Op-Ed: Lessons From the Tragic Murder of a Righteous Leader
Although some called it initially the “Be’er Sheva tragedy”, on July 29, 2011 Israelis and Jews worldwide awoke in shock after learning of the tragic death of Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira “ZTL” (also known as Baba Elazar). The shock was reflected by extensive press coverage of the event and the dignified tone adopted by the journalists.
In Israel, the passing away of a Tzaddik (righteous) leader is generally a cause for pause. In this case, the leader was from the Abuhatzeira dynasty known for its Torah scholars, Tsadikkim, and Kabbalists who have provided prayers and blessings for the Jewish people as a whole.
But this event contained even more: the way in which the tragedy unfolded hit multiple receptors all at once, in the Israeli population. Baba Elazar’s death took on the character of a national catastrophe because everyone, journalists as well as their readers, religious and political leaders were all focusing on the same question: how to comprehend that a “devoted” follower could brutally murder a saintly man who had provided him guidance?
As expected, the easy answer received initial coverage: it was reported that the murderer was mentally ill: “Haredi-religious news outlets report that Dahan [the attacker] was suffering mental illness, and that his condition had recently deteriorated despite psychological care.”[www.israelnationalnews.com 29/0711 Elad Benari]. While this may be the case, this approach appeared as an easy way out and insufficient to address the core issues.
Eminent religious leaders either spoke at the funeral or expressed their sorrow when they learned of the tragedy and their opinions are worthy of in-depth analysis.
Rabbi Elazar's brother, Rabbi Baruch Abuhatzeira [Baba Baruch] stated that “Harsh punishments were decreed on the people of Israel, and he wanted to nullify them …” relying on the notion that Tsaddikim provide protection to the people they serve. This “protector” role is so “vital” that a Tsaddik could give his life to achieve shelter the people from a calamity.
By the way, this notion is not a farfetched kabbalistic concept: it is directly derived from the famous dialogue that took place between G-d and Abraham prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But, understandably, this approach may not satisfy everyone, at least, because it appears to exonerate the criminal.
Rabbi Yona Metzger (Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi) said: “I think a horrific crime like this has never happened before. We have to ask ourselves how we reached this point.”
In a segment of his address, Rabbi Shlomo Amar (Sephardic Chief Rabbi) focused on the acceptance of bloodshed as a routine occurrence and provided a prescription: “Bloodshed in particular has grown more common among our people in recent years, and has become a routine thing…..“We must wake up regarding the education we give the children of Israel, we must teach them to be of good character and treat their fellow man properly, and each individual should make a true effort to rid himself of hate or jealousy, and to increase in love and unity, to avoid anger and strictness, and to be pleasant and forgiving and good, with G-d and man …”
During these months of Tammuz and Av, it is reasonable to refer back to the teachings of our Sages who warned us emphatically about the lethal consequences of the scourge of baseless hatred (in Hebrew “sinat chinam”) for any Jewish society. Hatred is detrimental to any society, but for Jews it is lethal because it destroys the core and the basis of their peoplehood: their mutual responsibility (in Hebrew Arevut).
Baseless hatred has been defined as “an unfair, excessive, and avoidable reaction by one Jew that transforms another Jew into an enemy and thereby destroys the integrity of the Jewish people”……Therefore, it stands to reason that we have reached the low point of becoming insensitive to bloodshed precisely because we have not specifically targeted the fundamental Jewish problem of baseless hatred, in spite of 1,878 years of exile.
To make some progress, we should address a most sensitive aspect of this tragedy: the fact that the assailant was reportedly himself a rabbi and part of the entourage of Baba Elazar “ZTL”. In this regard, it would be useful to remember that the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yohanan ben Torsa, who originated the concept of baseless hatred as the cause for the destruction of the Second Temple, also stated: “But [during the time of] the Second Temple, we know that the people occupied themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and acts of kindness” (Yoma 9b).
From there we learn that the practice of mitzvoth does not guarantee protection from the emotion of hatred and its devastating consequences. It is risky but necessary to point out that a broad spectrum of Jews, independent of degree of religiosity, hold the expectation that baseless hatred and religious practice should not coexist.
It is submitted here, with the utmost humility, that this expectation simply reflects an ignorance of recent advances in neurobiology regarding the mechanisms of hatred, empathy and cruelty. Baseless hatred will persist as long as its triggers and consequences are not understood and as long as it is not recognized for what it is: a lethal disease and a trap imbedded in our inner brain.
Therefore, the first constructive step should be to bring it out in the open, as has been done with campaigns against gossip and several medical and social problems (AIDS epidemic, sexual abuse of children).
To overcome baseless hatred requires specific training to create a personal transformation and an emotional shift that results in empathy toward other Jews.
This should be the objective of the educational emphasis prescribed by Chief Rabbi Amar. We have described in detail elsewhere the development of educational resources and classroom materials for parents, teachers and students that include topics such as generic versus baseless hatred, the history and significance of arevut, and its role in preserving the integrity of the Jewish people.
The target should be twofold: learning to prevent new episodes of hatred and repairing existing episodes.
As we navigate through the challenging periods of Tisha B’Av and the month of Elul, let the shock and sorrow that have resulted from the heartrending death of an innocent saintly Tsaddik turn into the launch of a new era of awareness and wisdom for the members of our holy people.