The following sermon was given by Rabbi Barry Gelman at United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston during Shabbat morning services on Oct. 3, two days after Palestinian terrorists murdered Na’ama and Rabbi Eitam Henkin in Israel.
I am not sure if we had to read Kohelet (the Book of Ecclesiastes) this morning. It has been suggested that we read Kohelet on Sukkot – Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing – to act as a balance against joy gone overboard. Coming on the heels of Yom Kippur, a day on which we act out our death, we are thrust into the unbridled joy brought about by the abundant harvest holiday of Sukkot. That joy is offset by reading Kohelet and its “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” theme.
After the events of this Thursday, we do not need anything to lessen our joy. The work of Kohelet has been done for us by forces of evil.
I spent most of the day yesterday in a stupor thinking about the murder of 10 people on a college campus on Oregon and, of course, the murder, in front of their four children, of Na’ama and Rabbi Eitam Henkin.
I have been occupied intensely by both tragedies, but I would like to speak about the Henkins because I had brief interaction and relationship with Eitam, because I have a relationship with Eitam’s father, and because they are members of our wider family, Am Yisrael.
There is a tricky mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), where it says: “Rabbi Eliezer would say…Repent one day before your death.”
The trouble is, of course, that we do not know when we will die. The solution is to recognize the immediate need for repentance and not delay. The idea of immediacy was popularized by Hillel, who said, “Im Lo Achshav Eimatai?” If not now, when?
Living this way is a choice and it was the option chosen by Na’ama and Rabbi Eitam Henkin.
Na’ama Henkin was a gifted graphic artist. Many of us have decorated our sukkot with a poster she designed portraying the well-known midrash explaining the Arba Minim (four species). She was the daughter of Chanan and Hila Armoni, who were active members and leaders of the religious-Zionist community in Israel, in addition to serving in key positions in the IDF and Israeli intelligence over the last three decades.
Rabbi Henkin was a young outstanding Torah scholar who was destined for greatness and had already published widely. He was the son of the esteemed Torah scholars and leaders, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin and Rabbanit Chana Henkin. In their work and teaching they have had a major impact on the modern Orthodox community, both in Israel and the United States, and beyond. Eitam was also the great-grandson of Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, one of the great halachik (Jewish legal) leaders of the 20th century.
As one newspaper put it, this was a “dream couple.” Both in their 30s, they already have had a profound impact. They lived the ideals of religious Zionism with a deep and profound connection to Torah and to Medinat Yisrael (the nation of Israel).
My connection with Eitam was based on an email exchange I had with him, asking him to urge his father to weigh in on a particularly thorny halachik issue. I knew if he did, the issue would be put to rest in the minds of many. Eitam was trying to help. I looked forward to what he would publish next as he was incredibly insightful and bright.
I spent my day thinking about all of this and thinking about the four orphans left behind: Matan Hillel, 9; Nitzan Yitzchak 7; Neta Eliezer, 4; and Itamar, 4 months old. They have a lifetime ahead of them without parents to care for them. Matan Hillel, the one we heard saying Kaddish, will not have his father and mother with him to celebrate his bar mitzvah. Itamar, the 4-month-old, still nursing…so in need of his mother. At the funeral, Channah Henkin, Eitam’s mother, said, “Now we, the grandparents, will raise the children…Eitam and Na’ama, we’ll raise them as you would have.”
We read Kohelet today. One verse struck me as particularly powerful: “He hath made every thing beautiful in its time; also He hath set the world in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.”
This verse tells us that God hid something from us in order to give us wisdom. The word “Ha’olam” in this verse is spelled without the letter “vav,” hinting at the “ha’alama” – concealment. According to Rashi, what is hidden from us is our day of death. God, in his wisdom, conceals that from us so we do not put things off for later. For all we know, there will not be a later. We are given the wisdom to strive for our best every single day because God masks our day of death.
This is the sense of urgency and seriousness modeled by Na’ama and Eitam Henkin.
This is a good day to ask ourselves about our own personal sense of urgency for the holy. When it comes to asking God to act for us without delay – we find the words in the tefillot (prayers) of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
Hayom T’amtzeinu! Strengthen us – today!
Hayom T’Varcheinu! Bless us – today!
Hayom T’Gadleinu! Give us greatness – today!
Today, we should commit to turning that familiar formula around.
In the spirit of Na’ama and Eitam, we should stop asking and start accomplishing.
Hayom N’amtzecha! Today we will strengthen you, God, by learning and teaching Your Torah and performing Your mitzvot.
Hayom N’varichecha! Today we will bless you, God, by acting in ways that sanctify your name and bring honor to your people.
Hayom N’gadlecha! Today we will give you greatness, God, by treating all of your creatures with the dignity and respect.
A little while ago we said a verse in Hallel. I offer it as a prayer and hope. “Grievous in the Lord’s sight is the death of His devoted ones.”