Where Are We?

Parashat Devarim

Guest post by Rav Noam Sendor

Last Shabbat our collective heart was broken yet again with the horrific murder of Yosef, Chaya, and Elad Salomon HY”D. Unfortunately, our Facebook feeds were bombarded with the brutal images of the crime scene. While some expressed the necessity of “showing the world what happened,” I believe such photos do not show proper respect for the dead and could further traumatise those close to the family. Instead of focusing on those images, we should contemplate the lives of those we lost and their values so that they live on through our lives.

I shared the following idea with my students at an assembly this past Wednesday and I wanted to share it with you, as well, as it is so powerful. Chaya Salomon HY”D was a teacher, and just a few days before she was murdered she handed out report cards to her students before they broke up for the summer. Along with the normal report card, she handed out a decorated card with the following words (the translation is from journalist Sivan Rahav Meir, who brought this to my attention):

“Dear student, when I give the report cards at the end of the semester, I am always reminded of another report card, almost like at school… It is given by our Father in Heaven, Who is everywhere. But instead of the regular subjects and exam grades, He gives grades in the following subjects: friendliness, patience, understanding, love, kindness, responsibility, gratitude, humility. And that other report card is important, even more than any other grade. And not just once or twice a year, but every moment that passes. Because many times during life we forget, and forget again, that being a person with good midot (good character traits) is the real test in life! Good luck, Morah Chaya”.

So often in education we lose sight of what we are really doing it all for. We become focused on external goals and we choose to create a culture where academic achievement trumps all other values.  Rav Kook, in his powerful piece “Bakashat Ha’Ani Hatzmi­- The Search for the Essential Self,” laments how we, as a people, have become estranged from our true selves. It began with Adam and Chava choosing to listen to the external temptation of the snake and not their inner-voice which was in harmony with the Will of God. In truth, all sin is an expression of disconnect, a lack of awareness of one’s purpose and mission, a dearth of self-awareness. Torah education, which should be the guide towards self-awareness, too often does the opposite, limiting our vision to the minutiae of the four ells of halacha, blinding us to our true selves. And if we cannot see ourselves properly, how can we see the Other? The great sin of Adam and Chava, writes Rav Kook, is that when God called out to them “אַיֶּכָּה”—“Where are you?!?” they did not know how to answer.

Midrash Eicha Raba masterfully connects the call of God “אַיֶּכָּה”—“Where are you?!?” to the word אֵיכָה”“Woe (an expression of lament).” Eicha is not just the name of Megilla we read on Tisha B’Av, this word appears both in Parshat Devarim and the Haftorah we read this Shabbat, Chazon Yeshyahu. The connection between Ayeka and Eicha teaches us that when we cannot answer the question of Ayeka, it brings us to the lament of Eicha. When we lose sight of ourselves and focus on externalities, careers and materialism, our individual and collective self-estrangement brings upon us the trials and travails that we know too well.

Now more than ever do we need people like Chaya Salomon HY”D, teachers and  parents who help us focus on our inner qualities and development of self, and so the loss is all the more tragic. However, we are a resilient people with untold power. Every year on Tisha B’Av, we remind ourselves of our collective failures. As painful as this is, underneath lays a powerful message that we have been to hell and back, but we are still here. We survive, that’s what we do. We must ask ourselves though, when oh when will we finally learn? When will we get it together as a people and fulfil our holy task? When will we thrive and not just survive?

Please God, in the merit of the holy and pure ones whose lives were taken in the sanctification of God’s name, may we hear the call of Hashem loud and clear, calling upon us to be great and powerful  through our knowledge of self which translates into the pursuit of justice and lovingkindness. And when God calls out to us “Ayeka—where are you?” may we have the courage to say, “Hineni—Here I am, ready to do my part in healing this world.”

May that healing come ever so quickly, with the arrival of Mashiach and the building of the Bet HaMikdash, speedily and in our days.

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