Vaetchanan – Shabbat Nachamu 5782 – Where is Our Nechama?

Immediately following Tisha B’Av and the related stringencies we keep until the following day at chatzot, we herald in a wave of comfort. This Shabbat is known as “Shabbat Nachamu” coming from the words of the Haftarah “Nachamu, Nachamu Ami, Comfort, Comfort my nation,” and this verse ushers in seven consecutive weeks of consolation through words of our prophets. As is often the case, we look around in our lives and we wonder where this nechama is supposed to be. Sometimes it hits much harder, like in the weeks of the shiva dinechemta when war raged in Israel. Shabbat Nachamu 2006 was only a few weeks after the terrifying capture of IDF soldiers Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser, and Eldad Regev, and the heartbreaking saga of the capture and murder of Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrah in 2014. Then, as in other times of tumult for our people, Tisha B’Av came and went but the nechama was seemingly anywhere but among us.

In his youth, Rabbi Soloveitchik once asked his father why there are so many unresolved questions across the Talmud. His father answered him that not every event can be comprehended by human beings. It’s one of the most frustrating things. Unfortunately, I don’t really have an answer, but I can try and put forth a suggestion about prospective. 

One of the most spurious claims about Jews in modern times is the trope of dual loyalty. But being a member of Klal Yisrael means that we live with the duality of being able to celebrate amid sadness. We add many customs of mourning and remembrance at every Jewish wedding, a time of otherwise unbridled happiness.

We can go back in time and pour over the various events that have befallen the Jewish people and find silver linings. The Gemara at the end of Makkot (24b) recounts the story of Rabbi Akiva and three other sages walking by the ruins of the Beit Hamikdash when they spotted a fox running around the spot where the kodesh hakodashim once stood. The sages started weeping bitterly, while Rabbi Akiva began to laugh. His colleagues looked were puzzled at how he was able to take delight in such a spectacle. Rabbi Akiva answered them now that he has seen the prophecy or Uriah Hanavi be fulfilled, regarding the Holy Temple having been ravaged, so too we now know that the nevuah of Zechariah Hanavi, that again the streets of Jerusalem will be filled with old men and women, will surely come to fruition. Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues answered back to him “Akiva you have comforted us, Akiva you have comforted us.

If we all employ the approach of Rabbi Akiva’s holy cohort, we may still be crying uncontrollably. True, we know there are horrible things going on around us, but we must realize that better days are ahead of us. Rabbi Akiva’s perspective did not undo the destruction that occurred or rebuild the Temple right then and there.

Even amid our sadness and pain, it’s incredible to look back and marvel at how our communities come together when one of our own is in need. Meal trains, Tehillim chats, etc. Even if the results do not turn out the way we want them to, our efforts aren’t for naught. To paraphrase Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk on how and when one can find God in their lives, we can find nechama wherever we let it in. Let us find nechama from the words of the pasukim from our Parsha: “From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are distressed, and all these things happen upon you in the end of days, then you will return to the Lord your God and obey Him. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; He will not let you loose or destroy you; neither will He forget the covenant of your fathers, which He swore to them. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; He will not let you loose or destroy you; neither will He forget the covenant of your fathers, which He swore to them.” Rashi comments that “not let you loose” means that He will not loosen his hold on you, that we will always be close to the Almighty no matter what the circumstance.

Being comforted doesn’t mean that everything will automatically be better or go back to the way it was. One of the most touching videos I’ve seen that helps hammer this message home is from Chai Lifeline where Rabbi Yerucham Olshin, one of the four heads of the country’s largest yeshiva, is at a hospital visiting a young girl with a brain tumor. The girls asks the rosh yeshiva for a bracha that she should be able to go to camp, and Rav Olshin responds with a bracha. She the clarifies, “no, I mean like right away!” This child has been in and out of the hospital battling her illness. She doesn’t ask for a bracha that she should be immediately healed and there should be no trace of the tumor ever again, while we know she would certainly want this. The blessing she sought was that she could go to camp, to feel like a regular child “because it’s the only place where everyone understands me. At camp, I don’t feel so alone because I see that everyone is going through a hard time.” In the end, while she was too sick to attend camp for the whole session, her doctors gave clearance for to go up for a couple of days. You can see the difference on her face before, as she talks to the rosh yeshiva, and after she returns from her short visit.

