We have experienced so many tragedies recently and they show no sign of letting up. Klal Yisroel was particularly affected by Covid, losing so many to the new disease that claimed millions of lives worldwide. Each death was a terrible tragedy, another stab in the community’s hearts.
Many who survived were left with lingering effects. People were left without jobs and businesses. Social mores were upended, and yeshivos and schools were forced to close, severely impacting many students. Many shuls that were closed for long periods have still not gotten back to normal. New opportunities were created, but many were lost.
On Lag Ba’omer of this year, a terrible tragedy thrust the Yiddishe velt into mourning. Without warning, forty-five people, who moments before had been davening and celebrating at the kever of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, had the oxygen snuffed out of them. Nobody remembers anything like that happening before in their lifetimes.
On Erev Shavuos, bleachers collapsed in the new Karlin-Stolin bais medrash in Yerushalayim. Three people died and many more were injured. We all mourned.
An anti-religious government was established in Israel. It gets stronger day by day, as it plans to battle the religious community and take apart the status-quo agreement under which the state’s relationship with religion operates.
And most recently, last week, a 12-story apartment building near Miami Beach collapsed, potentially leaving as many as 160 people dead, many of them Jews. There was no warning, no bomb, and no loud boom. The building just imploded, and in seconds, the people in it were gone.
For some reason, the sense of awful foreboding, of communal mourning, the feeling that we have all been hit by a gut-wrenching tragedy is missing this time. Maybe we have become numb to disaster, or perhaps it is the fact that this one is slowly grinding out and there is room for hope that somehow people will be found alive amidst all that rubble. Or maybe we have suffered so much that we can no longer mourn. We have had the wind knocked out of us so many times that we don’t have the emotional wherewithal to sit down and contemplate what is going on, what is happening to us, and why.
Rav Yisroel Meir Lau frequently relates the story of his liberation from the Buchenwald concentration camp. I heard it from him. An American chaplain, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, who accompanied the liberating American soldiers, was gazing at a pile of dead bodies in the death camp when he thought he saw something move. Gingerly, he approached the pile and detected a young boy, barely alive, among the dead.
Like a malach shel rachamim, he tearfully stuck out his hand to the emaciated child. He told him that he is an American and that the Nazis were gone. Speaking to the boy in Yiddish, he tried to gauge if his mental abilities were intact after having suffered so many harrowing experiences and being near death.
“What is your name?” asked the kind rabbi dressed in an American army uniform, as tears streamed down his face at the pitiful sight.
“Lulek,” was the reply.
“Vi alt bist du, mein kind? How old are you, my child?” he asked little Lulek.
“Elter far dir. Older than you,” responded the child.
Fearing that the boy had lost his senses, the rabbi began weeping. Again he asked the skin and bones that resembled a young boy how old he was, and again he answered that he was older than the weeping rabbi.
The rabbi looked at the boy with great pity and tried one last time to get a sane response from the child who had been so badly affected by the horrific suffering he endured.
“Tell me, mein kind, why do you say that you are older than me? Isn’t it obvious that you are a young child and I am a grown man? Why do you insist on thinking that you are older than me?”
Lulek explained quite simply: “Git a kook. Du veinst. Ich ken shoin nit veinen. Nu, zogt mir, ver is elter? You are crying. I have already lost my ability to cry. Am I not older than you?”
Despite his youth and having experienced four tortuous years in a dark place where death and hunger were his constant companions, the youth spoke with wisdom beyond his physical age.
We are thankfully very far removed from the unspeakable horrors experienced during the Holocaust, but can it be that we have lost our ability to cry, to be impacted by sadness, to feel pain, to realize that we are living in an eis tzorah, and to recognize that we must do something about it or chas veshalom the tragedies may not end here?
Relatives hung pictures of their loved ones on fences near the collapse, reminding many of the pictures hung in the area of the Twin Towers after they fell. The grief is overwhelming, the human misery devastating.
What are we to do? While every situation is different and we should not act without being thoroughly familiar with the facts and the halacha, this week’s parsha provides an example of how to act in the time of a plague.
At the conclusion of Parshas Bolok, we learn that Bilam set up a situation that led Jewish men to sin with Moavite women. A respected leader publicly committed a sinful act with the daughter of Midyan’s leader.
The nation watched and wept, at a loss of what to do. A plague that had already killed 24,000 Jewish people was raging, showing no signs of ebbing.
