As we emerge from the days of aveilus (mourning) into the weeks of nechomah (morning), we must merge the public and the private.
As a nation, we lose the Bais Hamikdosh once again in each generation that it is not rebuilt (Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1). But as individuals, Klal Yisroel lost gedolim and tzaddikim recently, many of whom barely received hespeidim and other forms of the kavod acharon – the final honor – which they surely deserved. Now that our national time of nechomah has boruch Hashem arrived, let’s see if we can find some measure of solace for the many individuals – it seems like an entire generation – that we have lost as well.
Let us first establish the subtle relationship between public and private suffering. Every time we visit a shivah home, we make that connection by saying, “May HaMakom (the Omnipresent) console you among the other mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.” At first, this linkage seems to merely reflect the teaching that “tzoras rabbim chatzi nechomah – the suffering of the multitude is a partial consolation” (Devorim Rabbah 2:22). Indeed, even Chazal stressed that others who suffer with us only provide a chatzi (half) comfort. There must therefore be more to our constantly mentioning the travails of others when we attempt to be menachem those in mourning.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l was actually asked this question when he was paying a shivah call. Never at a loss for an original and soothing answer, Rav Yaakov explained: “Every time we wish a refuah sheleimah ‘amongst all the other cholim in Klal Yisroel’ or are menachem avel, we cannot know if any one sick person or mourner has the merits necessary to be cured or consoled. However, when it comes to the tzibbur – the greater nation – Hashem always troubles Himself to arrange what is best. We therefore invariably attach the distress of an individual to that of the public. Then we can be sure that this particular brocha will be readily received by the Creator. This does not necessarily hold true for the individual.”
And yet, despite this wonderful juxtaposition, we are surely not satisfied. In fact, one of the great thinkers and baalei machshavah of recent times, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l, reflects that “it is not in man’s nature to be comforted [for major loss]” (Michtav M’Eliyahu 4:342; Mechanech Ledoros, page 464). He goes on to explain, and indeed consoled many mourners with this thought, that “nechomah is a gift from Hashem… He performs a miracle for each and every mourner.”
Rav Dessler denies the folk-saying that “time heals.” It is only Hashem’s power that can heal.
Rav Dessler utilized this concept in his own family’s periods of mourning and reminded everyone that it was a heavenly decree that made one forget the calamity so that life could go on.
All of this brings us to the unusual use of the title of HaMakom when we invoke Hashem in the house of mourning.
Rav Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss (Minchas Yitzchok, Drushim, page 465) cites the famous scene depicted in the Gemara at the end of Makkos. Most of the Tannaim break into paroxysms of sobbing upon witnessing the sight of the Bais Hamikdosh in desecration. However, Rabi Akiva is elated, because he links the prophesies of tragedy which have now been fulfilled to those of the future redemption, which is sure to come. Rav Weiss actually used his connection to console a group of mourners, for the same makom where the other Tannaim saw catastrophe was the same place where Zechariah (8:4) clearly sees the scene of old people sitting in the streets of Yerushalayim. This is the scene that Chazal (Pesachim 68a) teach reflects the return at techiyas hameisim of those who have died. This will be brought about by HaMakom, the One who will restore and revive the generations of old. The true nechomah for both the nation and the individual merges as one.
With Rav Weiss’ concept, we might reinterpret the dual words of the Tannaim to Rabi Akiva, “Akiva nichamtanu, Akiva nichamtanu.” You have consoled us on the personal level. You have consoled us on the national level. This may be one of the nuances in Yeshayahu’s own double injunction to us, nachamu nachamu ami – the double comforting we so desperately seek at this time.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Vehanhagos 3:378, page 437) detects a halachic component to this linkage as well. Citing a condolence letter penned by Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l, he rules that we must explain to the mourner that not only is he not alone, but his loss is Klal Yisroel’s loss as well. We are generally accustomed to thinking that only the loss of gedolim affects the entire nation. However, Rav Sternbuch reminds us that every righteous person who passes away takes with him many merits and good deeds that are like a churban for the entire nation. Just as Hashem will one day console us all for the immense loss of the Bais Hamikdosh, so will He comfort us for the personal losses we have suffered. We will then understand exactly why each was taken at a particular time and how that fits in with the totality of His plan for the universe. Thus, our personal pain and condolence merge with those of Klal Yisroel.
