Are We Blessed or Are We Cursed?

Sermon by Cantor Eyal Bitton
July 5, 2014 at Beth Jacob Synagogue
PARASHAT BALAK

Naftali Fraenkel, 16 years-old. Gilad Shaar, 16 years-old. Eyal Yifrach, 19 years-old.

Three weeks ago, on June 12, as these three teenagers tried to hitchhike home near Hebron, they were kidnapped. Days went by. A week went by. Then another week. Not a word from the kidnappers.

When kidnappers take a victim, usually they want something. Often the authorities receive demands and a ransom. But this is Israel. Things are different. Kidnappings and ransoms are more cynical affairs.

Israelis have been kidnapped before. On June 25, 2006, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas. He was held for five years. Against the Geneva Conventions, he was not permitted to have any contact with his family nor was the Red Cross allowed to visit. Shalit remained in captivity for five years until a deal was struck. Israel exchanged 1027 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad’s freedom.

On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah terrorists attacked a group of Israeli soldiers in Israeli territory, killing eight and kidnapping IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser. Two years later, Israel exchanged five Hezbollah terrorists and the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian militants and terrorists for the bodies of Regev and Goldwasser.

So as the days went by, some wondered if the kidnappers were holding on to these Israeli teenagers for just such an exchange. But those other kidnappings, while reprehensible, were of Israeli soldiers. These were civilians – teenagers! Their only “crime”, so to speak, was being Israeli – being Jewish. The offensive nature of this act was and continues to be appalling, shocking, and revealing.

But as the days went by, no one heard from the terrorists. Nothing. Then Israel launched a search operation. Palestinian homes were entered. Offices were overturned. People were arrested. Still nothing from the terrorists.

Then we learned the worst possible news. A civilian search team discovered the bodies of the teenagers buried near Hebron.

I remember how saddened I was when I read the news. I also felt overwhelming sympathy for the parents of these children. I couldn’t begin to imagine their anguish. And I also remember feeling such anger at these terrorists.

How could they do this? How could they kidnap teenagers? How could they keep the teenagers’ parents and all of Israeli society guessing as to what had happened to these boys? And, now that we knew their terrible fate, I wondered: how could these terrorists stand idly by as Israeli soldiers targeted their fellow Palestinians? Shouldn’t that be enough motivation to stand up and say, “Stop arresting our brothers. Stop invading their privacy and entering their homes and offices. You don’t need to look for the boys anymore. We’ve killed them. They’re dead.”?

But no, they didn’t. They were okay with it. They were okay with any repercussions their fellow Palestinians would face. The key for them was that Israelis must not know what happened to their precious teenagers. They knew that these teenagers were dead but they were content; they preferred to have Israelis hang on to false hope than alleviate their own brothers’ suffering.

At a time like this, some of us can’t help but feel cursed. How many kidnappings must we go through? How many brutal enemies with no regard for human decency will we encounter?

Gilad Shalit kidnapped. Five years of captivity. We feel cursed. Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser kidnapped. Their captors never had the decency or courtesy to let the world know that the two Israelis had been killed. We feel cursed. Three teenagers, not even soldiers, on their way home from school, kidnapped. Cursed. Then we discover they were killed. Cursed.

In today’s Torah portion, Balak, the King of Moab, wanted to curse the people of Israel. He instructed Balaam the diviner, “…put a curse upon this people for me,… perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.” (Numbers 22:6)

But as we read, every time Balaam sought to curse the Israelites, he simply could not. He sought to curse us but what came out of his mouth was a blessing – each time. As God said to Balaam: “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:12)

Are we really blessed? Where’s the blessing in this senseless and hateful murder of three innocent teenage boys?

Rachel Fraenkel spoke at a memorial for her sixteen-year-old son, just before the funeral. She said, “From the very first day, we said to ourselves that even if it ends badly, God gave us an abundance of blessings”.

For Rachel, then, there are a number of personal blessings. For the people, Israeli and Jewish, the blessings lie elsewhere. We didn’t know 16-year-old Naftali Fraenkel. We didn’t know 16-year-old Gilad Shaar. We didn’t know 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach.

But consider the response to their disappearance and then to their deaths.

Israeli society came together as one, recognizing that these boys were all their sons. Jewish communities around the world bonded together and held memorials. There was a shared grief, just as there had been a shared hope leading up to the tragic end. There was a national sense of family; a family of the Israeli nation and a family of the global Jewish people.

Of course, the response was not entirely unified. Following the discovery of the three teenage Israeli boys’ bodies, a teenage Palestinian boy, 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir, was murdered. The police have not yet solved the case so we don’t know for certain who the guilty party is. However, if it turns out that Jews perpetrated the crime in revenge, then this is a murder that every Jew must condemn. It is wrong. It is, in every way, a sin.

Still, the reaction to loss is extremely telling. The Palestinian boy’s horrible and tragic death has been met with rioting among Palestinians and Palestinian-Israelis. It has been met by a governing body, the Palestinian Authority, that has not called for calm on the street. And we all know, as I’m sure the PA knows, that Israeli society as a whole does not relish in the murder of this innocent Palestinian boy. Israel, as a people and a government, condemn this heinous crime and will do everything it can to seek justice.

On the other hand, the terrorists who murdered the three Israeli teenagers relished in their crime. Hamas never condemned the kidnapping or the murder. Their society has sheltered the criminals responsible for the murders.

At Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, students handed out sweets at the campus entrance to celebrate the kidnapping. In fact this took place in various Palestinian towns.

There has also been a disturbing amount of support for the kidnapping of the boys on social media. One of the big campaigns was the “Three Schalits” which included a Facebook page featuring various people joyfully and triumphantly displaying the three-fingered symbol.

Let us not forget that these terrorists and their supporters have a larger goal. They seek to destroy our hope. They seek to destroy our belief in the Zionist enterprise. This is how they seek to curse us.

But just as Balak sought to curse us but could not, these terrorists and their supporters cannot curse us. Yes, we can be hurt. Yes, we can suffer tragedy. But we do not stop living. We do not stop seeking justice. We do not stop looking for the good inside ourselves. We do not stop using our successes and our failures to better ourselves as a people.

There is a significant event that took place following the murder of these Israeli teenagers. Following the eulogies, Naftali Fraenkel’s father and brother were at the podium. His mother, Rachel Fraenkel, joined them and they recited Kaddish together. Remember, these are Orthodox Israelis. Women are not heard saying Kaddish. Never. 8 Certainly not in the presence of leading Orthodox rabbis.

And you know what was more remarkable? Everyone responded “Amen”. Everyone.

Like Balak, these terrorists wanted to curse us. They caused a great deal of pain, no doubt. But ultimately they failed. For the people of Israel remain blessed. Balak sought to curse us but instead of a curse the seer Balaam said: “A star rises from Jacob… Israel is triumphant.” (Numbers 24:17)

In the wake of such tragedy, may we never stop believing that we are blessed. May we continue to come together as a global family. May we continue to evolve and see beyond our petty differences in times of need. May we recall the words Rachel Fraenkel who said, “There is no senseless act of love and charity. A good act stands on its own.”

In that vein, may we recall the words of the prophet Micah who, in today’s Haftarah, said: “What the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.” May we seek justice – true justice for all. May we love goodness. May we remember Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, and remember that they are just like us and that we are just like them – God’s children.
Shabbat shalom.