially drifted into organized anarchy. The world order has become a world without order. And though it did not begin with the kidnapping of these dear innocent young boys, it has been escalated by the heinous act and more so by the timidity of world silence.

 

I think things began to unravel only thirty-five years ago, in 1979. I was just back from Ponovezh and Jimmy Carter was president. 52 American citizens – some diplomats and some ordinary citizens – were taken hostage in the United States Embassy in Tehran.

 

I was with my zaida, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l, not long after, and I was curious to hear his assessment of the situation. Although I was almost certain that he would not offer a definitive response, I was curious if he had a practical and political perspective on the events at hand.

 

What he told me resonates with me until this very day, and his prescient vision rings clear to me with every act of unprecedented barbarism that we have experienced from that miserable day in November of 1979.

 

He told me of a phone call he once received from a rov who was asked a very disturbing question by one of his mispallelim, a custom agent for the United States Border Patrol.  An allegedly religious man, who claimed that he knew only Yiddish, was caught smuggling diamonds – in nothing less sacred than a pair of tefillin. The batim had been opened, diamonds were hidden in the compartments for the parshiyos, and the tefillin were sewn up as if they were kosher.

 

As the agent spoke Yiddish, he was asked to be the translator for the interrogation. There were certain questions that the man had asked his rov, questions that the rov felt only Rav Yaakov could answer.

 

My zaida told me of his outright indignation at the act and the vehicle of the crime, our holy symbol of Yiddishkeit, tefillin. “The man has taken an untouchable icon, something no one would ever think to desecrate, and with his act of greed has now potentially destroyed the sanctity of those black boxes in the eyes of every custom agent forevermore. He not only smuggled diamonds, he destroyed the institution of kedushas tefillin.”

 

My zaida segued into iconoclastic treatment of sacred symbols of civilization. “Take, lemoshol, a soldier who holds up a white flag. The enemy puts down their arms and is ready to accept him as a prisoner of war under the Geneva accords. Suddenly, the man lobs a grenade at his would-be vanquishers. What should be the reaction?”

 

My zaida, in no uncertain terms, said that such a soldier needs to receive the worst punishment imaginable. “He destroyed a centuries-old tradition that a white flag means surrender.”

 

My younger readers are probably scrunching their eyebrows. Chaos has kicked into their lives and they were raised in a world without rules, where monsters fly planes into office towers and behead news reporters on YouTube.

 

But there was a world before 1979, and in that world an embassy was sacred. It was an untouchable haven and shelter. Although during the fall of Saigon, the embassy in Vietnam was indeed evacuated, during a period of non combat, embassies were considered off-limits. The attack on the embassy in Tehran and the capture of ordinary citizens was met with deafening silence from the United States military. Barring economic sanctions and a bungled military rescue many months later, President Carter’s lack of forcefulness, even if it meant the harming of Americans, resonates with anarchistic terrorism until this very day.

 

And it gets worse and worse. The kidnapping of soldiers has now spiraled down to the kidnapping and murder of children without even informing of their whereabouts or ransom. Unlich Munich or the Maalot Massacres of old, barbaric terror against formerly untouchable segments of the population, at least according to ancient societal norms, are now extinct. They have been replaced by carefully orchestrated chaotic barbarism – “actzions” intended for only murder and terror and fear. Murder is not a reaction to panic because of a raid or instigated by panic by a ransom plan gone awry. It is now a means to itself.

 

It is the silence of the world – the “again” of “never again” – that has been rearing its ugly head since 1979, if not earlier in the days of Arafat.

 

The term “inherent evil” is something we are cautious of identifying with a Tzelem Elokim. Yet, the eradication of evil from its very roots is an incumbency that the Torah charges us with from our formative stages of nationhood. As Americans bred in the land of the tolerant and live and let live, and a penal system based on the concept that rehabilitation can help find and nourish the kernels of good in people’s souls, it’s hard to think about total evil and the need for its eradication.

 

But we need not look further than Balak and Bilam. While Balak looks at the Bnei Yisroel as a threat and wants them to be cursed in a way that he can “drive them from the land” (Bamidbar 22:6), Bilam just wants them driven out. Rashi comments, “Bilam does not want them driven out of the land. He wants them driven from the world” (ibid. v. 11).

 

A civilization that is naïve enough not to perceive the reality of Bilam’s intent and his end game, and that warfare and adversaries are now framed in a totally different picture, will never be able to address the new forms of terror that I believe were addressed by the Almighty in His most powerful charges to a nation facing the most formidable foes: theological ones. 

 

Indeed, we are in golus and our hands may be tied, but let us not forget these three young boys and what their brutal murders meant for all of us. Unprecedented achdus, unprecedented response, unprecedented understanding that we are living in a world whose only tikkun is a new world order, the one for which we have been praying for more than 2,000 years. That is the only way to rectify the unceasing spiral of chaos, and the only way we will ever “Bring Back Our Boys,” Naftali, Eyal and Gil-Ad

 

And as for the chosson andkallah, I apologize for missing this most beautiful and joyous day in your life, but my gift to you was part of my tefillos that evening, that as you begin to build your home, neither you nor any other parents and future parents in Klal Yisroel should ever suffer the pain, the agony, the fear and the helplessness that the parents of these young men suffered. May the Tehillim cited on their behalf serve as an eternal shield to Klal Yisroel. And may we all see the geulah sheleimah. Amein.

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