After the simcha of Pesach come the weeks of the Omer. We look forward joyfully to Shevuos but can’t ignore past tragedies – the deaths of Rebbe Akiva’s talmidim, the massacres perpetrated by the Crusaders and others in more recent history. The contrast between the rejoicing of Yom Tov and the mourning of the sefira makes parshas Shemini which is read this year on this first Shabbos after Pesach, particularly appropriate.
It was supposed to be a tremendous simcha. The Mishkan, which represented Hashem’s forgiveness of the Jewish People’s sin of the golden calf and His willingness to allow His Shechina to dwell amongst the Bnei Yisroel, was to be inaugurated. And that’s how the day began. Fire descended from the sky to the mizbe’ach and consumed the korban olah. The people saw, rejoiced and fell on their faces.
But then, tragedy. Nodov and Avihu, two of Aharon’s sons, offered unauthorized incense and another fire blazed down from Hashem, killing both. “And Moshe said to Aharon. This is what Hashem said, that I shall be sanctified by those close to Me and honoured in front of the people and “Vayidom Aharon” Aharon was silent.” (Vayikra 10:3). No wailing or protesting such harsh judg
ement, just a silent acceptance of Hashem’s justice.
When the late Rav Betzalel Rakov was told that his beloved youngest son, Nosson Zvi, had drowned in a swimming accident one fateful erev Shabbos about thirty years ago, he immediately stood up and exclaimed Hashem hu Ho’elokim, Hashem hu Ho’elokim seven times before sitting down to find out more details. The deeply ingrained emuna and spontaneous acceptance of Hashem’s will shown by our great leaders is an inspiration for all of us even if, thankfully, we don’t suffer such tragedies ourselves.
But is there something besides acceptance of Hashem’s justice which can help a person at such a horrific moment? Is there an aspect of our emuna which can be an extra source of comfort not only for those who have suffered tragedy but can help to give all of us a new direction in the way we view life? A new insight into familiar words of Hallel may provide us with just such help.
Dovid Hamelech said, “Lo amus ki echye va’asaper maaseh Koh. (Tehilim 118: ). “I shall not die but live and I shall speak of the deeds of Hashem….zeh hashaar L’Hashem tzadikim yovo’u vo. This is the gate to Hashem, Tzadikim will come through it.” What did Dovid Hamelech mean that “he won’t die?” Everybody dies at some point. And which gate was Dovid referring to?
Tomid (32b) relates that Alexander the Great was once sitting by a river and smelt a wonderfully fragrant odour. He thought that it must be the smell of Gan Eden and walked towards its source. He finally reached a gate behind which seemed to be the source of the odour and concluded that this must be the door to Gan Eden itself. He asked to be allowed in. A voice from behind the door said, “Zeh hashaar l’Hashem tzadikim yovo’u vo. This is the gate to Hashem. Only tzaddikim may enter.” Alexander was not a tzaddik and was denied entry. Without going into the deeper meaning of this Gemoro, we see that the gate mentioned in the posuk is understood by Chazal to be the gate to Gan Eden.
With this in mind perhaps we can understand the deeper meaning of Dovid Hamelech’s words. The previous pesukim portray Dovid’s full trust in Hashem. “The nations surround me; with the Name of Hashem I will destroy them.” They increase their attack. “They surround me more and more…like bees….they are so close that they try to push me but Hashem will still help me.” The danger intensifies but Dovid maintains his trust in Hashem. As Chazal say (Brachos 10a) “Even if the sword is on your neck, do not give up hope.”
But does trust in Hashem mean that one will definitely survive? Sadly not. Many have died through illness and al Kiddush Hashem. Trust in Hashem means that we believe that everything is in Hashem’s hands, not that we will always get the outcome we want. (Chazon Ish: Emuna Vebitachon). What comfort can we cling to in the face of tragedy? Dovid Hamelech tells us, “I will not die, for I shall live.” Leaving this world is not death. It is not the end. We live on in another, better world. “Zeh hashaar L’Hashem… If we have lived our lives as we should, we, unlike Alexander, will be allowed to enter the gates of Gan Eden. We will live on, enjoying a much greater closeness to Hashem than is possible in this world. And “I will speak of the great deeds of Hashem.” we will continue to praise Hashem as we say three times daily in Ashrei. “I will bless You every day and praise Your Name for ever.”
Dovid Hamelech said, “Even if I walk in the shadow of the valley of death, I will fear no evil because You are with me. Your rod and your staff will comfort me.” (Tehilim 23: 4) A staff supports but how can a rod, an instrument of punishment, be a source of comfort? Perhaps Dovid is hinting to this same principle. In the valley of the shadow of death – survival is not assured. Whether Hashem helps me and I survive or even if the Divine justice is that I do not survive, I will not fear because “You are with me,” whether in this world or the next.
The Seforno (Devarim 14:1) writes that Jews do not cut their skin or pull their hair out when their loved one dies because, although we miss them, “We are the children of Hashem, we are a holy nation” and those who have left this world will be enjoying rewards greater than any pleasure we could experience in this world.
Like the unborn baby who thinks that his mother’s womb is the whole world and knows nothing of the big wide world outside, some think that our world is the whole world and don’t realise that there is a great world beyond ours. In that world, those who suffered in this world will even praise Hashem for their difficulties because it will be as a result of their maintaining their emuna despite their suffering that they will merit supreme pleasure which will far outweigh the pain they experienced whilst they were alive. Even those kedoshim who have died al Kiddush Hashem will praise Hashem when they receive their tremendous reward in olam haba as is written in the Shemone Esre, “The kedoshim will praise You every day.”
Without a belief in the World to Come, this world can seem unjust; the righteous sometimes suffer, the wicked sometimes prosper. With a belief in the World to Come, our emuna is strong, our incentive to achieve spiritually is enhanced and our acceptance of Hashem’s justice will be complete.