Don’t Stop Trying To #BringBackOurBoys

The day after the three teenage boys in Israel (Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali – may they rest in peace) were kidnapped (and now we know, murdered), I was the Shabbos speaker at a shul in Waterloo, ON. For my second talk, I was scheduled to speak about how I came to trust in God. I looked to the parsha (weekly Torah portion), Shelach, to see if there was a tie-in to that theme, and sure enough, there was. Parshas Shelach recounts the story of the spies who were sent on a reconnaissance mission to survey the land of Israel before the Children of Israel entered it. When the spies saw how terrifying the inhabitants were and how un-breachable the cities were, they resigned themselves to defeat. What exactly were the Jews up against? According to the spies:

…the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant…We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we…The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes. (Shelach)

It is easy in hindsight to judge the spies and accuse them of not having been faithful enough. “Why give up so easily?” we ask. “What can’t God do?” we wonder. “How could they quit when they’d come so far?” we demand. But consider the scenario from their perspective. For FORTY years, they followed Moses’s leadership (based on God’s commands) through the desert. For forty years, they pushed on, past wars and various trials and tribulations because they had one goal in mind – The Promised Land. A land overflowing with milk and honey. If they could only survive the arduous journey to get there, why then they would be set.

So now let’s go back and imagine how those spies must have felt: the big day they had been waiting for (for decades) had finally arrived, but instead of beholding the idyllic place they had been dreaming of, they saw terrifying sights – obstacles which appeared to be insurmountable.

“This is not what we were expecting, Hashem! We put in so much effort to get here. This is not how the story was supposed to end!”

That’s surely what the spies must have thought. And I believe it is similar to how we feel in the wake of the news of the murders of our boys. After eighteen days of unifying, praying, hoping, and taking on new mitzvos, we too were expecting to reach a “land overflowing with milk and honey” – a place where Eyal, Giland, and Naftali were still alive.  But that’s not what we saw. We saw, instead, something terrifying – death.

“We can’t overcome death,” our logic tells us. “That’s simply not how the world works” we remind ourselves. “We came so far as a nation, but we have no choice but to accept defeat,” we conclude.

Everyone has been saying it – from the most secular to the most fervently religious – something unprecedented happened in those eighteen days that we prayed and changed and unified to bring back our boys. Little did we know, but those boys were not able to be brought back the way that we imagined they’d be. We were praying (without knowing) for departed souls to be brought back. Logic tells us that it’s over. That we have come up against a wall that cannot be breached.

But what can’t God do?!

We are well aware of Hashem’s promise to us – that there will be a time, in yamos hamoshiach (the Days of the Messiah) where the dead will come back with tichyas memeisim (Rebirth of the Dead). Many of us believe in it, but we question whether we will ever see it for ourselves. Why? Because we see ourselves as “grasshoppers” in our own eyes. If every generation before us failed to bring yamos hamoshiach how could WE possibly do it? We are too small.

But why have we given up in the face of defeat, and tragedy, and heart-break, when perhaps we were just getting started? Let us see ourselves as men (and women) of stature. Let us expand our task and our ambitions. Let us let go of our fears. Let us redouble our efforts, our prayers, our unity. Let us, individually and as a community, keep trying to bring back our boys–and all of our other loved ones from across the generations.

Let us trust in Hashem this time – so that the impossible can become reality.

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  • Avatar photo Esther says on July 7, 2014

    As a secular Jew and a moral person I am also heart sick that these three innocent boys were brutally murdered and my heart breaks for their families. Any human should be outraged by such a tragedy. But I don’t understand your rationalization. You prayed to have them returned, alive, to their families. Your (collective) prayers were unanswered. Despite all the praying, they were murdered. Now you rationalize that you were actually praying for something else? I’ve never read such a ridiculous rationalization of what was clearly (and tragically) an example of how wrong religious people are in their misguided perscription/susperstition. In this case, actually, the sick extremist terrorists “prayers” were answered. Does that make them “right” because their God “answered” their “prayers”? OF COURSE NOT!!! You have no control over anything other than your own choices. Praying doesn’t heal sick people, medcine does. Praying didn’t save those innocent boys’ lives, nor could it. If those boys were meant to be spared, and belive me I wish they had been as much as anyone, they woud have been. I belive it is up to God, but certainly his plan is in no way influenced by your man-made perscription. Your (collective) praying couldn’t save them any more than your lack of praying contributed to their demise. Not sure how you can’t see that.

  • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on July 7, 2014

    Thanks for your comment, Esther. I’m not rationalizing and pretending that we were praying for something else – that would be intellectually dishonest. I’m saying that we were praying for them to come home and we expected that they’d come home b’derech teva (according to nature). And that although “tichayas hameisim” (rebirth of the deceased) goes against all logic and everything we have ever seen in the world, it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be possible. It shouldn’t have been possible for a small army of Jews to win a war against the Hellenist Greeks. It shouldn’t have been possible for a small amount of oil to burn for eight days and it shouldn’t have been possible for a small band of fighters in Israel to beat all the Arab nations that ganged up on them (time and time again). But miraculous things have happened to our people in the past and those of us who are believers believe that miraculous things could happen again in the future.

    You said “You have no control over anything other than your own choices. Praying doesn’t heal sick people, medcine does. Praying didn’t save those innocent boys’ lives, nor could it.” I agree that we have no control over anything but our own choices. The Talmud says similarly “everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.” HOWEVER – why can’t *my choices* include spiritual efforts side by side with physical efforts. I believe in medicine, but why can’t I attempt to create spiritual merit as I utilize medicine?

    You wrote how “wrong religious people are in their misguided superstition” – no one religious should be expecting that a prayer or a mitzvah automatically gets us what we want. As Racheli Fraenkel eloquently said “God doesn’t work for us.” However, we are told in our tradition that if we turn to God as a nation, unite, commit our lives to spirituality, that there will be a time of world peace, redemption, moshiach, and tichayas hameisim.

    I don’t begrudge your lack of belief, but I don’t think it’s very fair or nice to begrudge those of us who do believe. I consider myself a rational person, but I have to believe that there’s more to this world than meets the eye.

    I have to believe that ultimately the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. I have to believe that everything that happens is ultimately purposeful and that existence isn’t just a bunch of random events with no rhyme or reason.

    You are free to believe that God doesn’t care what we do or don’t do. But please don’t begrudge people who believe that there is a loving God out there who is watching everything we do and sometimes act in a way we understand (and other times doesn’t).

    • Avatar photo Esther says on July 7, 2014

      Thank Alison

      Just to be clear, I sure do think God cares what we do. I act as a moral, good, honest, selfless person and try to be kind and good to others. I sure do think that’s what God expects of me, and what I expect of myself. We obviously think God expects different things from us, and you’re right – I don’t begrude you that right any more than you begrudge me mine. I just think you are trying to enlist people to spend their time praying and, in my opinion, that isn’t what makes them good people, or fulfills any of what God expects. They should act as good people with positivity and tolerance and goodness and kindness, equality – humanity. That would be a much more useful use of their time, and by putting positivity into the world, hopefully they’d get that back. I just think it’s unfair of you to say that I think God doesn’t care how I act. I just think God doesn’t care if I pray, Men made up those prayers, not God. But he certainly cares how I act.

      • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on July 9, 2014

        Thanks for your comment, Esther. I apologize for misunderstanding you. I thought you were saying that all we are responsible to do is physical acts (like medicine) and that there is no such thing as creating spiritual merit with our actions. But perhaps you have misunderstood me too. I believe that how we act as people is a HUGE part of what God expects of us. After all, Hillel told the would-be convert that the Torah on one foot is what is hateful to you do not do unto your fellow. So being a good person and trying to create unity within the Jewish people (and living peacefully with all good people) – you and I are in agreement that those are fundamental aspects of what God expects of us.

        But how about mitzvos? Does lighting Shabbos candles create any spiritual merit? I can’t prove that it does but you can’t prove that it doesn’t. As I said, you are free to believe as you want to believe but this is my take: If ALL I am meant to do is be a good person, I don’t need the Torah to tell me that. And I don’t need Jewish traditions for any of that. So why bother being Jewish?

        I bother being Jewish and following our traditions because I believe that there is something special about our people, our history, our Torah, our land.
        It is true that men made up those prayers, not God. But we have a tradition that Abraham, Issac, and Jacob each established morning, afternoon, and evening prayers and that Chana taught us how to pray. God surely doesn’t need our prayers but they change us – please see this post http://jewinthecity.com/2011/02/i-just-called-to-say-i-love-you-why-orthodox-jews-pray-everyday/ and help us stay connected to God.

        If free will is going to be preserved then we can’t see the automatic reward for a mitzvah or a prayer or the automatic punishment for doing the wrong thing. So I believe that we do those things and don’t always get the result that we hope for.

        As far as my “enlisting” people – I’d love to enlist people to be good, non-judgemental compassionate, seekers of peace. As far as promoting prayer and mitzvos – well this is an Orthodox website – so it’s kind of what we believe! I think we all are looking for the same end result, we just have different ideas of how to get there.

        But as everyone has free will, I am writing about what my perspective is and the readers are free to agree or disagree. Just not tell me my way is WRONG. Just that they see the world differently.


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