Singing the Shirah for Ezra Schwartz z”l
There was once a great rebbe who one day woke up and ran to his neighbors and shouted with excitement: “There is a really special guest coming today. This guest has never come before and will never come again! It is a once in a lifetime experience!” At the end of the day the neighbors asked the rebbe, “Who was this special guest? We must have missed him?” To which the rebbe responded: “The guest was here the whole day. You just didn’t notice him. The name of the guest is Today.”
Every day should be treated as a special guest. Every day is a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform the world.
We learn this lesson from an incident in our parashah.
The Torah tells us that Yaakov wrestled with a man until the morning dawn, “va’yeiavek ish immo ad a lot hashachar” (32:25).
The Talmud tells us that this was not an actual “man,” but that this “man” was really an angel (Hullin, 91b).
As the two of them wrestled the angel said to Yaakov: “Vayomer shalcheini ki alah hashachar vayomer lo ashaleichachah ki im beirachtani. Release me because the morning dawn has arisen.’ But Yaakov responded: ‘I will not release you until you bless me’” (27).
This is a very difficult phrase to understand. What does the morning dawn (alot hashachar) have to do with this angel begging for his release?
The Talmud further explains that the conversation went as follows:
Yaakov said: “Are you a thief that you need to run away and hide from the daylight? And the “man” responded, “I am an angel. From the day I was created this was the day that was established as my special day to sing the praises of Hashem. U’miyom she’nivreiti lo higiah zemani lomar shirah ad achshav” (Hullin, 91b). Today is my time to sing the shirah. I need to stop whatever I am doing to go and serve Hashem.
This teaching has a powerful lesson for all of us. All of us must be awake in this world and not miss our yom shenivreiti (appointed day) for which we were all created. We must all guard the time for which heaven has established for us to sing the shirah.
This shirah represents the recognition that every soul has a unique task to perform in this world and we must be certain that we are not missing that moment.
According to the chochmat mitzafon, this was what the struggle between Yaakov and the angel was all about. Yaakov wanted to take this opportunity to overpower the angel of Esav once and for all. And the angel wanted to take this moment to ascend to his place and serve God. Both Yaakov and the angel thought that this was their moment.
Each of us is created to serve Hashem for a very special reason. We often make the mistake of thinking we are just living ordinary lives. But really we all have a beautiful shirah to sing on a special day that has been pre-appointed for us.
This week the world began to learn about the special shira of Ezra Schwartz. Ezra, aged 18, was killed on Thursday, November 19, while volunteering to give out food to soldiers protecting Jewish people in the land of Israel.
Every death of an innocent person is a tragic death that represents an entire world that has been lost.
But Ezra’s death really hit home for me.
Ezra was part of our community. He was a summer counselor in Camp Yavneh to multiple children from our shul. He was friends with multiple children from our community. His sister attends University of Maryland. And he attended Maimonides where many people in our shul attended.
Ezra did what so many of us did and what we encourage so many of our children to do. He went to study in the land of Israel and volunteer and serve on behalf of the Jewish people.
So when Ezra was killed a part of each and every one of us was killed as well.
This is why I felt a deep connection to Ezra even though I never personally met him or anyone in his immediate family. This is why I felt it was my duty and responsibility as rabbi of our shul to travel to pay a shiva visit to his family.
So on Monday, I traveled there with Rabbi Uri Topolosky. We arrived outside his house at around 9 am. And we looked at each other unsure of what to expect. We were strangers to them and we didn’t know if they would appreciate our visit.
But we left that day with an experience that we will remember forever. We were both deeply impacted by our very special encounter with Ezra’s parents and family.
In all my rabbinate I have never witnessed what I saw that morning. Ezra’s parents—Ari and Ruth—are grieving parents who spoke with great humility, love, presence, and warmth to all who came to visit them. To be in their presence was to be in the presence of very special people.
They knew that their son was the focus of the world, but they kept saying, “he is just Ezra.” Like so many others we came to comfort them. But in the end we were the ones who left comforted and inspired by the gentle manner in which they embraced all who walked through their door.
In the midst of their tremendous grief, Ari and Ruth, went out of their way to embrace all of their visitors. There are many reactions people have and will have to grief and mourning. It is certainly not my place to judge reactions of a grieving parent. But I want to emphasize how inspiring it was to feel the love and warmth and gentleness from Ari and Ruth.
They shared uplifting stories of Ezra as the boy they know: a beloved son, grandson, brother, friend, and counselor. And they shared a few images with me that I want to repeat to you in order to give honor to Ezra’s shirah.
Ari and Ruth said: “Ezra died doing what he was supposed to be doing.” To which Ruth added as only a mother could: “Finally!”
Ezra died doing what he was supposed to be doing. He was studying Torah in Israel. He was volunteering to serve others. He was doing good things. In the middle of his tears, Ari turned to me and said very clearly, “We want other parents to continue to send their kids to study in Israel.”
