Peoplehood at a time of suffering

Every day I pass by the spot where, last Friday, three teenagers hitchhiking home were kidnapped, and whose whereabouts are still unknown. The trempiada, as it’s called, is only 150 metres from my front door, and so this has been a strange and painful week. The Jewish Chronicle asked me for an eyewitness description to which I wrote the following:

Friday AM whatsapp goes wild – was anyone at the hitchhiking point by the old gate last night 9:30-11:30? Friday afternoon it’s confirmed. Shabbat is tense, no one really knows what to say or do. Saturday night, some go to a small protest, teenagers organise an impromptu prayer service and sing into the early hours, Bnei Akiva bakes cakes for soldiers, TV vans are parked outside, helicopters overhead. Sunday: more prayer groups but life seems to be getting back to normal, then in the evening there is shooting on the road to Jerusalem, and we are cut off for a couple of hours. Teenagers optimistic to miss their exams the next day tweet #snowday?

But of course 100 words can’t capture it. Alon Shevut and Gush Etzion is a religious community – and over the last few days the response has been far more religious and social than it has been political. Tehillim and tefillot are everywhere. People go out of their way to greet one another more warmly. And regular life carries on: the local events of the national book have proceeded uninterrupted and people go about their jobs.

If Gush Etzion is known around the world, it is as a מקום תורה, one of the beacons of religious education in the modern Jewish world, and so it feels fitting to put down a small Torah thought that resonates with the present situation. I haven’t seen the text for a number of years but this is my memory of a powerful piece from Rav Soloveitchik’s ‘Fate and Destiny’, in Hebrew,קול דודי דופק.

The gemara in Menachot 37a asks an extraordinary question:

A man with two heads: how many portions of inheritance does he receive from this father? One or two? And how many sets of tefillin should he put on? One or two.

The gemara’s answers as to whether such a being is considered to be a single person or two people is even more startling.

The rabbis taught: boiling water should be prepared and poured over one of the heads. If the other head screams out in pain then they are one, and inherit once, and don tefillin once, but if the other head does not scream out in pain, then they are two, and inherit twice, and don tefillin twice.

Already from the earliest commentators (Tosafot al hadaf) it is clear that the situation is not to be taken literally. To what then can the gemara be referring? Rav Soloveitchik quotes ‘one of the great darashanim of the previous generation’ (with no name referenced) who interpreted the gemara as follows.

The creature with multiple heads is the Jewish people. And the question being posed is, are the Jewish people really one? Can these scattered multitudes, different in appearance, language, socio-economic status, political and religious beliefs, truly be considered a single people? In what can lie their commonality?

The answer is simple: if boiling water is poured on the head of one of them, will the other one – so different, so foreign – nevertheless cry out in pain? Will the well-heeled Jew in Paris identify with the suffering of the Jew in Morocco? Will the Russian Jew feel the pain of the Argentinian Jews? And in our own situation will those in Tel Aviv, London, Los Angeles and across the world cry out over three teenagers kidnapped while hitchhiking home in Gush Etzion? If the answer is no, then they cannot be considered a single people, but if the scalding pain is felt, then they can still be considered one.

We dream of a higher, more positive aspiration that can unite us, in Rav Soloveitchik’s terms, a covenant of ‘destiny’. But prior to that and more basic is a covenant of ‘fate’ – an identity with one another’s suffering. If the tradition teaches us to be sensitive to all pain and injustice in God’s world, regardless of where it takes place, it also teaches us to not only be sensitive to Jewish suffering , but to relate to it as our own.

The scalding water has been poured on all of our heads. But if some minute portion of comfort can be drawn from the events of the last few days, then it is the sense that those of us in Gush Etzion – who every day pass by the hitchhiking spot where the boys were taken – have that people the world over are sharing in our pain and praying with all their strength for the safe return of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. And if this is so, then we can say in a quiet and sombre tone, but with confidence, Am Yisrael Chai.

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