A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Chanukah as a Model

This past Shabbat was the first time I spoke in my new role as Community Scholar at the Riverdale Jewish Center. It was an opportunity to share a thought I had had about a link between Chanukah and the calls of ‘why?’ that arise every time a tragedy hits the Jewish community.

So here goes: a suggestion as to what Chanukah tells us about the issue of communal tragedy. Sorry it comes only after Chanukah has ended—perhaps it’s a way to keep Chanukah with us as we head into winter!

Hashem’s Wrath At Iyov’s Friends

I start with a question that has long bothered me. In Iyov 42;7-8, Hashem speaks to Elifaz the Temani, one of Iyov’s friends, and tells him that His righteous wrath has been kindled against Elifaz and his two other friends, for they had not spoken as correctly about Hashem as had His servant Iyov. They were therefore to offer sacrifices in the presence of Iyov, and have Iyov pray on their behalf.

Some fasten on this verse to show that Iyov was right for his daring and his obstinacy in demanding an explanation for his suffering. For me, the claim doesn’t work for three reasons. First, if we look at the answers the friends gave and Iyov rejected, we’ll see that they were the ones that tradition mostly ratifies. Second, Iyov never really gets his answer– when Hashem appears, He mostly tells Iyov that Iyov cannot comprehend Hashem, as Iyov then admits. What is the great value in demanding an answer and then conceding you can’t understand the answer?

Third, Hashem expresses righteous wrath towards three of the friends, when a fourth friend spoke up as well. That last friend, Elihu b. Barachel, anticipates Hashem’s claims, saying that Iyov can’t know what or why Hashem acts. But if Iyov was right to challenge, why was Elihu any better than the others?

Looking for Comfort in All the Wrong Places

I find another reading more convincing, especially since 2;13 mentions that the friends sat with Iyov for seven days, wordlessly, because his pain was so great. In chapter three, he opens by cursing the day of his birth; he goes on in that vein for awhile, and then subsides. And there are his friends, ready for an intellectual and philosophical argument about the merits of his sufferings (or the lack of them).

They’re not necessarily wrong in substance, they’re wrong in timing and approach. The friends may have thought they gave him the seven days he needed, but his words give the lie to that. Iyov is in pain, and explanations are the wrong approach to pain.

Iyov, in my reading, is trying to excise his pain and, like many of us, couches it in the language of looking for answers.  Take away the death part of the conversation—if someone lost a job, for reasons that were clear, and was bemoaning his or her situation, would reminding them that the job loss made sense be helpful? Bemoaning can be expressed in ways that start with the word “why,” but that doesn’t mean they’re about the why.

The proper response to cries of pain is to share the pain, to do what we can to ease the burden of the pain, not to jump for the seeming comfort of looking for answers. Even the truest answers don’t take away pain, because pain hurts. Like R. Shim’on b. Elazar says, Avot 4;18, don’t try to comfort someone when their deceased is still before them. He may have meant that literally, but it is also true figuratively, that as long as the tragedy is fresh, it’s not the time for comfort, it’s the time for sharing the pain.

And that can be a long time. In a moment, we’ll see what Ran said to his community, thirteen years after the Black Death hit their town, and what the Rav said in 1956, 11 years after the end of the Holocaust. (Elie Wiesel was only able to write Night years after he was liberated). It can take years or decades to absorb a tragedy enough to react to it other than with cries of pain.

Sometimes we don’t have that much time, and have to react more quickly. But where there’s no need, we should avoid running from the task of each moment. In a time of pain, the task is to feel the pain, to process it, and thus to let it heal.

But There Have To Be Answers

That’s not a permanent response, it is a reminder not to look for one kind of answer when it’s time for another. When we’re ready for more of an answer, or must have a more immediate answer, tradition gave one that people resist and reject today (when I spoke about this this past Shabbat, taking care to hedge all my statements, to offer it only as an idea and to speak of how we can react to tragedy rather than why it happens, I still had listeners who said they can never accept any discussions of reward and punishment).  As soon as there’s an implication that something we do could bring a tragedy, people rebel.

I think I have something productive to say even for those people, following the path laid by R. Soloveitchik in קול דודי דופק, The Voice of My Beloved Knocks.  But to understand it, we need a brief review of what tradition had suggested up until that point, even if we go in a somewhat different direction.

Repentance—For What?

We can do worse than starting with Rambam’s first paragraphs of Hilchot Ta’aniyot, Laws of Fasts, which note a Biblical commandment to respond to communal distress (I stress that I am writing only about communal distress—personal tragedy or suffering is complicated by the overall question of whether it comes from Hashem. That’s not an issue for a community). The response, crying out to Hashem and blowing the חצוצרות, trumpets, is one of the ways of repenting, showing that the community understands that this trouble has come for a reason, and that they can rid themselves of the trouble by rectifying the reason.

Rambam cautions against dismissing such times as the way the world works. If it’s just what is, there’s no need to change, which leads to the continuation of these troubles, and more to come. Repentance, on the other hand, can turn the tide.  It is for that reason, he says in 1;17, that on fast days a communal court and elders spent the morning investigating that community’s sins, to change whatever they could.

Ran’s Gentler Expression

Although Rambam seems to me to be clear about the fact that these troubles are a spur to change, not punishment for its’ own sake, when I express anything along these lines today, I find many who hear it as purely punitive, as the claim that we deserve what we’re getting, that it’s our fault, and we should take our medicine and be quiet about it.

This year, when presenting Ran’s Drashot in more easily read form for, I noticed that Ran helps with this problem.  He notes that Hashem’s punishments are parental, in two ways.

