Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Of Wars, Earthquakes and Eclipses


For the great number of Yidden living on the Eastern Seaboard, one would have to be living in a cave or l”a be deaf and blind not to notice. Eretz Yisroel is at war, and we experienced a rare earthquake followed almost immediately by a scheduled but still spectacular eclipse.

What is happening?

One answer is clearly that Hashem is showing us that He is still – and is always – in charge of the heavens and the earth. Even if something was predicted and we were alerted to it or it intruded on our Shabbos preparations, either way, they were phenomena that only the Creator Himself could have brought about.

But for what purpose?

We turn to the wisest of human beings (Melachim 5:11) for the beginnings of an answer.

Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 3:14) teaches, “Hashem has acted so that man should stand in awe of Him.” The Gemara (Brachos 59a) comments that “Hashem only created thunder to straighten out the crookedness (i.e. perversions) of the heart.” Rashi (Koheles), however, says that this posuk refers to the various times that Hashem changed the laws of nature so that human beings would repent.

To understand these two approaches, we must turn to a foundational teaching of my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanukah, 12:7, page 119). He quotes from “chachomim gedolim” that “since Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world (Zohar, Terumah), any change from the natural order of the world (teva) must be considered like something that was uprooted from the Torah. If the concept of uprooting something from the Torah (obviously, under mandated or permissible circumstances) was not included in the Torah itself, no change in the natural world would have been possible.”

This profound but difficult concept may explain the recent juxtaposition of an earthquake felt by multitudes of Jews – along with other people – followed by a celestial event that clearly couldn’t happen except by Divine Hands, yet was predictable and ostensibly explainable by the laws of science. This is because Hashem simultaneously presents Himself to the world in a number of ways. For Him, these are but His middos that He deigns to reveal at His will. However, to us, one appears miraculous and sudden, while the other is more explainable within the range of human calculus and various branches of knowledge. In preparing for the eclipse, while most people were traveling to the points of greatest totality and obtaining their protective glasses, we were hopefully also preparing ourselves to be awed more than usual by a display of Divine intervention that would help us appreciate Hashem’s true omnipotence.

Let’s turn, for a moment, to the Erev Shabbos earthquake, which surely entered into many drashos and Shabbos table discussions. In 1837 (Erev Shabbos Parshas Va’eira, 24 Teves, 5597), there was an earthquake in the upper Galilee, the city of Tzefas was decimated, and many people became crippled for life. At the time, the Chasam Sofer wrote (see Toras Moshe, Parshas Emor) that this was a punishment for the fact that many Jews had virtually abandoned Yerushalayim in favor of Meron, where Rav Shimon Bar Yochai is buried, and Tzefas, where the Arizal is buried (see also Otzar Hayedios, chapter 11, page 94). He concludes there that this stemmed from the wrath and humiliation of the holy city of Yerushalayim.

Of course, we – especially this writer – no longer have the ability to draw these kinds of equations and lines. However, it behooves us to at least take advantage of the moment to increase our yiras Shomayim. The truth is that it shouldn’t be necessary for such an event to come so close to our homes and lives.

Rav Chatzkel Levenstein (Ohr Yechezkel, “Emunah,” 3:305) writes that “there was recently an earthquake in Chile, where many people were killed. This was a Divine revelation to inspire us to do a complete and perfect teshuvah.” He goes on to explain that in years gone past, people were aroused to repent just based upon ancient warnings and happenings. In our days, however, when we are not so prone to reflect upon the past, Hashem forces us to sit up and take notice of things that are occurring to us or at least extremely close by.

On another occasion, Rav Chatzkel (4:153, “Midods”) offers us an even more apropos and searing lesson. He was learning at the time in Radin under the Chofetz Chaim, when there was an earthquake in Japan. The Chofetz Chaim revealed that “this happened for two reasons. First of all, there was no one in Japan who was learning Torah. Secondly, it was so that we, Klal Yisroel, would do teshuvah.” Now, this occurred before the Mirrer Yeshiva arrived in Japan and began learning Torah (under, amongst others, Rav Chatzkel himself).

