Wednesday, Jul 10, 2024

Not a Consolation Prize Seven Weeks of True Nechomah

 

Nechomah is a tricky thing. Having begun the seven weeks of consolation, we surely want to do it right. But true consolation is actually difficult to achieve. If it is the personal loss of a loved one or the cosmic loss of something as irreplaceable as the Bais Hamikdosh, mere platitudes will not do. Aveilim can always tell when someone is just trying to avoid the subject or issuing bromides that accomplish nothing. When it comes to our national tragedies, we know from the seven haftaras, according to the Medrash quoted by the Abudraham, that Klal Yisroel did not even accept the comforting words of the novi Yeshayah: “Tzion said, ‘Hashem has forsaken me’ (49:14) and “O afflicted storm-tossed one, who has not been consoled” (54:11). Yaakov Avinu, too, did not accept any words of consolation upon the apparent loss of his son, Yosef – “he refused to comfort himself” (Bereishis 37:35). Indeed, while entire works by “grief counselors” have been written and disseminated, there is no book that fits every loss, for each is unique. So we must be very careful to seek and offer true consolation, as taught by the Torah, so that we emerge from this period truly strengthened and elevated by the process of nechomah.

We must first remember that the Ramban (Devorim 14:1) writes that “it is only natural to cry when being separated from loved ones even while all are still alive.” Our sages (Moed Koton 27b) only forbade excessive mourning, but reacting to loss is perfectly normal and acceptable. For this reason, the Rambam (Hilchos Avel 1:1, 13:12) rules that there is an obligation to mourn. In fact, the Radbaz connects the obligation to mourn for private losses with the national requirement to mourn for the Bais Hamikdosh. Furthermore, as Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 7:2) teaches us, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting…the living should take it to heart.” In other words, although providing nechomah is a mitzvah, one should learn from the fact that people have passed from the world and from national tragedies.

The Alter of Kelm (quoted by Rav Yeruchom Levovitz in Daas Chochmah Umussar 3:257 and 295) also notes that in the process of consoling mourners, we fulfill the mitzvah of being noseh b’ohl, sharing the burden of pain with those who are suffering. This means finding it within ourselves to be concerned with someone else’s loss, understanding its magnitude and actually taking it to heart. This is surely all the more required when engaging in the nechomah of these seven weeks, since we have all suffered the same bereavement and shared three weeks of communal aveilus. We must therefore conclude that nechomah does not mean to minimize the loss, attempt to forget its effects, or just “get over it.” The national process of nechomah, as codified by the novi Yeshayah and Chazal, involves learning from these events, growing spiritually from them, and therefore avoiding, G-d forbid, any repetition of their pain.

Rav Yecheskel Landau, author of the Noda B’Yehudah responsa, spoke and later wrote a great deal about nechomah in his formal speeches (Drashos HaTzelach). One of his recurring points is based upon the words of Dovid Hamelech toward the end of Tehillim: “Call out to Hashem with thanks…Who covers the heavens with clouds, Who prepares rain for the earth, Who makes the mountains sprout with grass” (147:7-8). After all has been said in Tehillim – and Dovid suffered more than most people in the history of the world – he realizes and has internalized that the dark clouds bring forth the rain which is so necessary for us all.

During the Three Weeks and especially on Tisha B’Av itself, many of us heard and remembered the words of Chazal that despite the unfathomable tragedy of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, it was, in effect, the loss of a building, not human beings. “Hashem poured out His wrath on the sticks and stones” (Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez, Eicha, page 67) of this revered edifice, but in the end, it saved our lives. In fact, immediately after Tisha B’Av, we read in Parshas Va’eschanon and its Medrashim that had Moshe Rabbeinu been allowed to enter Eretz Yisroel and build the Bais Hamikdosh, it could not have been destroyed. Since we were destined to sin, the result would have been unthinkable in human loss. Thus, although we quite properly sat on the floor and cried, we must also accept the comforting thought that we were personally saved by the loss of those precious “sticks and stones.” That is surely part of the nechomah of these special weeks.

