Study Guide for Students on
The Blessing of a Broken Heart
by Sherri Mandell (Toby Press, 2003)

In 1996, the Mandell family made aliyah to Israel from Silver Spring, Maryland. One May 8, 2001 thirteen year old Koby and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were pursued by and killed by Palestinian terrorists in a cave outside their town of Tekoa. They had skipped school and gone to climb and explore in the wadi. The Blessing of a Broken Heart is the book that Sherri Mandell wrote about her spiritual journey after her son’s murder.

I. “An Italian TV crew asks me if I can forgive Koby’s killers one day. I answer, “I will never forgive. What they did was unforgivable.” But I will not live my life in anger; I will not answer hate with hate; rage with rage.

It is not my job to forgive. It is the murderer’s job to ask forgiveness. Judaism is not a religion of instant forgiveness. It is a religion of remembering. If a person wants to be forgiven, he needs to ask for forgiveness. In fact, I haven’t been contacted by any Arab who has wanted to console me. I’m not sure how I would greet him. But Jewish law tells us that a person should ask for forgiveness at least three times until the one he has wronged accepts his apology. If the person he has wronged refuses, he should continue to ask—but the wrongdoer has fulfilled his own repentance. My job is not to forgive—but to give meaning. My job is to remember.”

The Blessing of a Broken Heart, page 160

Possible Questions for Discussion

Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me—whether against my body, my property, my honor or against anything of mine; whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly or purposely; whether through speck, deed, thought or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration—I forgive every Jew. Many no man be punished because of me.”

(Prayer recited every night before going to sleep based on Kabalistic tradition)

What is the purpose of reciting this prayer every night? What is the benefit to the injured party of forgiving those whom injured him/her?

It is forbidden for a person to be merciless and not grant forgiveness. One should rather be easy to calm and slow to anger. When someone is asked for forgiveness, he should grant it with a full and sincere heart. Even if the sinner has caused great injury, he should forgive him, for it is forbidden to take revenge. This is the way of he Jewish people and the characteristic, which makes them special.
(Maimonides, Laws of Teshuva, 2:10)

Why does Ms. Mandell say that the murder of her son is “unforgivable?” Is it because she would not choose to do the work necessary within herself to forgive them?

When Cain killed Abel, God said to him “What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood cries to me from the ground. (Bereshit 4:10) The phrase “kol dimai” can actually be translated as thy brother’s bloods.” How does this translation affect the idea that Koby’s’ murder is “unforgivable?”

Are there circumstances in which someone was responsible for the death of a loved one when you think you could forgive him/her?

What does beneficial mourning look like that doesn’t include forgiveness?

II. Many people give up belief in God because of the suffering they witness. But I refuse to believe in God’s cruelty. I believe that what we view as cruelty may one day in fact be revealed as part of God’s plan.

The relationship between Jacob and Joseph in the book of Genesis demonstrates the way that the truth is obscured in this world. Joseph, Jacob’s son, was thrown into a pit and left to die his brothers because they were jealous of him. Then Joseph was sold as a slave to the family of Potiphar. Sent to prison, Joseph was able to interpret dreams and rose to the heights of leadership in Egypt. As a result, he was able to help his family when the brothers were forced to go down to Egypt to look for food. Joseph’s suffering was part of God’s plan to ensure that the Jewish people could survive; yet his father, Jacob, had to endure twenty-two years of suffering, mourning for his son.

After Jacob’s death, the brothers were afraid that Joseph would turn on them for the evil they had done to him, throwing him into a pit and selling him as a slave. But Joseph understood that the story was bigger than his personal pain. He told his brothers, “And you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

I try to believe that my Jacob’s story—Koby’s story—is also much larger than us, much larger than our suffering. Still it is hard to accept a God who could allow Koby to be killed so brutally.

A midrash tells us that God has to control his natural inclination not to punish the evil, even though he would like to do so, because if he were to punish evil then man could not freely choose to do good: when people acted wrongly, we would immediately be punished. If we knew we were going to be punished each time we neglected to help a friend, then we would quickly learn to help, no matter how busy we were.

