Just as the loss of a close relative can teach us something about mourning,
it can also teach us something about being comforted as well.
We tell a mourner, each time upon leaving his presence during Shivah:
HaMakom—God—should comfort you amongst the rest of the mourners of Tzion and
Yerushalayim. In other words, we tell a mourner after a personal loss that
just as sure as God will one day comfort the mourners of Tzion and
Jerusalem, likewise should He certainly comfort you as well, something a
mourner wants to hear, since, during his time of grief, he can’t imagine
ever being consoled.
However, there is more to this that helps us to understand the key to this
period of time, and these are the “Seven Weeks of Comfort,” alluded to by
the Talmud here:
Rabban Gamliel, Rebi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rebi Yehoshua, and Rebi Akiva were
walking. They heard the clamor of Rome from 120 miles away. [The other]
Chachamim cried, but Reb Akiva laughed.
“Why are you laughing?!” they asked him
“Why are you crying?” he asked back.
“They bow and bring incense to idols, yet they are serene. The footstool of
God was burned. How can we not cry?!” they told him.
Rebi Akiva explained: “That is why I laugh. If God gives such reward to
those who transgress His will, how much greater will be the reward of those
who do His will!”
On another occasion, they went up to Yerushalayim. When they reached Har
HaTzofim, they tore their garments. When they reached Har HaBayis, they saw
a fox emerge from the Kodesh HaKodoshim. The Chachamim cried, but Rebi Akiva
“Why are you laughing?!” they asked him.
“Why are you crying?” he asked back.
“Regarding the Mikdosh it says ‘if a stranger approaches he is to be killed’
(Bamidbar 18:7), and now foxes go there. How can we not cry?!” they explained.
“That is why I laugh,” he told them. It says, ‘I will take to Me two
faithful witnesses, Uriah HaKohen and Zechariah’ (Yeshayahu 8:2); even
though Uriah lived during the First Temple, and Zechariah lived during the
Second Temple, the verse puts them together. Why? To connect their
prophecies, for Uriah said, ‘Tzion, for your sake, shall be plowed as a
field’ (Michah 3:12), but Zechariah said, ‘There shall yet be old men and
old women sitting in the broad places of Yerushalayim’ (Zechariah 8:4).
Hence, Uriah’s prophecy must be fulfilled before Zechariah’s, and now that I
see the fulfillment of Uriah’s prophecy, I know that Zechariah’s can be
fulfilled at any moment!”
“You comforted us!” they told him. (Makkos 24b)
It’s a nice way to end a mesechta. However, the question is, is the story as
simple as it seems, or is there a deeper message? Why was Rebi Akiva able to
find a path to comfort that his colleagues had not, and how did they know
that he was right?
It’s all a matter of perspective, of what you know and have experienced. We
can try hard to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, but until we have
actually put them on, there is no way to actually know what it means to walk
Rebi Akiva was the son of a convert who had descended from the evil Sisera.
He had started as shepherd, and knew little Torah. In fact, the Talmud says,
he had been such a simpleton at one point that he admitted that had he seen
a Torah scholar in his early days, he would have bitten him like a donkey.
He showed so few signs at that time of becoming anything more than he was
that when the daughter of Kalba Savua married him, her father cut her off
and left her to live in poverty.
Yet, a few short decades later, look what he had become. He gone from being
Akiva ben Yosef the shepherd boy and simpleton to the great Rebi Akiva,
Torah leader of the generation. The turnaround was nothing short of
awe-inspiring and miraculous, and no one appreciated that more than Rebi
Akiva himself. He was a rags to riches story, both spiritually and physically.
Had he just been lucky? We don’t believe in luck. However, we do believe in
mazel, which means that Rebi Akiva had been destined for greatness even
while his evil ancestor was trying to eradicate the very people his
descendant would eventually lead. But, who could have known that at the
time, or that descendants of Haman would become rabbis generations after
Mordechai thwarted his plans of genocide for the Jewish people?
The Chachamim, on the other hand, had come from Jewish blood the whole way
through. They may have struggled to become great, but not as much as their
colleague had struggled. They had grown up with a Temple already in place,
had witnessed its destruction, and now saw its desolation. For them, it was
just too much of a let down, and it depressed them. They couldn’t imagine
the situation getting better again.
