There are as many correct spiritual responses to a tragedy as there are people
It is the morning after, and there are no words.
What can one write in a space dedicated to words on a day when there are no words? This week, I don’t write words for others. This week, im l’vavi asichah (Tehillim 77:7), I speak to myself, with myself.
I sit here in New York on Erev Shabbos, while across the world, my brothers are being given a hurried kavod acharon. They are being hastily brought to menuchas olamim as the sun sets and the yom menuchah u’kedushah descends. Fathers of children, and children of fathers. Talmidei chachamim and anshei ma’aseh. Flourishing young bnei Torah in midflight.
And brothers, little ones, unsullied by sin.
It was at Matan Torah that Nadav and Avihu were destined to have been taken from This World, but HaKadosh Baruch Hu deferred the tragedy of their deaths until a later time so as not to mar the celebration of receiving the Torah (Rashi, Shemos 24:10). And when, on the joyous inauguration day of the Mishkan, they were suddenly struck down, Moshe turned to Aharon and said, “I knew from Hashem’s words that the Mishkan would be sanctified by the passing of those close to Him, but I thought it would be me or you. Now I know that your sons were bigger than both of us” (Rashi, Vayikra 10:3).
Indeed, brothers, bigger than us, were taken suddenly, at the moment of supreme celebration.
The Shulchan Aruch gives as the reason for the cessation of mourning practices on Lag B’omer the fact that what precipitated the mourning — the deaths by plague of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim — also ceased on this day. This Lag B’omer, however, just when we thought that we had emerged, finally, from a year in which Klal Yisrael was devastated by plague, when we believed the tragedies had ceased — they didn’t.
There will be investigations of how this happened and how it was able to happen, and there will be news stories and opinion pieces about those investigations. Endless questions will be asked, answers will be sought, demands for accountability will be made, changes will be instituted. And, as a form of hishtadlus, all those are perhaps necessary.
But it’s no contradiction to say, at the very same time, that all those investigations and articles, all the back-and-forth about the how and when and where and who, are a smokescreen. It’s a distraction from the one question that all of us who aren’t government officials or safety inspectors or askanim should ask ourselves, and that is “Why?” It’s a question that each of us can answer on our own terms, in our own individual reality.
One reason people tend to put all their focus on the mundane details of a tragedy, how it happened and who’s responsible, is not so much that they don’t want to face the spiritual implications of the Divine message being sent — although there’s that, too — but because they’re at a loss as to how to respond to that message. “How can I know what I’m supposed to do now?”
Rav Shach ztz”l gave the answer to that question in the four words of the pasuk in Mishlei (14:10): “Lev yodei’a maras nafsho — the heart knows its own bitterness.” There is no such thing as “the” response; there are, instead, as many correct spiritual responses to a tragedy as there are people. If we want to know, each of us can know. We each have a long list of things we can fix, many of them things no one else even senses about us.
And indeed, each Elul and during the following Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, many of us don’t have a problem finding within ourselves more than enough shortcomings to address, even without the clear guidance of some sagely figure. We know ourselves only too well, and we know what we need to do.
So consider it Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, because in a way it is. The pasuk (Yeshayahu 55:6) says of those precious days, “Dirshu Hashem b’himatz’o, kra’uhu b’hiyaso karov — Seek Hashem out when He is to be found, call out to Him when He is close.” But that’s not the only time Hashem is near. Dovid Hamelech says (Tehillim 23:4) of those times when we find ourselves walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, ki Atah imadi — for You are with me.
Rav Mottel Pogramansky ztz”l, observed that two verses earlier, in speaking of tranquil times, Dovid uses the more distant, third-person form to speak of Hashem, “Bine’os deshe yarbitzeini, al mei menuchos yinahaleini.” Only when he turns to speak of times of travail does he switch to address his Creator directly — “ki Atah imadi,” because there is no time when He is closer to us than when we are in pain.
Indeed, even in the blackest moments of the wartime Kovno ghetto, Reb Mottel never stopped speaking about the great fortune of experiencing “ki Atah imadi.” Once, he came upon a group of three bnei yeshivah standing near the ghetto wall, the expressions on their faces conveying the utter despondency within. He said to them, “On the other side of the wall stands a German soldier, for whom shooting a Jew is sport, something enjoyable. He would face no consequences whatsoever were he to shoot us dead right here and now. So why doesn’t he? The answer is ‘ki Atah imadi!’ Hashem is right here with us, stopping that rasha from killing us. Is that not reason enough for joy?!”
The Bnei Yissaschar explains the minhag to light fires on Lag B’omer this way: Chazal teach that the primeval ohr, the light from the Garden that Hashem declared to be tov, good, was secreted away in the Hidden Torah. On Lag B’omer, when the count of days remaining until receiving the Torah reaches 17 — the numerical value of tov — that same purely good light begins to cast its glow from its place of concealment deep within the recesses of Torah.
And since on Lag B’omer, we entered the 17-day period of tov, it behooves us to define the word. Dovid Hamelech does so for us in Tehillim (73:28): “Va’ani kirvas Elokim li tov.” Feeling Hashem’s closeness, sensing the “Atah imadi” of this moment in the gei tzalmaves, this Aseres Yemei Teshuvah in the middle of Iyar — that is “tov.”
And with those intimations of Divine intimacy, of the kirvas Elokim — the closeness of Hashem — that represents the only true goodness, filling our beings, we can begin the final approach toward Sinai. We can prepare for the moment of hevi’ani haMelech chadarav (Shir Hashirim 1:4), when the King brings us into His chambers to receive the Torah, the lekach tov He has given us, and will give us once again.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 859. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com
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