How does a Jewish mother respond to the unthinkable? In Jeremiah, we read of the matriarch Rachel, the quintessential Jewish mother, who sat in Ramah crying and bitterly weeping. There was no comfort for her, her children were gone. Like our ancient matriarch, we, too, are in mourning.
In the last weeks, we have lit candles and attended vigils. In their absence, we adopted three teenage boys, whose lives were full of potential, into our own families. We prayed and hoped for Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, but we now know there is no longer any reason for hope. Hope is, I imagine, what carried Iris Yifrach, Bat Galim Shaar and Rachel Frenkel through the first part of this ordeal, but now their children are gone and I cannot imagine what this must mean.
These were schoolboys. They were civilians, not soldiers. The sadness and dismay that we are feeling as a community comes in part because we have taken the narratives of these boys into our own stories. It comes in part because this violence does not feel so far away. Eyal, Naftali and Gilad were young people. They were not carrying guns. They were just trying to get home. Whether or not we knew them personally, we all know someone like them. Their deaths remind us of just how high the cost of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is. We are filled with compassion for these families, even as we struggle to know how to protect our own children.
Rachel, our matriarch, suffered over her children. First she could not conceive, and then she died in childbirth. In Hebrew, the word for womb, rechem, the source of her suffering, is related to the word rachamim, or compassion. For it is precisely the vulnerability of those who birth and care for children, in practice and metaphorically, that is tied to our ability to feel for the other, with concern and sympathy.
As a mother, as a parent who has nurtured and loved without condition, I am filled with rachamim for Iris Yifrach, Bat Galim Shaar and Rachel Frenkel for their suffering and for a loss that cannot be redeemed. I cannot imagine the daily pain of an empty place at the dinner table, of a bed that will never again be slept in, of a high school graduation that will not come. Their suffering is the universal suffering of all mothers, of all parents who lose innocent children to dangers and terror that ought not to be part of any childhood.
And I am scared. I wish I could believe that these horrible deaths will serve as a catalyst for moderation and understanding. I am not so naïve as to advocate inaction, nor so selfless as to disavow justice. Nonetheless, I am concerned that in our pain we will be tempted toward vengeance. Just as there were those who saw in the horrific kidnapping of these three boys unconscionable reason for celebration, there are those who see the recovery of the bodies of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali as justification for large-scale indiscriminate retribution. The possibility for a significant increase in violence is a real danger. I hope that the voices of compassion and of reasoned military strategy prevail so that all innocent children may grow in safety and mothers may be spared the pain of violent loss.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder is the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon and frequently writes about Jewish topics. You can follow her on Twitter at @RabbiRuth.