With the horrific news that the bodies of Yaakov Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach had been found, came as well details of their abduction that had been withheld from the public during the 18 day search for them. The IDF knew almost from the start that there was little hope that the three yeshiva students were alive.
On the recording of Gil-ad's brave call to a police hotline to alert the authorities to their abduction sounds of gunfire could be heard, as well as cries of pain afterward. Two voices speaking in Arabic congratulating one another on "three [murdered Jews]" could also be heard. The next day the IDF found the kidnapper's blood-stained, burned-out car, which contained bullet casings.
Most of this information and the assessment of the IDF that the three yeshiva students had been murdered were shared with the family. They knew from the start that the chances of every seeing their sons again was slight.
And yet throughout the 18-day ordeal, all six parents, while constantly in the media spotlight, presented faces of hope to the world. Rachel Fraenkel often took the role of spokesperson for the parents with the media, especially the English-speaking media. Her face throughout was serene, her speech filled with expressions of hope and gratitude for the prayers, support, and undertakings to do more good deeds on behalf of her son and the other two yeshiva students.
The woman whose face had become so familiar was almost unrecognizable at Yaakov Naftali's levaya. Only then did I fully grasp the magnitude of the effort that had been required to project such strength to the outside world while filled with such foreboding. And the same can be said of each of the fathers and mothers. They held themselves together not just for their other children – during the period of waiting Rachel Fraenkel somehow managed to attend a young daughter's ballet performance and son's kindergarten graduation – but also for an anxious nation. They thanked us for giving them strength, but it was they who did not permit themselves to give vent to what was in their hearts for our sake.
They used their personal tragedy to teach an entire nation the meaning of emunah peshute. In a clip shown on Israel TV, Mrs. Fraenkel was approached by a group of little girls at the Kosel. They came to wish her well, but instead she bent down towards them and taught them what it means to pray while knowing the answer is not always the one for which one hoped. "I want you to promise me," she said, "that no matter what happens, you won't be crushed or broken; that you don't lose faith. We must remember that Hashem is not our employee. He doesn't always do as we wish."
A friend who heads a post-high school seminary in Israel for American girls told me that those few sentences were the thrust of the message he sent to distraught students who had returned to the States and wondered what happened to all their prayers.
That clip of Mrs. Fraenkel was the most powerful religious statement heard by the general Israeli public since the interview on Israel TV with 8-year-old Chaya Schijveshuurder from her hospital bed, just days after the Sbarro Pizza parlor bombing, which claimed the lives both her parents and three siblings. The little girl, with no one to coach her, told the reporter, "Don't you understand? If we would all just be a little better, Mashiach will come and I'll see my Abba and Ima again."
The magnitude of the Kiddush Hashem that the Shaer, Yifrach and Fraenkel families made was captured by a visibly shaken Prime Minister Netanyahu in his hesped (eulogy): "The whole nation saw the nobleness of spirit, the internal strength of the parents, the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandparents, and the rest of the family," he said. And most importantly, they knew exactly where that strength came from: "The nation understood immediately the depth of the roots and your strength of spirit. You taught us all a full lesson that we will not forget. A lesson in faith and determination; in unity and sensitivity; in Judaism and humanity."
I LACKED THE EVIDENCE before the security forces and the three families that Naftali, Eyal, and Gil-ad had been murdered. But as soon as the photos of the primary suspects were published I sensed that the end would not be a good one. One could look in their faces and know that the yeshiva students could expect no mercy and that no bond of common humanity linked the kidnappers and their victims.
It is a comforting belief that all people are basically alike – that they share the same aspirations, that they love those closest to them in the same way. Comforting, but false. Cultures differ greatly and their products relate to one another and to outsiders in totally opposite ways.
In the honor-shame culture of the nomadic clans and tribes that make up the Middle East, individuality is completely subordinated to the codes of the tribe. Right and wrong are meaningless: All that matters is what advances one's clan or tribe. If a member of another clan kills a member of my clan, I must avenge his death by killing his killer, regardless of who initiated the original confrontation and the particular rights and wrongs. Anything that sullies the honor of the family must be expiated in blood, usually that of one's sisters or daughters.
Our Arab enemies taunt us that they will prevail because, "You love life, while we crave death." And they are right about the distinction, if not the consequences that follow from it. War is highest sacrament in pagan cultures, and that has been passed on to the celebration of jihad in much of contemporary Islamic culture.
The prime minister highlighted the differences between the Jewish people and our enemies: "The society of the murderers gleefully celebrating the spilling of innocent blood. They sanctify death; we sanctify life. They sanctify cruelty; we sanctify mercy." That cruelty and brutality are on display before the entire world today in Syria and Iraq, where Muslims do not just kill each other, but strive to do so in the most humiliating fashion.
In his commentary on the Av HaRachamim prayer, Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch writes that Jews have at once been the most persecuted and the least vengeful of people: "Our people have entrusted to G-d and G-d alone the task of avenging the blood of their murdered fathers and mothers, wives and children. This promise sustained them and kept them free of bitter and burning lust for vengeance against their oppressors and murderers."
At the three funerals, all the speakers dwelt only on the qualities of the kedoshim and the magnitude of the loss. There were no calls for revenge.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a published eulogy described "the great battle of our time as one between cultures of life and one of death, . . . [I]n Syria, Iraq, in Nigeria and elsewhere [w]hole societies are being torn to shreds by people practicing violence in the name of G-d." "But the verdict of history," he intoned, "is that cultures that worship death die, while those that sanctify life live on."
We see that clearly today. Country after country in the Middle East can no longer feed its own people. Only four have achieved general literacy. The Muslim states of the Middle East produce nothing of marketable value. And were it not for their oil they would be even poorer than the states of sub-Saharan Africa. And most relevant, their birthrates are plummeting at the fastest rate observed in recorded history.
Israel, by contrast, is at the cutting edge of every field of modern technology and science, and brings greater benefit to the world per capita than any other country. And Israel's Jews have the highest birthrate in the developed world by one child per woman more than the next closest country.
AS WE WITNESSED the nobility of the Fraenkel, Shaer, and Yifrach families and the manner in which the entire country searched and prayed for their missing sons and embraced the parents, I cannot imagine that there was a Jew in Israel who did not feel a surge of gratitude for the privilege of being born into the eternal Jewish people.
Eyal, Naftali, and Gil-ad helped each of us rediscover the kochos hanefesh and chaye olam planted in the Jewish people, and for that we will forever be indebted to them.
May their memories be for blessing.
Blessed are the Critics
Two weeks ago I wrote in another publication a sentence that would never have escaped Mishpacha's keen-eyed editors: Last summer, my wife and I spent many hours listening to a series of lectures by the late Professor J. Rufus Fears on thinkers who have shaped the world while driving through the Canadian Rockies. The first lecture mentioned was one on Pericles's Funeral Oration for Athenian war dead in the Peloponessian War and President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Three friends and my mother took time to express their amazement that Pericles had ever been in the Canadian Rockies. Once I got over the embarrassment of violating Strunk and White's exhortations against ending sentences with dangling adverbial phrases, especially ones that garble the meaning, I comforted myself that I have such sharp-eyed friends who read so closely -- though Mom was no surprise -- and that apparently such embarrassments are not so commonplace that they no longer bother to comment.