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Within the walls

Envy me. Because I was at the funeral. When I heard the news that our three boys, Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad, were dead, my heart broke. The funeral glued it back together. The hesped for each boy was held in his hometown, followed by the burial of all three in the cemetery of Modi’in, in the center of the country. We went to the hesped of Naftali Fraenkel in Nof Ayalon. Scores of buses and cars, thousands of mourners. In his hesped, Naftali’s grandfather quoted the pasuk stating that the mitzvah of kibbud av va’eim, honoring parents, is rewarded by arichas yamim, length of days. He recounted that Naftali was on his way home to spend Shabbat with his parents. He was fulfilling the mitzvah of kibbud av va’eim when his young life was cut short. Standing there listening, my mind jumped to Acher, the great Tanna turned heretic by exactly this situation. He heard a youth commanded by his parents to climb a tall tree to bring them dates. On the way down, the youth fell to his death. Acher concluded that Hashem’s promise was false (chas vechalilah) and abandoned the entire Torah. Naftali’s grandfather said: “The commentaries explain that arichas yamim refers to length of days in the world of eternity, the only place where time is indeed ‘long,’ and that’s where our beloved Naftali is. We miss him, but he is in the World of Truth.” I stood there in awe. Acher was one of the greatest giants of the Talmudic era, the teacher of Rebbe Meir. And the youth whose death he witnessed was not related to him in any way. Yet his response to the death was to deny Hashem and to abandon His Torah.

Naftali’s grandfather is a professor and a man of intellect, and he had lost a beloved grandchild. Yet his response was an adamantine faith that could not be shaken by even this most horrific turn of events. As speaker after speaker—Naftali’s other grandfather, his friend, his father—echoed that same absolute emunah, I thought of Rav Chaim Vital’s statement: “The avodah of a simple Jew at the end of days will be greater than the avodah of the great tzaddikim of the previous generations.” And then Naftali’s mother, Racheli, spoke. It was she, the only fluent English speaker among the six parents, who had represented the parents at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. It was she who had rallied all of am Yisrael in a campaign of prayer, kabbalas mitzvos, and unity. It was she, speaking to a group of children who told her proudly that they were praying for her son, who worried that they might face a crisis of faith. She told them, “Children, I want to tell you something. I believe with all my heart that they will return. But whatever happens, whatever happens… Hashem is not our employee. You shouldn’t be broken if something else happens, okay? I believe that they will return quickly.” Now here she stood, her hopes dashed, her worst nightmare come true, and she did what she had done throughout those wrenching 18 days–she expressed gratitude! She thanked the soldiers and the police—a pointed reference indeed since so many had blamed the incompetence of the police personnel (since fired) who did not immediately report the phone call of one of the abducted boys. She declared: “Dear soldiers, intelligence forces, and police, we thank you very, very much. You promised that you would find them and bring them home. And you did. This is also a great chesed. We are not taking it for granted.” Rejecting the idea of “random evil” and referring to the murderers as “hunters,” she spoke to the three boys: “Hakadosh Baruch Hu chose you as His poster children, as the opposite of them—of good, purity and love.” Then, standing beside the body of her dead son, Racheli Fraenkel, her voice breaking, did something that carved an impression deep into my soul—she thanked G-d! “From the first day, we said to ourselves that even if it ends bad, Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave us an outpouring of blessings.”

Through her tears, she proceeded to count her blessings: “We are so rich—with wonderful children, youths with nobility of spirit, incomparably wonderful brothers and sisters, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, a strong and empowering community.” This was the ultimate example of focusing on what you have rather than on what you lack. Racheli Fraenkel was not declaring the glass half full. She was peering over the edge of a deep pit and thanking G-d for His beneficence. Over the high-pitched sound of girls weeping in the back of the crowd, she concluded: “Rest in peace, my boy. We will learn to sing without you, but we will always hear your voice inside of us.” No blaming G-d, no cries of “unfair,” no accusations against Divine justice, no questioning how a good G-d could take the lives of such innocent boys, no wondering how evil could prevail. Without minimizing the culpability of the murderers, the family led the thousands of mourners in accepting that Hashem is in control and that this was a Divine decree that in no way diminished all the good that Hashem does. The paste that glued my heart back together was the faith and fortitude of the Fraenkel family. And this faith and fortitude were evident in abundance at the burial in Modi’in. Over 50,000 mourners crowded into the cemetery to escort the boys to their final resting place. All of am Yisrael was represented: men with long peyos, yeshivah bachurim with black hats, masses of knitted kippot, young and old, men and women, religious and not-so. Jews came from Eilat at the southern tip of the country and from Nahariya on the northern border. The cemetery could not accommodate such a massive crowd.

Its single narrow access road, winding up and down hills and through forests, had no room for hundreds of buses and cars. So everyone had to traipse from the main road for 40 minutes in the scorching sun to reach the burial site. A mighty river of Jews flowed along the road, making their way not to a music festival or political demonstration, but to the funeral of three holy martyrs. When my bottle of water was exhausted and climbing up the next hill seemed more than I could handle, I asked a policeman standing by the road if he had water. He offered me his own bottle. No, I told him, just pour a little water into my bottle. He filled my bottle, depleting his own. And that’s how it was throughout. The unity forged by our ordeal was evident throughout the funeral. Several tents offered shade. An old man with a long white beard was feeling faint; someone offered him a backpack to sit on, and a policeman eased him down onto it. A man on a motorcycle distributed small bottles of water. The last bottle went to a tall young man. Noticing a middle-aged woman behind him, he handed the bottle to her and left. She saw three girls with empty bottles and poured half of the new bottle into one of theirs. Due to the traffic jams surrounding Modi’in, the burial started more than an hour late. An overwhelming scene: 50,000 Jews standing in the heat and not a complaint or a cross word. Finally, the voice over the loudspeakers announced the burials, calling one name at a time as the bodies were lowered into their graves. Then the chief Sephardic rabbi recited the Tzidduk Hadin, the “justification of the judgment.” His words rang out over the crowd, and no heart protested: “The Rock, His work is perfect, because all His ways are just, G-d of faith, without iniquity. He is righteous and fair.” The three fathers recited Kaddish, and 50,000 Jews responded in a loud roar that reached heaven, “May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.” We had come to bury three innocents butchered by evil men, and everyone accepted, painfully accepted, that this was a decree from Hashem, Who is just and right. Mi k’amcha Yisrael! Who is like am Yisrael? Such faith! Such fortitude! On my hike back to our car, I passed a bus with a large, hand-painted sign on its back: “Am hanetzach lo mefached miderech arukah. THE ETERNAL NATION IS NOT AFRAID OF THE LONG JOURNEY.” And that said it all.

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