“Been there. Done that,” Rebi Akiva was, in effect, telling them. Just as
good gives way to bad sometimes, eventually bad has to give way to good, and
often the good is beyond comprehension. Nothing gives a man a sense of self
more than being a “self-made” man, and Rebi Akiva had been just that. For
the person who has accomplished the near impossible the impossible always
seems possible from that point onward.
And they knew he was right, because when he allowed them to see the world
through his eyes, and to experience history as he had, his conclusions not
only became possible, they became likely. After all, as the Talmud states,
before God inflicts the Jewish people he first creates the cure (Megillah
13b). Hence, for the prophecy of Uriah to come true, the prophecy of
Zechariah had to already exist.
This is part of the idea of what the Talmud means when it states that, in
the place that ba’alei teshuvah stand, even the completely righteous can’t
stand there (Brochos 34b). Some non-ba’alei teshuvah like to joke that it
means that ba’alei teshuvah take so long to finish their Shemonah Esrai that
even righteous people finish first and can’t step back from their Shemonah
Esrai because there is a ba’al teshuvah there blocking their way.
But what it really means is that ba’alei teshuvah, because of their
journeys to Torah, have gained first-hand knowledge about life that people
who have been religious all of their lives can’t possible know, and that’s
valuable, especially for seeing history in terms of the big picture.
This is what the Torah means in this week’s parshah when it says:
Those who have adhered to God are all alive today. (Devarim 4:4)
By adhering to God, that is, by looking at the world through His
perspective, you will always be able to turn death into life in some way or
another. You will always find a path to survival, intellectually and physically.
This is one of the reasons why, when referring to God in the verse of
consolation, we use the Name of HaMakom, which literally means “The Place.”
As the Nefesh HaChaim explains, this Name of God is a reminder that all of
Creation exists within God, not the other way around. It is the Name that
reminds us that God is the big picture. We are saying that “The Big Picture
should comfort you . . .” because, as we learn from Rebi Akiva, only with
the big picture can a person truly find comfort. This is what reveals the
blessing through the curse.
This is true not only on a national level, but on a personal level as well.
Personal loss, especially when unexpected, draws a person into a limited
world of perspective and feeling until all someone can do is mourn. This is
why, the Talmud explains, God made it so that we forget our losses somewhat
after 12 months; if we didn’t we might mourn forever and never get on with
I can now speak from personal experience, having just finished the Shloshim
for my father, a”h. I have had some pretty intense sad moments over the last
month, because I was quite close with my father. If I allow myself to dwell
on the loss, it does not take much for me to come to feel the great loss in
my life. However, if I don’t sit and think about it, I seem to go about
about my business as usual, which, at first, seemed out of place.
Then I realized why. Even though my father died unexpectedly, it was only
unexpected inasmuch as we thought that the operation would be a success.
However, his cancer was spreading, which had actually caused the need for
the operation, and his health was rapidly declining. This made him
increasingly more dependent upon others to accomplish even basic human
tasks, and though he adapted well to each level of change, it was hard to
watch a self-made man lose his independence. It was just a question of time
before he would lose his dignity as well.
Who can place a value on even a moment of life? Who can tell if some of the
best moments of a relationship are still yet to come, no matter how
difficult life becomes for one or both people? This is why Judaism is
against euthanasia, for the most part; quality of life is for God to decide,
and therefore, so are a person’s last moments in this world.
Nevertheless, once a person is no longer here, the survivors are forced to
look for the blessing in the curse. In my father’s case, it was easy, since
he went peacefully, thank God, and without having to deal with
rehabilitation as the rest of his bodily functions began to fail. He never
got to that point, b”H, nor did he have to become depressed about his
dependency on others. As a result, all of us were left with a positive
memory of my father.
That, plus my focus on doing whatever I can to elevate his soul, has
distracted me away from the negative side. I have felt, on occasion, the
potential to become depressed because of such a loss, and I could certainly
see why many do. However, the blessing side of my father’s passing seems to
override the negative side, making it easier to focus on the mercy that was
done for my father, than my own personal loss.
That’s what we tell mourners: May you be blessed with a view of the big
picture with respect to your loss, and though you mourn and you should
mourn, there should come a time when you can see the blessing as well as the
curse, and to see how, sometimes, the former only comes because of the
latter, and be comforted as a result, together with the rest of the mourners
of Tzion and Yerushalayim.