It is inspiring to encounter real heroism. I had this privilege during an address given at a gathering of about fifty Rabbis from South Africa in Israel on a solidarity mission and to hold our annual rabbinical conference. Amongst the array of speakers, all of whom showcased the dazzling talent that today makes up Israeli society in all areas of human endeavour, we encountered the heroic and inspiring bravery of the terror-bereaved parents of the Lemkus, Henkin and Ariel families. We were humbled by their faith, determination and resilience in the face of unbearable grief. We were left groping in awe for answers to how people can be so strong in the presence of such pain.
We found some insight from the words of Rabbanit Chana Henkin, whose brilliant son and daughter-in-law, Rabbi Eitam and Na’ama, were brutally murdered by Palestinian terrorists in front of their four young children. She shared with us how her philosophy and approach has been a source of support throughout this horrific period. She said that she sees G-d as the Supreme Being who assigns tasks to us, and is not there simply to fulfil our needs. She sees life as a mission assigned by G-d to each of us to fulfil. In short, it is her sense of purpose that has given her the strength to survive her ordeal.
Purpose is a defining concept within Judaism’s philosophy of life. G-d created this world with purpose. One of the often debated questions is why the Torah began with the chronicle of the creation of the world. The Torah is a book of laws and instructions and guidance for life, and not merely a history book. So the commentators ask why the Torah opens with the verse, “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth”? Surely it should have begun with the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people? There are many different answers to this question. I would like to suggest that one possible reason is to underline the basic foundation of all of Judaism, and that is this universe and the complex and intricate world in which we are privileged to live was intentionally created, carefully designed and planned by G-d for a lofty purpose. This is especially true of every human being; each and every one of us is created by G-d to live a life of purpose.
This philosophy stands in stark contrast to the philosophy which emerges from the theory of random evolution, which sees the existence of this elaborate universe as an accident, and therefore by extension, every human life as an accident, a product of the random outcomes of colliding molecules. A cornerstone of Judaism is that our lives were created for a purpose, which is to fulfil the mission that G-d has given us through His Torah, and that our lives are therefore meaningful. Everything we do is part of that mission, and it is that sense of mission that gives us strength.
It is this sense of mission that has given the Jewish people the strength to overcome the most daunting of challenges. Rabbi Elya Meyer Bloch escaped from Europe just before the Nazis destroyed his hometown and the Yeshiva of Telz, where his family and friends were brutally murdered. He arrived in America on a mission to rebuild the Telz Yeshiva, and this is how his student, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, describes his approach:
“The Rosh Yeshiva zt”l was motivated by a deep sense of Divine mission, sent to America by a message couched in the persecution and destruction of European Jewry. It was this sense of mission which brought forth all his endless efforts in the building of Torah in this country … It was this sense of mission which motivated him in all of his indefatigable work for the Klal Yisrael … This sense of mission grows from a realisation that life has a purpose and a deep awareness of that purpose … When one’s life is permeated with this consciousness then all His part of the plan of Divine providence – all situations and conditions in life represent the various forms in which one must perform the mission for which he has been sent into Olam Ha’zeh – this world.”
When confronting unspeakable tragedy we humbly acknowledge that we do not comprehend the ways of G-d. But we do know that our purpose in this world is to live life on a mission to do the work and will of G-d in every endeavour. It is this sense of awe-inspiring mission that we encountered in our interaction with Rabbanit Henkin and with the other bereaved families. It is this sense of mission and meaning that give the State and people of Israel, and indeed Jews throughout the world, the strength and determination, both in times of pain and in times of peace, in times of tragedy and in times of tranquillity, in times of adversity and in times of blessing, to continue our holy work to bring light and goodness into the world.