That’s what happened yesterday, when sadly, my post about the three kidnapped teens in Israel was overrun by the kind of news I never wanted to hear: that their bodies had been found after having been kidnapped 18 days earlier. Today they were buried, side by side, so that they never will be alone.
The details are still emerging, but it seems they were murdered as one of the teens made a call to Israel’s equivalent to 911 Their bodies were then stashed hastily on land owned by one of the kidnappers.
And now a country mourns. And we mourn with Israel for Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, lives unfulfilled, cut off really before they began. It is so easy to see our own children in their faces. My own son is 20, hardly older than these boys. But who wants to even try and imagine the pain of their parents? It is unthinkable.
In Judaism, we imbue the number 18 with great meaning. The letters het and yud, which spell out the word chai, or life, when you add up the numbers that have been assigned to them, equal 18. So to come up with death on the 18th day seems like a brutal, cruel joke.
I could tell as the news scrolled across social media that this was what everyone was hoping. But a joke, or mistake, seemed less and less likely as more august news outlets like Haaretz, Jerusalem Post and the Washington Post weighed in. When the email came from the New York Times announcing the deaths, there was no hope left.
For more than two weeks, we gathered and prayed and hoped. And when these were dashed with the discovery of hastily buried bodies, we ask, “Why didn’t God hear our prayers.” Sad and plaintive, I’ve even seen this question posted on social media. There is no why.
Sometimes, when the horrific happens, God seems at best indifferent. Hear our prayers and we get a cosmic shrug in return. And really, there is so much suffering around, why should God hear our specific prayers? Are they louder or more special than anyone else’s plea for mercy? Were the prayers offered to bring back our boys more poignant or pressing than the ones given to bring back the Nigerian girls abducted by Boku Haram? Do we really believe that God is a grand puppet master and if only we are good enough, supplicant enough and true enough, the eternal one will come through?
That may once have been the role we sought for prayer. And clearly many believe that prayer still holds this kind of power. It seems like a child’s view of prayer, that it can change outcomes. Doesn’t prayer’s power lie in changing those who pray?
When those boys were kidnapped we came together. We reached for community. We saw them as Jewish boys and us as Jews. We saw in them our own sons and brothers. We saw in them a reflection of ourselves. We felt vulnerable and distraught and understood implicitly kol arevim zeh la zeh, all Jews are responsible for one another. And we prayed.
As a people, our memory is long. In a few weeks we will remember the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av. At Yom Kippur, we remember the martyrdom of our sages. We’ve added commemorations to the calendar for Yom HaShoah, to remember the victims of the Holocaust, and Yom Hazikaron, to recall fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terror. My own community has taken on the yaharzeit of the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Olympics.
But there are more names and more victims. How many days can you add before the calendar fills only with sorrow?
There will be no comfort for the three families who lost their boys. The horror may fade, but it will mark all the rest of their days. There will always be for them a time before and a time after. At the funeral for the three today, Rachel Fraenkel, Naftali’s mother said, “We will learn to sing without you. We will always hear your voice in our hearts.”
What a sad and terrible fate, to sing without your child.
May the memory of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali be for a blessing.