Let us take to heart the Chofetz Chaim’s holy analysis that even a country that has no obligation to learn Torah, since there are no Jews there, will be protected when several hundred talmidei chachomim are exiled there and open their precious Gemaros. It is tragic to note that in the midst of the current existential crisis in Eretz Yisroel, there are powerful forces attempting to force a near end to limud haTorah lishmah in the Holy Land.

Interestingly, especially when there is no loss of life, Rav Moshe Wolfson (Sefer Emunas Itecha 3:139) sees a certain positive sign in an earthquake. He mentions that on one given day, there were three earthquakes in the world. Referencing the Gemara in Brachos cited above, he points out that Chazal reveal that when Hashem sees that His children are suffering from anti-Semites, He kevayachol sheds two tears, whose reverberations throughout the world cause an earthquake. This is a signal that He is thinking with concern about His children and that the geulah is drawing closer. This is, for us, the good news about an earthquake.

For more good news, let’s return to the solar eclipse on Monday. Chazal (Sukkah 29a) teach that a solar eclipse is a bad sign for the rest of the world, but a lunar eclipse is a bad sign for Klal Yisroel. This would seem be to be obvious, since we live by a lunar calendar, whereas most of the world follows the solar calendar.

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz (Sichos Mussar II) and a number of other gedolim point out an incredible chiddush in this analysis. If one were to ask most intelligent people, even Torah scholars, what the purpose of the sun and the moon is, they would answer to provide light, the sun during the day and the moon at night. However, Chazal, from the posuk, taught us differently. The purpose of these orbs in the sky is to act as signs. The message might be good or it might be bad, but the light in the sky is giving us guidance.

In other words, if we combine the messages of Friday’s earthquake and Monday’s solar eclipse, we might become confused for a moment. The earthquake is a sign of the Creator’s displeasure with His most important creation. On the other hand, just a few days later, Hashem shows us that it is actually the solar world that has been extinguished and whose light either completely ceased or at least has been significantly dimmed. Our light, the moon, which just brought us Rosh Chodesh and which renews our nation every month, has not been diminished at all. If anything, it is the larger, much more powerful-seeming star that has apparently been covered up by the tinier and less significant moon.

So what should we do upon living through these two extraordinary days?

Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman (Ayeles Hashachar, Bereishis, page 10) points out that from Rashi in Bereishis (1:14), it seems that there will be eclipses even if Klal Yisroel is behaving perfectly. That follows the fact that eclipses can be plotted and predicted accurately. However, the purpose of the sun and moon has still been fulfilled, because the event will be so dramatic and moving that we will be motivated to become better. Thus, an eclipse is not necessarily a bad sign, but it must always be an incentive for self-improvement.

This concept seems to be in line with the famous story about Rabbeinu Saadya Gaon. He had been traveling incognito so that no one would know who he was. At the inn where he was staying, the proprietor took wonderful care of him, offering him the best of service. Before the Gaon left, someone recognized him and excitedly told the innkeeper. Apologizing profusely, the hotelier begged forgiveness from the gadol hador. Rav Saadya protested that the service couldn’t have been better. However, the host was beside himself. “Rebbe,” he moaned, “one can always do better. Had I only known…” When Rav Saadya returned to his yeshiva, he related the conversation to his talmidim with the conclusion. “My friends,” he said humbly to his talmidim, “teshuvah doesn’t have to be about an aveirah. Even our mitzvos can always be improved.”

We don’t have to become depressed or “spooked” by earthquakes or eclipses. Boruch Hashem, since no one was hurt and we were prepared for the eclipse, we can simply utilize these moments again and again to become better Jews and better human beings. This is an amazing lesson for the coming days of preparation for Pesach. While we had sunk to the 49th level of defilement, Hashem pulled us out, purified us and sanctified us, finally elevating us to prophesy to receive His Torah. Now that we are free to become Hashem’s servants, we no longer have to focus on the negative. We can cherish each day that we can grow from the depths to the heights, from darkness to light, and iy”H from war to the ultimate peace of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.



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