A Staggering Example of Large Scale Child Loss
The tragedy at Mt. Meron in Israel, where scores of people died, is another sad reminder that Moshiach isn’t here yet. When I first heard what happened there, I was shocked and saddened.
Some time later, I read online short bios and photos of those who died. As I’m scrolling through the post, looking at the photos, it struck me that the majority of those who perished were young men and boys under the age of thirty. Some were in their teens. Some were brothers. These poor unfortunates have parents who are now mourning the loss of a child. It just doesn’t stop. Parents keep burying their children.
I can’t even imagine what these parents are going through. My son passed away at the age of twenty-four but under such different circumstances. To have a child die like this, I just can’t imagine. I don’t know what words of comfort I could offer to these parents. There are just no words.
Why Do People Die Young?
Why do children die? This age old question is not yet answered.
But I know what I want to say to G-d. Why? Why do You take goodness and sweetness away from the world? You want to make this world a better place, but You just make it worse by taking away good, kind, and caring people, people who have everything to live for, people who have a future, people who are doing a mitzvah. Why do You do this? And You do it again and again. Why, why, why?
Elisha ben Avuya and Shiluach Haken
Chasing the mother bird away before taking the eggs is a mitzvah in the Torah.
It reminds me of the story the sage Elisha ben Avuya, known as Acher. There is a mitzvah in the Torah called Shiluach Haken. If one finds a bird’s nest and wishes to take the eggs, the mother bird must be shooed away before taking the eggs. Acher sees a man asking his son to climb a tree, shoo away the mother bird, and return with the eggs. The boy does so, and on the way down, falls and dies. The boy is doing the mitzvah of Shiluach Haken as well as the mitzvah of obeying his father. Acher is astonished. How can it be that a child dies while doing mitzvos? The Torah clearly says:
‘…You shall send away the mother, and then you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.’ (Devarim 22:7)
There are many interpretations of this verse. Some say that ‘lengthen your days’ may not necessarily refer to one’s present life, but life in the World to Come. This event as well as others, caused Acher to lose his faith and become a heretic. Still, the concept of something bad happening as the result of a mitzvah is hard to understand or accept.
Don’t Look With Your Physical Eyes
There’s a custom, that when we recite the first sentence of the Shema, we cover our eyes. There are various reasons for this. I was thinking that we might also learn the following. We say ‘Hashem Elokenu, Hashem echad.’ The name Hashem denotes His attribute of kindness and the name Elokenu denotes His attribute of strictness and judgement. We declare that these two concepts are one and the same. Only kindness comes from G-d. What appears to be ‘bad’ is truly not so. It’s good in and of itself. We just don’t see it.
We cover our eyes when we say this. It’s as if G-d is telling us ‘Don’t look with your physical eyes at things which appear to be bad. Look at these things from a spiritual perspective and you will see it’s all good.’
Right now, we can’t do this. We can’t see G-d’s goodness in such a terrible event. When Moshiach comes, we’ll be able to.
Looking Inward in Teshuvah
As to why this terrible event occurred, it would be foolish to just say ‘we don’t know’ and leave it at that. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, known as the Frierdiker or Previous Rebbe of Chabad, once said that in olden times, when tragedy struck, people would look inwardly and see how they could rectify their behavior. In our times, he said, people complain to the government. It was true when the Rebbe spoke then and how much more so in our time.
Meron could and should be made physically safer for large numbers of people. But there’s also a spiritual component as well which determines what happens physically. When a group of pure people pass away like this, it’s a clear call for teshuvah. There are mitzvos we all could do better. There are mitzvos we don’t do now, but we know we should be doing. We need to be kinder and reach out to others more.
Reaching Out to Others First
One of the boys who died, Donny Morris, nineteen years old, was from our community here in New Jersey. Donny was working on his middot, trying to cultivate good character traits. Part of his process was doing the following:
‘To arrive at least five minutes before davening began for Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv,
To refrain from frivolous speech while in the shul sanctuary,
To greet at least three people before they greet me,
To smile at least three people I do not know well’
Why do we wait till there’s a tragedy to reach out to others? Let’s emulate Donny’s kind and caring behavior and start now.
Seeing Only the Good in Others
Another boy who died reminded me of my Jacob. His name was Yaakov Elchanan Strakovsky, and he was twenty years old. He had the same build, hair color, the same shape face and a short beard. The eyes and forehead were just like Jacob’s. A prayer he had written was found with his belongings. It said:
“Master of the World, may it be Your will, gracious and merciful G‑d, that you give me the merit, today and every day, to guard myself and my family (and the entire world regarding me) from speaking or hearing slander or gossip. And that we take care not to speak falsehood, flattery, silliness, misrepresentation, shaming others, contention, pride, anger, or anything else forbidden.
Grant us that we speak only that which is necessary for our body and soul, and may all our actions, words, and thoughts, be for the sake of heaven.
And place in our hearts that we each only see the goodness of our fellows and not their shortcomings.”
May we take to heart, and do our utmost to fulfill, the wishes of these beautiful boys in our thoughts, speech, and actions. May the memories of Donny, Yaakov, and all those who passed away at Meron be for a blessing.