Yahrzeit and Simchah

This Shabbos is the first yahrzeit of the children
Aryeh Lev ben Avraham, a”h
Noach Simcha ben Avraham, a”h
Adira Emunah bat Avraham, a”h
Natan Yekutiel ben Avraham, a”h
You may recall the story; four children, were killed when a fire struck their home in Teaneck. Firemen were at the home a mere four hours before, but declared the house safe without ever taking a thermal camera out of the truck.
Ari Seidenfeld, the oldest niftar at age 15, went to high school with my son, and in fact had invited him for Shabbos a short while earlier. The other niftarim were Noah 6, Adira 5, and Natan, a pre-kindergardener with Downs. Another sister called my home the next day from her hospital bed. How do you help your child know what to say to someone who just lost four siblings and at the time didn’t know if her mother would live? I am the “grown-up”, and I had absolutely no idea…

Their mother has asked that people dedicate some of their learning this Shabbos in their memory.

I would add that we should add some more learning as thanks to HQBH for sparing us from such things. Every day that all those many many little things that combine to keep us safe that any one could go wrong ch”v but don’t is an amazing berakhah.

On a related subject, recently Jay Lapidus, a lurker on Avodah and an e-friend to many Jewish list participants, lost his 15 yr old son. (A google search not only found Jay’s blog, Zichron Avi, and Avi’s HS, but numerous software shops, his “davening buddy” and other teens who miss him.) Avi died of acute onset diabetes. Note the word “onset”. This was not a child with a history of diabetes, or any reason to believe his fate would be any different than that of most teenagers. One moment everything is okay, and then keheref ayin — as with the blink of an eye…

And a few days later, I got a scary letter from the local tax department. BH we quickly identified and addresses the error… But at the moment that my wife and I thought we owed the state a 5 digit sum of money we didn’t own, I said to her, “Well, it’s only money. It’s not like we lost our 15 year…” Sentence never finished. I had just realized that our daughter Kayli would have been 15 now. We did in fact lose someone who would have been our 15 year old. Funny how easy it is to simply slip into life as usual.

In fact, that “everything can change in a moment” stuck my father sheyichyeh too. That night he went to bed. Life went on as usual. A couple of hours after going to sleep, the phone rings, my father heard the first words out of my mouth… before I even got to the point, just hearing my tone of voice… and he knew that his entire world had turned over. Keheref ayin.

This is Adar, a time of simchah. This entry is inappropriate (aside from being a break from my usual tone), and yet I feel compelled to share what’s on my mind. So let me conclude more on note for the season.

Hashem’s willingness to show His Mercy exceeds His other traits (as we see them). If this is how tragedy can strike, four children alive, vibrant, playing, one day, gone the next, picture what we mean by “Yeshu’as Hashem keheref ayin — the salvation of G-d will be like the blink of an eye!”

And simchah… What is simchah? “Eizhu ashir? Hasamei’ach bechelqo — Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot.” But too often we take life as usual for granted. Everything goes on. So much of that cheileq “just works”, despite the fact that our lives are far more complex than those programs I write that always have some known bugs. Bechemlah — with Divine compassion as we say in Modeh Ani. Truly, rabba emunasekha! Hashem is both ne’eman, reliable, and has emunah, faith in us.

So yes, certainly, learn in memory those who died too young. And then, learn some more in gratitude for all those many more who didn’t. That tragedies like theirs are the very rare exception, and how blessed is “life as usual”.

Mima’amaqim

Shir haMa’alos: Mima’amaqim qarasikha Hashem
A song of ascents: From the depths, I call You, Hashem

- Tehillim 120:1
I’ve written a number of essays about tragedy from the perspective of philosophy and theory. But there are times when it simply isn’t the right approach.What do you say to someone who is in the middle of facing profound tragedy? A friend of mine recently lost his teenage daughter. You pay a shiv’ah call. What’s the right thing to say? Is there a right thing to say?Rav Nachum ish Gamzu would face every challenge and disappointment with “Gam zu letovah — this too is for the good.” Similarly Rabbi Aqiva, who studied under Rav Nachman ish Gamzu, said, “Everything the All-Merciful does, He does for the good.” Everything has a role in Hashem’s grand scheme. If it occurred, it has a good and positive outcome.

Very nice in theory. But how can a holocaust survivor, someone who lost his entire family, who saw children sent to the crematoria, possibly be asked to embrace this idea? How can parents bereft of their beloved daughter be told “everything has a plan, it’s really for the best” and not feel that the explanation is both emotionally cold and intellectually dishonest (as Rabbi JB Soloveitchik put it)? Particularly since rare is the glimpse that we finite humans get into the infinite and Absolute Divine Wisdom.

We find the same phenomenon in the book of Iyov. The book opens telling the reader the reason for Iyov’s future woes. The Satan, the challenging angel, believes that Iyov has mastered the art of serving G-d from plenty, and needs to learn how to serve Him even in the face of poverty and adversity. Yet Iyov goes through one disaster after another, seeks their meaning, and never finds one. The book closes with Hashem telling him that the search is futile, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Tell, if you know the understanding!” (Iyov 38:3) Knowing the reason exists is a far cry from either being able to understand it or embrace it.

The word “aveilus” is translated “mourning”. Etymologically, though, it’s a form of the word “aval — but”. Aveilus is a time when none of the answers make sense; the aveil says, “I know that Hashem has his reasons, but …” When my wife and I lost our infant daughter, a recurring question in my mind was, “Yes, but why me?” Aveilus is a state where the gap between our knowledge and our hearts is acute and the chasm of pain impassable.

So what does someone do when they find themselves “walking in the valley of Deathshadow”? If it’s not the right time for explanations, what does one say?

The standard formula is “May the Omnipresent comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The message is that first, G-d is everywhere — He is with you in your pain. And second, you are not a single person suffering alone.

Shir hama’alos — What is the song of ascents, the means of lifting up from the pit of despair?

“From the depths I call you, Hashem.” “Qarov Hashem lekhol qor’av, lekhol asher yiqra’uhu be’emes — Hashem is close to all who call Him, to anyone who truthfully calls Him.” (Ashrei; Tehillim 145:18) Calling out to Hashem from the depths of one soul and the depths of despair brings Him close.

At the very moment that one is grappling with “Why me, G-d?” one is calling out to Hashem with unadulterated honesty and the core of one’s being. The sufferer is seeking a personal relationship with the A-lmighty. A tragic period in our lives is a unique opportunity not to explain Hashem, but to come close to Him. Not seek explanations, but to be warmed by his embrace.

Idealism

Judaism has numerous words for particular ideals; there is the tzadik, the chasid, the ba’al teshuvah, etc… But does it have a word for idealism itself – for the inherent value of a burning desire to pursue an ideal?

This question is quite important. If there is no word for idealism in lashon hakodesh, neither in biblical Hebrew nor rabbinic idiom, how can we argue that Judaism has such a value?

I think we can identify such a term. And our story starts with R’ Saadia Gaon’s analysis of laughter.

A

It happened that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road and heard the sound of the Roman masses from Pelitus, one hundred and twenty mil away. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They asked him, “Why do you laugh?” He said to them, “And you, why do you cry?”

They said to him, “These pagans, who bow to images and bring offerings to idolatry, dwell in security and tranquility, whereas we — the house [that is] the footstool of our God has been burned by fire. Shall we not cry?”

He said to them, “It is for that reason that I laugh. If this is how it is for those who violate His will, then all the more so for those who perform His will!

One time, they were ascending to Jerusalem. When they reached Har HaTzofim [the first point from which one can see the Temple Mount] they rent their garments. When they reached the Har HaBayis, they saw a fox leaving the [site of] the qodesh ha-qodashim [the innermost sanctum of the Temple]. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He responded, “Why do you cry?”

They said to him, “The site about which it is written: ‘The foreigner who approaches shall be put to death’ (Bamidbar 1) — now foxes walk there, and we shall not cry?”

He said to them, “Therefore I laugh. For it is written, ‘I called upon reliable witnesses — Uriyah the Kohen, and Zechariah ben Yevarecheihu’ (Yishayahu 8:2). What does Uriyah have to do with
Zechariah — Uriyah [lived] during the First Temple [period], whereas Zechariah [lived] during the Second Temple [era]! Rather, the verse hinges the prophecy of Zechariah on the prophecy of Uriyah. In [a prophecy of] Uriyah it is written, ‘Therefore, because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field,’ (Mikhah 3) and in [a prophecy of] Zechariah it is written, ‘There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem.’ (Zechariah 7) So long as Uriyah’s prophecy was unfulfilled, I feared lest Zechariah’s prophecy will not be fulfilled. Now that Uriyah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.”

They said to him: “Akiva, you have consoled us; Akiva, you have consoled us.”

- Makkos 24a-25b

When Rabbi Eliezer became ill, his students went to visit him. He said to them, “There is great anger in the world” [referring to Hashem's giving power to the Romans]. They started to cry, except Rabbi Akiva who laughed. They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He answered them, “And why do you cry?” They said to him, “Is it possible that one sees the scroll of the Torah in pain, and we do not weep?”

He responded, “It is for that reason that I laughed. As long as I saw my rebbe, that his wine did not turn sour, his flax did not get smitten, his oil did not spoil, and honey did not crystallize, I could say that perhaps ch”v rebbe had received his world [now, not in the world-to-come]. But now that I see that rebbe suffers, I am happy.” [Rabbi Eliezer] said to [Rabbi Akiva], “Did I neglect any matter of the Torah [for which I now suffer]?” [Rabbi Akiva] said to him, “Our rebbe, you taught us, ‘For there is no righteous man on earth who does good without sinning.’ (Koheles 7:20)”

-Sanhedrin 101a

There are three famous stories associated with the fall of the Temple in which R’ Akiva laughs: upon hearing Romans on the attack miles away, upon seeing foxes running in and out amongst the ruins on the Temple Mount, and when he witnessed R’ Eliezer’s martyrdom. And in all three cases the Sages ask why, how can he cry at such an apparently inappropriate time?

R’ Saadia Gaon defines laughter as the reaction people have to a sudden realization of an underlying truth. (It took me a while to craft that statement, even so, you may need to reread it once or twice.) Interestingly, Robert Lynch, an anthropologist recently studying the topic of humor by experimenting as a stand-up comic, reached a similar conclusion:

He recently conducted an experiment that proves this. He had volunteers listen to an edgy, stand-up comic named Bill Burr.

“He has a joke about why men make more money than women for doing the exact some job,” Lynch says. “The punchline is, ‘I’ll tell you why. In the unlikely case we are both on the Titanic and it starts to sink, you get to leave with the kids and I get to stay. So call it a dollar-an-hour surcharge.’”

Lynch also gave the volunteers a psychological test that measured their unconscious gender attitudes. What he found was that volunteers with traditional gender views — people who believed women ought to stay home, rather than go to work — laughed harder at that joke than volunteers with more progressive views.

“People’s implicit beliefs, unconscious beliefs and preferences, matched what they found funny,” Lynch says.

A joke, in other words, is like a little brain scan: When we laugh, we reveal what’s inside us.

Lynch thinks evolution may have hardwired a sense of humor into our species because laughter serves as a signal. When you and I laugh at the same joke, we signal to each other that we share the same values, the same beliefs. This may be why people all over the world want friends and romantic partners who share their sense of humor.

In another experiment, Lynch sought to understand the connection between laughter and the psychological trait of self-deception.

Self-deceivers are people who don’t see their own values, motives and beliefs clearly.

“I simply gave people a self-deception test and measured their facial expressions in response to a stand-up comedian,” he says. “And there was a very strong association between the two.”

Self-deceivers were less likely to laugh.

It made sense to Lynch: You laugh when a joke resonates with your inner values and beliefs. If you’re out of touch with your own values and beliefs — as self-deceivers are — you’re less likely to find jokes funny.

– NPR: “An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar…” by Shankar Vedantam, 6 Aug 2012

Humor is a sudden realization of truth, and so, when R’ Akiva suddenly saw a truth, he laughed.

R’ Saadia adds that “simchah” is the kind of happiness associated with laughter.

According to R’ SR Hirsch’s usual etymological rules (see also R’ Matisyahu Clark’s “Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew”), /s-m-ch/ would be a more intensive/active form of /s-m-h/. The latter, R’ Hirsch tells us, is the root from which we get “sheim” (to name). Understanding something is underlying reality does fit that relationship to naming it.

The mishnah tells us, “Eizehu ashir? Hasamei’ach bichelko.” (Who is wealthy? One who is samei’ach with his lot.) The ashir is happy with what he has because he knows why he has what he does, and why he doesn’t have what he doesn’t. He understands why this lot is distinctly his.

R’ Saadia Gaon continues by explaining that “yesharim” (straight ones) are those who see through to this inner truth, who head straight for it without taking detours or compromises. Which is why “Or zaru’ah latzadik, ulyishrei leiv simchah.” (A light is sown for the righteous, and simchah for the yesharim of heart.) mitzvos are the means: “Pekudei Hashem yesharim, misamchei leiv…” (The appointments of Hashem are yesharim, they bring simchah to the heart.) The yashar sees mitzvos as pekudim, appointments. Calling him to a higher role.

So I would like to suggest “yashar” as the term for idealism. R’ Saadia’s description seems to fit someone who goes straight for the fundamental truths, ideals, without compromising with “the needs of living in ‘the real world’”.

Ivdu es Hashem besimchah” (Serve Hashem in simchah) is to serve Him while keeping the ideal in focus. The person who is oveid besimchah is yashar. However, the person who is still struggling toward that ideal and isn’t there yet is also an idealist and also yashar – someone who is heading straight toward the goal. Being besimchah means having the ideal in sight. Being yashar means working toward that ideal – whether or not you have it fully in sight yet.

B

For three of the four occurrences of the alef-beis in megillas Eichah, the acrostics in chapters 2 through 4, the letter pei precedes ayin. Why?

Chazal relate this to the first calamity of Tish’a B’av, the meraglim (the spies sent by the exodus generation to Israel). They put their peh before their einayim, their mouths before their eyes. But the meraglim didn’t lie; they did describe what they actually saw. There really were giants and strong walled cities and abnormally huge fruit, etc…

What they lacked was simchah – knowledge of the underlying truth. Without that the meraglim reconstructed the evidence and reached a conclusion totally opposite from reality. They saw, but they were blind.

The Sifri writes (as quoted in Rashi on parashas Matos 30:2) that Moshe Rabbeinu alone was able to say “Zeh hadavar” (this is the idea), other prophets only had “Koh amar Hashem” (“like this”, not “this”, G-d said). Prophecy only comes when the person is besimchah; the ability to see “koh” is from a position of simchah.

Which brings us to parashas Devarim and megillas Eichah’s cry “Eichah?” (How can it be?) which the gemara relates back to G-d’s call to Adam, “Ayekoh?” (Where are you?) Hashem didn’t ask Adam for his only for his location, but also “Where is your ‘koh‘, your ‘like this’, the ideal you pursue? Without “zeh divar Hashem“, without even “koh amar Hashem” there can be no ish yashar. Only the eichah of those who refuse to see. The pei preceeds the ayin. The sin of the meraglim survived down to the generation of Yirmiyahu. Which is why Chazal worn us “when Av arrives, we reduce in simchah“. The events confuse us, it’s hard to feel G-d’s presence, and so the Shechinah too is in exile.

C

Venomar lifanav shir chadash al ge’ulaseinu vi’al pedus nafsheinu“. (And we will say before Him a new song, on our freedom and the redemption of our souls. Passover Haggadah)

Who says Hallel? Hallel is reserved for the revealed, the obvious, miracle. The daily hidden miracle doesn’t get Hallel – aren’t even allowed to get Hallel. One who says Hallel every day is a labeled a heretic. (Shabbos 118b) Hallel is said besimchah, when one can clearly see the fundamental truth. As it says in Tehillim, and included in Shacharis for Shabbos and Yom Tov, “Ranenu tzadikim Bashem, layesharim navah sehillah.” (Tzaddikim rejoice in G-d, for yesharim, tehillah” – from the same /h-l-l/ root as hallel – “is pleasant.” Which is then elaborated in Nusach Ashkenaz, “Befi yesharim tis-hallal…

Rashi on Taanis 15a comments that a yashar is on a higher plane than a tzadik. And the Netziv notes that Chazal call the book of Bereishis “Seifer haYesharim“. The value of pursuing the ideal is a core message of an entire book of the Torah! Our forefathers are praised as being yashar in particular. Which brings a totally new meaning to Hashem’s statement to Avraham: “because [only] from Yitzchak” – who is named for laugher! – “shall be called your offspring be called yours” (Bereishis 21:12).

D

This progression, from the “zeh hadavar” of parashas Matos to the “Eichah?” of Devarim and Tisha’ Be’av, leads us to this weekend – Tu Be’av and Shabbos Nachamu.

The haftorah opens “‘Nachamu nachamu ami’, yomar E-lokeichem.” (‘Be comforted, be comforted, My people’, your G-d will say. Yeshaiah 40:1) Nechamah is being reconciled with something that had happened because one understands it had a purpose. It is a part of “samei’ach bechelko“, understanding that there is a point to what one doesn’t have. Returning from the bewilderment of suffering and being able to look back upon it in context.

The navi goes on a bit later (40:3) to say, “A voice calls, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of Hashem; in the aravah, the desert, make yashar the path to our G-d.’” To take that nechamah, and use that regained understanding as motivation to be yashar in our avodas Hashem.

Mesechtes Ta’nis ends with a quote from R’ Shim’on ben Gamliel, that there are no holidays in the Jewish calendar greater than Yom Kippur and Tu Be’Av. Note that one is a return to Hashem from something we did, the other returning to Him after the incomprehensibility of what He did.

On Tu Be’Av, when we recover simchah after the Three Weeks, was when women tried to find a husband. And each told their prospectives not to put the peh before the ayin but to look for the woman’s real qualities. “Charisma is a lie, and beauty is vain, a woman who has awe for G-d – she shall be praised (tis-halal).” (Mishlei 31:30) “Give her of the fruits of her labors; and they, the things she makes, will praise here – viyhaleluha, again the notion of hallel! – in the gates.” (ibid 31) “Go out and see, daughters of Tzion, the king Shelomo in his crown which his mother crowned him, on the day of his wedding; on the day of the simchah of his heart.” The Talmud asks, “What is the day of the simchah of his heart? The day the Beis Hamikdash was built.”

Be comforted, everything we have been through and are still going through is so that that day can again come!

Yiyasheir kochachem!