Amid the terror and mayhem that paralyzed one of the world’s largest cities last week, more than 170 people were brutally murdered by terrorists. Among those killed during the attack on Mumbai, India, were my colleague and dear friend, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, and his wife, Rivkah, the directors of the local Chabad House.
This was not only an attack on a rabbi or a Jewish center; it was an attack on anyone who — like the Holtzbergs — values the ideals of peace, goodness and kindness.
Today we mourn all the innocent lives that were so senselessly and ruthlessly destroyed by the forces of evil. This is a dark time for all the good people of the world.
Over the past five years, I had the opportunity to get to know Gavriel Holtzberg during Chabad’s annual conventions in New York. Among his peers, he stood out as an exceptional scholar and an especially kindhearted man. I recall a conference in 2005, when he discussed with us some of his daily activities and what it was like to live in India. I marveled that he never once mentioned the obvious difficulties his family encountered on a daily basis as a result of moving from New York City to a Third World environment. I believe that he was so devoted to the people of his community that this sentiment did not even enter his mind. Physical discomfort was of no consequence to him. What devotion, selflessness and benevolence.
We went to the same rabbinical school, studied under the same roof and sat on the same benches in the cafeteria. During the past few days, I’ve often wondered — as I’m sure thousands of my colleagues have — whether I myself might have been sent as an emissary to Mumbai if I had not been separated from Gavriel Holtzberg by several grades. But divine providence deemed it otherwise.
Tuesday morning, the funeral of Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg took place in Israel. The event was attended by many dignitaries, including the president and all living former prime ministers of Israel, the Indian ambassador and tens of thousands of people from all walks of life. Both Jew and non-Jew gathered to mourn this loss. With his daughter and son-in-law’s bodies lying at his side, and speaking in a trembling voice, Rivkah Holtzberg’s father observed that even now, the young couple were continuing their sacred work by bringing together countless people from across the world in unity and friendship. Their passing has brought forth an enormous outpouring of love and prayer, in our own homes and communities and, indeed, in the world at large. Tragic, but very true.
I have directed toward the Almighty many searing questions over the past few days. Chief among them is the question of how such evil can befall the most pure and noble people. What has the couple’s little 2-year-old son, crying out “Momma, Momma,” done to deserve this? There are many other new orphans now as well. Hundreds of innocent Indians and tourists were savagely and indiscriminately gunned down. How can this happen?
There are many questions, yet precious few answers. The well-known Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel was once asked, “Why did the Holocaust happen?” In response, he said, “And if you knew the answer, would you sleep better tonight?” I have come to realize that it is during these challenging times that we need to rely on the powerful reservoirs of faith that are found deep within.
I believe that our most important response to evil, in addition to the obvious need to hunt down and obliterate terrorist factions, must be to increase our acts of love, goodness and kindness.
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, whose teachings Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg followed, taught of the need to turn tears into action. Beneath the surface of every terrible experience, there lies the opportunity to grow and increase in goodness. Every step back can — and must — become the impetus for a giant leap forward.
To that end, Chabad — the world’s largest Jewish organization, with more than 3,500 centers in 73 countries and 47 states in the U.S. — has spearheaded a global campaign to encourage people from all backgrounds and beliefs to make a commitment to take on acts of goodness and kindness in order to spread light for all of humanity in every corner of the world.
The great medieval sage and scholar, Moses Maimonides — who, incidentally, lived in Muslim countries, where he was respected by Jew and Muslim alike — taught us all a vitally important lesson: One positive action, one word or even one thought, can reverberate across the globe and impact the entire world for good. In memory of the dear departed, I encourage all people of goodwill to act in a spirit of goodness and kindness toward those around you — and toward people you may have never met.
SIMCHA BACKMAN is the rabbi of the Chabad Jewish Center of Glendale and the Foothill Communities.