Tuesday, July 7, 2020 -
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The cry of the orphan

After our attention was captured for three days by hazy reports about the siege in Mumbai, amorphous rumors whether they were dead or alive, and hopeful, hopeful prayer — by the time to light Shabbos candles, we knew. We knew we were entering Shabbos without Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg. Without Ben Zion Kroman and Leibish Teitelbaum. We knew they were no longer with us in this world. It was confirmed. The Muslim terrorists had slaughtered them in cold blood. Apparently, as these people in the grip of terror were attacked, one of them was laying tefilin, another poring over a Gemora, and all the others, well, who knows. That’s the universe’s secret now.

Last Monday — before the attack — I had asked my friend if she would want to visit the ohel with me the following day. The ohel is what the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s grave has come to be known. In the end, neither of us was able to go. Then, at midnight on Tuesday night, I get a call from her, “Ready for an adventure? How about we go to the ohel right now?” And so we did. We drove there and prayed some by the shadows of the night. I lit a candle. We returned a little while later at 2:30 a.m.

There is an old joke that goes like this: What will you find wherever you go in the world? Coke and Lubavitch. It’s funny and it’s so true. Around the world, in every major city, dedicated families, with true devotion, are building Jewish embassies, a home for Jews wherever they might find themselves.

I am not a Lubavitch adherent, but for some reason I felt compelled to feel connected to the late leader of this movement to the point of praying by his graveside last week. The next thing I hear Lubavitch in Mumbai is under attack. As Jews, it feels personal to all of us when our brothers or sisters are in trouble, but somehow, because I had just visited the Rebbe’s grave the previous night, it felt even more personal.

Of course, not just Jews were under attack. The British, Americans and Jews were all targeted. Westerners. Plus many innocent Indians died as well. My sympathies and hope for some measure of comfort goes out to all those innocents who died.

But I cannot ignore the fact that a Jewish guest house and a house of worship was subjected to a very carefully crafted and deliberate assault.

Now I know, obviously, not all Muslims are bad. I know there are wonderful Muslims out there who simply lead a religious life of quiet faith, service and devotion.

But that is really irrelevant to the fact that there is this extreme strain of Muslims that is committing the most heinous acts in this world in the name of the Koran! When will the voice of the moderate Muslim speak up against these untamable Muslims?

On the last Shabbos of his life, in light of that week’s Torah portion about our Matriarch Rivka bringing water to Eliezer’s camels, Gabi Holtzberg’s sermon in shul focused on the Jewish legal obligations to treat animals kindly. As Dr. Sherwin Isenberg of Los Angeles put it: “Here was a brilliant and dedicated rabbi preaching how we should be humane to animals, only to be massacred by human animals four days later.”

Usually, Shabbos is a solace and a salve to the week’s hardships. Shabbos does usher in a kind of peace that has the power to mentally strengthen and emotionally soften.

But this time, no longer on shaky ground about the uncertainty of their fate, I lit candles blanketed by the horror of the end that all these people had met. Somehow, I just didn’t feel the serenity this past week. Instead of welcoming Shabbos with the traditional and enchanting melodies of “Lecha Dodi,” I felt more like composing a kinah, a eulogy. The question of why? why? why? was suffocating me as I lit the candles with tears.

Yet, as Shabbos unfolded, there was peace. At these times the hardest questions arise. But our role is not to attempt to find answers.

I’ll never begin to understand G-d’s ways. Now is the time for encouragement and consolation, for strengthening of spiritual commitments and reaching out.

This was the mission of Gabi and Rivky in their lifetime. Now we can honor their legacy in our lifetime. More courage, more selflessness, more unconditional love for each other, more kindness and acceptance. For five years, this was their life.

Leaving the creature comforts of the Western world, they traveled to India to open a home away from home for other Jews. From what I understand, Gabi and Rivky set up a most beautiful guest house in the Chabad House they built. Marble floors and air conditioning and many other amenities in the guest quarters greeted all the strangers who wandered through.

But for themselves? Their apartment on the fourth floor of the Nariman House? It was simpler than simple. Even a bit dilapidated. Just two beds. And a sofa. Indeed, these were high souls.

The more I hear about Gabi and Rivky, it does truly feel like a gap has been left in this world. Their Shabbos sounds like it was a weekly adventure with businessmen, physicians, searching youngsters, sometimes even ex-convicts — all coming together around their table, week in, week out.

These beautiful, fine people, Gabi and Rivky, it seems, really did represent the best of the human spirit. There is something about idealistic clergy with a sense of calling in their life, uprooting everything and moving to a Third World country, only to serve.

All their gladness, faith and devotion continued in the face of personal misfortune. Their eldest child died of a genetic disease. Their second child, too, is afflicted by this disease. And now there is one remaining heir — their precious little baby Moishe who just turned two the day after they were murdered.

Instead of the normal birthday candles marking the day, memorial candles were on fire. In a cruel and sad twist of irony, Rivky’s great- uncle, the venerable Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman of Migdal Or, is the founder of Israel’s largest orphanage. Of all people, her parents are the directors.

It is the face of this young child Moishe whom I cannot get out of my heart and mind. I am haunted by his raw wails of “Ima!” “Ima!” By the searing, searching tone of his weeping: By the cry gone unanswered — the unanswered silence of his cry. For of course, now the answer to his query is no more. It is the orphan’s cry.

For most of us, “Ima” or “mom” or “mama” (in whatever language you speak) is our first word. It is so basic to being human. We can all relate to the intimacy and poignancy of “Ima.” Now Moishe is the survivor, left crying “Ima.”

There is something more about his survival, his verbalizing “Ima.” Something about this tragedy echoes and symbolizes so many Jewish children in the past who were cruelly ripped away from their mother, crying “Ima.”

And yet. Moishe’s survival is also the side of this story that is lined with hope and humanity. Like Batya, daughter of Pharaoh, who rescued Moshe in Egypt, Sandra, the gentile nanny at Nariman House, rescued this Moishe.

Rising above the call of duty, rising even above the human instinct for survival and preservation, Sandra heroically risked it all to scoop him up into her arms and escape with his life.

By her gesture, I am touched to the core, more than I am chilled to the bone by the horror of these terrorists.

Now Moishe can live out his parents’ love, live out their legacy. As one of the eulogizers turned and said to Moishe, “You will be the child of all of Israel.”

Read the related blog entry, “Within tragedy, light” on Rocky Mountain Jew.

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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