TRYING TO COMFORT people who have suffered a great loss is daunting, especially if the loss seems very tragic like the death of young brothers and sisters in separate terrorist attacks. This of course does not mean that the “early” and violent death of adults is any less tragic and painful. However, the cutting down of youths just starting out in life strikes an especially sad chord, for the parents who had such high hopes for them, and clearly for most of the nation as well.
Is such comfort even possible? One Gadol HaDor at the shivah for the loss of a child said nothing. He just held the father’s hand and cried together with him until he had to leave. Only “HaMakom,” was said. He knew, as does any truly sensitive individual that with respect to some losses, words make things worse, not better.
There is another added element of pain in these cases for many. It feels so close to the final redemption, as hard as it may be to believe at this time. To lose so much so close to the end increases the hurt even more. On one hand, we know that redemption is not free, and we have paid great prices in the past. On the other hand, we’re not sure if such losses and the pain they cause are part of that, or how.
Before speaking to that, it is important to know a few things, just for perspective’s sake. They make a difference, even if they do not provide much comfort at this time.
The way a person is taken is not necessarily why they were taken. Everyone is here for personal tikun, and that is achieved by learning Torah, the performance of mitzvos, and when necessary, suffering which includes the way a person dies. We like the idea of going peacefully in our sleep after 120 years of life, but that does not necessarily help with personal tikun as much as a sudden or “unfortunate” death.
Rebi Akiva’s death was one of the worst deaths possible, but it guaranteed him straight passage to the World to Come without passing through Gihenom (Brochos 61b). The Gemora says that no one can reach the level of the Ten Martyrs in the next world (Pesachim 50a), and Ketia bar Shalom, an unwitting convert earned the World to Come because he was executed by the Roman government (Avodah Zarah 10b). There are many more examples of the same idea.
It should also be noted that our blessing can also be our curse. The Gemora speaks of Marta bas Baysos, a wealthy and pampered woman who died because she stepped on something that might disgust anyone, but not kill them (Gittin 56a). It was a time of famine, and she had to go out looking for food for the first time, leaving her vulnerable to elements of the “outside” world:
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai read concerning her: “The tender and delicate woman among you who would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground” (Devarim 28:56). What we are experiencing today would have been considered mild compared to what used to occur in Europe 200 years ago. But we’re coming off a very peaceful and prosperous period of history, and we would have liked to transition to Yemos HaMoshiach in the same way. But just because the flight was turbulence free doesn’t mean that the landing will be too.
THEN THERE IS the matter of dying in Eretz Yisroel. People are afraid to make aliyah because they think it increases the odds of an early death. With few exceptions, no one dies before their time, regardless of where or how they live. The only issue is the meaningfulness of a person’s death, and how much it will help them in terms of the next world.
If a person dies in Eretz Yisroel, they automatically die a Kiddush Hashem. As long as they do not reject Eretz Yisroel as a God-given land, or live there against their will, they automatically have this merit, even if they have yet to realize the truth of Torah and mitzvos. This is not the case for a Jew who lives in the Diaspora, even if they keep all of Torah and mitzvos.
Dying in Eretz Yisroel automatically atones for a person’s sins, which is not so for a person who dies outside the land. Being buried in Eretz Yisroel helps, but it is not the same as if the person lived in Eretz Yisroel and later died there. All of this and more is in the sefer, Tuv HaAretz by Rabbi Noson Shapiro, based upon the teachings of the Arizal. Read this sefer and the only thing that will scare you is having to leave Eretz Yisroel. As Bilaam said, “May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his” (Bamidbar 23:10).
Regarding the larger picture, one that incorporates all of Jewish history from its beginning until the final redemption, there is the following gemora:
Once Rabban Gamliel, Rebi Elazar ben Azariah, Rebi Yehoshua, and Rebi Akiva were walking along the road, and they heard the sound of the multitudes of Rome from Puteoli at a distance of 120 mil. The other rabbis began weeping but Rebi Akiva was laughing. They asked him: “Why are you laughing?”
Rabbi Akiva asked them: “Why are you crying?”
They told him: “These gentiles, who bow to false gods and burn incense to idols, dwell securely and tranquilly, and for us, the House of the footstool of our God is burnt by fire, and we shouldn’t cry?”
Rebi Akiva said to them: “That is why I am laughing. If for those who violate His will it is so, for those who perform His will, all the more so.”
On another occasion they were ascending to Jerusalem. When they arrived at Mt. Scopus [and saw the site of the Temple], they tore their clothes [in mourning]. When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox that emerged from the Holy of Holies. They began weeping, but Rebi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: “Why are you laughing?”
Rebi Akiva asked them: “Why are you crying?”
They answered him: “This is the place of which it is written: ‘And the non-priest who approaches shall die’ (Bamidbar 1:51), and now foxes walk in it. Should we not cry?”
Rebi Akiva told them: “That is why I am laughing, as it is written: ‘And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to attest: Uriah HaKohen, and Zechariah ben Yeverechyahu’ (Yeshayahu 8:2). What is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah lived during the First Temple period, and Zechariah lived during the Second Temple. Rather, the verse established that the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on the prophecy of Uriah. In Uriah it is written: ‘Therefore, for your sake Tzion shall be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become rubble, and the Temple Mount as the high places of a forest’ (Michah 3:12). In Zechariah it says: ‘There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem’ (Zechariah 8:4). Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah remains valid!”