May Hashem grant us the strength to always find comfort.

When Tisha B’Av Falls on Shabbat

Haas Promenade, Jerusalem, Israel – Photo © Tami Porath, 2016

There are many that will jump to tell you that this year’s commemoration of Tisha B’Av is a nidcheh, pushed off from it’s original date. In truth, 9 Av takes place on Shabbat, a time when we do not fast (unless it’s Yom Kippur) or mourn publicly. So 10 Av is a day every few years that has all the stringencies of the preceding day’s practices of mourning. True, there are leniencies with regard that exist in a year when Tisha B’Av is pushed off, and there are those who will explain that this is a reason for us to, potentially, “temper” our sadness. While I’m not one who usually tells people to wallow in sadness, there is still reason to remain somber on this “nidcheh.”

-First and foremost, most of the Temple itself was consumed by fire on the 10th of Av. It’s for this reason that Rav Yochanan in the Gemara (Taanit 29a) states that had he been around during the establishment of this mournful day, he would’ve fought to institute the fast on the 10th, not the 9th. The rabbis don’t tell Rav Yochanan that he’s mistaken in his approach, but the answer given is that it’s preferable to mark the tragedy on the day it began.

-Second, even with the blessing of the modern state of Israel, we’re still so incomplete without the Beit HaMikdash and what the Messianic era will entail. One of the most meaningful moment’s I’ve spent is Israel is on Tisha B’Av, which I’ve done twice. The first time was on a summer program that took us to the Haas Promenade (the Tayelet) for our reading of Eicha. It was such a moving, meaningful experience that when I ran a trip to Israel seven summers later, I brought my group there to read Eicha. It’s one thing to read the megillah while in an Israeli shul, but it’s another to recite it while actually overlooking the very site where the Temples once stood. You can see the Old City of Jerusalem its modern-day splendor, but the panoramic image is glaringly incomplete. It’s not just the physical structure missing from the landscape that causes us to weep.

-Finally, the Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:1) frighteningly explains that every generation that does not see the Beit HaMikdash rebuilt it’s as if they destroyed it. Many often misinterpret this phrase to teach that it’s as if the Temple was destroyed in one’s lifetime if a new one doesn’t descend from Heaven. What the Yerushalmi actually says is that in any generation in which it’s not rebuilt it’s as if they destroyed it. It’s as if we climbed up to Har HaBayit and laid siege to the holiest space to our people. Not the Romans, Greeks, or anyone else.

Us.

There are various differences in explanation, among the Gemara and other Halachic works, of what it will be like when Mashiach ultimately arrives. Whether or not there will be supernatural events happening every day or it won’t be much different than it is now, at the very least it will be a time of peace. A time when the revivification of the dead will take place, where we can see and connect with those dear to us who have passed on.

Tisha B’Av is a nidcheh this year because of Shabbat and the various practices of mourning are applied today. Let’s hope, and do what we can, so that next year Tisha B’Av can be pushed off because it’s no longer a day of mourning, but a day of happiness and celebration.

Devarim 5782 – Making a Beeline for Good

It’s been a while…

Towards the beginning of Parshat Devarim, the verse (1:44) reads “And the Emorite who dwells on that mountain went out against you and pursued you as the bees do…” At first glance, it seems a bit odd. When one describes an attack or battle and wants to convey a sense of power and might, there are plenty of other descriptors that one could use. Bees? What is the reason for this seemingly strange comparison? 

