Last week’s suicide bombing on a number 2 bus taking worshippers from the Kotel to the chareidi neighborhoods of Jerusalem was perhaps the most shattering blow ever to strike the chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael. Everyone was somehow connected to someone on the bus. Every subgroup within the community was hit – Chassidic, Litvak, Sephardi, baal teshuva. The next morning, before the names of those killed were released, men went reluctantly to shul, afraid of hearing tragic news about someone close to them.
Every chareidi family in Jerusalem uses the number 2 bus, which wends its way through most of the chareidi neighborhoods, before ending its route at the Kosel. Many harbored the illusion that somehow this line was safer than others -- either because of the holy destination of many of the passengers, or, on a more practical level, because a suicide bomber would be so easily identified traveling on this line that none would every try. A friend visiting this summer from the States told me that his family refused to take any buses, except the number 2 bus from the Kosel.
The circumstances of the bombing only added to the pain and made the tragedy even more incomprehensible. Virtually all those killed and injured were coming from just having davened at the Kotel. Many of them had come to the Kosel from other cities in Israel or from abroad.
As the individual stories of those so cruelly murdered began to emerge, the pain only deepened. The entire community could identify with the reasons that had brought them to the Kotel: one woman, in her eighth month of pregnancy, to daven for a healthy baby; another to daven that her son beginning yeshiva that day should have a successful zman. Many of those killed davened at the Kosel daily.
In addition to all infants and young children without sin, one could not help but be struck by the number of extraordinary tzaddikim and tzikanios on that fateful bus. Mrs. Goldie Taubenfeld, a 43-year-old mother of 13 from New Square, who was killed together with her infant son Shmuel, had just recently offered to give one of her own kidneys to a complete stranger in desperate need of a transplant. She was known for always being ready to provide a hot meal and a bed for those who had nowhere else to turn. Mrs. Nava Zagari went to the Kosel on the day that the first of the drastic cuts in child allowances went into effect to daven that she should nevertheless merit a seventh child. Instead her sixth, a baby boy less than a year old, was killed as he slept in her arms.
When Mrs. Lilach Kardi’s mother died six years ago (her father was killed in a tragic work accident four years earlier), the then 16 year old girl undertook to raise her eight-year-old brother by herself, and she did. She had gone to the Kosel to daven prior to the anticipated birth of her second child next month. Mrs. Rochel Weitz was widowed at an early age, and left to raise eight children by herself, which she did with great success, while still finding time to brighten the lives of countless others with her chesed.
WHAT WAS MOST REMARKABLE, however, was not that we read these stories and cried, but that they were being printed in the leading secular papers as well, without a trace of the cynicism that is too often part of any discussion of the chareidim in the media. And these stories were eagerly devoured by secular Israelis.
The fascination with the chareidi response to the terrible tragedy went beyond sociological curiosity. One sensed that secular Israelis too were looking for answers to their questions, and more importantly, that they were in awe of the strength they witnessed in the chareidi community.
Anat Davidoff, for instance, devoted 15 minutes of her midday radio show to a discussion of how a believing Jew wrestles with great tragedy with chareidi journalist Dudi Zilbershlag, who has himself lost two children to disease. Davidoff’s tone and her insistent probing suggested a real personal urgency, a desire on the part of a secular Israeli to understand the sources of chareidi faith.
But the most eloquent testimonies of all were the simple, unrehearsed conversations with the families of those killed and wounded and with the survivors themselves. Bracha Toporowitch, whose three-year-old granddaughter was burned beyond recognition as she slept in her mother’s arms, was asked whether she was filled with hatred for the suicide bomber. She appeared amazed by the question. Who had time to think about him, she wondered. ``What is the message for us? What do we need to change to become better people? How do we reach out to people? How do we connect more closely to G-d?" These were the only questions, she said.
Secular Israelis watched and listened and shook their heads. For the first time, they were entering into the private lives of chareidi Jews, not watching chareidi MKs being interviewed on television. For once the discussion was not about budgets and coalition agreements, but about that which is most important to us: Our faith in G-d. And that is what secular Israelis wanted to hear about.
Among all the personal and communal tragedies, the bombing of the number 2 bus also signaled the end of all the hopes that Israelis had allowed to grow within themselves that perhaps, just perhaps, peace with the Palestinians is still possible. Now we all know that the hatred directed at us is too great to be overcome in this generation. The apparently unlimited supply of those ready to give up their own lives in order to destroy as many innocent Jewish lives as possible are only the tip of the iceberg of Palestinian hatred.
So we are staring another fifty years of war in the face. No politician even pretends anymore to know the way out. After the bombing, the familiar litanies -- ``if only we had done this"; ``if only we would do that" – were absent.
Many Israelis now realize that without the stoicism that they witnessed last week in the chareidi community, we will simply lack the emotional resources to carry on in the face of the hatred blowing our way from every direction. But they know too that the such stoicism only comes from a strong belief in our mission as a people.
That stoicism has another source as well: the recognition that our understanding is necessarily limited. Since Moshe Rabbeinu, Jews have wrestled with the suffering of the righteous, and just as that understanding was denied to Moshe Rabbeinu, so is it denied to us. But awareness of the limits of our understanding does not lead to despair.
By contrast, Western man, intoxicated with the expansion of scientific knowledge, lives with the illusion that soon all will be known and subject to his control. In the face of cataclysmic events beyond his control, he is left suddenly rudderless and afraid. He has no means of dealing with tragedy.
Chareidim do not claim to know why any particular tragedy took place. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto taught us, we can at most know something of the general rules of Divine Providence, but not the application of those rules in any specific case. Yet because we know that nothing that takes place is random, we also know that when events strike us so deeply and so close to home that something is demanded of us. We cannot remain the same as before.
Though we cannot know the precise purpose of events, we nevertheless feel obligated to salvage something positive from the ruins. That is why at all the 21 levayos over the past week, there were no cries for revenge, no mention of the hudna, or Sharon, or Arafat. That is all besides the point. Rather we must take to heart the words of HaRav Shaul Alter, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Sfas Emes: ``This tragedy struck at members of all groups in the Torah camp. From this we must learn the necessity of being united, of living with achdus, of avoiding machlokes. Only that can protect us against further calamities."
Secular Israelis witnessed with awe the ability of chareidim to carry on in the face of terrible grief and their determination to salvage something positive from the wreckage. If they could not quite yet make the faith of chareidi Jews their own, many of them at least wished they could.