Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Right Lesson

In the haftorah of the second week of the period known as 'Bain Ham'tzarim', Between the Afflictions, the mourning period between the fast of the Seventeenth of Tamuz and the fast of Tisha B'av, we read from the early chapters of the prophet Yirmeyahu. There, in the name of G-d, the prophet rails against the wrong-doings of Israel, wrong-doings that threaten to bring about the destruction of Judea. Yirmeyahu does not spare the leadership of the Jewish people. On the contrary, he condemns the establishment in no uncertain terms. We read "The Kohanim do not say where is Hashem, and those who sustain the Torah do not know me, and the leaders rebel against me, and the prophets prophesy to the Baal and go after that which will be to no avail."

Priests, Torah sages, leaders, prophets, they all are found wanting, and in the worst terms. On this the Shabbat that falls on the eve of Tisha B'av, Shabbat Chazon, the words of the prophet feel haunting and true.

It has been a terribly difficult time for our people in the last few weeks and days, and in particular for the religious community. First we were shocked and deeply saddened by the murder of Leiby Kletzky and in a most gruesome manner. And the murderer was not an outsider, but one of our own, a Jew and indeed a religious Jew.
Then the end of last week Rav Elazar Abu'hatzaira, a tzaddik and mystic, spiritual mentor to so many, was stabbed to death. There too the perpetrator of the unconscionable act was a frum Jew.
And if that were not enough, this week the newspapers in Israel are reporting the story of a Breslover Hasid, who was married to 7 women and over the past 15 year is accused of the worst kind of abuse and sexual wrong-doing. If the crimes in each case were not awful enough, we are left with the newspaper images of those who committed them. All the would-be criminals wearing kipot, some in full hassidic garb.

The tragedies are fresh. The tears are still wet. We are still reeling from the events. Its too soon to draw the lessons we need to learn from these horrific episodes or to now know how we need to use them to make social improvements.
But if the true lesson is still elusive I know wrong lessons when I hear them. I am told soon after Leiby Kletzky's murder there were rabbanim in the States who already put out the blame and a collective call to teshuva. Problem is they went in the wrong direction. They said the murder of Leiby Kletzky is meant to show us the harmful consequences of the internet and of the media in general. They put forth the call to clean-up the negative influences that invade our home and family.

Problem with that approach is that the murderer of Leiby Kletzky was in no way influenced by the media. It was not a sexually based crime. And how would that lesson fit the other crimes experienced by the Jewish community.
Too often leaders take the easy way out and speak of t'shuva for sins unrelated to the horrors we have experienced. Some may call for us to stop speaking 'lashon hara' or to be more careful in Shabbat observance.I can see it coming even if not yet. Those kinds of lessons while wonderful in themselves have nothing to do with what we experienced. I think it is to leaders who take the wrong lesson and are afraid to see the hard challenges put before us by our painful conditions that Yirmeyahu, the Prophet is criticizing so sharply.

What do the murder of Leiby Kletzky, the murder of Rav Elazar Abu-hatzaira and the horrific acts of family abuse have in common?

The answer is that in each case the one who committed the terrible sins lived within the community and yet was disconnected from it. Think about it. I am in no way excusing the murderer of Leiby Kletzky, but he was clearly mentally ill, troubled, alone. He took Leiby to his house because he was so lonely, not because he was a child molester. If he had had friends and community I really doubt whether this could or would have happened. Likely he went to shule each Shabbat and yet no one knew him, no one knew his angst. The man who killed the great rav was troubled over an impending divorce. Who knew his heart? Who did he confide in? What friends did he have? From every indication he was alone and his upset and anger unknown. I am in no way excusing him. Yet as a community we need to ask did we provide the care that would make sharing burdens possible or did we each mind our own business. And the Breslover Hasid who abused 7 wives and many more children over 15 years, how can it be that no one knew the story of his domestic circumstances. Where were the friends? Where the community? for him? for his wives? for his children? Its unimagineable that such could go on and no one should know. And in truth, one way or another, that the abuse went unrecognized or unmentioned is a strong condemnation of our community.

We know from the Torah that if a corpse is found murdered in the fields and we do not know the murderer the closest community to where the murder happened must seek atonement. The Torah describes a whole ritual in which the elders of the nearby city need to confess and gain forgiveness for their lapse in allowing someone to be murdered in their midst. The question we need to ask ourselves is what do we have to seek atonement for in the aftermath of these tragedies. For what do we have to atone.
And when I say we I mean as much the rabbanim as the ordinary Jew, as much the Rosh Yeshiva as the am ha'aretz. Saying we need to teshuva for some unrelated sin is taking the easy way out.

I think the answer here is clear and compelling. In the wake of all the horrors we have witnessed we need to claim some culpability. The ones who committed the crimes lived amongst us yet we never reached out to them in such a way that they might have felt cared for and the crimes might have been avoided. Or in the case of the abused women we never took enough interest to learn what was going on in this awful domestic environment and over fifteen years. We don't need abstract lessons here. The challenge for us as community and individuals lays right before our eyes.

Tradition tells us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of social sins. We did not care sufficiently for one another. One would have to be blind not see the striking parallel to the conditions we live in today as evidenced in the debacle of the incidents we discussed. Sad as each story is in itself still more each story reflects the weakness of our communities and our failure to provide real care for the marginalized. We need to be less concerned with excluding the suspected unsafe and more concerned with including the ones left adrift. Our tendency to seek homogenaity in our environment in order to feel safe has the exact opposite result.
By failing to extend ourselves to those who are different and alone for whatever reason we not only harm them. We compromise the very safety we yearn for.

So as we come to Tisha B'av now nineteen hundred and forty one years after the destruction of the Temple and the onset of the exile what lesson should we take?
May I humbly suggest that we use the tragedies we are currently experiencing to motivate us to extend ourselves to the compromised and alone. I mean each of us looking around us to notice at least one person who seems isolated, without friends, different, alienated. And that we make it our business to talk to him/her, befriend him/her, ask about his/her circumstances, make his/her life and needs whether they be emotional or physical matter to us. What greater response could there be to both our historic loss and the current tragedies. Real caring makes all the difference in the world.

May this year be the one in which we the find comfort that is our destiny. May there be no more strangers in our midst!

Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

  1. Amazing article!Thank You!I have been married fro 20 years with 5 children.I am in an emotionally abusive therapists have all told me to run,yet I have nowhere to go.Those that know of my situation have judgments...dont be so nice..finish your schooling...youll ruin your children...noone around for a non juudgmental ear or any real support.Thank you for giving my situation a voice.