As I write this message at the end of July, our people are mourning the senseless loss of three innocent teenagers kidnapped and murdered by vicious terrorists. As of today, sixty-four of our brave soldiers have been killed defending Israel against Hamas’s endless barrage of rocket attacks. We do not have to recount tragedies of the past to mourn during these three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av. The pain is raw, the graves are fresh and the names, faces and stories of these young men whose lives have been cut short are our constant preoccupation. We have Tehillim gatherings, learn Torah in their memory, attend rallies, write checks and desperately attempt to raise awareness in a world that, at best, turns a deaf ear and at worst condemns Israel for the crimes committed by our sworn enemies.
I am fairly confident that a cease-fire will be negotiated. I am concerned, however, about what will happen after the news cycle moves on. It is human nature that when the need is not as pressing, the prayer is not as fervent, the dollars are not as forthcoming, and we tend to ease out of crisis mode and forget that there are victims who can’t simply resume living life as they did before. Many are left, alone and forgotten, carrying the weight of the tragedy.
Consider the story told by the gemara in Gittin and the twenty-third Kinah about the son and daughter of Rabbi Yishmael Kohen Gadol. These two young adults survived the Churban and were sold into captivity by the Romans. Since they inherited their father’s good looks, their owners conspired to mate the two of them together and split the profits that would come from selling the beautiful offspring they would produce. All night long, locked in the same room together, each bemoaned his fate and the loss of dignity, purity and respect that once belonged to the family. When the sun rose and they recognized each other, they embraced and cried until their souls left them.
Why do we recall a story of survivors on Tisha B’Av when we are supposed to be grieving those who perished? This young man and woman did not die “al Kiddush Hashem”; they survived. But we tell their story so that we can remember that they were victims too. Yes, they did survive the Churban, but it was an unimaginable war and they witnessed the death, destruction and suffering of their loved ones. They were survivors, but they suffered from a depression so bleak that they could not rebuild their lives. We pay such meaningful tribute to victims who were killed, but this story reminds us that we cannot ignore the victims who survived but who suffer nonetheless.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a debilitating condition on the rise in the United States among veterans of the Vietnam War who are now entering retirement age. As long as these former soldiers worked, the ghosts and scars they carried within were kept at bay; they were busy and distracted. Now that they are retiring and have more time on their hands, they are finding it harder and harder to suppress the demons. What we are now beginning to see is the toll survivors of trauma must pay for the duration of their lives.
In our own communities, we deeply admire Holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives, their families and communities. What we tend to overlook is that one-third of all survivors live below the poverty line and many still suffer from incapacitating nightmares seventy years later. They are the forgotten survivors, who, like the son and daughter of Rabbi Yishmael, found life post-Holocaust too great a burden to bear. It is our responsibility to make sure they are remembered and cared for.
We as a people were consumed with helping the victims of terror during the Intifada when each suicide attack made headlines. Now, thank God, the suicide bombs have been mostly prevented, and our attention has turned to more current crises. But there are still victims of terror who are quietly living with the aftermath; the families who have to wake up each morning and re-experience the pain of realizing that their loved one is gone; the injured who lost limbs, eyesight, hearing or who still carry ball bearings in their bodies; those who survived but are haunted by the fear, the blasts, the screams, the trauma that we can’t fathom. They survived, but their lives are no longer the same. It is our responsibility to make sure they are remembered and cared for.
Today we are focused on the families of the soldiers who have given their lives defending our people. We are there for them now with financial, political, emotional and spiritual support. Will we be there after the news cycle moves on, and another story captures the headlines? I hope and pray that we will.
Rabbi Steven Weil is senior managing director of the Orthodox Union.