I must have attended around 500 shivas in my rabbinic career. But the one I visited on Sunday was different. Over Pesach, the news of the brutal murders of Rebbetzen Lucy Dee and her two children, Maia and Rina Dee, left world Jewry in profound shock. Rabbi Leo and his three remaining children, Keren, Tali and Yehudah, survive.
My wife, Chana, and I had the privilege of stepping into Rabbi Leo and Rebbetzen Lucy’s rabbinic shoes twice: once as Associate Rabbinic couple at Hendon United Synagogue and again as spiritual leaders at Radlett United Synagogue.
Following the attack, the Radlett community sent me to Israel to represent it and relay its messages of condolence and solidarity with the Dee family. As I sat aboard the outbound flight, I still felt overwhelmed. This has been too difficult to come to terms with; the horrific details of the massacre transcend the imaginable. Our congregations expect rabbis to have answers and explanations: I have neither, I am numb. Three innocent souls, including that of a child, have been cruelly taken in the most senseless and violent fashion.
I have never been more convinced that God’s ways are not ours and that despite all the philosophical theories, no human mind can fathom why He allows bad things to happen to good people.
While many of us powerless onlookers were dumbfounded by the atrocity, Rabbi Leo has become rabbi to the world. With courage and fortitude, he has inspired the globe with his eloquent and impassioned speeches that have been widely shared. I don’t know how he has been able to find the strength, but astonishingly, he has given us faith and hope amidst the despair. He has restored the belief that good will ultimately triumph over evil.
This is why, when I arrived at the shiva house, I was heartbroken but not demoralised. I visited with three other rabbis. We sat with Rabbi Leo who reflected on his experiences with dignity, towering bravery and sensitivity.
As I bore witness, something stirred deep within my soul. He spoke about how the Foreign Office had revised their public statement to include full condemnation of the terrorism. In the letter they referred to the “cycle of violence” in the region. Rabbi Leo tells us that he has instead been surrounded by a “cycle of love”. People of all backgrounds - religious, secular, young, old, pop stars, politicians, rabbis and civic leaders.
They are all helping him through this unspeakable pain.
Last week, during the prayer services we organised when Rebbetzin Lucy was in critical condition, we concluded with the haunting song from the Haggadah, recited on Seder night. In the diaspora, it was said the evening before the terrible events took place in Israel. We are instructed to lift our cups of wine and declare: “V’hi she’amda la’avoseinu…”
The translation of the stanza composed by the rabbis two thousand years ago is: “And this has stood for our ancestors and for us. For not only one (enemy) has risen up against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise up to destroy us. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivers us from their hands”.
Why do we lift our cups of wine during this traumatic recital? What is there at this mournful moment to say “cheers” or “l’chaim” about? And what is meant by, “And this has stood for our ancestors and for us”?
The commentaries explain that the long and bitter suffering caused by generations of antisemitism may have shaken Jewish resolve; however, it has made us stand up and never give up.
The worst of humanity has seen us as their primary enemy. In one sense this can be seen as a backhanded compliment. If the Jewish people are the nemesis of evildoers in this world then we must possess a divine light and a goodness that is the polar opposite of their depravity.
We raise our cups, celebrating the miracle of our survival, and stand proud: “Am Yisrael Chai!”
Throughout this harrowing time, Rabbi Dee has shown us how to respond to this pain. His clarion call is clear and echoes “V’hi she’amda” in the Haggadah. No matter what evildoers perpetrate against us, the Jewish mission is eternal. We will choose life. We will survive against all odds, inspired to share the light of the Almighty and the values of morality throughout our dark world.
May Hashem shelter the precious souls of Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee under the protective wings of His Divine presence and may their memories be a blessing.
Jonathan Hughes is rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue