It’s Up to Us: Unspeakable Tragedy Amidst Lonely Darkness

We have sought to explain this most recent tragic act in purely natural terms. We would have liked to explain it away as the wanton act of a crazed murderer, as the climax of a life of an ill person who tormented his neighbors and was well-known to all as a dangerously violent person. However, as with the murder of young Leiby z”l just two weeks ago, this murderer was an individual without a significant history that could lead us to blame the violence on his personality.

 

Apparently, he was a teacher, who delivered shiurim, who people thought well of. He was a student and follower of the man he killed so cruelly. Last Thursday, he asked people to daven that Moshiach ben Yosef shouldn’t be killed. He asked people to pray for him. He went to the rov, as he had so many times before. He entered Baba Elazar’s chamber alone, kissed his hand, and then killed him. He is, after all, a murderer, but it was as if he was overtaken by the Soton, selected from up Above for this particular mission. No, he is no tzaddik, and he is surely imperfect and troubled, but not to the degree that would have us understand murdering a rov, his rov, in cold blood.

 

It just doesn’t make sense. It defies all logic. It boggles the mind.

 

We have no choice but to conclude that Hashem is sending us messages. We have no choice but to presume that the tzaddik was taken as an atonement for our sins. We have no choice but to deduce that we must mend our ways. We have no choice but to assume that something triggered what happened last week in Beer Sheva, and before that in Boro Park, and before that in Cleveland, and before that in Bnei Brak, and before that in Switzerland. We have no choice but to conclude that the trigger is us.

 

And how are we reacting?

 

The newly published ArtScroll translation of Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein’s classic Aleinu Leshabeiach on Sefer Devorim hit my desk last Thursday night, and as I opened it, a story jumped out at me. Rav Zilberstein relates that the Ponovezher Rov called upon Rav Yehoshua Zelig Diskin, the rov of Pardes Chana, to arrange a loan for him. The Rov explained to Rav Diskin that he was desperate for a loan by the next day in order to keep the Ponovezher Yeshiva going, but he had to be at an important meeting of Torah leaders the next day in Yerushalayim. The Rov explained that he couldn’t miss the meeting and thus asked Rav Diskin to arrange a loan for him.

 

The next day, Rav Diskin finalized a loan to keep the yeshiva afloat and brought the money to the yeshiva office in Bnei Brak. While there, he learned that the Rov had in fact not left Bnei Brak for the important meeting in Yerushalayim. He hurried to the Rov’s home to make sure that everything was okay. He walked into the house and saw the Rov with a young boy. They were both crying.

 

Rav Diskin asked the Rov what was going on and why he hadn’t gone to the meeting. The Rov responded that he had left his house and, as was his practice before traveling to Yerushalayim, he stopped at the Batei Avosorphanage he had established following the Holocaust, to part from his beloved yesomimlach.

 

There, the Rov noticed a child crying and he learned that the boy had just been informed that his beloved brother was no longer alive, having been killed by the Nazis.

 

“The child was inconsolable,” the Rov said, “and he kept on crying. In an attempt to calm him down, I brought him to my house, but he keeps on crying, and I am crying with him and trying to comfort him.

 

“How can I travel to that meeting when I see a Jewish child crying?” said the Rov to Rav Diskin.

 

The Rov’s question is an alarm. It is a question that should be ringing loud and clear in our minds and hearts. We continue, focused on our destinations, intent on moving forward toward our personal goals, while, all around us, there are Jewish children crying.

 

Driving down a busy highway last week, I looked to my GPS screen to direct me. Studying the lines of blue and red crossing each other, I was struck by a thought. Looking at the small screen, the viewer sees only his immediate dalet amos, his own tiny intersection, with the information relevant to his destination. He doesn’t see that he is on a highway with a beginning and an end. Nor does he observe the many bumps and turns along the way. He doesn’t catch sight of the myriad other roads that cross it and run alongside it or what lies just a few miles ahead. He only sees himself.

 

In the pre-GPS days, we would open maps, find our starting point, and follow our way to our destination. We would study the various highways, byways and roads, and we would plot a course that would bring us to our destination. At every stage of our journey, we knew where we were, and we were able to follow our progress on the map.

