August 15, 2022 |

Unity in the Face of Tragedy

There was one picture that did it for me this week; one scene which moved me the most. It was the picture on the front page of some of our local papers. It was the picture of a young girl being carried to safety by a rescue worker, and while she is being carried away, the young girl is reaching back trying to return to the site, trying to find her family member who is back in the carnage.

How horrific! Worshippers returning from the Western Wall; a mother of 13; a woman who traveled to Israel to donate her kidney; more than 40 children injured. It was a scene of total destruction--Holy Jews murdered in the holiest city of all.

Says the Torah (Deut. 14:1), Banim atem lashem elokeichem, lo titgodedu ve-lo tasimu karchem bein eineichem la-met, you are children of God. Therefore, do not mutilate yourself, do not make a mark upon your face, when you are in mourning.

The prohibition is lo titgodedu—do not mutilate yourself. In the ancient Near East (an in some societies even to this day), the practice of self-mutilation was the response to death. When mourning, people would drag their fingernails down their face in order to draw blood, while screaming in pain.

Chezkuni explains: shemah yeish be-metei ir hanidachat av o-ben o-ach o-karov, Maybe someone who sees the terrible destruction of the city will be moved to mourn, a child for a parent, or a parent for a child. Says the torah, do not mourn in this manner. Do not mourn by inflicting a wound upon yourself. Do not mourn by drawing blood. Ki am kadosh atah, because you are a holy people and this is not the way that the children of God mourn.

On a certain level, when we hear terrible news, we emotionally want to connect to the physical pain. The Torah prohibits this. To inflict physical pain upon ourselves goes nowhere. It just causes more destruction in the world. It doesn’t help the healing process, it just creates more pain. That’s why when someone dies, we rip a garment instead of our bodies.

With the prohibition of lo titgodedu the Torah is telling us how not to respond. Don’t respond in a way that inflicts more pain upon ourselves. Don’t respond in a way that brings more harm to the world.

But what is a productive way to respond to national tragedy, like the tragedy in Jerusalem this past week?

There is another rabbinic teaching on the prohibition of lo titgodedu. Teaches the midrash: Lo taasu agudot agudot, do not split into different communities.

When you witness a tragedy on a national scope, our response must be to unite on a national scope. Lo titgodedu means we have an imperative to respond by trying to unite amongst our fellow Jews. This is a productive way to respond to tragedy. Mourn by coming together.

That sounds easy: Jews, let’s unite. But we all know how difficult it really is. How can we ask Jews to unite when we have tens of different political parties in the kenesset. How can we unite when the right blames the left and the left blames the right. Israelis blame American Jews, and American Jews blame Israelis.

How can we unite with all Jews when we march at the Israeli day Parade and we see Jews with Ultra-Orthodox garb standing with Palestinians waving the Palestinian flag or we see those same Jews mourning on Yom Haatzmaut? How can we unite with all Jews when we hear that one of the largest, most prominent, Synagogues in New York City was preparing to allow an affiliate organization use its facilities in order to honor Adam Shapiro, who has openly called for homicidal attacks against Jews?

I have one answer. It is not the only answer, but it is one answer.

The answer is Torah. Today it is the language of Torah that can unite all Jews. This sounds strange because it is often the case that denominations are divided over different definitions and interpretations of Torah. These divisions are serious and real. However, the language of Torah is a common language to all denominations. Respect for Torah is held dear by all denominations. Study of Torah is encouraged by all denominations. All denominations are in love with Torah.

I have discovered this first hand through my work on the project Lishmah. I have had to work closely over the past year with more than ten youngish rabbis from across the denominations in planning Lishmah. As an Orthodox rabbi, affiliated with Amcha, I was always in the minority, and often alone, when we discussed political issues—whether it be issues related to Israel, anti-Semitism, or even socio-economic political concerns. There was very little common ground.

But when we started discussing Torah, there was a different energy in the room. There still wasn’t always agreement, but there was a tremendous amount of common ground.
It was a different feeling in the air—feeling of great mutual respect and admiration.

The language of Torah unites.

Perhaps that’s a response to tragedy that the Torah is suggesting. When a national tragedy affects the Jewish people, like the ones that we are living through today on an ongoing basis: lo titgodedu. Don’t inflict more pain upon yourselves. Don’t make more wounds. Lo titgodedu: Do not respond to this tragedy by making more and more splinter groups within the Jewish people. Lo titgodedu: Find the common ground where Jews from all walks of life can gather and unite with energy, love, and brotherhood.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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