First, parents never punish as much as a child deserves, and nor does Hashem. Whatever Hashem gives as punishment, Ran claims (and he had witnessed the Black Death, so he wasn’t being Pollyanna-ish), is less than we deserve. Many today reject this as well, sure there is no way we could deserve x or y, but to me that seems to be a function of ignoring Judaism’s view of the seriousness of various sins—if we excuse our sins more lightly than Hashem does, we’ll see ourselves as less culpable and more righteous than Hashem does. But that’s for another time.

The second, and more significant, aspect of Hashem’s punishments is that they are aimed at producing change; as soon as they succeed, Hashem will remove them. Between them, Rambam and Ran are offering a picture of Divine Providence as sometimes calling us to change and improve.

What, Not Why

  1. Soloveitchk, zt”l, is reported to have dispensed with the idea of punishment in קול דודי דופק, The Voice of My Beloved Knocks. One claim that people remember is that the Rav said that we don’t ask for the why of suffering, just the what, what are supposed to do to live through the suffering, what obligation suffering imposes upon us.

I have heard people prefer that approach, since his answer was that afflictions come to elevate a person, to purify our spirits, refine our souls, broaden our horizons. To many—I don’t mean this was the Rav’s intention, I mean I’ve heard people express it this way—that translated into saying that the response to suffering is to find ways to improve. They read the Rav as denying that we could find the, or a, reason for the suffering, and should instead focus on what we can change.

An Unclear Call to Change

To me, that’s unsatisfying. The Rav, for example, speaks of mending that which is flawed in our personalities—but how do we know which of our flaws to mend? What if we choose an insignificant flaw and fix that, will that have served as avoiding what the Rav calls the grave sin of allowing troubles to go to waste and remain without meaning or purpose?

I think it’s not true; I think the Rav avoided the language of why because he wrote in the shadow of the Holocaust (explicitly so). He pointed out to his listeners, as had Ran in to his, that whatever “reason” there may be for suffering, our job is to learn from it. But there are better and worse ways to learn.

Ran, for example, thought the answer was to fix our most serious sins (he gives three interesting rules for how to decide a sin is serious, for which I don’t have space here). He named swearing too often (as in “I swear that I’ll do this”) and baseless hatred as the sins of his time.

I am not one to argue with Ran; I will only point out that different people will see different sins as the most serious. In our times, for sure, any suggestion one person would make would be countered by another idea from another circle. I think Chanukah offers a better way.

Matityahu Takes a Stand

Living in Modi’in, Matityahu, descendant of High Priests, sees a Syrian-Greek come to his village and call for the Jews to offer a sacrifice to some pagan god. One Jew stands up to do so, and Matityahu kills them both, calls for those ready to join him, and flees to the hills.

Granted that the Jews were in a bad way—the Temple had been defiled, many Jews were abandoning their religion and assimilating into Greek culture—Matityahu still had many choices of how to react. I bet there wasn’t a lot of Torah being studied; there was likely some hatred among Jews, slander being spoken; a significant group of Hellenizers implies a far from perfect Shabbat observance. Matityahu could have campaigned to improve any or all of those.

Instead, he launched a rebellion that any rational person would have told him was doomed, that he himself may have thought was doomed (as did Ben-Gurion in 1948, another tale I don’t have space for here). Why that?

A Rational Torah, a Rational World

I think the answer goes to an approach people know from the area of טעמי המצוות, reasons for the commandments. In Guide III;26, Rambam pointed out that some in his time claimed mitzvot had no reasons, were just divine fiat. Rambam disagrees, claiming (and winning the agreement of almost everyone since) that Hashem gave us the mitzvot to accomplish purposes we could understand.

The Gemara makes a similar claim about God’s actions in the world in general, several times recording the view of R. Shmuel b. Nachmani in the name of R. Yonatan that Hashem acts מדה כנגד מדה, that His actions reflect ours. Which means, I believe, that the times of trouble that come our communal way call for us to elevate specific aspects of our lives (to borrow the Rav’s language). They may or may not be what we would think of as most significant; that takes us back to remembering that we cannot always figure out why Hashem does what He does.

But times of trouble are directed, I think, and if we pay attention to the trouble, we can see a response that reflects what was sent. A plague calls for a different reaction than an economic collapse, not the generic “let’s be better.”

This, too, is not unequivocal, because Jews can always argue. But the framework, I think, offers a productive way to understand how to respond, as a community, when distress hits. So if a shul burns down, God forbid, it might be that that community slanders each other and doesn’t learn enough Torah or give enough tsedakah, but I think the response to that event would be to find ways they had misused the building itself, could use the next shul in a way that would save it from the fire.

It may be that if we think about the problem this way, even if we don’t find the exact answer, Hashem will respond generously to our attempt.

The Rav Thought So, Too

The Rav was busily avoiding the language or implication of retribution, but his model was remarkably close to it. He includes himself in a claim that the Jewish community of the United States failed to do all it could for the Jews of Europe during WWII, and calls therefore for the Jews of 1956 to hear the knocks of the beloved (aspects of the establishment of the State of Israel), and to support Israel in that time.

He doesn’t actually say, “we failed then, we’re in a similar situation now, let’s do better.” But that’s what he means. Because communal challenges call to a more specific elevation than we sometimes admit.

That’s what Matityahu understood. Right then wasn’t the time to institute new learning times, or a better Shabbat observance (in fact, during the fighting the Maccabees decided that the needs of war allowed for Shabbat violations), or better relations among Jews. The communal trouble was the attack on national sovereignty, on Jews’ right to live religiously and politically as they chose, and that is what Matityahu worked to restore.

It is one more lesson of Chanukah, one that can get lost in the candles and the latkes, but one as important as those—Hashem calls us in specific enough ways that we can understand, hoping that we will respond in kind, meeting and responding to the challenge posed. When we do, we sometimes merit unimaginable good, as did Matityahu and his sons.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.