Another perhaps even more difficult aspect of this avodah is taking to heart the kindness that Hashem performed for us through this process. Chazal (Brachos 3a) depict for us the pain that Hashem, kevayachol, suffered from the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. This was His home, His korbanos, where He heard the sublime songs of the Levi’im. Yet, He allowed its loss to substitute for what could have been our own dissolution. Appreciating this is both part of our nechomah and an important element in our hakoras hatov to our loving Father in heaven.

The next part of our nechomah is believing and understanding that the refuah – cure – comes from the wound itself. Modern medicine has long discovered that many antidotes are made from the poison or illness itself. This is not only the saga of vaccines and other remedies. It is the way that Hakadosh Boruch Hu runs His world and heals our pain. The Chovos Halevavos (Shaar Habitachon, chapters 1 and 5) returns often to this theme by demonstrating that throughout our history, whatever we thought was punishment or damaging was actually lifesaving and compassionate. Thus, the sale of Yosef and the family of Yaakov Avinu going down to Egypt became the healing soil of Goshen which saved us from becoming assimilated in Mitzrayim and subject to its depravities. All of Sefer Rus demonstrates that Malchus Bais Dovid and Moshiach came about through events that, on the surface, seemed hurtful and negative. Megillas Esther, as well, as detailed by the Michtov M’Eliyohu, teaches that in retrospect, every detail of our national lives is prepared by Hashem for our benefit and ultimate salvation. The Meshech Chochmah (end of Vayikra) famously proves that each instance of exile also saved us from becoming ensnared in the golus where we had become mired and the quicksand that was rapidly pulling us down into extinction, G-d forbid. This, too, must all be included in our nechomah during these seven weeks.

The Chofetz Chaim would relate a moshol during these days. A Jew always paid rent to his gentile poritz on time. They had a wonderful relationship and the poritz never took advantage of his tenant. Unfortunately, the poritz went on a long trip, leaving the Yid in the hands of a cruel anti-Semite. The evil man immediately doubled the rent, demanding payment that day. The Yid did not have all the money, but promised to pay the rest in a few days. Seizing the opportunity, the poritz flogged the poor innocent Jew one blow for each ruble he didn’t pay on time. When the original landlord returned, the Jewish man related to him his pain and suffering at the hand of his surrogate.

Now it was the turn of the decent poritz to be angry. “You should know,” he promised, “that for each blow you received, I will order this evil man to pay you one hundred rubles.” When the Yid came home and related the conversation to his wife, she was amazed at the poritz’s kindness but couldn’t understand her husband’s sadness. He explained, “The pain is long ago gone, but I wish he had hit me many more times so that we could have gained even more from his actions.”

We, too, don’t know when our sufferings have brought about a windfall and reward that we didn’t appreciate or anticipate at the time. That, too, is something to consider when we thank Hashem for the consolation of these days.

One of Rav Avigdor Miller’s grandsons told me the following story about the time his grandfather underwent a medical procedure. He was on a gurney about to be wheeled into the operating room, when the surgeon emerged in cap and gown.

“Rabbi,” he began, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that for a man your age, you are in excellent shape and the prognosis is very good for a complete recovery. However, I am sorry to have to tell you that you will be in a great deal of pain.” The great mashgiach sat up on the narrow bed and declared loudly, “Doctor, the more, the better!” proceeding to explain to the physician that the more we suffer in this world, the greater is our reward in the next.

It is difficult for most of us to live with this attitude, but it is surely part of our nechomah when we think about the long-range consequences of yissurim in this world.

Yes, there are many aspects to the nechomah of these seven weeks. But perhaps most importantly, we should not forget that whatever Hashem does is for our benefit, whether or not we understand at that time. Thus, the Three Weeks merge with the Seven Weeks to create a perfect Ten Weeks of gratitude to our Father in heaven.

The author thanks Rav Moshe Scheinerman for some of the wonderful insights in his Ohel Moshe, Badei Nechomah edition.

 

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