Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Kaddish at the Good Fence

I was watching the recent prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah live on TV. We had witnessed the two black coffins being handed over to the UN for the short trip across the border from Lebanon back into Israel. In the no-man's land between the two countries, the coffins were handed to Israeli authorities. They were adorned with the Israeli flag, and each was placed on a military vehicle for the crossing back home. Waiting on the Israeli side of the border at Rosh Hanikra was Ofer Dekel, the Israeli chief negotiator who struck the prisoner exchange deal with his UN-appointed German counterpart Gerhard Conrad.

As soon as the convoy crossed into Israeli territory, it stopped. Dekel approached the two vehicles from the back and stopped a short distance behind the coffins. Surrounded by an honour guard of Israeli soldiers, Dekel began to recite Kaddish, the Jewish Mourner's Prayer. Tears flowed freely as his prayer rang out on television all over the country.

According to Jewish tradition, Kaddish is recited by a surviving family member once removed from the deceased - a child, parent, sibling or spouse. So why was Dekel, somebody who had never met either of the deceased soldiers in life, reciting this prayer? Whilst I have no idea of the thinking of those who arranged the prisoner exchange protocol regarding this action, I can share a few thoughts of my own regarding its symbolism.

A close look at the words of the Kaddish will reveal that they have nothing to do with death at all. It is rather a prayer that sanctifies and praises G-d's name. The logic behind reciting Kaddish for 11 months following the burial of the deceased is two-fold. Firstly, to encourage the survivors to praise G-d and His name each day publicly (Kaddish requires the presence of at least a quorum of 10 men for it to be recited) at a time when the survivors may risk losing their faith as a result of their personal loss. This is designed as a tool to strengthen the faith and resolve of the survivors. Secondly, it is designed to create merits for the deceased to assure his or her entry into the world to come. Having completed his or her natural life, additional merits can only be accumulated by the actions of others, the survivors, in honour of the deceased.

So, how does this all tie into Ofer Dekel's actions at Rosh Hanikra on that auspicious day? It was fitting and appropriate for Dekel to be the one to "welcome" the fallen heroes back onto home territory. Despite the untiring efforts of many, especially the families, to secure the return of the boys, I imagine that nobody put in as many hours and as much of his soul as Dekel. This was a moment of personal triumph for him, and a culmination of many months of hard work. He had, during this time, become like a family member to each of the boys. He was like a father-figure finally ensuring that his sons return to their rightful place.

The boys, by all accounts, were killed in the ambush to capture them two years before. They had suffered the indignity of lying for two years without anybody reciting Kaddish in their merit. This had to be put right at the first possible opportunity, and it could not wait even a minute longer than necessary. The very first moment that they were in the presence of a quorum, Kaddish had to be recited. After all, who could be more deserving of merits in their honour than those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

As Dekel quietly and solemnly recited Kaddish, it felt like he was intoning the words and prayers of an entire country. A more appropriate person for the job could not have been found.

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