However, I simply cannot go into Yom Tov without sharing a few words for the tzaddikim, Rav Gavriel Sassoon and his wife, Gila, and their daughter, Tziporah, may they have a refuah sheleimah and nechamah besoch she’ar aveilei Tzion veYerushalayim, and for the rest of us who shed so many tears these past few weeks. Actually, Hashem has sent us extraordinary teachers the past few years. They are the parents and spouses of those who were killed by evil terrorists and madmen, ba’eish uvamayim, and they have taught us unforgettable lessons about emunah and bitachon, even under the most horrific of circumstances.
In his extraordinary hesped, which we pray no one should ever have to say again, Rav Gavriel taught us how to submit to Hashem when there is no logic, reason or explanation worthy of the terms. In truth, this is ultimately the lesson of Pesach as well. Why did we have to suffer in Mitzrayim for centuries? Chazal (Brachos 5a) teach that the great gifts of Torah, Eretz Yisroel and Olam Haba were given through suffering. The Rishonim (Abarbanel, Bereishis 15:12; Drashos HaRan 3) stress that the ethereal spiritual Torah cannot be absorbed by physical creatures without weakening our corporeal side through suffering. But most appropriately, the Shelah Hakadosh (Drashah for Lecha Lecha) teaches that the bondage in Egypt taught us how to become avdei Hashem who are totally submitted to His will. Rav Gabi Sassoon is our Seder leader this year and perhaps forever more.
But there is an even more extraordinary line in the Haggadah that impels me to share these thoughts. In the section which begins “Lefichach” (“Therefore”), we thank Hashem for many positive transitions. One of these is that we went “mei’eivel leYom Tov, from mourning to a day of celebration.” Rav Yechiel Michel Feinstein zt”l (Haggadas Brisk Shai LaTorah, page 293) points out that it is unusual and difficult to go directly from mourning to Yom Tov. First, one must go through a time of neither emotion and only then can one eventually transition to joy. However, says the Brisker Rov’s son-in-law, Hashem turns the mourning itself into Yom Tov. While it is certainly humanly impossible to attempt such a leap of faith, we can explore several Haggadah-related stories that chart a path toward eventually understanding how such a path is possible. The next few illustrations are taken from Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein’s Haggadah Chashukei Chemed.
We discussed last week that the increased suffering in Egypt actually allowed us to leave Mitzrayim a crucial 190 years early. However, as Rav Zilberstein points out (page 169), the Bnei Yisroel at the time could only groan under the burden of their pain. Surely, they asked at some point, “Why is this happening to us?” He quotes a story he once heard from the late maggid, Rav Yaakov Galinsky zt”l, who related that his mother, an educated woman, would often read the newspaper to her illiterate neighbors, who wished to find out what was happening in the world. One day, one of these women arrived early and picked up the newspaper herself and suddenly began screaming. Rav Galinsky’s mother, who was finishing in the kitchen, came running. “What is wrong?” the rebbetzin asked of her distraught neighbor.
“How can you stand there peeling potatoes so calmly when a tragedy happened?” she screamed. “An entire ship, with all its passengers, has capsized and all have drowned in the sea.”
Rebbetzin Galinsky was surprised to hear this, since she had already scanned the newspaper and had not noticed anything so unusual. Taking the paper in hand, she suppressed a laugh not to make the woman feel bad.
“You are holding the picture upside down,” she showed her gently. “The ship and all the passengers are fine, thank G-d.”
Rav Galinsky, of course, took advantage of the innocent mistake to illustrate that we, too, often look at things upside down. In Mitzrayim, we had no idea that the years of intensified suffering would result in Krias Yam Suf, geulah and even Mattan Torah.
Rav Zilberstein goes on to quote (page 170) a parable told by Rav Zev Rosenthal to his family just days before his passing after intense suffering. He sought to console his family about the purpose of his pain and shared a lesson about life in general. “A man was working late on the fiftieth floor of a skyscraper and became stuck in his office after hours. Apparently, phones were not working and the custodial staff and all others had long gone home. His screaming out the window to passers-by below went unheeded, so he returned to his desk with an idea. An executive with a sweet tooth, he had a drawer full of sweet little treats. The late-night workaholic happily tossed his goodies to the street below, thinking that surely someone fortunate enough to find one would look up to discover its source. However, to his chagrin, everyone happily picked up the candy and hurried off. Even dollars thrown to the wind failed to elicit any meaningful attention. Various stationary and desk items did not work either, as desperation was setting in. Finally, he took a large expensive paperweight that sat heavily on his desk and threw it out the window. It narrowly grazed the neck of a pedestrian, who immediately called the police in his outrage. When the detectives looked up, they immediately understood why the tiny figure was flailing his arms so wildly.
Rav Rosenthal taught his attentive family the practical lesson: Our merciful, loving Father does so much for us. He hopes that we will recognize His beneficence and act in accordance with His will. When we don’t, he gently nudges us, reminding us with increasingly louder messages. Sometimes it is, sadly, only when we witness something that moves us profoundly that we look up to the One above and make the changes needed. We should never point fingers at others, wondering about their spiritual status, especially when the tragedy is of the magnitude that it affects us all. This event must make us look all the way up to our Father in heaven.
A bit later in the Seder, we will bentch, and this year, on the first night, we will say Retzei, with the concluding words “because You are the Master of Salvations and Master of Consolations.” What does it mean that Hashem is “the Baal Hanechamos – Master of Consolations”? Rav Zilberstein (page 337) relates what happened when Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s rebbetzin suddenly passed away. She was an only child to her 96-year-old mother who lived with them in the house and was completely of sound mind but quite weak even in good times. Some of the family wished to withhold the terrible news from her for as long as possible. Rav Shlomo Zalman, on the other hand, felt strongly that she should be told. When the old woman’s worried grandchildren expressed their worry that she, too, could suddenly pass away, Rav Shlomo Zalman waved away their fears
“At the Akeidah,” he related, “Rashi (23:2), in the name of Chazal, tells us, when Yitzchok was nearly slaughtered, Sarah Imeinu passed away. We therefore conclude that if Yitzchok had actually been slaughtered, Sarah would not have died.” Rav Shlomo Zalman explained his reasoning: “When Hashem sends a calamity, he also sends the strength to survive it.” The great sage then gently revealed the sad news to the wise old woman, who accepted the decree with equanimity.
Finally, we will twice recite at the Seder in Hallel the immortal words “Odcha ki anisani – I thank You for having answered me,” which is interpreted by many meforshim as “Thank You, Hashem, for having caused me suffering” (inui). Rav Zilberstein (page 408) tells the uplifting story of a corporate executive who had recently been fired in a down-sizing of his company. Everyone was shocked that he was the one, since he had seniority and was universally respected and valued. One day, the depressed man attended a speech given by one of the leaders of the teshuvah movement about “Hashgachah Protis, Divine Providence and Intervention for Each Person.” The speaker explained the concept of “whatever Hashem does is for the best,” and the executive began to accept that his fate had been Heavenly-ordained for his own good. A few weeks later, the former executive, looking a bit thinner, visited the rabbi to reveal what had transpired.
“A few days after your speech,” he said, “I had a heart attack and became totally unable to work. Since I received a large retirement package when I was able-bodied and working long hours, I am now able to live comfortably. I would have never been able to function this way on simple disability. Your quote from the rabbis applied perfectly to me.”
None of this can adequately explain a tragedy of the proportions that devastated the Sassoon household and sent Klal Yisrael into mourning, but it is my hope and tefillah that the Baal Hanechamos will comfort Rav Sassoon and his rebbetzin and daughter with the knowledge that their suffering, like all of Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim, will soon bring us all the geulah sheleimah. Then they will be reunited with their precious Eliane, David, Rivkah, Yehoshua, Moshe, Sarah and Yaakov, when their shining neshamos will return, bimeheirah beyomeinu, with all the tzaddikei hadoros.
May they and we all go mei’eivel leYom Tov.