Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

A Laugh Amidst the Pain


I am not sure if this should be a Tisha B’Av reflection, as you may look at this column while perusing the paper in a post-Kinnos moment, or if it shall be a Nachamu news piece, as you may be reading it on Shabbos Nachamu.

Truth be told, the melding of joy and sorrow is somehow indicative of Tisha B’Av itself, as the saddest day of the year yet tinged with a bit of hidden relief, if not even joy. The halacha is that

we do not say Tachanun, a tefillah that is filled with sorrow and tinged with lament. The Shulchan Aruch notes that Tisha B’Av is referred to in Megillas Eicha as a mo’ed, a word that literally means “meeting,” but is also used to connote a Yom Tov.

The words mo’ed and Yom Tov in reference to Tisha B’Av always invoked the famed adage, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” in my psyche. Indeed, others explain that when Moshiach comes, the ninth of Av will be the greatest of Yomim Tovim, and thus Tachanun is omitted.

It’s all very nice. But what about today? Moshiach is not here. We sit on the floor, say Kinnos, yet do not say Tachanun. Why should lowering our heads, falling on our arms and hiding our faces in supplication and submission be a desecration of the “Yom Tov”?

But it’s a theme that resonates throughout the story of Tisha B’Av. There is no greater example of the collisions of the epitome of golus and the vision of geulah than the Gemara at the

end of Makkos, when Rabbon Gamliel, Rav Elazar Ben Azaryah, Rav Yehoshua and Rabi Akiva were together on Har Hatzofim. They rent their garments as they approached the Har Habayis. When they saw a fox emerge from the place of the Kodesh Hakodoshim, the Holy of Holies, Rabbon Gamliel, Rav Elazar Ben Azaryah and Rav Yehoshua began to cry. As we know, Rabi Akiva laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” they asked.

“Why are you weeping?” he replied.

“A place so holy that the Torah says of it, ‘The zar, the Yisroel, who approaches it shall die,’ and now foxes traverse it—and we shouldn’t weep?” they asked rhetorically.

“That is why I am laughing,” Rabi Akiva explained.

He went on to connect the nevuah of Uriah Hakohein and Zechariah Hanovi. One laments the destruction, saying that “Tzion shall be plowed as a field.” Zechariah prophesied, “Old men and women shall sit in the streets of Yerushalayim.”

“As long as Uriah’s prophecy had not been fulfilled,” Rabi Akiva continued with a smile, “I feared that Zechariah’s prophecy might not be fulfilled either. But now that Uriah’s prophecy has come to pass, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will also be fulfilled. When I see the foxes roaming, I see the future as well, the time when ‘old men and women shall sit in the streets of Yerushalayim.’”

And the Gemara concludes with the words that have consoled us through the ages: “Akiva nichamtonu. Akiva, you have consoled us!”

With his expansive vision, Rabi Akiva set the standard for post-tragic optimism and created the vision for redemption amidst the ruins, a path through the ashes. There are still foxes running through the Har Habayis. Whether it is in the form of an Al-Aqsa Mosque standing on the holiest site in the world today or Yidden defying the words of all of the rabbonim, who openly ban Yidden from entering that holy place, like the enduring exile itself, it is an ongoing tragedy. Yet Rabi Akiva laughed.

But it must be Rabi Akiva who is the quintessential standard-bearer for seeing far beyond what meets the eye. The onset of his journey to become the leader of Kal Yisroel and a transmitter of Torah for eternity began with his perceiving how tiny drops of water impacted the solidity of stone.

He saw how the tiny tagim, the crowns on the letters of the Torah, were embedded with the greatest secrets of thousands of halachos. He saw the secrets in the tiniest lines and crowns that adorn the letters of the Torah. Rochel, his wife, saw beyond the simple shepherd who could not read the Alef-Bais. She saw the rebuilt Bais Hamikdosh despite the foxes of ignorance that scurried before her eyes. She saw a potential Tanna who would one day have 24,000 students surrounding him in triumphant glory.

Recently, an excited rebbi sent me a clip that came from CSB CARE, an organization founded by Rav Nochum Lehman that helps individuals who are blind or visually-impaired daven, read and learn through Braille seforim and magazines, large print seforim, and electronic Braille. They have expanded to aid people with ALS and other disabilities learn, daven and communicate through eye-tracking devices and custom software.

