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Dovid Vigler

How to believe in Heaven when it Hurts like Hell

Photo by Mohammad Ali Mohtashami on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/xEwm6FpWnrI

Our Pain Can Be Our Greatest Teacher—It leads us to places we’d never have gone on our own.

Ours is a broken generation. We all know someone who’s endured impossible experiences. Sometimes it’s ourselves who have suffered unthinkable pain. Some have strengthened their faith through it. Others have lost their faith, almost to the point of no return.

What would it take to restore this broken faith? Is it even possible?

The Shabbos after Tisha B’Av is called “Shabbos Nachamu—the Shabbos of Solace,” as it holds the key to cracking the code to our catastrophes bringing us the comfort that we so desperately seek.

Tisha B’Av was the most traumatic date in Jewish history—the anniversary of the destruction of both our Temples 2500 and 1900 years ago respectively, and the expulsion from our independent homeland to which we are still struggling to return. The Talmud (Makkos 24b) tells us the moving tale of the inconsolable sages of Israel struggling to come to terms with their national suffering and the profound words of counsel by Rabbi Akiva who eventually consoled them. This Shabbos refers to that same encounter as we too struggle to recover from our wounds.

In the first story, the Sages wept uncontrollably from their sorrows:

Rabbis Gamliel, Elazar ben Azariah, Joshua, and Akiva were traveling. When they reached Puteoli, they heard the noise of the crowds of Rome—though they were 120 kilometers away. They all began sobbing, aside for Rabbi Akiva, who was laughing.

“Why do you laugh?” they asked.

“Why do you cry?” Rabbi Akiva rejoined.

“These Cushites who prostrate themselves and offer incense to idols sit tranquility and contently on their land. We, on the other hand, the Holy Temple, the home that served as G-d’s footstool, went up in the fire—and we should not cry?!”

“This is precisely why I laugh,” Rabbi Akiva answered. “If such is the portion of those who transgress G-d’s will, how much greater will be the portion of those who perform His will!”

In this encounter, Rabbi Akiva was exhibiting a deep interpretation of evil as “eventual good.” Even though things are bad right now, they will ultimately become good. Since “G-d doesn’t treat his creations unfairly (Talmud Avoda Zara 3a),” when He allows us to suffer a loss, He gives us an equal advantage later on. Thus, it was the intensity of the suffering at that moment that inspired Rabbi Akiva to sense the depth of the joy that would eventually come.

As profound as it seems, the sages were not convinced. But in the second episode that the Talmud tells us of the very same rabbis, Rabbi Akiva did indeed succeed to comfort their broken hearts:

On another occasion, these same sages were traveling up to Jerusalem. They reached Mount Scopus, from where the Temple Mount can be seen, and they tore their garments in mourning. When they reached the Temple Mount, they spied a fox exiting the area where the Holy of Holies once stood. They all began sobbing, aside for Rabbi Akiva, who was laughing.

“Why do you laugh?” they asked.

“Why do you cry?” Rabbi Akiva rejoined.

“The site regarding which it is stated (Numbers 1:51), ‘Any outsider who approaches shall be put to death,’ and now foxes wander there—and we should not cry?!”

“This is precisely why I laugh,” Rabbi Akiva answered. “For it is stated (Isaiah 8:2), ‘And I will call to testify for Myself trustworthy witnesses, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah.’

“Now, what is the association between Zechariah and Uriah—Uriah lived in the First Temple Era and Zechariah in the Second?

“But the verse links the two, implying that Zechariah’s prophecy is contingent upon Uriah’s. By Uriah, it is stated (Micah 3:12), ‘Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field.’ Zechariah said (Zechariah 8:4), ‘Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.’

“As long as Uriah’s prophecy was not fulfilled, I was worried that neither will Uriah’s. Now that Uriah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s will too.”

With these words, the sages responded to Rabbi Akiva:

“Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.”

In this exchange, Rabbi Akiva probed even deeper into evil. Beyond “eventual good,” here he redefined suffering as an actual part of the process of healing.

Just like the pain of childbirth that leads to the indescribable joy of new life and like the uncomfortable demolition of your old kitchen to make way for the new modern one, the purpose of the discomfort is to pave the way to prosperity. It’s the destruction of the old that makes way for the construction of the new.

Rabbi Akiva makes this paradigm shift by focusing our attention on the prophecy of destruction as a field being plowed. Planting without prior plowing is futile. The plowing is a vital step toward fulfilling the purpose of the field. The deeper the plow, the better the subsequent growth.

Upon hearing this, the Sage’s anxieties were assuaged. Their double expression of comfort reflects his chiropractic readjustment of their worldview as they now are able to endure the pain of the present in light of the promise of tomorrow as well as to reinterpret the current destruction as part of the effort towards construction.

This is deep stuff. It challenges your faith to its core. This can take a lifetime of reflection, meditation, and pondering. Of course, we’d far prefer to never have to grapple with suffering in the first place, but once we’re in the game, we have no choice but to fight for our lives.

It is this clarity of vision that we yearn for on “Shabbos Nachamu—the Shabbos of Solace”. The Haftorah of this Shabbos begins with Isaiah’s prophetic declaration: “My People will be doubly consoled in the future (Isaiah 40:1).” These cryptic words, strangely set in the future tense validate our sincere yet vain attempts to find peace in a violent world. This noble yet elusive goal feels like chasing rainbows or firing at a moving target. It’s OK to struggle, says Isaiah—we’re all human. But very soon, the day will come when the world will be redeemed through the Moshiach and we all then will rise to higher consciousness as we too will be able to comprehend this unfathomable reconciliation.

_______________________
Rabbi Dovid Vigler
Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens

6100 PGA Blvd, Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418
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About the Author
Raised in South Africa and educated in some of the finest Yeshivas in Israel, England, New York, and Australia, Rabbi Dovid Vigler strives to share the beauty and depth of Judaism in a clear, conversational, and down-to-earth manner. Whether in private counseling, relatable sermons, weekly email broadcasts, or in his popular Torah classes on social media, he reaches out to every Jew with unconditional love, patience, and compassion. His inspirational talks and uplifting messages can be found on YouTube.com/JewishGardens and Facebook.com/JewishGardens
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