When someone is found guilty of a crime, he may be sent to jail. But that person isn’t the only person who gets punished. His wife loses his companionship. His children lose access to their father. They and his parents are shamed. His employer loses out on an employee, and his customers on his services. The person he used to say “Hello!” to on the way to work every morning gets that much less joy in the morning. For that matter, the people they meet get impacted because the employer faces these people when he is more stressed. The impact of one person’s imprisonment ripples outward.
We are only human beings. We can’t take all that into account when deciding when and how to punish someone.
However, Hashem can. Every person impacted by some tragedy are impacted in some customized way appropriate for their life story.
Rav JB Soloveitchik uses this idea to explain how a “Mi sheBeirakh” works. It is hard enough to understand how someone’s own prayer can cause their fate to be modified. But how would we explain how a sick person’s health would be improved in response to the prayers of people he might not have ever met or ever learn of their prayer or perhaps never even know of their existence?
Rav Soloveitchik answers that the tefillah turns the personal tragedy into a communal one. Across the community, someone does not deserve to hear of the tragedy. Someone’s impact would be unfair. And the community itself, as a corporate entity, has merit that perhaps is greater than that of the sum of its members. The community’s standing is continuous since Avraham, touched by every person along the chain of tradition; its members’ standing dates back to their births.
Today, the day-long search for Rabbi Zev Segal ended when his body was found in his car submerged in the Hackensack River. He was on the way home from his son Nachum Segal’s radio show. Tragedy struck someone whose life is discussed on the airwaves. And due to the time it took to found him, for 24 hours talk and tefillos were at a peak.
I shared an apartment with Nachum in High School, where I knew his brother Yigal, and had Rabbi Zev Segal’s oldest son, Rabbi Nate Segal, as an NCSY Regional Directory.
But there aren’t too many other people or timing for whom the news would spread that rapidly or on that personal a level.
I can’t see a much more clear call for the Mi sheBeirakh effect — for the public to share in the Segals’ pain, evoking the sanctity of the eternal Jewish community. If we are en masse sharing an individual’s suffering, we must each see what our share of the pain, how the event ripples out to us, impacts our lives. What lessons Hashem is imparting to us. It is neither appropriate nor within our ability to try to understand His message to those more closely impacted by the tragedy. However, looking at we can change, ourselves, given knowledge we have of our own actions and mindset, we can analyze our second hand pain and take lesson from it.
More so when, while trying to make sense of their loss, my daughter calls to reassure me, “I’m okay, but there was just an attack at Mercaz, down the hill…” Your heart leaps to your throat; it’s impossible to swallow. And I wonder, with all the sadness hovering around my life the past few days, what exactly am I doing that made this slew of news appropriate for me? In which ways can it motivate me to respond?