Learning from Leiby’s Murder

Reprinted with permission from Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller’s Weekly Letter

Dear friends,

Many of you have heard of the cruel and brutal murder last week of Leiby Kletzky, a nine-year-old who was on his way home from his day camp in Brooklyn, alone for the first time, after pleading with his parents as only a nine-year-old can, to be able to be allowed to go home by himself like his pals. His mom was planning to meet him half way, but as you probably know, he never got there. He got lost, and the friendly stranger who offered to help him, and to give him a ride in his beige Honda, murdered him and dismembered his body.

At least three thousand people were involved in searching for Leiby. Amazing Savings, Glatt Mart, and other large stores provided food, space for an improvised headquarters, and whatever else was needed. The boy’s teacher involved his father, who initially thought the child would be found within a short time. When this proved tragically to not be the case, he went from store to store asking to see the surveillance films until he found the one that provided the police with the shot of the boy entering the car.

What do you do with a story like this?

Do you ignore it?

What was the murderer like? Why, how could a human do something so malicious? Of course there will be the knee-jerk response, “He must be mentally ill”. In other words, the proof that he isn’t accountable for his deed is that he did it. To me, for one, that doesn’t hold water. Neither of his two ex-wives thought of him as unaware of the consequences of his deeds, and in fact they were both shocked at what had occurred.

Would it have shocked Desmond Morris? Probably not. Back in 1994, he theorized that since 98% of our genes are almost identical to those of primates, that we are nothing (to use his words) more than “Naked Apes”.

We do indeed have dark places within the depths of what the Kabbalists call, “the animal soul”. That part of you is attuned only to attraction or rejection. You are attracted to whatever gives you pleasure. Food, sexually driven passions and every other form of immediate gratification is part of the package. You reject anything that threatens pain, punishment, or anything you see as toxic. Your fears, rages, and anger all stem from this drive. The refutation of Morris’ theory is that we have a spiritual soul as well. Hear how humans are described in Tehillim 8:

“What is man that you are mindful of him…Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him ruler over the works of Your hand. You put everything under his feet.”

We can face the animal soul and redirect its energy and passion. One way in which this took place in earlier times was through the sacrifices offered in the Temple. The underlying concept is that you would look at the animal, feel its pulsing life force and say, “This is me”. The word that is used for domesticated animals that were offered is “bakkar”, which means cattle. It is linguistically related to the word “boker” which means morning. There is a reason that we talk about “dawn breaking”. It is an unstoppable force, much like animals mindlessly stampeding, breaking every barrier in their path.

You have to teach yourself to respect boundaries, and as a human you can. You can have a higher goal than the immediate gratification of the relentless demands of everything the beast demands. In this week’s parshah, Mattot, we find that Hashem told the Jews that they have to make war against the Midianites. This is because it was the Midianites who tried to redefine us in order to destroy us. As we found in last week’s parshah, they even used their own king’s daughter as bait in their attempts to seduce the Jewish men, an attempt that to a significant degree succeeded. “Their G-d hates promiscuity”, a nice civilized sounding word (it even has four syllables!) to describe the animal soul’s hallmark. Why would Hashem hate this or anything at all, for that matter? Love has demands! His love for us demands that we become something better than two legged animals. He believes in us far more than we believe in ourselves, and demands a minimum of honest self-discovery.

It is, of course, no coincidence that the fast of the 17th of Tammuz (July 19) takes place this week. It commemorates five terrible events that took place in our history.

1) The tablets of the law were broken when Moshe came down and saw the Jews debauched as they danced around the golden calf.

2) The walls around Jerusalem were breached.

3) The daily sacrifices had to be halted during the time of the first Temple (thus ending the possibility of collective spiritual recommitment to move beyond the animal self).

4) The Torah scrolls were burned.

5) An idol was placed in the sanctuary.

These events are more than history. They are the story of our present battle. Do you want the Law, or the calf? Do you want structure or inner anarchy in your private Jerusalem? Do you want to worship G-d or your fantasies?

The sages tell us that examining our deeds is even more important than taming the beast by fasting. They tell us, in fact, to examine our own deeds and those of your ancestors. Go back over your family’s spiritual history, not with the end goal of judging them, since you didn’t stand in their shoes, but with the goal of moving beyond their errors and not perpetuating their mistakes. I sometimes wonder how things would have worked out in my own family, if my grandfather would have really grasped that without Torah learning the heritage that he sincerely wanted to pass on would evaporate in two generations.

Love, and hope that next letter brings better news with it,

4 comments on “Learning from Leiby’s Murder

  1. “I don’t think there’s enough evidence to say that bullying victims are more likely to turn violent.”

    Even if there isn’t, if Aron was bullied, then that is something to focus on, the same way Chazal say that the power of shame was involved in Kamtza and Bar Kamtza and the Bais Hamikdash’s destruction, to one extent or another.

    Regarding Columbine, it is true that it turned out that they weren’t bullied; the incident did spark a national debate and studies on school violence and gave way to anti-bullying focus and laws, which was a positive thing.

    “If Levi Aron couldn’t get past his demons, he should have sought professional help.”

    First, one has to get a full picture of what Levi Aron’s life story is and what motivated him; more details will likely emerge with the indictment.

    There is a room for improvement in mental health services in the Orthodox community, whether or not Levi Aron’s lawyers will be successful with an insanity defense(see links below from a 2010 study by Dr. Eliezer Schnall, and R. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb in the JP article ,”A third problem that confronts our people is a very broad and complex category. I call the problem of community mental health…”).

    The larger point is that there are a number of areas of focus from spiritual to the one’s mentioned above which likely rabbonim and community leaders will focus on.



  2. It’s a misconception that the Columbine murders were committed by bullied students. One (I think Dylan Klebold) was a classic psychopath, the other, Eric Harris, was a loner who was drawn into his orbit. I don’t think there’s enough evidence to say that bullying victims are more likely to turn violent.

  3. Bullying is being taken much more seriously nowadays. Even the Brooklyn D.A.’s office has an anti-bullying unit, and parents and teachers are speaking up to stop it. Years ago, kids had no choice except to live with bullying, even physical assault, as most adults viewed it only as a part of childhood. It’s just very recently that people have come to understand that if it’s a crime called assault and battery when an adult is beaten up, then it is also a crime when a child is beaten up.

    Still, that is no excuse to play the victim card all life long. Kate formerly Middleton, the new Duchess of Cambridge, was bullied at school by a group of girls and eventually transferred to another school. She rose above this childhood torment to become a beautiful, educated, talented young woman. If Levi Aron couldn’t get past his demons, he should have sought professional help.

  4. There are a number of things one can learn from the death of Leiby z’l.

    As of yet, information about Levy Aron’s background is incomplete. One anonymous comment on Cross Currents by a mother of an elementary school classmate of his indicated that he was “victimized, bullied, and beaten up by less than tolerant sixth-grade boys”.

    Assuming that it is true, it brings back the question focused on in wake of the Columbine school killing regarding a possible link between bullying and that incident. If bullying played a role in the deterioration of Aron’s mental health, I wonder if, from a Mussar perspective, it would be correct to say, more directly, that bullying played an indirect role in Leiby Kletzky’s death(the topic is also relevant to the Three Weeks in its broader sense, ie, sinas chinam and the story of Bar Kamtzta playing a role in the Beis Hamikdash’s destruction).

    In this vein, there is an alleged story of the Chafetz Chaim attributing Leon Trotsky’s development, in part, to his being expelled from Cheder(see link); this statement, if true, also is not denying responsibility on the part of Trotsky, rather showing a lesson that can be learned in hindsight.


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