Peeling away the layers of tragedy

When do we label an event catastrophic?

We say that a wound is catastrophic when it is complex, when it involves many layers of injury. So, too, with tragedy.

The tragedy of the brutal murder of eight students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva is catastrophic because its meanings are multiple and complex, and can be viewed from numerous perspectives.

Some of these meanings are apparent to all. Others are much deeper and require contemplation.

The uppermost layer of meaning is the loss of human life, one that all people of good will can understand. Just beneath that layer is the loss of life of people so young, of mere children; again, painful to every decent human being.

Deeper layers include bereaved parents, destroyed dreams and traumatized witnesses. And all of us are witnesses.

Some layers are not so apparent, however, and perhaps not even sensed by those who feel the agony of this butchery. The setback to prospects of a peace already so remote is one such layer. The loss of a sense of security that had been almost totally restored to the streets of Jerusalem is another.

To the sensitive Jew, however, there are layers deeper still. The shootings occurred in a place of Torah study, a “makom Torah,” the innermost sanctum of Judaism. Besides all else this was sacrilege, a profanation of the highest and most central of Jewish values, the study of God’s Word.

As such it calls to mind images of Kristallnacht, of medieval book burnings and of the horrible massacre in Hebron in 1929. That massacre, too, was carried out in the study hall of a yeshiva, and it is no wonder that the eulogizers last week connected this event to the never-forgotten crime of nearly 80 years ago.

One cannot make comparisons as to whose life is more precious. In the words of the Talmud, “no one’s blood is redder than the blood of any other.” But some killings carry heavier symbolic meaning than others. A few years ago, after many acts of terrorism, murder and mayhem, the Israeli army moved into action only when a Passover seder was the target of terror. The symbolism of attacking a seder cut deeper than the symbolism of attacking the Dolphinarium, a Tel Aviv disco.

As a rabbi, I feel the responsibility to teach those who may not know that as powerful a symbol as the Passover seder is — as much as it is a central ritual of Judaism, as much as it heralds the message of liberty and freedom — it pales in religious significance when compared to the scene of Torah students poring over their volumes of Talmud.

Torah study is the holy core of our faith, more so even than our festivals and fast days. More so even than mitzvahs. Every day, as part of our daily prayer, we say the words of the Mishnah: “Ve-talmud Torah keneged kulam” — Torah study is as significant as all the other mitzvahs combined. Torah study is Jewish eternity, Jewish continuity, so the image of killing boys so engaged in study penetrates to the very core of our existential reality.

There are further layers still, and they demand the use of a vocabulary so alien to postmodern society that the words ring hollow. I refer to the words “holy” and “pure,” in Hebrew “kadosh ve-tahor.”

Who raises children these days to be pure? Who raises them to strive for holiness? It suffices in the West to train children to be well-adjusted or, at the most, decent.

But these murdered students were educated to be pure and diligently attempted to be holy. The murderer did not merely snuff out the lives of young and healthy and bright and personable and ethical and moral kids. He sullied purity. He contaminated the sacrosanct and defiled holiness.

This tragedy is indeed catastrophic. And to redeem it one must come to terms with every layer of its impact, with the full depth of all of its ramifications.

Only by the cultivation of Torah study, of authentically Jewish spirituality, of Jewishly informed acts of charity and kindness, and of the appreciation of the place of holiness even in this profane world, can the pain be assuaged and our spirits redeemed.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. This piece was written for JTA.