The recent tragic saga involving the kidnapped Israeli teenagers has left us all with more questions than answers. Why did this have to happen? And why in such a gruesome fashion to such innocent souls? How can we prevent such things from reoccurring? What will be the final outcome, for the families, the evil perpetrators, and the rest of us, who remain in shell shock from the horror that has gripped our collective psyches for the past three weeks?
There is one more question that has been gnawing at me ever since I learned about the near-immediate fate of the boys following their abduction. Our entire nation spent a few weeks praying, performing acts of kindness, advocating and whatever else we could in order to #bringbackourboys. Practically all of those efforts, if not all of them, occurred after Eyal’s, Gilad’s and Naftali’s lives were already taken (though obviously without us knowing). Is there something to be learned from the fact that the entire rescue effort, spiritual as well as physical, came “after the fact,” too late to achieve the outcome that we all desired?
As I contemplated this question I thought of an incident involving Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the tzaddik (righteous one) of Jerusalem. A story is told about his efforts to comfort a bereaving widow. As he sat with her, the distraught woman cried that her tears were in vain as her prayers for a complete recovery were not answered. Rabbi Levin told her that while her prayers did not help her husband regain his health, Hashem collected and stored every last one of her tears, and would use them to heal others and offset their pain. Her prayers and pleas were in no ways without purpose.
On a basic level we can suggest that the immeasurable merits that were generated by their family, friends and supporters will undoubtedly be a shield against other would-be challenges, Heaven forbid.
But I think that the answer goes much deeper.
This week’s Torah portion introduces us to Balaam, the gentile prophet who was hired by the Moabite king Balak to curse our nation. Jewish tradition tells us that his prophetic capacities exceeded those of every other prophet who ever lived, with the sole exception of Moshe Rabbeinu. Yet we know that prophecy is the outgrowth of rigorous character perfection, hardly the description of the evil, self-serving Balaam. How was it possible for such a wretched soul to achieve such prophetic clarity?
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian states that there are in fact two pathways to prophecy. The first, and more normative, is character refinement. The second is to receive it as a special divine gift. Moshe, as well as all of the legitimate Jewish prophets, achieved their connection by working on themselves and their characters. They reached high levels of spiritual awareness, and were able to tune in to the divine frequency, so to speak, of God’s special broadcasts.
In contrast, Balaam fit into the latter category. He was given his unique capacity so that God would be able to neutralize the argument of any nation that would choose to pin their spiritual failings on the absence of prophetic guidance and leadership.
When prophecy comes as a gift, then its long-term impact is negligible. The prophet remains the same as he always was and is not motivated to change or improve. On the other hand, when divine communication occurs organically, so to speak, it is clear evidence that the “listener” had successfully undertaken the lengthy and challenging process of spiritual improvement and character refinement that eventually led to his newfound connection and awareness.
Our nation grew –up and out – over the past three weeks. We prayed together, sang together, rallied together and held out hope together. We kept uninterrupted attention to our collective plight, and put aside our differences in the hope of achieving a better tomorrow. Our efforts may not have succeeded in their intended purpose, but they did succeed in so many other ways.
Had we known about the tragic outcome for Eyal, Gilad and Naftali immediately, I suspect that the result would have simply been what it has started to become, an angry, embittered response filled with threats and reciprocal tactics. But because we were given the gift of time, we were able to elevate ourselves to new levels of connection and growth.
Of course, the challenge now is to ensure that we don’t view what occurred over the past few weeks as a “situation,” similar to a fleeting prophetic experience. it will require much focus and effort to ensure that we do not slip back too far but remain firm and resolute in our commitment to help, support and elevate. That is the sign of true growth and connection.
May the memory of these three special young men be eternally bound with the many prayers, acts of kindness and solidarity that they have encouraged and will continue to inspire well into the future.