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Tragedy in our Midst: Can We Pass the Test?

The summer is over and done with and as I’m told, many people are not unhappy to see it go. This has been a summer that will remain in our memory in infamy. A summer of catastrophe, of misfortune, of shock and bewilderment. Although, I generally don’t write in such heavy overtones, I’ve been asked to address this issue in such a manner due to the obvious signs and messages that we, as a people, are being shown. I don’t feel qualified to lecture others on how to behave, but it is necessay, and even incumbent upon every person to stop for a moment and realize that when Hashem makes a statement so loud and clear, it is unconscionable for us not to listen.

Chazal tell us, “M’shenichnas Av M’maatin B’simcha” – “When the month of Av begins, we lessen our happiness.” One Jewish month out of the entire year is set aside for the explicit purpose of remembering and commemorating thousands of years of misfortune, suffering and disasters, and as a result, there isn’t much for us to be happy about. We tend to reschedule official appointments, vacations and legal issues and we push off all manner of celebratory engagements during these 30 days, always with the mindset that by doing so, we hope to bypass and sidestep any potential disaster that may come upon us if we were to proceed as regular.

This past month of Av, however, with all the warnings and non-action, the Jewish people as a whole were mercilessly pummeled with catastrophe after horrible catastrophe, which has us reeling still today. A bomb blast in Yerushalayim kills 15 yidden, babies and children included. The ill-fated helicopter crash that killed 5 heimishe yidden from our very own community. One of our Gedolei Hador, Harav Hagaon R’ Avrohom Yaakov Pam ZT”L, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Torah Vodaath, succumbed to his debilitating illness. A Talmid Chacham and true Yirei Shomayim, who was well-known in the community, goes to sleep and does not wake up the next morning. All these occurring within a time period of a few short weeks.

Why, we ask ourselves and one another? Nobody knows the real answer. The who, what, when and where, can be answered, but not the why. But this much we do know: it’s a message from on high telling us to take heed. Each one of us can look within ourselves and say, “Maybe I need to fix this.” Or, “If I start doing that, maybe I can improve.” That’s how G-d-fearing Jewish people react to situations of misfortune and that is how they respond to it in the hope of staving off anything further.

Obviously, we understand that Hashem is testing us and for this reason we attempt to better ourselves. But there is something about a Divine test that we must understand: The Torah clearly states that Hashem, “Afflicts (the Jewish people) to test them to see in their hearts if they will keep the mitzvos or not.” (Ekev 8-2) Will we suffer through the pain and continue to follow in the true path of Yiddishkeit, or will we blinded, G-d forbid, from the purpose of the test and abandon His ways? This is most definitely an oversimplification of thousands of years of suffering, however, after all is said and done, this is what it’s all about. The only remaining question is why? Why must we suffer horrible physical and mental anguish, just to accomplish a spiritual goal? If Hashem wants us to follow the path of the Torah and feels that we need to be tested to see if we are sailing on course, why couldn’t He have given us a spiritual test, something dealing directly with the intended goal of true spirituality? Maybe a test of faith dealing with faith, or Torah scholarship with a lack thereof? By placing a mitzva seemingly out of reach is a manner with which to test the resolve and effort of the one set to perform that mitzva. Yet, Hashem insists on testing our spiritual resolve with physical hardship. Why?

The answer can be summed up with an eye-opening story. R’ Yitzchok Elchanan Spekter ZT”L was the Rov of Kovna. He was once approached by a student complaining that he had come across a very difficult piece of gemara and as hard as he tried, he was unable to understand the true meaning of the sugya. He said he had been working for days to solve the problem and because of his inability to reconcile this conflict properly, he found himself mired and unable to go on to the next sugya. He pleaded with the Rov to give him a possible solution to his dilemma.

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R’ Yitzchok Elchanan listened intently and thought over the problem for a few minutes. Then he quietly referred the young man to a particular Tosfos elsewhere in shas, citing page and verse. The student was thrilled and eagerly looked up the Tosfos as he was told, sure to have an answer soon at hand. However, his delight soon turned to disappointment. He had not found anything in that particular Tosfos that was in any way related to the subject at hand. He ran back to the Rov totally confused.

