I haven’t forgotten. I don’t think any of us will ever forget. Those of us of a certain age remember where we were when they heard that President Kennedy was assassinated. Others will never forget the Twin Towers going down on 9/11.
The moment we heard that the chosson and the kallah, Yisroel Levin and Elisheva Kaplan, were killed in a horrific car accident, will be seared into our hearts forever. It was Chol Hamoed Pesach, a time of gladness and delight, suddenly freeze-framed in tragedy and darkness. I know that I ran to hug my children and grandchildren, but then I ran away because I didn’t want them to see me sobbing over something the youngest ones could not understand. Perhaps that was because neither could I.
Elisheva was my talmidah for four years in Machon Sarah-TAG High School, and my mind was suddenly flooded with her simchas hachaim, her friendliness, her chassodim, and her absolute selflessness. I soon heard of her chosson’s hasmadah, his own radiantly happy face, and then I cried again, echoing the words of Chazal, “Vai lehai shufrah deboloh be’ara – Woe is to us for this beauty that is now buried in the earth” (Brachos 5b).
The shivah is now over and the families have had to face empty beds, a hole in their hearts and lives, and a chasunah that will not take place in the present world.
On the Monday after Yom Tov, I had both the zechus and achrayus of sharing divrei chizuk with a large group of Elisheva’s friends, classmates and teachers. Together with Rabbi Meyer Weitman, dean of TAG, and Rav Elya Brudny, Rosh Yeshivas Mir, I tried to find some meaning in the darkness and a path toward dealing with our jointly mourning souls. The following is some of what I shared and some that I couldn’t say that night but perhaps can now be articulated and published.
I believe that one of the peshatim I once shared with Elisheva’s class was a question about Koheles. Shlomo Hamelech teaches us that there is a time for all things. He usually uses the letter lamed to indicate that there is a time “to” do something. However, in the case of eulogies and dancing, he says “eis sefod ve’es rekod – a time of eulogy and a time of dance.” We focused on the Chiddushei Harim’s explanation that in the case of “dance,” sometimes one is required to dance, but occasionally the joy is so great that one simply gets up and dances spontaneously. That is the greatest joy of all. I did not tell them at the time, for after all, I thought, they are too young to understand the other half of the Gerrer Rebbe’s vort. He also said that sometimes one must give a eulogy, but there are times when the tragedy is so great that the hesped need not even be prepared or written. It speaks for itself and the tears pour forth without being inspired by mere words.
Little did I know that these prophetic words would one day apply to the petirah of one of these young ladies. So these few words are neither hesped nor needed to make us cry. They are just one person’s grappling with the darkness.
One Pesach night, my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, cited the Mishnah Berurah’s ruling that one should kiss the matzah and maror to indicate our love of Hashem’s mitzvos. Kissing the matzah, he said, makes sense, since it represents freedom and redemption. But why kiss the maror?
His answer was that it reminds us to accept yissurim – suffering – with total compliance and acquiescence.
After I was menachem avel the Kaplan family and I heard the hesped delivered by Reb Shaya Levin, the chosson’s father, I was overwhelmed by the kiddush Hashem made by both families with their kabbolas yissurim.
The story is told of the rov of Yerushalayim, known as the Aderes, who lost his daughter at a very early age. Although he was a very punctual man, he did not emerge for the levayah on time. He later explained that Chazal (Brachos 60b) teach that one must make a bracha upon bad tidings just as one does for good ones. “I was working on myself,” the Aderes explained, “to make the bracha of Dayan Ha’emes with the same simcha as the Hatov Vehameitiv. I therefore forced myself to remember my joy at her birth and then to make the bracha upon her petirah with the same simcha. This took me some time.”
The Levin and Kaplan families have taught all of Klal Yisrael this profoundly difficult lesson during the past few weeks.