As Rav Chaim concludes, “the mitzvah is to console and to be consoled.”
We cannot ignore the message of Rav Sternbuch’s final words as well. He adjures all mourners to “take personal stock of themselves, improve and do teshuvah, which is a great service for the deceased.”
We can expand this to the nation as well, recognizing that the greatest nechomah is when though our actions we can bring about the ultimate redemption.
A strong mussar version of this was presented by Rav Yaakov Neiman zt”l (Darkei Hamussar, quoted by Yalkut Lekach Tov, Devorim 1:115). He reminds us that Hashem created the gentiles as well. Although they eventually turned down the Torah, Hashem wants us to teach them morality and ethics through our actions. When we fail in this mission, we have “sinned dually,” because we have our sins to contend with and then the failings of all those who could have learned from our good example.
He cites the amazing example of when robbers emptied the Kotzker’s Rebbe’s home. The tzaddik’s reaction? “How could they do such a thing? But the Torah says ‘You must not steal.’” When a Jew lives on the level of the Kotzker, he cannot understand how a person could possibly steal. A nation of people with that attitude and DNA would ultimately change the world.
Rav Neiman recounts an amazing story about the Chofetz Chaim that he heard from an eyewitness on their way to the Chofetz Chaim’s levayah. The man remembered traveling with the great tzaddik and posek himself. When the ticket-collector came around, the Chofetz Chaim handed him two tickets.
“What’s this for?” asked the perplexed trainman.
The Chofetz Chaim calmly explained that since there was a limit to how much one could carry on for one ticket, he bought two just to make sure that he wasn’t stealing from the railroad.
“That,” concluded Rav Neiman, “is what the second sin is all about. If we were all like the Chofetz Chaim, we would uplift the entire world and there be no crime or immorality.”
The Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Yeshayah 445) completes the thought: “We sinned doubly, we were punished doubly, and we will be consoled doubly.” We are promised that at the end of time, “the gentiles will follow our light” and we will understand the greatness that was within us all along.
I would like to give the final word to Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l. He quotes the famous posuk about Moshe Rabbeinu’s first nevuah, when he sees the burning bush: “He saw – and behold! The bush was burning in the fire, but the bush was not consumed. Moshe thought, ‘I will turn aside now and look at this great sight – why will the bush not be burned?’” Rav Gifter asks: Why didn’t Moshe ask, “Why isn’t the bush consumed?” His answer is that at that incredible moment, Hashem showed Moshe the entire future of the Jewish people. When Moshe viewed the long and bitter exiles, the burnings and the executions, the tortures and the expulsions, he thought, “How can this people survive?” However, on the spot, he concluded that it must be that the bush is actually not being burned. All of the attacks and persecutions are not destroying the nation. It only seems to be burning, but it is actually not burning at all. In the future, we will all see and understand what Moshe saw and understood at that first moment.
This is the meaning of the phrase, “Satisfy us in the morning with Your kindness, then we shall sing and rejoice throughout our days. Gladden us according to the days You have afflicted us, the years when we saw evil” (Tehillim 90:14-15). Rashi there explains that at the time of redemption, we will rejoice retroactively about everything that happened to us, even that which seemed the most evil, for we will finally understand how it was all for our good” (quoted by Rav Moshe Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe, “Mikdash and Golus,” pages 395-96).
Surely, the destinies of the individual and the nation are inexorably entwined. Both the pain and the triumph are shared. But even more so, Shabbos Nachamu teaches us that when one will be comforted, the consolation will come to the other as well. All the promises made to the nation will hold true for each holy soul. Yes, we have all suffered much recently, but as surely as the geulah is rapidly approaching, so will we soon be reunited with our lost beloved ones bemeheirah beyomeinu.