But it seems that God wants us to choose; God wants us to act in the world, and freely choose the good. Because only through human beings acting in the world can the world move towards perfection. God doesn’t promise that we won’t suffer. The sad truth is that suffering is built into our world. “Can’t God find another theme?” I ask a friend. “I’m tired of this one.” The pain of living in a world of cruelty is overwhelming. Today, as I write, there is a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, killing 10, almost all of them teenage boys; there is a bus bombing in Haifa with 15 killed there is a drive by shooting, killing one. All on the same day. The only way that I can cope is to cry out to God: Help us, God, help us. It’s not bearable. But it is.

Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart, 161-162

Discussion Questions:

In the book of Job, Satan says that Job is only such a wonderful servant of God because his life is so wonderful. Satan proposes to God that he (Satan) will inflict Job with disasters to test Job’s faith. God lets Satan do this. Does this, along with the traditional interpretation of the Joseph story make God appear to be a manipulative puppetmaster? What is our main problem as human beings in understanding God?

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if God punished the wicked? Why wouldn’t God just prefer a better world to a world where people are free to choose to do evil?

Regarding God’s role in the Holocaust, it has been said: “Where was God in Auschwitz? Where was man?”

Is there a benefit to suffering? What is it?

III. Moses was a humble person. When God chose him to bring the Jews out of Egypt, he protested that there were other, more suitable, people to transmit the word of God. Moses stuttered and did not think he could speak. But God insisted. One of the reasons that God chose Moses was his humility. Because when Moses gave over the word of God, Moses was able to listen and to transmit God’s word as God had spoken it, without a spin, without editorial, without adding his interpretation. His humility gave him a clarity that allowed him to encounter the fullness of God’s expression.

When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God told him that he would put him in a crevice of the mountain, protecting him with his hand until he passed through. Then he removed his hand, and Moses had a vision of God. Moses saw God from behind. But the vision was the back of God, not his face.

The Warsaw Ghetto rabbi, Kolonymos Kalmish Shapira tells us that even when we experience God’s hiddenness, we should not think we are really hidden from God’s hands, because we are carved there like God’s palms. “Behold I have carved you upon the palms of my hands,” (Isaiah 49:16) (Sacred Fire, Rabbi Kalmish Shapira). It is, he says, “the ultimate closeness” and asserts that a person can be “strong and upstanding” even at a time of hiddenness.

It is as if God were playing a game of Hide-and-Seek: cover your eyes when I am close because the glory will be too overwhelming; when you uncover them, I will be gone, you will not be able to find me face on, but you will know that I was there.

I know you were here.

God himself is humble. He dwells in humility. The Messiah himself is a humble beggar because only one who has experienced desperate need can empty himself to feel the compassion and kindness needed in this world, and extend that love to all of humanity.

Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, (Israel ben Eliezer, the 18th century founder of Hasidism) taught that a “person needs to regard himself as if he were nothing. Forget yourself in every way…Only then will you be able to attain the ultimate preparation—which is the same as the world of consciousness, for there, everything is equal, life and death, sea and dry land.”

Yet we are created to be in relationship with God, to be full partners. Every person is obligated to say, “The world was created for me.” (Sanhedrin 37a) So we also must think well of ourselves, recognize the divinity within us.

We must be full and empty at the same time. Death, if you let it, teaches you how to do this.

The Blessing of a Broken Heart, 177-178

Possible questions for discussion

How can God, the creator of the universe, be humble?

What is the benefit of humility? Is humility considered a virtue in today’s society?

If God has not forgotten us, in times of trouble, how do we know that god is present? How can we feel that presence?

How do we forget ourselves? Is it really desirable to do so?

How can you be full and empty at the same time? What is the benefit of being both?

Written by Audrey Licht, director of the Yachad Jewish High School

Hartford, Connecticut