The Ben Ish Chai (quoted by Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein in Mitzvos Besimcha, page 381) tells the story of the simple village Jew who was listening to someone davening and reciting korbanos. The man had a beautiful tune for the words “eilu ve’eilu nisrafin bevais hadeshen – these and those (the Yom Kippur offerings) are burned in the place where the altar ashes are deposited.” That Friday night, as the country Yid was blessing his two sons, he placed his hands upon them and sang the same song, “These and those are burned…” A talmid chochom who happened to be in his home at that time was horrified at the scene. “What are you doing?” the Torah scholar shouted, meaning well. “You are endangering your children.” Of course, the loving father ceased immediately, but that night the scholar had a troubling dream. “You don’t realize that in heaven, there was great joy when this man sang his song. Now there is great pain in heaven because the beautiful song has been interrupted. That melody accomplished a great deal while it lasted.”
We have experienced two precious and holy korbanos who were indeed offered in the bais hadeshen, and they surely constitute a double akeidah by the noble parents who accepted Hashem’s will that their beloved children atone for us all. Should we not all try to be a bit better and feel gratitude that a monumental kapparah for us all has been entered into the annals of heaven?
While we are speaking of korbanos – and Klal Yisrael has just begun Seder Kodshim in Daf Yomi – I must mention the mesorah of my rebbi, Rav Shlomo Zalman Friedman zt”l, the Tenka Rov. He would quote from the preparation of the ketores incense, “As one would grind the ketores, another would say, ‘Hadeik heiteiv, heiteiv hadeik, mipnei shehakol yafeh labesamim – Grind thoroughly grind because the sound is beneficial for the spices.’” The rov would explain that the word labesamim also spells “labashomayim – for the One in heaven,” meaning that “grinding” or suffering helps us have the One in heaven answer our prayers. Of course, we must be nosei b’ohl – share in the pain – of our neighbors, the two bereaved families. But we must also be grateful to them for their incredible kabbolas yissurim, for that has helped us all in ways we will probably never know.
My father zt”l was a Radomsker chossid, and this incident inspired me to finally understand one of the Tiferes Shlomo’s explanations on last week’s sedra. The Torah records Aharon Hakohein’s silence and acceptance of the tragic death of his sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Radomsker commented that Dovid Hamelech’s madreigah – his spiritual level – was even greater. This is proven by the posuk that he recited, “Lemaan yezamercha kavod velo yidom – So that my soul might sing to You and not be stilled” (Tehillim 30:13). While it is certainly true, the rebbe pointed out, that Aharon was astonishingly great, Dovid Hamelech, who also suffered greatly, was not silent. He even sang to Hashem. I always wondered why Aharon had indeed not reached Dovid’s level. When I contemplated the sacrifices of these two noble families, I remembered a Medrash. The Yalkut Shimoni (Yehoshua 22), when discussing the saga of Yehoshua stopping the sun, asks why the Torah uses the word dom to indicate his causing the sun to stop. Shouldn’t the correct word have been amod? The Medrash answers that the sun claimed that it could not stop without, in effect, going out of existence, since as it moves, it sings a shirah. Yehoshua responded that he would sing a shirah in its stead – the words shemesh b’Givon dom… We may derive from this Medrash that although the word dom literally means silence, it also evokes the song of silence. Indeed, sometimes silence is the most eloquent song of all. Thus, we may revisit the Radomsker’s comment with new understanding. Both Aharon and Dovid sang to Hashem, even during their greatest troubles. The only difference was that Dovid sang a full-throated shirah, as referenced by the word zemer, and Aharon created a vehicle for kiddush Hashem through silence alone.
It is related that the Brisker Rov zt”l would often repeat quietly to himself the shortest posuk in the Torah, “Lishuascha kivisi Hashem – For Your salvation do I long” (Bereishis 49:18). The Ramchal (Otzros Ramchal, page 246) writes that “the glory of the King is that [Klal Yisroel] believes in Him. For this reason, Chabakuk stated that the entire Torah can be summarized by the trait of bitachon.” These two incredible families sing the ultimate shirah – that of trust in Hashem under all circumstances – and we can be sure that their unshakable faith will help them be reunited with Elisheva and Yisroel for the ultimate chasunah, bimeheirah beyomeinu.
As the novi Yirmiyahu (31:12-16) promised us, “Then the maiden shall rejoice with dance, and young men and old men shall rejoice together. I shall transform their mourning into joy and I shall comfort them and gladden them from their grief… Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your accomplishment… There is hope for your future – the word of Hashem – and your children will return to their border.”