Thursday, May 23, 2024

Divrei Chizuk Amidst Sorrow and Anguish

There is nothing else to speak about. There is nothing else to write about. Vayidom Aharon. Ironically, the two words recording Aharon Hakohein’s silence upon the death of his sons have been repeated unremittingly over the past few days. Countless maspidim and commentators have simply said, “There are no words.” And indeed, none will suffice.

However, as my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, often invoked, “the old and the new, for You, Beloved, my heart has stored them” (Shir Hashirim 7:14). Let us look back a bit and then forward for some shred of chizuk in the darkness that has enveloped us.

Not so long ago, when a similar tragedy occurred at the levayah of one of the poskei hador, Rav Shmuel Wosner, I shared the following thoughts in these pages:

“It is now known as the madreigot hamavet – the stairway of death. Soon after the aron bearing the holy body of the gaon Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner 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. But 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?

“Although such calamities are certainly within the rubric of kavshei d’Rachmana – 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, followed by the late maggid, Rav Yaakov Galinsky (Vehigadeta, page 210) ask 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, so 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 kedusha, 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 death. My rebbi, Rav Hutner (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 Yehuda 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 was 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 that 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 Yehuda 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 the 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 come somewhat 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 kedusha 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.’”

In this extraordinary year of 5781, I changed what was to have been my Erev Shabbos message from the parsha. Following is part of that attempt at chizuk:                    “I am writing this moments after hearing about the tragedy in Meron, where many died on one of the most special days on the Jewish calendar, Lag Ba’omer. It is difficult to fathom and certainly impossible to explain. Let’s take a moment to daven for those who survived but are still struggling to stay alive. Let’s also daven for their loved ones to find some sort of nechomah in the midst of this calamity for Klal Yisroel.

“I am sure that many will ask an obvious and relevant legitimate question: How could this happen to people who came to do a mitzvah? Surely we know from both a posuk and a Gemara that this shouldn’t have occurred. The posuk in Koheles teaches us that ‘shomer mitzvah li yeida dovor ra,’ one who performs a mitzvah will not be harmed. Furthermore, the Gemara states that shluchei mitzvah ainon nizakin, those who have been sent to do a mitzvah will not be hurt. So how could there be a multiple tragedy at a mitzvah gathering?

“Rav Chaim Kanievsky writes and has often been quoted offering a startling answer. He states that it would be impossible in Hashem’s world for such statements to be literally true. If they were, there would be open miracles that we unfortunately no longer have. What does this posuk and Gemara mean if not that there is a guaranteed protection? His answer is that someone will never be hurt or die because of a mitzvah. However, if it was, G-d forbid, destined and decreed that someone be hurt or die on a particular day and time, Hashem might manipulate events so that the person would die while performing a mitzvah. In this way, that person would have the zechus – the divine merit – of entering directly into Gan Eden without being judged or punished for his or her sins. Although we can rarely interpret Hashem’s ways and actions, for they are so far beyond us, the gadol hador has given us an insight into the nature of some cryptic events. Of course, each of these deaths is tragic and the totality of so many lost souls is incomprehensible. But for those who perished, we know that their deaths were divinely planned and orchestrated so that they would die while doing a mitzvah, which, although it did not save them in this world, helps to grant them eternity with the greatest of honors.”

On Shabbos, I continued the process of reacting to this horrific event, perhaps with more emotion than sanctioned by the general spirit of Shabbos, but the loss of those holy neshamos was overpowering my self-control:

“The year 5408 (1648) had been declared by some of the great mekubalim of that generation as one propitious for the geulah. They noted that the posuk (Vayikra 16:3) states ‘with zos (this) shall Aharon come into the Sanctuary.’ The word zos has the same gematriah as that year, Tach (408). So said Rav Shamshon Ostropolier and many other holy Kabbalists. But, sadly, the year Tach became infamous as part of the deadly couplet of Tach veTat (1648-1649), when the evil Chemilnicki savagely wiped out Polish Jewry with his Cossack hordes. The Shach, in a famous proclamation (see his introduction to the Selichos for the 20th of Sivan and Sefer She’airis Yisroel, chapter 32) invoked the posuk of ‘Zos (this) emanated from Hashem. It is wondrous in our eyes’ (Tehillim 118:23). He lamented that the year Tach carried the potential to bring Moshiach and sadly turned to catastrophe.

“Why, indeed, does this continue to happen? The Netziv (Ha’amek Dovor, Bereishis 19:26) comments on the strange punishment of Lot’s wife for turning back: ‘It is very strange that Lot’s wife should be punished in this way just for looking back. However, there is a secret [being revealed] here. At a time of anger, heaven forefend, the powers of destruction attack great people in particular. This may be seen in the Medrash (Eichah Rabbosi 1:30), which teaches that between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (the Three Weeks), when the power of din (judgment) is in control, a rebbi should not punish his students. Now this was not said of, for instance, a blacksmith and his apprentice. The only concern is about those teaching Torah to the chosen of Hashem, similar to the prohibition (Pesachim 112b) for a talmid chochom to go out alone at night. It is then that the Soton is jealous and attempts to harm him. For the same reason, while Lot was still traveling, he became vulnerable to the machinations of the Soton.”

Now, we know that Lot was far from perfect. But perhaps because he was at the time the person closest to Avrohom Avinu and had absorbed some of his devotion to chesed, he, too, became subject to the envy and destructive power of the forces of evil.  Rav Chaim Shmulevitz (Sichos Mussar 5733, “Kol Hagadol Meichaveiro,” pages 83-86) also quotes from Chazal (Sukkah 52a) that the greater someone is, the greater is his evil inclination. He explains that on the surface, this phenomenon flows from the fact that a tzasdik has greater powers of resistance to evil and therefore must pass a much harder test than a regular person. However, he reveals that there is an even deeper reason for the difficulty of his nisyonos. He demonstrates that great people are always in great danger as well. The yeitzer hara, alter ego of the Soton (Bava Basra 14b), wages a relentless war against Torah scholars, and since they become his targets, they must be extremely careful, both physically and spiritually. As Rav Chaim pithily states, “In this war against them, it is extremely difficult to survive.”

I listened to some of the hespeidim on the victims of this horrific event. It seems that each of them was a ben aliyah in his own way. Each was striving for more kedusha and the attainment of greater spiritual levels. As mentioned, I have no words of consolation. They were all taken in their greatest moments of spiritual elevation and so have surely gone directly to the Kisei Hakavod. May the great Comforter bring the parents, children and entire families the nechomah they so desperately need, and may we all use these moments of contemplation to improve ourselves at this difficult time. Perhaps being so close to the Heavenly Throne, they will help us all to be reunited with them with the coming of Moshiach for this year’s painful but extremely significant Kabbolas HaTorah.



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