Poetry is the language of the soul. The saddest, most tragic occurrences are easier explained and understood when expressed in poetry, rather than in prose. Poetry affects our emotions and touches the neshomah.
With but a few succinct words, they awaken dulled senses, while hundreds of sentences may only scratch the surface. Poetry finds beauty where none is obvious, reason where it appears to be lacking, sympathy when all are indifferent, love in loneliness, and light in darkness.
Poetry is music to a soul lost in exile. Poetry is the response to those who cannot find words to express their pleasure, disdain, joy or sadness. Ideas and concepts that defy lengthy explanations can often be summed up in a few words strung together adeptly.
This past Shabbos, I sat with friends in stunned silence as we watched Abie Rotenberg sing his extraordinary composition, The Man from Vilna. We had all heard it many times previously, but this time was different. The crowd was small, sitting around a table. It was the bar mitzvah of his grandson, Nochum Levitan. It was Shabbos Nachamu. Everyone was joyous and festive.
One of the relatives is a survivor. A Litvak. He had never heard the song. He sat next to Abie as the master composer and lyricist slowly and softly began to mouth his poetic words. On the other side of him sat the bar mitzvah bochur.
The song is so mournful and yet so happy at the same time. Sitting next to Abie was a man who lost almost everything in the Holocaust. As he sang, all were humming along, but, suddenly, as the libretto describing the Simchas Torah after liberation in Vilna began to touch their souls, the humming became duller.
The listeners gazed at the survivor on one side and the young boy on the other. Here was a man who had experienced the worst humankind has to offer, listening and reliving the experiences. The old man sat quietly, as if in a trance. The bar mitzvah boy was engrossed, watching his grandfather sing. There was no way he could appreciate the thoughts going through the mind of that old man and the others around the table.
We danced round and round in circles as if the world had done no wrong
From evening until morning, filling up the shul with song
Though we had no Sifrei Torah to clutch close to our hearts
In their place we held the future of a past so torn apart
Though we had no Sifrei Torah to gather in our arms
In their place we held those children, the Jewish people would live on…
Though we had no Sifrei Torah to clutch and hold up high
In their place we held those children, am Yisroel chai
The words and the sights combined to touch the neshamos of everyone present.
We have lost so much. So many are gone. There is so much pain. So many tears. A golus like no other. Vilna today boasts a cemetery and empty shuls. That Simchas Torah after liberation, when people were broken in body and spirit, lonely and alone in this world, they clawed their way back home, looking to see if anyone had survived.
There was no Sefer Torah in the bloodstained shul, yet when they discovered two infant children crying there, they found solace. They perceived that there was a future. The Jewish people would survive. In a place of destruction they found nechomah. The children would grow and so would they. They had each other and they had the children. Am Yisroel Chai. They scooped up the children and danced the night away.
As Abie’s words sunk in on Shabbos Nachamu in a Monsey hall, the scene was remarkable – a bar mitzvah bochur, a survivor, and friends and family reliving tragedy and comfort, destruction and rebuilding, churban and binyan, ovar and osid. The tears flowed as the simple poetry sunk in.
And then we sang and danced as if the world had done no wrong, knowing that the pain and torture would soon end. Loneliness would be a thing of the past, while tragedy and suffering will be transformed into a joyous, bright future.
Nachamu nachamu ami.
The haftoros of the Shivah Dinechmemta contain lyrical words and buoyant assurances that can touch any neshomah, bringing joy and consolation, yet, at the same time, they share a very deep message. Yeshayahu not only prophesized assurances of the future glory, but also admonished the Jewish people that destruction and desolation were looming. Yet, despite his nevuos of criticism and coming disaster, he is the eternal novi of nechomah and consolation.
The word nechomah has double meaning. Besides connoting comfort, it has another implication, as evident from the posuk which states, “Vayinochem Hashem ki asah ess ha’adam” (Bereishis 6:6).Rashi offers two explanations of the posuk. The first is that Hashemwas comforted for having created man. The second is that Hashem reconsidered and regretted the creation of man.
Rav Moshe Shapiro of Yerushalayim explains that the basis for nechomah, comfort, is derived from viewing the past and reassessing what you had previously thought was reality. You look again, you examine what transpired, and you perceive a different metzius.
Take, for example, the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. At first glance, it appeared that all was lost. Life was over as we had known it. There was no Bais Hamikdosh. We were driven from our land, sold into slavery, mocked and vilified, and unwanted by all, seemingly by Hashem as well. Hashem no longer had any interest in our korbanos and no desire for His dirah betachtonim. The place that was the depository of Jewish hope, connection, greatness and holiness was gone. We were lonely and forsaken, unable to go on living.
At that juncture, the novi Yeshayahu offered anevuah of comfort. He declared, “Nachamu nachamu.” He told the Jewish nation that Hashem still views us as His people. “Ami. You are still mine. Be comforted. Nachamu nachamu ami. All is not lost. Happier times will come. There is still reason to smile.”