One man was not confounded by the unprecedented outrage. He knew the halacha and what had to be done. Ignoring the cynics and acting with the koach haTorah, Pinchos ended the plague as well as the sad chapter of Bilam and Midyan.
By following the halachos he had been taught by Moshe Rabbeinu and intervening when nobody knew what to do, Pinchos merited the blessing of eternal peace. We commonly think that the man of peace is the one who doesn’t involve himself in communal issues. When there is a disagreement, he stays far away, though his inaction may be beneficial to anti-Torah causes. In fact, the Torah, in this week’s parsha, teaches us that the opposite is true. Because Pinchos acted when he did, throwing a spear into the practitioners of evil, he was able to end the challenge to halacha and restore Am Yisroel to its proper condition.
Hashem conferred upon Pinchos His bris of shalom and kehunah, empowering him to carry on the tradition of Aharon Hakohein as an oheiv shalom verodeif shalom. Peace is advanced by the pursuit of Torah and halacha.
Shalom, which means peace, and shleimus, which means complete, share the same root. When everything is performed properly and when everything is complete and whole, it is possible to also have shalom. The world was created with Torah, the absolute truth, and therefore the more complete the world is with Torah, the more peace and wholesomeness there is.
On Sunday, we fasted in commemoration of Shivah Assar B’Tammuz at the onset of the period we refer to as the Three Weeks. We mourn the loss of the Bais Hamikdosh, the place where we brought korbanos to cleanse and purify ourselves. With the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, we lost the center of kedusha in our world. From that time onward, we have been bereft and empty. Nothing in a Jew’s life has been the same since then.
Subsequent to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, a sinner is forced to find his way back to Hakadosh Boruch Hu without the benefit of the mizbei’ach and a korban. Ever since the churban, Klal Yisroel has had to adapt to a world of hester, darkness.
Pinchos earned the blessings of shalom and kehunah because he returned shleimus to Am Yisroel and thereby reconnected them with Hashem. That was the task of the kohanim: to bring Jews together and to bring them together with Hashem.
When the kohanim brought korbanos in the Bais Hamikdosh, they created harmony in the cosmos and shleimus in the world. Chet, sin, creates a division between the Jewish people and Hashem. The offering of korbanos erases the divide. In our day, we can no longer bring korbanos to erase sins and return us to Hashem’s embrace. Instead, we must work much harder, as it is dependent upon us and our teshuvah and maasim tovim to restore our connection as well as shleimus to a world sullied with sin and tumah.
We know that the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of sinas chinom, which was prevalent among the Jewish people at that time, and we know that a primary reason it has not been rebuilt is because we are still afflicted with that fault. We are judgmental, unforgiving, and disrespectful of people we differ with, and we don’t love every person as much as we should.
When we calculate the recent communal tragedies and all the personal and private tragedies that so many people are going through in so many areas of their lives, it can be said that we are living in a period of mageifah.
An apocryphal story is told of a rosh yeshiva whose talmidim were accepting everything he was discussing in his shiur. He remarked that today people accept everything in Torah but question and try to understand the acts of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. In the past, people would question and work to understand Torah, while accepting everything that Hakadosh Boruch Hu did, knowing that it was beyond their ability to grasp.
We do not know why specific tragedies befall our people. The ways of Hashem are beyond human comprehension, but we all know that our world is not one of shleimus. We know that people are suffering. We know that adults are suffering from illness, poverty, loneliness, and issues brought on by social and financial pressures.
We know of children who are in pain, of youngsters who feel that they are not given a chance and are failing. Some feel unloved, while others perceive themselves to be under crushing pressure. Some young adults have problems finding shidduchim, while others are dealing with abuse. Apathy keeps us from getting involved, even on a minor level, in hearing and perceiving problems and then reaching out to offer help.
We have to seek to achieve shleimus in our personal lives as well. Rectifying sinas chinom and helping others is a great place to start.
An eis tzorah is a call to us to help return the world to a condition of shleimus. In times of tragedy, people find within themselves untapped reservoirs of inner strength and courage. Let us be like Pinchos, utilizing those deep inner strengths to bring shalom and shleimus to the world by loving and helping people, and by caring enough to do something.
Every act we undertake to make the world a better place by helping people and seeking perfection brings us closer to the day when Pinchos, who lives eternally as Eliyohu, will announce that the mageifos have ended, that golus is done, and that the geulah is here.