Children in the Study Hall
Judaism places tremendous importance on "tinokot shel beit rabban" (literally, "children in the house of their rabbi"). The tradition teaches that "the world only exists because of the learning of tinokot shel beit rabban," and also: "one does not cancel the study sessions of tinokot shel beit rabban even for the building of the Temple." It would not be too much to say that in the absence of Temple sacrifices, the holiest ritual activity of the Jewish community is to be found in its children's study halls. This is why the murder of eight students at Mercaz Harav on Thursday evening March 6, seven of them mere teenagers, sent agonizing shudders throughout Israel. If boys can be shot to death while they are studying the Talmud, then that's not "just" a tragedy for their respective families and all who knew them—it's an attack on the holy of holies of Judaism.
My son Elie, 13, was deeply disturbed by the massacre. On that Thursday evening, Elie had gotten off a bus very close to Mercaz Harav and walked to a "trempiyada" (hitching place). News of the shooting already reached Elie while he was waiting for a "tremp" (I'm not thrilled that Elie hitchhikes, but it's practically a norm in Israeli society). When Elie came home, he rushed to put on the news. A few minutes later, he called to me, saying: "Abba, I'm shaking with fear." I didn't know what to do. I felt Elie's distress and I felt helpless. I felt like I should have been able to protect my son from this terror. I did my best to comfort Elie. I told him that I was very sad too. In the face of my helplessness, I told Elie that just by living in Israel he was doing something important. I told him that thanks to his American citizenship, he could tomorrow fly anywhere in the United States and settle there. The fact that we live here is a statement we make with our lives about the importance of Israel to us.
Elie goes to a school where most of the teachers were students at Merkaz Harav. On Friday March 7, the school allowed the boys to go to the combined funeral service of the eight victims. Elie later told me that the number of coffins was overwhelming to him. He said that at the end of the service, as the boys' names were called, each one to be taken to a waiting ambulance and then to a cemetery, the word "tzaddik" (pious one) was put before each of their names. There is no higher level of earthly holiness than to be a tzaddik.
A note on Captain David Shapira, the IDF officer who shot the terrorist. Captain Shapira, a graduate of Merkaz Harav, lived nearby and was bathing his children at the time that the shooting began. Picture a father bathing his children and then picture that same father leaving his children and running to put himself in harm's way. Can there possibly be a sharper demonstration of fealty to the common good at the expense of personal concerns? Of course, not everyone is capable of such heroism. In fact, a rookie policeman had arrived on the scene several minutes before Shapira and even tried to prevent the Captain from entering. If one looks for some kind of comfort as life goes on in Israel after this devastating attack, it is in this: whereas in most countries the lone policeman's behavior would be considered standard operating procedure in the absence of a SWAT team, the Jerusalem police have opened an investigation as to why the policeman did not engage the terrorist.
Copyright 2008, Teddy Weinberger