“The World Endures Solely on Account of the Breath of Schoolchildren”
An Elegy Over the Murders of a Teacher and Students in Toulouse, 25 Adar 5772
By Moshe Sokolow
On Tishah B’Av this year, along with mourning the tragedies over the centuries, let us mourn the Jewish victims of Islamic terror in our days as well.
As a member of Hatzalah, I responded to the tragedies at the World Trade Center in both 1993 and 2001. The impact of the devastation I witnessed left me bereft of ordinary means of expression, so I tried poetry, which has always been more suited than prose to occasions evoking extreme emotional response, whether joy or sorrow. The Exodus from Egypt called forth the triumphant Song at the Sea and the Destruction of the First Temple prompted Jeremiah to compose Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, or, as the Talmud calls it, kinot.
As a form of liturgical poetry (piyyut), kinot have their own particular style, drawing heavily on the language of Tanach and on the literary imagery of Talmud and Midrash. In the kinah that appears here, I have utilized the language of Jeremiah in stanza 1, depicting a cowardly death sneaking through the window to take the lives of children. In stanza 3, I borrow from King David’s elegy over his friend Yonatan to mourn the death of Yonatan Sandler. The rhetorical question posed by the angels in stanza 4 comes from the Talmud Berachot (61b) and the image of scrolls aflame while their letters soar is from Avodah Zarah (18a).
The overall theme of the kinah is adopted from the Talmudic declaration (Shabbat 119b): “The world is sustained only by the breath of schoolchildren.”
And again, Death has entered through our windows,
Into the palaces of our halls of study.
It has cut down children in the streets
And young men in the courtyards.
On account of sordid murder, my soul roars.
On account of cruel execution my eyes tear.
In a Jewish school in Toulouse, France,
A father, two sons and a girl gave their lives and sanctified His name.
I grieve for you, Rabbi Yonatan,
Faithful colleague in a holy task.
Aryeh, Gavriel and Miriam, dear,
Beloved in life; in death—martyred.
Angels sublime cried out bitterly:
For dedication to Torah, is this their reward?
How did the elixir of life become a lethal potion?
On this, yea on that, I tear.
My anguish is too great to bear;
No consolation on the horizon appears.
Wherefrom such abject cruelty?
Wherefore such catastrophe?
Love of Torah can be as fierce as death; and
The deaths of pious ones, in His eyes, are dear.
In full public view was His name sanctified;
But is there glory to His majesty in pools of blood?
Our Sages declared of Torah study
That it outweighs all the commandments,
And they praised whoever dies in its tent.
But it is difficult to imagine that this is what they meant.
Scrolls are often consigned to pyres,
Yet their words float off and flourish, and their students persevere.
We can no longer see the breath of these students pure,
But it is on account of their Torah study that the world endures
Dr. Moshe Sokolow is associate dean and Fanya Gottesfeld-Heller professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration of Yeshiva University.
Photos: Behadrey Haredim