Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

A Tragedy Wrapped in Mystery

It is now known as “the madreigot hamavet - the stairway of death.” Soon after the aron bearing the holy body of Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner zt”l was carried down its marble steps, double tragedy struck. As hundreds of well-meaning mourners attempted to give final kavod to the great author of the Shevet Halevi, two precious neshamos, Mordechai Gerber and Yitzchok Samet, were stampeded to death. Mordechai, the father of a three-year-old, and Yitzchok, a young chosson, were soon laid to rest as well.

The city of Bnei Brak — and with it all of Klal Yisroel — was left distraught and bewildered. How could such a thing happen? Of course, investigations, recriminations and eventual crowd-control improvements are well underway. But the gnawing and painful enigma hangs mightily in the air. Why would such a catastrophe happen at the levayah of a tzaddik and posek hador?

Although such calamities are certainly within the rubric of kavshei deRachmana, the secrets of Divine providence, it nevertheless behooves us to apply ancient wisdom to events that raise such devastating issues.

First, let us return to the recent time of year when these distressful events occurred. One of the well-known questions regarding Yetzias Mitzrayim refers to Paroh’s actions on the night of Makkas Bechoros. The Torah tells us that “Paroh got up at night” (Shemos 12:30), to which Rashi famously comments, “from his bed.” Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l, followed by the late maggid, Rav Yaakov Galinsky zt”l (Vehigadeta, page 210), points out that Paroh had just witnessed the meticulous fulfillment of each divine prediction concerning the first nine plagues. Like clockwork, every warning from Hashem had come to pass in every detail. The final, most deadly of the makkos, would include Paroh in a most personal way. He himself was a firstborn and he had a bechor as well. How could he possibly put on his pajamas and go to sleep serenely on such a night?

Rav Dessler explains that since G-d has instituted the absolute power of free will in the world, there must be an equitable balance between good and evil. Where there is an overwhelming manifestation of kedushah, there must be a concomitant equal power of tumah as well.

We find (Bereishis 22:3) that Avrohom Avinu goes to sleep the night before the Akeidah even though he knows that this is the last night he will see his beloved son. Yet, because of his total bitachon in Hashem, he can sleep tranquilly, knowing that whatever Hashem does is for the best. Paroh, too, must therefore be granted this incredible ability to ignore reason and rationality in denying the fate which obviously and inevitably awaited him that night. Rav Galinsky cites dramatic personal stories from his colorful life illustrating this principle that “G-d has made the one as well as the other” (Koheles 7:14).

What happens upon the petirah of a true tzaddik? “When the righteous pass away, the middas hadin (the power of rigorous judgment) leaves the world and their death brings forgiveness for the sins of the generation” (Zohar, Acharei Mos 56b). Furthermore, the Medrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:4) teaches that when a gadol passes away, his Torah becomes more accessible. Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin (Machshavos Charutz, chapter 17) explains that the Torah, which was his very own when he was alive, is granted to the rest of Klal Yisroel upon his passing.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Igros, page 164 and 175), and Rav Moshe Shapiro (see Mimaamakim, Vayikra, page 119) add that this concept explains the term Chazal use for the death of a tzaddik:“shavak chaim lechol chai,” meaning that “he left life for all who live.” Although the passing of a tzaddik is an irreplaceable loss, whoever cared about him and truly feels his loss is elevated spiritually at the moment of his death (see, also, Teshuvos Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat, No. 9).

Those studying Daf Yomi will soon gain an added insight into this phenomenon. The Gemara (Kesubos 103-104) tells the ennobling story of the death and funeral of Rav Yehudah Hanosi, known as Rebbi. The Gemara relates that a voice rang out from heaven declaring that whoever participated in Rebbi’s levayah and hesped gained instant entry into Olam Haba. The Aishel Avrohom explains that this reward is warranted because of the great kavod Shomayim and kavod haTorah that were generated by the honor given to a prince of the Torah.

Rav Dessler (3:247) raises the issue that Olam Haba is not a gift granted to someone who was merely in the right place at the right time. It is only given to one who has attained a certain lofty spiritual status. He therefore concludes that this reward must be based upon the fact that attendance at Rebbi’s funeral actually effected a complete revolution in the soul of everyone who was present. Each person came away reborn and ready to live as one who is indeed worthy of the highest level of Olam Haba.

So now let us imagine. The spiritual aura at every levayah of a gadol hador is incredibly high. The need for balance in the world therefore requires that there be powerful negative forces of an equal nature. And so, danger is already in the air. At Rav Yehudah Hanosi’s levayah, too, there was a poignant fatality. A certain launderer (koveis) used to learn from Rebbi every day but missed his levayah. After hearing that voice from heaven declare that everyone who participated in Rebbi’s levayah gained entry into Olam Haba, implying that he had missed his opportunity, the koveis went up to the roof and fell to his death. The meforshim (Shitah Mekubetzes and many others) struggle to understand how he could have merited Olam Haba when he had apparently committed suicide. This is not the appropriate place to detail all the answers. Suffice it to say that when such greatness is in the air, tragedy is often not far behind.

Perhaps we can now somewhat come to terms with the tragedies at Rav Wosner’s levayah. Over 100,000 people, dressed in their Yom Tov finery, left their Chol Hamoed festivities to pay homage to a centenarian gadol, whom they revered and venerated. No one heard a voice from heaven, but surely many were inspired and resolved to learn more, attempting to replace some of the Torah that had just been lost. The powers of kedushah were in the ascendance, and suddenly the formidable spiritual hazards wreaked havoc on innocent lives. A narrow staircase was but a vehicle for disaster, as was the roof for “that launderer.”

For us, there is a powerful lesson, which can often be implemented, not just at such hopefully rare occasions. The Meshech Chochmah (end of Bechukosai) teaches us that we must continually set our goals higher and higher so that we do not become complacent or seek fulfillment elsewhere. The powers of evil are always seeking to overturn our spiritual attainments and we must be vigilant to thwart their attacks.

Many have described the phenomenon of how difficult it is to successfully found a proper shul, yeshiva, chesed organization or other mitzvah endeavor. Knowing that good things will always generate adversarial activity is the best ammunition against giving in to despair. We must always remember that the enemy’s strength is only temporary, so that the playing field remains even. Once, G-d willing, we win the war, we will be privileged to realize how weak our adversary was all along (see Sukkah 52a), since truth was on our side from the very beginning. May we soon be zocheh to see this in our days.



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