 

What we do now is simply punch in our destination and follow the little machine’s orders, turning here and turning there. We look at the tiny screen and see where we are, but we have no idea where “here” is.

 

There I was last week, taking Exit 3 on one expressway, quickly finding myself on another highway. I had no idea where I was, where I was going, or how I was going to get there.

 

Have we gotten so used to “GPS vision,” focusing only on our own little dots, in a small confined area, rendering us blind to the bigger picture?

 

The timeless words of the novi Yeshayahu that we read this Shabbos bemoan this attitude. In Chazon Yeshayahu, we hear the novi cry out that even a simple ox, with neither perception nor insight, appreciates the need to react to its master’s will. Yet, “Ami lo hisbonan,” Klal Yisroel ignores stimulus created specifically to generate a reaction. The Malbim adds one word to make the prophet’s chastisement that much more powerful. He comments on the classic posuk, “Lo ratzu lehovin.” The people did not want to ponder what was taking place. It was as if they had made a conscious decision to keep on moving, to walk on, to remain enveloped and consumed with themselves and their own desires, while the world around them was in turmoil and saturated with tears.

 

“Hisbonan!” proclaimed the novi. “Awaken! Look around you! Realize what is going on! Contemplate that you are living in troubled times and do something about it.”

 

That is the message of this Shabbos, and it comes at a most appropriate time.

 

Yirmiyahu Hanovi had the unfortunate task of heralding the impending churban. He was charged with the mission of attempting to awaken the Jewish people by informing them of their destiny if they wouldn’t repent. He persisted in his message of doom, beseeching the people to see the signs of destruction and change their ways. But they refused to listen. Not only did they ignore him, but they reviled and scorned him, heaping abuse on the Ribbono Shel Olam’s messenger.

 

Chazal paint a heartbreaking picture of this same novi standing at the roadside after the churban, looking on at the Jewish people being led away in shackles. The same people who had so despised him now looked to him, desperate for words of hope and consolation. The novi drew them close and assured them of a better time, stating that Hakadosh Boruch Hu would never forsake them.

 

And they wept.

 

The novi Yirmiyahu said to them, “Had you only wept one sincere tear before the churban, we wouldn’t need the rivers of tears that we are shedding now.”

 

Rav Shimshon Pincus explained this tale of calamitous woe with a story related by Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl. He told of a group of people who lived in a small town in the mountains near Nitra and made their income by smuggling watches across the Slovakian border. The intrepid watch-importers ran out of tricks to evade the customs officials, when they hit upon a novel solution to bring their merchandise into their native country without paying taxes.

 

The town closest to the border had no cemetery of its own, and its inhabitants would bury their dead in the cemetery across the border in the neighboring country. Out of respect for the funeral processions, guards would allow the mourners through the border unchecked.

 

The struggling smugglers thus figured out a new way to earn a living. They loaded a coffin with watches and approached the border, weeping loudly. The guards waved them through without any inspection. The smugglers turned a profit and repeated the ploy a second time. Thereafter, every few weeks, they would come through with a coffin and the guards would barely glance at them, allowing them free access through the borders.

 

One day, Rav Michoel Ber recounted, an alert guard noticed that the demeanor and comportment of the mourners didn’t seem very funeral-like. They were chatting lightly and didn’t appear to be sad as they approached. When the guard shared this observation with his colleagues, they took out their binoculars and began to study the funeral procession as it made its way out of what the would-be mourners thought was the view of the guards. Through the binoculars, the border guards were amazed to witness the participants merrily joking with each other and carrying the coffin casually, as if it were a suitcase.

 

They quickly swooped down, opened the coffin, arrested the smugglers, and locked them up in jail. When the prisoners tearfully begged for mercy, a thoughtful guard responded to them, “You know what? Had you just shed one tear when we were watching you at your mock funeral, you could have spared yourselves all these tears!”

 

Just as Yirmiyahu Hanovi told the Yidden of his day.

 

Our time to shed tears is now.

