Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Lesson of Rabbi Uriel Malka

For a large number of people, our very existence in this world is a test. What exactly this test entails has always been a point of serious contention. While I would never assume to hold the answers to the universe (especially considering my struggles with Algebra 2) I do believe that one of the world’s greatest tests is our spiritual and conceptual response to tragedy. As Israel begins to emerge from its greatest natural disaster, the devastating fire in the North, a few public figures have already failed this test in my humble opinion.

I believe that as Jews we must strive to see G-d in all things, good and bad. However, we mustn’t blame him or interpret his intentions, no matter how tragic or unjust things may seem. It is no surprise that many “respected media figures” in the Arab world have attributed the catastrophic blaze to “G-d punishing Israel for occupying Arab land”. Likewise, it is hardly newsworthy that now that the fire has begun to subside the political finger pointing has commenced. However, it is incomprehensible that Shas spiritual leader Rav Ovadia Yosef proclaim with conviction that the fire in the North was a clear result of “the desecration of Shabbat”. While I respect Rav Ovadia for the Torah giant that he is, and while I am sure he means no malice in his statement, it must be emphasized that assigning tragedy to specific human actions is a treacherous practice. 

It is irresponsible and misguided to assume we as human beings can assume to know G-d’s true intentions. The Talmud in Avot (4:10) supports this concept stating, “Do not act as judge alone, for none judges alone except One”.  While this decree falls upon each and every one of us, the onus of this diktat sits far more heavily on the shoulders of our public figures and spiritual leaders.

I vividly recall a story I heard after the explosion of the Columbia Space Shuttle that killed the first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, and the unsettling feeling the story left me with. A rabbi at the elementary school I had attended told his students that it was clear to him why the shuttle had exploded, killing the seven astronauts inside. He told his students that it was clearly because Ilan Ramon had brought a Torah scroll with him on the mission and since he was not religious the explosion was his punishment for desecrating the Torah scroll. The certainty with which the rabbi said this disturbed me equally as much as the content of his drivel.  An elementary school rabbi has the daunting task of molding a child’s early interaction with religion and G-d and to irresponsibly pass off crack-pot theory to impressionable children is beyond the pale.

I honestly believe that the correct response to times of tragedy is an admission that we understand nothing. What we must understand however, is that G-d’s hand guides these event and that he is just in doing so. It is his world to build or destroy, we are merely renting space. That is not to say that we should not cry out to him for mercy. On the contrary, it is G-d, and only G-d, who can truly console us in these harrowing times.

The tragic irony is that the world was introduced to a hero of these very principles after he was killed by the raging fire. Rabbi Uriel Malka, a 32 year old prison chaplain and former teacher at the Denver Academy of Torah, was killed among 39 others on a prison transport bus that was surprised by the spreading flames, sadly robbing the world of what surely would have been a profound and thoughtful response to this time of tribulation. Rabbi Malka came face to face with death a number of times while serving in the IDF during the Second Lebanon War. Many from his unit were killed. Although he faced many terrors, he was described as a “simple and warm person, full of happiness for life, and a spreader of optimism to everyone”.  His own brother recounted Uriel’s telling of his near-death experiences. “During his life he met death a number of times. G-d was always in front of him and saved him at the last moment.”  While he was surrounded by devastation he chose to see the good in G-d’s actions. Rabbi Malka was an educator, who put nothing before the importance of the future of the Jewish people. In direct contrast to the Rabbi who denounced Ilan Ramon, Rabbi Malka chose to spread the eternal message of finding G-d’s light in the surrounding darkness.  This is the way tragedy should be met with by members of the Chosen People.

Chief Rabbi of England Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once wrote, “The beauty of Judaism is that it did not become traumatized by tragedy… It is that central affirmation of G-d as life, and therefore of finding G-d in the midst of the blessings of life, that we must not lose”.  Rabbi Uriel Malka personified this message to the letter and although he was introduced to us through his heartbreaking and untimely death  we should all strive to learn the immortal lesson of his life.

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