Quit with the talk of Silver Lining. We are Living in Tragic Times. (Shabbos 13)

We recently celebrated the festival of Purim, when we celebrate the salvation of the Jewish people from the wicked Haman who wished to annihilate our people.  The 14th Adar is not the only Purim in the calendar.  Throughout history, various communities have enacted their own Purim dates to remember Divine salvation.

In 1524, a number of members of the Jewish community of Cairo were detained on false allegations and faced capital punishment.  Ahmed Pasha, the Ottoman vizier of Egypt was attempting a coup against the sultan and rounded up all those he felt were sympathizers with his foes.  The Jews of Cairo fasted and prayed.  Ultimately, Ahmed’s plot was discovered.  Instead of the Jews, he was hanged, and the occasion became a day of annual celebration, a mini-Purim, for the Jews of Cairo.

In recent history, we have had near-misses from those who wished to destroy Jewish life.  Given the opportunity, they had the potential to make our lives miserable, had they come to power.  It is important that we do not allow ourselves to forget the Almighty’s salvation as we become engulfed by the next crisis and calamity.  When the Almighty delivers us from a catastrophe – or even a near-catastrophe – we must not become so numb that we forget His salvation. His mercy must be recorded and celebrated.

Nevertheless, as our Gemara demonstrates, it’s very difficult to think about the miracles, when we have moved so quickly and abruptly to a far greater calamity. May Hashem have compassion upon us all and bring an end to these terrible, dark days, in which we find ourselves.

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מִי כָּתַב מְגִילַּת תַּעֲנִית? — אָמְרוּ, חֲנַנְיָה בֶּן חִזְקִיָּה וְסִיעָתוֹ שֶׁהָיוּ מְחַבְּבִין אֶת הַצָּרוֹת. אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל: אַף אָנוּ מְחַבְּבִין אֶת הַצָּרוֹת, אֲבָל מַה נַּעֲשֶׂה שֶׁאִם בָּאנוּ לִכְתּוֹב אֵין אָנוּ מַסְפִּיקִין. דָּבָר אַחֵר: אֵין שׁוֹטֶה נִפְגָּע. דָּבָר אַחֵר: אֵין בְּשַׂר הַמֵּת מַרְגִּישׁ בָּאִיזְמֵל. אִינִי?! וְהָאָמַר רַב יִצְחָק: קָשָׁה רִימָּה לַמֵּת כְּמַחַט בַּבָּשָׂר הַחַי, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״אַךְ בְּשָׂרוֹ עָלָיו יִכְאָב וְנַפְשׁוֹ עָלָיו תֶּאֱבָל״! אֵימָא: אֵין בָּשָׂר הַמֵּת שֶׁבַּחַי מַרְגִּישׁ בָּאִיזְמֵל.

The Sages taught: Who wrote The Scroll of Fasts (detailing all celebrative days when one may not fast)? This scroll was written by Chanania ben Chizkia and his company, who loved the troubles that befell Israel.  Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: We also love the troubles, but what can we do? If we tried to write, we would not manage to do so.  Alternatively: Why do we not record the days of salvation from troubles? Just as a fool becomes immune to his folly, we have become numb to the pain. Alternatively: We are like the flesh of a dead person who does not feel the pain of a scalpel.  Is that so? Didn’t Rav Yitzcḥak say: The gnawing of maggots is as excruciating to the dead as the stab of a needle is to the flesh of the living, as it is stated with regard to the dead: “But his flesh shall hurt him, and his soul mourns over him”? Rather, say: The dead flesh in parts of the body of the living person that are insensitive to pain does not feel the scalpel that cuts him.

Rashi explains that the Gemara means that Chanania loved the celebrations of redemption that followed the troubles so much that he felt compelled to record all such occasions in the special Scroll.  But that’s not exactly what the Gemara says.  According to the Gemara, they loved the troubling times themselves! Why would they love the troubles?

The Chochmas Hamatzpun (15:145) explains that Rashi means that when the redemption occurred, it became clear to them that the Almighty was directing their lives the entire time.  Only once the redemption had occurred, however, were they able to discern the Almighty’s plan and find some meaning and purpose in the calamities that had befallen our people earlier.

The Talmud teaches in Brachos that everything Hashem does is for the good.  Nevertheless, during the time of the Heavenly decree it is often near impossible to appreciate the reason for the Almighty’s seemingly unfathomable ways.  Even when one believes that they can discern the reason, it borders on blasphemy to express such views to others who are suffering.  What might make sense and feel right to you and your suffering might be completely misplaced for another individual.

We are currently in the midst of one of the greatest calamities to strike humankind, Covid-19.  People are suffering.  Thousands are dying.  Hundreds of thousands are ill.  Children are out school.  Businesses and life-savings are collapsing.  The elderly and not-so-elderly are being told to stay home and cut themselves off from any human contact.

And yet some people are broadcasting what wonderful times we live in.  We get to spend quality time with our loved ones like never before, they say.  Indeed, that might be true for whoever is spinning the story that way.  But try telling that one to the distraught individual who has just lost their loved one to the virus and has been told that it is unsafe to attend the funeral and that the shivah must be conducted via Skype.

There is certainly a reason for everything.  That’s a tenet of our faith.  When we are in the midst of a crisis, it is right to recommit to your own faith in Heaven and endeavour to reason with the Divine plan in amongst the tornado that is striking.  But you need to be extremely careful when sharing your thoughts with others.  They may be experiencing suffering on a whole different level, a level that cannot simply be dismissed with the silver linings you’ve discerned in your life.

That’s what Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel means when he says that he would also write everything down if he could.  But at that moment it would have been impossible.  For to do so would have been insensitive to the pain that so many were experiencing.  The pain was so great for many people that they had become numb to the calamities.  Rabbi Shimon recognized that not everyone had become numb.  Those that had become numb could not be blamed for not feeling anything anymore – it was all too much for anyone to bear – despite the fact that, in our tradition, even a dead body can feel pain.

With God’s help, the present crisis will end very soon.  But there will be people whose lives will never be the same.  We must not rush to start explaining God’s ways and finding silver linings.  The pain is way too great.   May we merit the Almighty’s mercy and compassion very soon.

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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