 

The Rambam at the beginning of Hilchos Taanis writes his immortal Jewish response to calamitous events. It is a mitzvas asei, he states, to cry out when a tragedy strikes. It is one of the ways of doing teshuvah. When confronted by affliction, Jews cry out and demonstrate that they know the catastrophe was caused by their wrongful actions. They lament their improprieties, admit their indiscretions, and thus merit a cessation of their misfortunes.

 

However, if they don’t cry out and do teshuvah,but instead say that what transpired was a natural occurrence and part of the pattern of this world, they are acting contemptibly and their frustrations will continue to increase until they get the message and mend their ways.

 

In times such as these, the Brisker Rov would point to the saga of Yonah Hanovi. As the sea voyage grew unnaturally stormy, with fierce winds and deadly waves, the passengers gathered and asked, “Shel mi hara’ah hazos lanu ­- Who is the cause of these conditions?” Yonah’s response was clear and unequivocal: “Ki yodeia ani ki besheli hasa’ar hagadol hazeh aleichem – I know good and well that it’s all my fault. Throw me overboard, the storm will abate, and the ship will sail safely in calm waters.”

 

Who were the other passengers? They were a group of drunken sailors. Yonah was a novi Hashem. Yet, says the Brisker Rov, Yonah’s response to the sinking ship was the instinctive reaction of an oveid Hashem. If something bad is happening and we don’t know who’s at fault, the Jew says, “It’s my fault. I must accept blame and repent.”

 

We no longer have nevi’im, such as Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu or Yonah, to point out where we have gone wrong. But the mitzvas asei that the Rambam discusses in Hilchos Taanis is just as relevant today as it was in the days of the Rambam and the nevi’im, and throughout Jewish history. Our reaction to cataclysmic events must be along the lines delineated by the Rambam and the Brisker Rov. We cannot go on nonchalantly, unaffected by current events.

 

There are communal sins and there are private ones. There are failings that we must address as a community, and there are those that we must do penitence for ourselves. We can’t simply tell ourselves that the tzaros come because of this problem or that issue and then move on. Attributing these terrible events to collective guilt is, in a way, an easy way out, because what we’re saying is, “Don’t look at me. Shalom alai nafshi. Look at the other guy. Look at everyone else.”

 

The tears need to come when we realize, as individuals, that we have no recourse other than to delve into the private chambers of our hearts and think this through. Chavi kemaat regah ad yaavor za’am.

 

We are astonished and devastated when a young child is killed and a tzaddik is cut down. We are shocked to our core when we learn that a Jew committed the crime of murder. We are dumbfounded that a religious Jew can kill. We find it so difficult to accept that a Jew killed a child or stabbed a selfless tzaddik for no reason at all. We can’t get over it.

 

“Lo sirtzach – Thou shalt not murder.”It’s one of the Aseres Hadibros. The revelation that it has been transgressed in such a public way twice in as many weeks sends a shiver down our collective spine. But how many of us are familiar with the words of the Ibn Ezra on that posuk? He states that the transgression applies to one who kills with his hand, as well as one who kills with his tongue. One who kills with words is “kemo rotzeiach.” We have become immune to the reality of people ruining lives through their speech and the cavalier manner in which they treat others. We can no longer remain oblivious.

 

We have become immune to tragedy.

 

I remember the first time a bus blew up in Eretz Yisroel. Everywhere, everyone was inconsolable. People were beside themselves in agony, incredulous that innocent people going about their daily lives met such an awful fate at the hands of bloodthirsty Arabs. It was like an atom bomb hit. Then it happened again, and again, and again, and people got used to it. Another bomb, yet another bomb, and yet another bomb. How many times can you tear yourself apart? You grow immune. “Oh, another bomb. Oh, more people died. Oh, an innocent mother. Oh, how terrible.” And then we went back to life as usual, as if nothing happened.

 

Then it was a famous doctor who helped save so many lives. He was killed by an Arab terrorist, who also took the life of the doctor’s daughter, who was to get married the next night. It stuck out. People were shaken up. And then we forgot. And so it continued.