They told him, “Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.” (Makkos 24a)
How? How did Rebi Akiva comfort his colleagues with a drush that may not have been true, or would come until long after their own deaths? He did it by showing them how to transcend the moment and their immediate suffering. He showed them how current loss was the threshold to future gain, an end that, in its time, would nobly justify the means.
SIMILARLY THE GEMORA says elsewhere:
Upon their return, they (the Romans) found Rebi Chanina ben Teradion sitting and teaching Torah. He had gathered many people, and the Sefer Torah was on his lap. They brought him and wrapped him in the Sefer Torah, surrounded him with branches and set them on fire. They placed wet wool over his heart so that he should not die quickly. His daughter cried to him, “Father, that I should see you like this!”
He told her, “If it was only me burning, it would be difficult for me. However, I am burning together with a Sefer Torah, and the One Who will avenge the disgrace of this Sefer Torah will avenge my disgrace as well.”
His students asked him, “Rebi, what do you see?”
He answered them, “The parchment burns, but the letters fly up to Heaven.” (Avodah Zarah 18a)
The heroics were so amazing that even the Roman executioner converted, jumped into the fire, and went to the World to Come. But what about the people Rebi Akiva and Rebi Chanina were leaving behind? What was their comfort?
Their comfort came from sharing the vision of their teachers. Though Amalek can’t necessarily create despair, he greatly amplifies it by making people focus on the loss as it appears in its time, cut off from the past and blind to the future. He uses people’s intellectual and emotional shock and confusion to cause hopelessness and distancing from God, his ultimate goal.
He doesn’t create vulnerabilities, just takes advantage of existing ones. People who have yet to fully develop trust and faith in God because they haven’t needed it much until the crisis all of a sudden find themselves without the necessary spiritual “muscles” to withstand the pressure from within and without. People with bitachon and emunah can survive almost anything because they completely trust the Divine process, no matter how convoluted it may appear. People who are weak in both have difficulty surviving anything that disrupts their sense of calm.
An important component to being able to trust the process is understanding what the process is, and why it has to be this way. Over the course of more than three millennia of history the Jewish people have accomplished so much, survived so much, but always at a tremendous cost. Does it always have to be that way?
Perhaps not always, but certainly a lot of the time. This was part of God’s message to Avraham Avinu at the Bris Ben HaBesarim:
And He said to Abram, “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for 400 years.” (Bereishis 15:13)
Though the commentators look for reasons for what seems to be a punishment, none of the answers fully work. What could Avraham Avinu have done to warrant 400 years of oppression, and for his children that had yet to be born, let alone sin? And was this supposed to have been good news?
Ain Od Milvado, Part 48
The answer to this question, and really all questions about Jewish history, is primordial, even pre-dating Creation itself, and therefore, kabbalistic. It was the answer Moshe Rabbeinu was seeking, and denied, when he asked:
…that the ways in which God conducts the world be revealed to him…as it says: “Show me Your ways” (Shemos 33:13)…Rebi Meir said: Two [requests] were granted to him, and [this last] one was not granted to him.” (Brochos 7a)
The Gemora says that Moshe Rabbeinu asked God the classic question of all history, about why righteous people suffer and evil people prosper, and all the other combinations as well. But that is just the cover story for all the anomalies of history that make people wonder who, if anyone, is running the world.
Moshe wasn’t answered, but not because he was unworthy of the answer, but because he was incapable of handling it. It was information, which is really Divine light, that was on a very high and hidden level of Creation, something Kabbalah calls the Moach Stima—Closed Mind, and is the product of something called Sheviras HaKeilim, or the Breaking of the Vessels. And all of it was just to create a world that could support the existence of man, give him free will, and eternal reward for making the right moral choices.
Everything else that makes up history is just the playing out of all of this, something most people don’t know and the few that might take for granted. Every last detail, from the smallest to the largest, from the saddest to the happiest, is the result of this pre-ordained reality that is the result of Sheviras HaKeilim, and the tohu—chaos—that followed it.
We’re like someone dressed in gold and spilling money from our pockets obliviously walking through a poor and violent neighborhood on a sunny day. Enjoying the sunshine and relative quiet, we have no idea of the danger lurking in the shadows ready to pounce at the right moment. We’ve had a wonderfully pleasant and successful exile for about seven decades, and hope and expect it to continue though it never has in the past.
We can’t run from it, and we can’t buy our way out of it. The only thing we can do, which is always the only thing we can do, is strengthen our bitachon and emunah in God so that we can trust His process, not just intellectually, but emotionally. And it really helps, whenever possible, to better understand what that process is. This is also part of ain od Milvado.
That was “vayidom Aharon” (Vayikra 10:3). Moshe told his brother that his sons’ death was more than just two important people dying. It was two great people dying for something much grander than the sum of their lives. It’s not a sacrifice any parent wishes on their children, but one they are proud of if it is thrust upon them. We get that from Avraham Avinu and the Akeidah, and the ability to trust the process especially when it doesn’t make sense to us.
Bitachon and Emunah not only make it easier to deal with disappointment or worse, God forbid. They don’t only rectify the person and the world and make miracles more possible. They elevate a person above the everyday reality, giving a person a more Godly perspective that results in yeshu’os of all kinds.
At the end of the day, the only true source of comfort is God Himself, as we say, “HaMakom yenachem eschem besoch shaar avelay Tziyon ViYerushalayim—May the Omnipresent comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Tzion and Jerusalem.” It’s because only He knows what talks to the heart of every individual, what can truly comfort them on a personal level, which is not always the same for each person. And He wants to, if we let Him.
May we merit to reach such levels, and Moshiach Tzidkaynu and the geulah shlaimah without any further pain and suffering.