You can still dance round and round in circles as if the world had done no wrong… It may be that there are no Sifrei Torah to gather in your arms and close to your hearts… The Jewish people still have a glorious future, though the past is so torn apart. We are still Hashem’s nation. Our children will grow and prosper. The Jewish people will live on. Am Yisroel chai.
Nachamu. Reconsider what you have and you will find comfort.
Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter, one of the tzaddikei Yerushalayim, told a story about a man who was walking in Tiveria one rainy winter evening and heard singing. He followed the sound and found that it was coming from behind a broken basement window. He crouched on his knees and peered through the broken glass to see into the dank basement.
Through the window, he saw Reb Michel, a Breslover chossid, dancing and singing as rain dripped into his horrid basement apartment. The place was a picture of poverty and deprivation. Reb Michel seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he sang and danced.
The man couldn’t control himself. He knocked on the door and was welcomed into the small basement.
“Reb Michel,” he exclaimed, “look around you. Your children are cold, the place is soaked, and there is suffering all around. How can you dance?”
“My dear friend,” Reb Michel answered, “don’t we both believe that ess vet ah mol zein gut, there will come a time when things will be good?”
“Yes,” the visitor responded. “One day it will be good.”
“Az voss geit eich un oib ich borg ah tantz fuhn yenneh tzeiten – Why do you care if I borrow a dance for today from that happy time?”
Rav Yaakov Meir uses this true story to explain how we can draw on the promises that are the bedrock of our faith, to rejoice today, comforted in the knowledge that the nechomah is sure to come.
The pesukim of Yeshayahu are more than enlightened poetry. They are the blocks of binyan, forming the design with which we forge on through golus until the great day comes. While they foretell of a brilliant future, they also invest the present with much meaning. Golus is not a dead end. It is part of a Divine plan, where there is room, purpose and a destiny for every Jew.
People with sensitive neshamos feel the message of these prophecies and pesukim, experiencing their relevance.
Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Be’er Yaakov, lived with nechomah, feeling and expressing it during every stage of his life. He once shared with histalmidim how he learned to live with that vision.
He related that he became engaged to his wife in 1946, at a time when Klal Yisroel was still in the throes of mourning and shock following the Holocaust. After the engagement, the young chossan and kallah went for a walk on the grounds of Yerushalayim’s Reich Hotel.
The young couple strolled for a while, oblivious to their surroundings. Suddenly, they looked up and saw a most distinguished-looking Jew watching them.
“That distinguishedlooking man is the Ponovezher Rov,” the chosson whispered to his kallah.
Rav Yosef Shlomo Kanaheman had lost most of his own family, his yeshiva, his town and almost everything else he had ever known and owned to the Nazis. If there was someone who should have been shattered by tragedy and distress, it was the Ponovezher Rov. Yet, despite it all, he was consumed by his ambitious plan to rebuild the yeshiva he had lost. He stood in the yard of Pension Reich with a wide smile on his lips, as his eyes followed the chosson andkallah on their blissful walk.
He called out to them, “Freit zach kinder. Freit zach. Rejoice, children. Rejoice. Foras much as you will rejoice with each other, the Ribbono Shel Olam will rejoice with us. That’s what the posuk tells us: ‘Kimsos chosson al kallah, yosis olayich Elokayich. Like a groom rejoices in his bride will Hashem rejoice over you.’
“You are the moshol, the metaphor, for Hashem’s eventual delight in us. Freit zach kinder. Freit zach!”
The Rovwalked on smiling, having reassured himself of a bright future and providing the future rosh yeshiva and his rebbetzin a memorable insight into life, as well as a new appreciation for the poetic words of the novi.
A few years before that walk took place, two yeshiva bochurim were hiding in an underground bunker. They knew that being found would mean a certain and cruel death for them both.
The two young men, prize talmidim of the glorious yeshiva of Telz, had been on the run for so long and experienced so much inhuman suffering and torment. Now, as they sat in an awful, cold, dark underground bunker seeking momentary salvation, they once again sensed impending danger.
They heard loud footsteps of murderous soldiers on top of their heads, pounding out a tune of sadism and brutality.
With those steps ringing in their ears, Rav Chaim Stein looked at his friend, Rav Meir Zelig Mann. “Meir Zelig,’ he said, “you have musical abilities. Can you compose aniggun to the words ‘Mah navu al hehorim raglei mevaser tov’?”
In the footsteps of murderers, the future Telzer rosh yeshiva heard a herald of the raglei mevaser, the footsteps of the one who will come bearing the most joyous tidings in history.
The pesukim of the haftorah that we read during these summer months are laden with promise and hope. They offer us a means of endurance in the darkness of the exile until the day of redemption arrives. They provide a glimpse of the bright future and grant significance to the bumpy road we are on, assuring us that there is a plan unfolding and that we are a part of it.
They tell us that instead of seeing darkness, we should reconsider and see the light beneath it. Instead of seeing impediments all around, we should reconsider and sense the holy struggles that will lead to our redemption. Instead of lamenting the uphill climb we face, we should reconsider and see the ladder to everlasting joy, the contentment awaiting us when we reach the top of the mountain.