I have been reading the account of the murder this past weekend of David Cawthorne Haines, a British aid worker, by terrorists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
It's a moniker that President Barack Obama prefers to avoid. He chooses to use “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, (ISIL), which avoids the unpleasantness of having to mention Syria and has the added benefit of including Israel in its geographic embrace.
But regardless of how one refers to this group of barbarians, their method of murder is brutal and direct. There’s no messing about with endless threats and semantics.
They give an approximate two-week warning, then they behead their victim before a video camera and upload the footage on to a website for all to see. They also make sure to have their hapless victim read a script, in English, accusing his country of origin of having caused his demise by waging war against the terrorist entity.
The group’s stated aim, baldly, is to take over and subjugate the entire world, murdering those who do not convert to their twisted concept of Islam. So clearly it is not an option to evade that responsibility in any event. Anyone who has fallen into their grasp, and thus is likely bound to die, is bereft of most options.
So far, their victims have been quite docile about it all -- likely feeling they have no choice. They have read their scripts obediently.
But as Viktor Frenkel once observed, one does always have the choice of attitude, and thought. One can choose how to die.
It was a point made thousands of years earlier by the great Talmudic Sage Rabbi Akiva, who was tortured to death by the Romans. Rabbi Akiva’s flesh was flayed from his body with the use of metal combs as he was roasted to death at the stake before his horrified students.
And yet he gave the Romans no sign of fear, and no cry. He reassured his students, telling them he had prepared for the day that he would depart this World for the Next, to sanctify G-d’s Holy Name. At the very last when he felt his soul departing his physical body, then he called out the greatest prayer in the Jewish faith, the Shema, ending his life on the final word, acknowledging that G-d is “One.”
The Romans got nothing from Akiva, but they created an infinite Jewish martyr that day.
Not many can be a Rabbi Akiva. In fact I can hazard a guess that none of us in our generation are capable. I could not.
But perhaps we can be a Daniel Pearl.
Journalist Daniel Pearl was the South Asia bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. Based in Mumbai, India, he was abducted and later beheaded by a Pakistani member of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization in Pakistan. A British national of Pakistani origin who was a member of Al Qaeda was also later sentenced to death by hanging for Pearl’s murder.
When Pearl was kidnaped, the group first sent a list of demands to the United States. When there was no response from the government, the journalist was decapitated nine days later. But while Daniel, too, was forced to read a script prior to his beheading, he added during his recitation that a street in Israel’s city of Bnei Brak is named after his great grandfather, who was one of the founders of the town. Pearl’s family has stated that this authenticated Daniel’s own voice, and showed that to the end, he claimed the right to his own identity as a Jew.
“My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish,” he said – per the script – prior to adding that detail that made clear his pride in his heritage.
It was his last act before his death on Feb. 1, 2002, but one that made a world of difference to those he left behind, and to his captors who realized that at the end, they were not the victors after all.
The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, – the spiritual leader of the Chabad Lubavitch chassidic movement -- was arrested and held in a Bolshevik prison in Leningrad in the Soviet Union in 1927.
Accused of “counter revolutionary activities and sentenced to death, the Rebbe was tortured repeatedly, and threatened by his jailers with firearms.
“With this little toy, I can do you more harm than you can possibly imagine,” one of his jailers told him at one point.
The Rebbe’s response was instructive.
“This little toy is effective only in this World,” he replied. “It can do nothing to me in the Next; there it is completely harmless.”
Ultimately, a storm of protest by Western leaders and the International Red Cross forced the Soviet government to commute the death sentence. On 3 Tamuz he was banished to Kostroma for three years, a sentence that again was commuted, and eventually he was allowed to leave Russia altogether.
The point is this: for every person there comes a point at which we must contemplate our final destiny, and our means of getting there. For some of us this moment comes sooner than others, and in ways far more dramatic, or frightening.
Regardless, we are never at a complete loss of control. One can always choose a course of action.
Even at the last moment, with one’s last breath, one can choose to smile, spit or say or think the Shema.
In the Jewish world, we are taught that if one must die in any case, it is best to make that last moment count for yourself and for others, forever.