By Rav Aryeh Z Ginzberg
Whether you were local, on a different planet, or even further, like in Croatia, for Pesach, when news of the terrible tragedy that took place on yom tov became public, it was completely devastating and numbing to everyone. Even before the heart-wrenching levayah took place, editors of several Jewish publications reached out to me to share some words of response or chizuk to a devastated global community of Klal Yisrael. I respectfully declined.
Then the e-mails and texts followed from distinguished colleagues asking if I have some words to share with them that they could use for offering chizuk to their congregants. That was followed by several requests from my own congregants as well. Again, I respectfully declined.
Allow me to explain why.
The question that was on everyone’s mind was how HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Av HaRachamim, could allow this to happen in the midst of simchas yom tov. Let me give some teeth to this overwhelming question.
While every Yid in the world is well aware of the significance of Leil Seder, there is a Zohar that underscores just how significant this evening really is. The Zohar teaches that on Leil Seder, when Klal Yisrael is sitting with their families and singing HKB’H’s praises for the great miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim, HKB’H opens up the heavens and calls together the malachei ha’shareis, the heavenly angels, and proclaims to them, “Look at all the songs and praises that Bnei Yisrael say about Me in describing their appreciation of all I did for them by Yetzias Mitzrayim, and now you see why I chose only them to be My nation, a ‘goy echad ba’aretz.’” This, the Zohar tells us, is the greatest kiddush Hashem that is possible for Klal Yisrael to perform in this temporal world.
The Radomsker Rebbe, zt’l, in Tiferes Shlomo, uses this Zohar to explain a difficult question asked by generations of Rishonim and Acharonim. Megillas Esther describes the three days of ta’anis that were declared by Mordechai and Esther in response to the final-solution gezeirah of Haman HaRasha. The ta’anis was held on the first days of Pesach, thus depriving Klal Yisrael of performing all the mitzvos ha’chag, such as matzah, marror, the four kosos, etc. And the question asked was: If the decree was not going to actually take effect for a year, why couldn’t Mordechai decree the fasts after Pesach, thus allowing Klal Yisrael the ability to do the mitzvos of the chag and thereby merit more z’chusim?
The Radomsker uses this particular Zohar to explain Mordechai’s motives for doing away with the Pesach Seder for Klal Yisrael that year. Mordechai was saying to HKB’H, “Ribbono shel Olam, You take such pleasure and pride each year witnessing Your children celebrating all the miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim that you gather all the heavenly angels to witness it, but if You allow Klal Yisrael to be destroyed and wiped out, You will never again have that opportunity to have such pleasure at this yearly event of nachas for You. Look tonight, when we are not having a Seder, and see what You will be missing.” This, explains the Tiferes Shlomo, was Mordechai’s kavanah in specifically abolishing Leil Seder for that year.
In addition, as I mentioned in my Shabbos HaGadol derashah, because this year the Seder fell out on leil Shabbos Kodesh, the kedushah and importance of this evening was magnified even more. We find in the sefarim that when Chazal say that if only Klal Yisrael would keep two Shabbosos, then Mashiach would be guaranteed to arrive, despite whether we deserve it or not, it doesn’t mean two distinct Shabbosos, but rather refers to a year like this one, where Shabbos coincides with Leil Pesach, which is referred to in the Torah as Shabbos, as it says, “U’sefartem lachem mi’macharas haShabbos,” referring to Pesach. So this year’s Leil Seder was that much more significant and chaviv to HKB’H.
In light of all the above, how is it possible for HKB’H to bring this upon us in the midst of such elevated kedushah and nachas ruach to the Ribbono shel Olam?
Now the response to this overwhelming question: There are just no words!
While you will no doubt read much in the coming weeks from many people trying to shed some light on this unspeakable and colossal tragedy, the only response that I believe is warranted is that there are no words that can put any of this into perspective. Going to these shivah houses is truly heart-wrenching, and trying to offer some words of chizuk is not helpful; what is helpful is to cry with them and show them that you share in their pain. When I had to endure the life-changing experience of sitting shivah for a child, all the attempted words of chizuk, with many well-meaning people offering all kinds of interpretations of Chazal on suffering a terrible loss, was most often not helpful. One of the things that gave me the most chizuk, which I shared with my dear friend Reb Joel Kaplan, is what I heard from Rav Shaya Cohen, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Zichron Aryeh, who suffered a great loss decades ago.
He told me that when his family sat shivah in Yerushalayim at the home of his illustrious father-in-law, one of the leading gaonim there, most of the gedolei Torah of the generation paid a shivah call, with many offering words of chizuk. He doesn’t remember anything that they said, except for one person, who not only gave him tremendous chizuk at that time, but his actions continue to give him chizuk to this very day.
That person was the famed rosh yeshiva of Mir, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt’l, who, upon entering the shivah house, went to the other corner of the room and began to cry with great emotion for a lengthy period of time. After a while, he stopped, wiped away his tears, and then left the house without even saying the standard “HaMakom Yenacheim” to any of the aveilim. He did not utter even one word of chizuk, just an abundance of tears from a broken heart. The vision of seeing the depth of his shared pain from across the room continues to offer great chizuk even now, decades later.
