Rabbi Chaim Shmulewitz in his classic Sichos Mussar develops a fascinating insight of his great teacher Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz: Stories don't teach about the person, the person reveals the story.
The Gemara in Yoma (23a-b) serves as Reb Chaim's prooftext. The Mishna describes how two young kohanim were racing up the ramp of the Altar to determine who would be entitled to perform that day's service. The one who lost grabbed a knife and mortally wounded the victor. While the victim was still in his death throes, his father declared that he was not yet dead, and therefore the knife with which he had been stabbed had not become ritually impure. We see from the father's declaration, says a Baraisa, that the impurity of the Temple vessels was more important in their eyes than the spilling of blood. The Gemara inquires: Does this mean that murder was something light in their eyes, or does it mean that murder retained all of its seriousness and that they were just very strict with regard to the purity of the Temple vessels.?
Reb Chaim explains the two sides of the Gemara's inquiry. Was murder something cheap in their eyes? In other words, did the father lack the slightest drop of normal human feeling such that at the very moment that his son was hovering between life and death he had no other thought on his mind than the ritual purity of the knife (which even if it had become impure could be easily purified through immersion). Or was the purity of the vessels something very strict in their eyes – i..e., did the father have the same powerful emotions as any other father in that situation, and nevertheless manage to overcome them and have the presence of mind to consider the impurity of one of the Temple vessels.
Answers Reb Chaim, we simply have no way of knowing from the act itself. Only with personal knowledge of the one involved can we begin to guess at the intentions underlying the actions.
I was reminded of this powerful insight a few weeks ago, after the tragic death of an infant at her father's own hands. No one who heard of the event failed to tremble in horror. Of that I'm sure. Yet within a very brief period a large group of over one hundred protesters had arrived on the scene with the intention of ensuring that the police not carry out an autopsy.
As in the case of Yoma, I have no ability to evaluate the actions of the demonstrators. On the one hand, the alacrity with which they gathered might have reflected only their incredible presence of mind and their heightened sensitivity to kavod hameis (the honor of the deceased). On the other hand, were there perhaps some among the alarge group mobilized that mobilized so quickly for a confrontation with the police for whom the thought of "action" was a means of evading reflection on the implication of the horrible event. None of us can possibly know.
Clearly, there were questions raised by that terrible tragedy that deserve our attention. One concerns the treatment of mental illness in our community. Are we doing enough to identify and treat mental illness? A corollary question would be: Are there too many subcommunities in which there is a willingness to marry off those with serious emotional or psychological issues without professional guidance as to the ability of the mentally ill partner to function in a stable marriage?
A speaker on one of the religious stations in Israel asserted that the chareidi community has the highest degree awareness of any community concerning mental illness and is the most pro-active in addressing those issues. Perhaps so, though I would be interested in knowing the basis for that statement. Certainly, there are a number of excellent organizations providing counseling and therapy for a broad range of issues, and the chareidi community as a whole is constantly developing more therapists from within its own ranks.
I do not automatically accept, however, the claim that no community can match our own in its awareness of mental illness and its treatment. Self-criticism is not always our communal strong suit. I just returned from the convention of the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP) in Baltimore. One of the most remarkable aspects of the convention was the degree of soul-searching that took place in the halls of the convention and the main sessions. Titles for sessions included: How Successful are We in Kiruv: Reevaluating our Methods; Losing as Many as We Gain; Is there a Long-Term Future for Me in Kiruv?; It's Totally Different World: Are We Ready?
None of these turned out to be merely clever titles designed to stir interest. And none of the sessions ended with the speakers concluding complacently that the issues suggested by the titles were really not so serious or that all would be well with just a few minor adjustments. In coming weeks, I'll have more to say about the substance of the convention. I only mention it now because the openness of the discussion and the willingness to focus on real problems both within the general community and within the kiruv movement itself – an openness alien to much of our public discourse.
Yet that sort of discussion is necessary if we are to successfully address many of the challenges facing us as individuals and as a community. At the very least, when tragedy strikes, it behooves us to ask whether there are lessons of more general applicability that can be learned.
Many years ago, the young son of one of the world's leading mekubalim was struck and killed as he ran across a busy street to catch his school bus. At the shiva house, one of those present asked the boy's father how he understood the tragedy according to kabbalah. The father did not respond at that level. The lesson, he said, was: We have to do a better job of watching our children and teaching them the rules of traffic safety.
Few of us are great mekubalim. But certain questions we can all ask ourselves, and the lessons are often not that difficult to discern.