 

Just a few months ago, almost an entire family was butchered in the peaceful Shomron village of Itamar. It was awful. A lovely family was murdered in their beds. What unspeakable tragedy. What heartrending pain.

 

And then we returned to life as usual. And, tragically, we forgot about them.

 

So it goes. We are human and we receive wake-up calls that should lead to moments of inspiration. If we don’t grasp them, they are gone until the next tragedy strikes and shakes us from our complacency. Our challenge at times like this is to channel the inspiration brought out by the grief and sorrow into something positive, before the stirrings are stilled.

 

If we don’t, we may, chas veshalom, witness what the Rambam warns of in Hilchos Taanis and experience increased occurrences of greater affliction. We have become immune to so much, that Hashem has sent us warnings we cannot ignore.

 

We’ve now been hit from all sides. We’ve lost the zechus of great tzaddikim – ba’ei va’eish uvamayim al kiddush shemecha.

 

We’ve suffered the loss of a pure child – tinokos shel bais rabbon shelo pashu.

 

And now we’ve lost one of the few lofty souls who knew how to use tefillah and the secrets of creation to benefit Yidden. Mafgia ein beyadeinu, shur, ki avdah chasideinu.

 

The Abuchatzeirah family has given our nation two centuries of uninterrupted avodas Hashem, in the mesorah of tzaddikei Morocco, rising to superhuman levels, living lives of prishus and chassidus, and investing their energy in giving brachos and using their special talents to aid their brothers.

 

One fortress after another crumbles in front of us and we should seek to rebuild them.

 

How does one build a wall? What agent is used in a spiritual rampart?

 

In the special tefillah that we recite only once a year, on Tisha B’Av at Minchah, we say, “Ki Atah Hashem ba’eish hitzata, uva’eish Atah asid livnosah – You, Hashem, destroyed the Beis Hamikdosh with fire and will you will rebuild it with fire.”

 

Is fire destructive or constructive?

 

The answer is that fire is both. There is fire of sinah and fire of kinah. There is a fire of hatred and a fire of jealousy. Fire can ruin and demolish. But fires of holy yearning, of sincere desire to grow, and of kedushah can achieve the very opposite.

 

With fire it will be rebuilt.

 

We can transform the very substance that caused our downfall into the catalyst for rebuilding. It’s our destiny. As bad as things are, in an instant they can change. Ilmalei nofalti lo kamti – If I never fell, I couldn’t get up.

 

We are in a bad state, suffering from multiple blows, but with some tears at the right time, we can merit a revelation of samcheinu kiymos inisanu and be returned to the primal state of happiness.

 

This is the underlying hope of these days and the secret of the Yom Tov that is Tisha B’Av. Moshiach’s birth is destined to take place in the throes of our pain. Darkness and light are one and the same, as are suffering and redemption.

 

In the sefer from Rav Zilberstein quoted above, there is a beautiful thought that underscores our unique abilities.

 

The posuk in the long and bitter tochacha inParshas Ki Savo foretells of a painful time when the Jews will be cursed for their depraved behavior. The posuk states,

 

“Shorcha tavuach le’einecha, velo sochal mimenu – Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes and you will not be able to eat from it.

 

Chamorcha gazul milfanecha velo yoshuv loch Your donkey will be robbed from before you and it will not return to you.

 

Tzoncha nesunos le’ovecha, ve’ein lecha moshia Your flocks of sheep will be given to your enemies and you will have no savior” (Devorim 28:31).

 

Rav Zilberstein states that meforshim point out a most unusual feature of this posuk. The exact words of the tochacha, when read backwards, have an entirely opposite message.

 

Moshia lecha, ve’ein le’ovecha nesunos tzoncha – A savior you will have and your flocks will not be given to your enemies.

 

Loch yoshuv, velo milfanecha gazul chamorcha – To you it will return and your donkey will not be robbed from before you.

 

Mimenu sochal, velo le’einecha tavuach shorcha – You will eat from it and your ox will not be slaughtered from before your eyes.

 

We can transform a curse into a bracha, dark times into good times.

 

We can turn Tisha B’Av into a great Yom Tov and these bitter times into yemei simcha.

 

It’s up to us.