Sometimes, there are just no words that can or should be said in response. There are no coincidences in our way of life, and the fact that all this took place on the very week that we read about the death of the two sons of Aharon HaKohen in Parashas Shemini cannot be overlooked. The Torah famously describes Aharon’s response as “Va’yidom Aharon,” and Aharon was silent. Many understand this to mean that Aharon exhibited such inner strength that he didn’t cry out in pain or have questions on HKB’H’s seemingly harsh decree at such a special time of performing the holy avodah. However, years ago, I heard from a great gadol who experienced a personal loss in his family that “Va’yidom Aharon” is significant in that it is the tendency of people to put tragedy in perspective, to find the “proper words” to explain or try to make some sense of the tragedy, but Aharon overcame that natural human response and was silent, meaning that he understood that sometimes there are just no words that would be appropriate. Not to look for inner meaning or an insightful Maharal or Sfas Emes that sheds some light, but to understand that some tragedies are just so painful and horrific that being silent and offering no words is the only correct response.
The famed grandson of the Chasam Sofer, known as the Daas Sofer, Rav Akiva Sofer, zt’l, makes an insightful comment. When Moshe asked Hashem the age-old question, ‘Lamah harei’osa la’am ha’zeh,” why are You causing hardship to this nation, HKB’H’s response is not to explain His reasons or motives in causing hardships or tragedies to His beloved Klal Yisrael; rather, the response was a mere two words: “Ani Hashem.” That’s all there is to say—nothing more and nothing less. No deep derashos, no new interpretations of ma’amarei Chazal, just “This is from HKB’H,” and there are no more words necessary or appropriate to add to that.
When Yaakov Avinu suffered the most painful loss, the death of his beloved, favorite son Yosef, the pasuk relates “va’yakumu kol banav u’benosav l’nachamo,” and all his sons and daughters stood up to comfort him. With the Torah detailing every aspect of this painful story for Yaakov, why doesn’t the Torah tell us what words of nechamah they tried to share with their bereft father? Wouldn’t it be helpful for Klal Yisrael to learn the proper words of nechamah that one says to a bereft father or mother upon experiencing the loss of a child? I once heard from a gadol that the Torah doesn’t share this with us because there are just no words to offer—and so they didn’t try to do so. The pasuk says that “kol,” all his sons and daughters came together to offer nechamah, and that is the nechamah itself.
When an avel suffering the worst loss of all sees that all of us, Yidden from every walk of life, come together to the shivah house to cry with them and to share their pain, that is the only nechamah that can make a real difference.
As I am a close friend of the Kaplan family and a lifelong friend of the Levin family, I reached out over yom tov from afar to a dear friend who is one of the askanim in the Five Towns community to confirm if this terrible news was accurate. When he confirmed it, he added just two words: “No words.” I responded, “Mi she’amar la’olami dai, yomar la’tzarasi dai,” the One who said by creation, “it’s enough,” should say to our tzaros as well “it’s enough.”
Rashi tells us that the first person to utter these words was Yaakov Avinu. When the brothers returned from Mitzrayim and shared that the king demanded that Binyamin come down with them, he uttered these very words. It seems a little strange; what is the connection between Hashem saying “enough” (it’s now complete) regarding creation and saying “enough” regarding tzaros? I once heard the late rosh yeshiva of Philadelphia, Rav Elya Svei, zt’l, explain this connection. When Hashem said “enough” by creation, He was saying that there is enough in the world for people to recognize that Hashem runs this world. So too, when tzaros come into the world, they are also supposed to wake us up and make us realize that Hashem is running this world that we live in. Yaakov was saying, I got the message; now there should be no more tzaros needed.
At the Kaplan shivah house, Reb Joel actually verbalized what lies in his incredible neshamah when he shared with me a vort from Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveichik, zt’l, on the words of “HaMakom Yenacheim.” The two most powerful moments in a Yid’s life throughout the year, when he feels the closest to HKB’H, are by Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur when we say “al da’as HaMakom” and by the Pesach Seder where we say “Baruch HaMakom.” So too, we tell an avel that “HaMakom,” the closeness that we felt at those two times of the year, is the same closeness and recognition of the presence and connection to HKB’H that is felt in a beis avel.
This incredible Yid has taught us all what faith and deep connection to HKB’H he feels in the midst of the most painful time that is possible for a person to experience, the loss of a beloved child.
The question on the minds of every person who enters either of the shivah houses is how one possibly goes on after something like this. I once read an incredibly powerful insight from the late Modzitzer Rebbe, Rav Shaul Elazar Taub, zt’l, who arrived on these shores after WWII, after losing many of his family members and chassidim in the war. After the Rebbe settled in Williamsburg near Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, the menahel, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt’l, would send the talmidim to his Friday-night tisch to give him some chizuk. Someone once asked him, “How is it possible to maintain an attitude of simcha after sustaining such a devastating loss?” After a few moments of silence, he responded, “I have a valise in my room, and in it I keep all my sad thoughts and painful memories. Every day, I open it for half an hour and look inside, remembering it all and mourning. And then, I close it tight and go live my life for the rest of the day.”
While we have no words that can offer nechamah to the Kaplan and Levin families upon this indescribable loss, we can offer them our heartfelt berachos from the depths of our broken hearts that somehow they find the inner strength during this very lengthy and painful process to close the valise of their stored painful memories and fill new valises with simchahs and then more simchahs—until the words of the Navi are fulfilled and we will be zocheh to the final geulah and techiyas ha’meisim b’karov mamash.