They were having a fundraising campaign, and the promotional clip included a message from Yitzie Fox, a young man who must have graduated our elementary school. He came to our elementary school from Dayton, Ohio, and his parents explained to our menahel at the time, Rav Chanina Herzberg, that he is blind. Despite others who were worried that we were not equipped to educate a young boy with a handicap as difficult as the lack of sight, Rabbi Herzberg accepted Yitzie with open arms and pledged to do whatever he could to ensure that he will succeed.

Over the years, in our yeshiva and through mesivta, and now bais medrash, he continues to be one of the most popular boys in the class, excelling in all his limudim. With his Braille Gemara and other devices, he finished many masechtos and saw more Torah and insights than many of us see in the typical Shas.

Today he is a distinguished bais medrash bochur, and his appeal for CSB on the video evoked that feeling of seeing only light despite the darkness.

This week, an indescribable gibor, Raphi Strauss, passed away after almost forty years of living with one of the rarest diseases in the world, Xeroderma Pigmentosa, a most rare condition, which affects only a few hundred people out of the billions of humans on planet earth. The disease did not allow him to be exposed to the rays of the sun. He was forced to walk outside in a space suit developed by NASA to protect him from the sun’s rays. He underwent more than 500 surgical procedures to remove the myriad tumors that he developed from the illness.

But he only saw hope within the pain.

Andy Lauber, a Chai Lifeline mental health counselor who was Raphi’s friend, told me of Raphi’s vision of greatness despite the indescribable yissurim. It was on a Wednesday immediately following a harrowing surgery. Raphi refused to take any pain mediation, despite the pleas from his mother, who knew how much pain he was in.

Andy was sent to the hospital to speak to him and try to persuade him to take the medications to alleviate the pain. Raphi refused and explained why: “It’s Wednesday, and I see Shabbos coming. If I am taking the pain meds, the doctors will keep me here for a few more days and I won’t be home for Shabbos. I’ll endure the pain now, so they’ll think I’m better and they will send me home to spend Shabbos with my family.”

The foxes were crawling through the pain of his illness, but he only saw the serenity and beauty of Shabbos.

Reb Dovid Sklar, of blessed memory, lost his sight toward the last decades of his life. He was a distinguished philanthropist, whose contributions helped establish and sustain many Torah institutions. At his grandson’s graduation, a rabbi who was sitting next to him tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out something interesting that was going on up on stage.

Reb Dovid replied, “I’m sorry. I have low vision and can’t see that far.”

In a moment, the rabbi, who knew Reb Dovid well, quipped back, “You are mistaken. Your sight may be impaired, but you have great vision.”

Whether it was the Ponovezher Rov, who laid the foundations of his yeshiva as the Nazis were marching through Africa on the way to the Middle East, or Rav Aharon Kotler, who laid the seeds of the greatest makom Torah in the world during a time when rabbis across America were preparing their eulogies for Torah Jewry in this country, they saw the glory despite the foxes. Rav Aharon saw a Torah metropolis with one of the largest yeshivos in history, with thousands of students and their families who would make Lakewood their home.

The Satmar Rov did not see a dozen broken Hungarian Jews sitting around an old table at his first melavah malkah in America in 1946. He saw a dynasty of tens of thousands of chassidim in Brooklyn, Monroe and around the world, and an ever-burgeoning population of chassidim and innumerable shteiblach and yeshivos that would perpetuate the mesorah of the alter heim.

Despite the sadness of the moment, they heard the klop. No Tachanun. It’s a mo’ed! We feel the Yom Tov in the churban. We see the glory despite the foxes.

When the gabbai klops on the bimah and announces, “No Tachanun,” think about Rabi Akiva laughing among the ruins.

And then say the next lines, whether it is on Tisha B’Av or Shabbos Nachamu, with intense kavanah: “Vayehi binsoa ha’aron…. Kumah Hashem veyafutzu oyvecha—Arise, Hashem, and may Your enemies be scattered, and may those who hate You flee from You!” with the coming of Moshiach. Amein.



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