The Jewish calendar sets aside three weeks each summer to mourn for the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is hard to believe that we who are so far from the sacrifices and offerings can sustain a sense of bereavement for so long.
Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one knows that intensity of grief may dissipate, but the empty space left behind is never completely filled. That is a human truth, not unique to Jews.
News rushes toward us so relentlessly that it is nearly impossible to absorb even the short-term impact of a single death, let alone the legacy of loneliness that follows in its wake. The murder of a beloved law professor, the grandson falling from an ambushed passenger jet – these are the kinds of stories that wrench our hearts. But so much noise follows along that there is no time for compassion. Except for close families and friends, tears dry quickly.
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb has lived in Israel most of his adult life. He sent me a poignant insight into the funeral for Max Steinberg, originally from Los Angeles, who was among the first Israeli casualties of Operation Protective Edge:
Ada and I attended the funeral of Max Steinberg this morning here in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of people who never heard of Max Steinberg before yesterday were coming to his funeral. We parked half a mile away, illegally, and joined the crowd.
On arrival at the cemetery, young women soldiers gave each person a piece of paper. I thought naively it would be about Max Steinberg. In fact, it was a message from the Home Front Command, “Guidelines for Protection within the Cemetery in case of a Rocket Alert… lie on the ground and protect your head with your hands. Wait 10 minutes and then you may resume your routine.”
The huge crowd was all over the cemetery: there was no pushing and no cell phones rang. There was complete silence, even during the remarks in English by Max’s parents and sister and brother. Max’s father said he had no regret that Max had decided to leave Los Angeles and join the Israel Defense Forces. Max’s brother Jake recalled their last time together, watching a film about Bob Marley, of whom Max was a big fan. “Open your eyes,” Marley said, “Look within. Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?” Max had found satisfaction and meaning in Israel, Jake said. He concluded with another quote from Bob Marley: “Live for yourself and you will live in vain. Live for others, and you will live again.” Max, he said, addressing the fresh grave, “you lived for others. You will live in the hearts of all us, again.”
We can celebrate the life of Max Steinberg, even as we revile the circumstances that brought it to an end. Will those thirty thousand people remember him in a year’s time? Except for those who knew and loved him, likely he will be forgotten.
Max’s death was met with rejoicing by the people responsible. The notion of rejoicing at the death of someone else’s child is repugnant. War necessarily brings death and destruction. It brings not satisfaction, only resignation.
If you are asked to remember these human truths by saving a corner of your heart for the innocent casualties in Gaza, please do not be angry. Remember without the usual disclaimer that Hamas bears responsibility. The families whose children and grandparents were the victims of Hamas’s calculations will live with the emptiness forever.
Do not let our anger at the position in which we have been put overwhelm our compassion. Let us support the peacemakers who will come when the rockets have been removed and the tunnels filled. It is what will allow us to rise above the noise.