As we say in the Prayer for Dew (“the symbol of youthful promise”), with the boys in another world, “With His consent I shall speak of mysteries.”
There are no lessons, only mysteries from the deaths — the murders — of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers whose bodies were found this week in a field near biblical Hebron. There are no lessons here, none that we haven’t already learned from the Fogels, a family of five stabbed to death in their beds, the baby decapitated; from Leon Klinghoffer in his wheelchair, sinking in the sea; from Alisa Flatow, on an exploding bus in Gaza; or from the thousands of Israelis murdered in this loneliest of Jewish centuries, at least since the previous one.
This is a week to revisit a verse from the Song of Songs, “How beautiful are thy feet with shoes.” Alisa Flatow, the Brandeis University student with the lovely dimpled face, had to be identified by her feet. How beautiful were your feet with shoes. Now Israeli investigators came to the Frankel home asking about Naftali’s sandals. According to reports, Naftali’s mother Rachel and her 4-year-old son quickly went through photos from Purim, a birthday party, a camping trip, “If you see a picture of Naftali, tell me,” said Rachel. “We’ll look at his sandals.” She asked Ayala, her 14-year-old daughter, “You know all these details, are Naftali’s sandals black or brown?” How beautiful were his feet in shoes.
There’s a YouTube video of Naftali playing ping-pong in a backyard. He’s wearing a dark green T-shirt and black shorts, the white strings of his tzitzis fluttering as he bounces on the balls of his feet, side to side, returning a volley with his red paddle. He is barefoot.
On the 21-second video, Naftali’s playing in the backyard is as priceless as the 21-second video of Anne Frank leaning out of an Amsterdam window in 1941. You may think these murders were completely incomprehensible, or after thousands — even millions — of murdered Jews you might detect a pattern. You’d be right either way. Adena Berkowitz, scholar in residence at New York’s Kol Haneshama, e-mails from Israel to describe the remarkable scene in a Jerusalem square. It included “the black hats and Bnai Akiva [a Zionist youth group], girls in hot pants and seminary girls in long skirts, men with ear and nose piercings and men with payis. All singing … ‘Vehi Sheh’amda’ from the Passover seder, “In every generation they rose to destroy us…”
Future generations will remember some Palestinians passing out candy to celebrate the kidnapping, and the drawings of the three teenage boys depicted in the Palestinian media as rats.
The boys were found at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tammuz. According to the mystics, Tammuz is the month for the fixing of our vision, to see through the distractions and distortions and discover the best in each other and in Israel. As was taught this past week in Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo [Carlebach]: In the spirit of Tammuz, may “Hashem bless us to see the beauty of Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], the beauty of every single Jewish neshamah [soul]….
“These boys, our boys,” said Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, two of whom attended his yeshiva Mekor Haim, “have died ‘al Kiddush Hashem,’ simply because they are Jews.”
These were not just three people, these were “our boys.” How quickly and completely we felt we knew them. We’ve been memorizing their photos in our shuls, homes, schools and camps. We all knew someone just like them, or so it seemed. As one high school girl, Daniela Krausz, told us at a rally for the kidnapped teens, “You look into the eyes of these boys, [they were] kids you could see walking down [our school’s] hallways; someone you could be sharing a laugh with.”
A Jerusalem friend e-mails that the teacher of an 11 p.m. Talmud class at the Kotel told his students, “For 18 days [Eyal, Naftali and Gilad] united ‘Klal Yisroel’ [the collective of Israel].” We lit extra Shabbat candles for them, ushered in Shabbat early, did extra mitzvot and goodness for them and, in the end, we did it for us. We never met them, didn’t know them, said the teacher at the late-night Kotel, “but they were our sons and brothers… There was a [Heavenly decree] we don’t understand, but they were [empowered and endowed] to be a unifying factor for the Jewish people. Every person that said Tehilim, learned, said a [blessing] or answered amen in their [honor] has a chaylek [a piece of] that.”
There have been calls for revenge, from God, man or both. At the same time, mourners are told, “HaMakom yinachem,” God will comfort, or more literally, “the place will comfort,” the consolation of Israel, of Jewish community. We have not gone our separate ways after the burials. The boys, their souls, are still uniting us, with a new consciousness of love and defiance.
“The boys” are still with us, in our very homes. Any of our children in their bedrooms could be the next Naftali, Eyal and Gilad. War is closing in. There are calls for intifada. Jewish civilians are in the cross hairs. The past and future are equally haunted. No one thinks that this is where it ends.
But this is where Tammuz begins, with eyes that see in the dark.