When I shared with Ari and Ruth that Ezra was counselor to some of the children in our shul, that was something that they especially focused on in our conversation. They are very proud of how Ezra excelled as a counselor. They told us stories of how Ezra loved his campers and how his whole demeanor changed.
That was Ezra’s shirah. He worked as a counselor and he gave his whole heart into it. When he went to camp to work as a counselor everyone must have thought that he would have many more opportunities to serve as a counselor, but that wasn’t the way it worked out. But what did work out is that Ezra sang his shirah that summer. There is no doubt in my mind that his shirah will have a lasting impact far beyond this past summer. Every camper who had the merit to meet and learn from Ezra will remember his teachings—his shirah--forever.
But this week our world did not only learn about the special shirah of Ezra.
This week our world stopped to sing its own shirah about Ezra.
The Talmud tells in this week’s daf yomi (Sotah, 30) that when the Jewish people experienced the splitting of the sea, everyone stopped and sang the shirah.
How did they sing the shirah? O’lal mutal al birkei imo, ve-tinok yoneik mi-shedei immo, keivan she’ra’ah et ha-shekhinah, o’lal higbiah tzavaro, ve-tinok shamat dad mi’piv. A young child would be sitting on his mother’s lap, or a baby would be nursing, once they saw the Divine Presence, they each stopped what they were doing and sang the shirah.
This beautiful image of the Talmud is of a world stopping what it is doing in order to sing praises to Hashem.
This week the entire world stopped what it was doing to sing the shirah – to sing praises to Ezra in a way in which I have never seen before.
A week before very few people in the world had heard of Ezra. He was an 18 year old-boy like so many others; a nice boy and a good boy, but by no means a world famous boy.
But now we have seen the world stop to sing his shira—his time. Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, is a very righteous man for arranging a moment of silence as Ezra’s name was broadcast over Monday Night Football. This was something very special that allowed tens of millions of people to learn about Ezra.
In addition, we saw other forms of the world stopping to sing his, shirah. The President of the United States called his parents and expressed his condolences.
We saw a University put its flag at half-mast. We saw busloads of students and carloads of people who had no direct connection to Ezra, travel many hours to give honor to his memory. And we saw a moving shiva visit from a local Imam.
This outpouring of love is something I don’t remember ever seeing before in our country for a death in our community.
Rabbi Meir Sendor, the rabbi who spoke at Ezra’s funeral said, “Ezra’s life was a meaningful life. And his death was a meaningful death.”
Ezra’s life was certainly a meaningful life. He impacted his family, his friends, his campers, the people he helped, and in his death he impacted all of us.
But the truth is that it is really up to us to make his death into a meaningful death.
In order for his death to be a meaningful death, we need to internalize his life and take it as a call to action.
Rashi says that before Yaakov met Esav in this week’s portion, he prepared in three ways: le-doron, le-tefillah, u-lemilchamah (32:9).
This means to me that we need to have a diversified response in order to bring meaning into our spiritual lives.
We must all take meaningful action in response to the loss of Ezra from this world.
Here is my modern take on this ancient Rashi:
Milchamah literally means war. But we can interpret it symbolically. To me, for us, as a Jewish community in America, it means we need to physically protect ourselves.
This week the media reported that there was a conference call with the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security and over three hundred Jewish agencies in the US. It was organized by Paul Goldenberg the director of the security branch of the organized Jewish community. According to the JTA, Goldenberg said: “We’re asking Jewish agencies to institutionalize security as a part of the culture.”
I agree with that. We as an organized community and as individual communities need to allocate more time and resources to our security. I am proud that ur synagogue is taking this very seriously.
Tefillah: This literally means prayer. But here too, we can interpret it symbolically to encompass all aspects of the spiritual. It means we need to redouble our spiritual commitment to the values that Ezra was expressing when he was murdered. We need to spiritually strengthen our connection to the land of Israel, the people of Israel, and the Jewish people. People are attacking the very core of what we believe in and we need to respond with an even greater commitment. We must recommit with our time, our money, and our educational curriculum.
Doron: This literally means gifts. And here too we can interpret it symbolically. It means that we need to recognize that our faith demands that we interact –and give with our heart and soul—to the world around us. For each of us this one might be the trickiest of all to figure out. Each of us has strong feelings about what is the right way to respond with meaning in the memory of Ezra. For some it might mean we help the homeless. (For example, we are currently doing a Chanukah coat drive for the homeless) For others it might mean we help the many needy refugees from many different countries from around the world who are currently already in this country. The point is that we need to recognize that we must respond to an existential threat to our world by giving to others and spreading more good. That is what doron means.
Ezra’s life was a meaningful life. He sang his shirah for 18 years. This week the world sang his shirah.
Now it is our job to make his death a meaningful death. We must never stop singing his shirah.
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