R’ Yitzchok Elchanan took the young man’s hand. “I was afraid this might happen. You see, I was trying to test you to see if you might understand, but you missed the point entirely. That particular Tosfos raises a difficult problem in the sugya and elaborates fully on the entire question, but when it comes to solving the problem, Tosfos has no solution. Yet, Tosfos continues on to deal with other portions of the gemara and is not paralyzed by being at a loss, to properly answer the question. You too, must understand, that not always can we have all the answers and not every problem has a solution. However, we cannot allow this reality to paralyze us and keep us from moving on. One single question unanswered, is not cause for days and weeks of immobility and frustration!”

The poignancy of this story is such that it not only pertains to Talmudic studies, as R’ Yitzchok Elchanan had intended with his answer, but to life in general. Hashem is constantly testing His people each day, and different people respond in different ways. A crisis that might immobilize one person, breaking him down until he cannot do or think about anything else other than his pain, may be cause for another, stronger, individual to elevate himself above the suffering and grow immeasurably from his ordeal. Sometimes, by rising to the occasion, people find out things about themselves that they never knew possible. How many inspiring stories have been told about seemingly simple individuals who went through the Nazi inferno, and through all the torture and agony, went out of their way to help save a fellow Jew, or light Chanukah candles, or blow the shofar? What risks and extraordinary measures they took to perform mitzvos. These people lived through the suffering and turned their energy and strength into positive actions. Today, we have organizations that are established after unfortunate circumstances happen to people, and the chessed and tzedakah that they perform are incredible. Why? Because these people understand that the goal is not just to past the test, but also to grow from the trials and tribulations of the test!

In the world today, tests are given for all sorts of things, and if one shows up and passes his test – written, oral, whatever – he has accomplished his goal. Not so, with a Divine test. Of course, the purpose is to reach the level of true Torah and mitzva observance, but in order to get there, one must rise to the occasion and overcome all kinds of obstacles that are put in his way. This enables that person to blossom in middos and good deeds, which he may never have accomplished if it weren’t for the physical suffering and tribulations set before him. For this basic reason, Hashem uses all manner of physical torment and misfortune, as a way with which to test our spiritual fortitude. Just passing the test and doing the mitzvos is not the point; it’s how we get to that level and what we bring with us in the form of kindness and good deeds, that He is eager to see.

This lesson is one for the ages, but let us absorb the current situation and see it for what it truly is: A physical and mental test given for the purpose of a spiritual goal. What truly hits home regarding the tragic events of the past month, is that we cannot help but feel affected by it. There were those in the past who would hear about a terrorist attack taking place in Israel and, maybe not openly but deep down be thinking, “Thank G-d, My family and I weren’t there. We’ll stay perfectly safe here in the states.” Israelis, on the other hand, are always eager to point out that statistically, the streets of Yerushalayim are much safer than the streets of New York, and just about most cities in the U.S. However, now all people can see the fallacy of such an illusion. If Hashem wants it to happen, it will happen here, there and everywhere. From one the most populated spots in all of Israel, to the most remote mountaintops of Nevada. From a simple, unassuming Jew in New York, to a tzaddik, Rosh Yeshiva and Gadol Hador. We, Acheinu Kol Bais Yisroel, are all in this together, and our obligation to overcome this ordeal is an obligation to grow in kindness, to strengthen our tefillah, to excel in all manner of Torah and mitzvos.

The message from on high is loud and clear: The Jewish people need to do more, to act more, to excel more, and the timing couldn’t be better. The Yom Hadin looms close and this is our wake-up call. We can never understand the ways of Hashem, but by getting a glimpse of His methods and acting upon it, we can hopefully say the profound words of the Nesaneh Tokef, “Who, in his proper time and who before his time”, knowing that we’ve worked hard to do what we could to pass the test!  


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