Rashi comments on this verse that just when a bee strikes someone by stinging them it dies immediately thereafter, so too the Emorites, after attacking the Jewish nation, also died (or were killed) immediately. Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik, the Brisker Rav, helps us understand this idea even further. What would be considered to be more malicious: harming a weaker target who will not retaliate at all or going after a much stronger individual who will surely strike back with much greater force? It may be “easier” to pick on a target that you know you can subdue but it shows a greater amount of disdain for your enemy when you know they’ll wallop you after your initial blow. The Brisker Rav says that although the bees know they’re going to die right after they sting, they adamantly sting nonetheless. This is similar to the Emorite nation, who showed such hatred to the nation of Israel, and knew they were going to ultimately lose anyway, went forth and attacked. 

The Brisker Rav continues that this insight regarding bees can help us comprehend psukim in Tehillim that we recite as part of Hallel. “Kol goyim svavuni, beshem Hashem ki amilam, sabuni gam svavuni beshem Hashem ki amilam, sabuni k’dvorim…” or “All nations surround me; but in the name of the Lord I will cut them down! They surround me; indeed, they surround me; but in the name of the Lord I will cut them down! They surround me like bees.” The Vilna Gaon ponders why the Psalmist uses the phrase “surround” so many times. The Gra continues that when a city is under siege and surrounded by enemy forces, the attackers may sense a weak point in their army and send reinforcements to produce a second line of defense. Not only will this provide further protection, but it will prove to their advantage again by having more soldiers ready to pillage and plunder once the city siege is underway. Yet, we see from the words of Tehillim that it is we who will yield triumphant, even staring down such daunting foes with vicious battle plans. Even if the assault will prove to soon be fatal for our foes.  

When dealing with an adversary with nothing, or everything, to lose, this type of ambush can be more demoralizing than a battle against a stronger opponent. Think back to Amalek as they bombarded the nascent Jewish nation as they left Egypt. Bnai Yisrael had just seen the most incredible miracle, something that the rest of the world was both mesmerized and terrified over. The very end of Parshat Ki Teitzei reminds us of how Amalek “happened” upon us here, picking specifically on the weak and weary stragglers, with no regard for the Jewish people or their God. The word for “happened upon you,” “karcha”, can also mean to cool down. Rashi explains that Bnai Yisrael were like a hot bath that no one would want to attempt to enter for fear of being burned. Amalek knew they would be scalded, but they took the approach of trying to “cool down” the Israelites for another nation to ultimately attack and overpower them. This is precisely the sort of attack referenced by the bees in Parshat Devarim. 

I’d like to take this approach further still, with something beyond the words of Rashi and the Brisker Rav. Generally, people do not like bees. There are indeed exceptions to this “rule,” but most often people will run in the opposite direction from these creatures. When one feels their sting it’s of little comfort that this bee will soon die and not harm them again. Dealing with the effects of the sting are painful at best and can be fatal at worst. Furthermore, why do I care if this bee dies? There are plenty more where that one came from! 

Years ago, while not doing research about bees or this Dvar Torah but watching a TV show about invasive pest removal, I learned something fascinating about these insects. Remember learning about pheromones in 6th grade biology, those chemicals you give off when you’re around other people? Other animals give them off as well, including bees. When they sense that there’s trouble with their hive or from a predator, they give off pheromones that alert other bees that they’re in trouble. In your quest to vanquish one lowly bee you may suddenly wind up with an entire swarm out to contend with. 

I think the above approaches about bees can help us take action during the current time period on our calendar as well. There is no shortage of calamities, both ancient and even contemporary, that have befallen the Jewish people in the three weeks from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av. We know that the resentment of the Emorites is likened to bees, meant to tell us of the singular focus of that hatred no matter the cost. We must use that exact singular focus in redoubling our efforts of loving and helping one another. Using the approach of the Gra, look for the “weaknesses,” the potential circumstances that will leave people susceptible and vulnerable, and help shore up those gaps. Like the bee that stings with reckless abandon knowing that it will bring upon itself its own demise, we must give to and help those around us. We have Tehillim WhatApp groups, Meal Trains and CaringBridge pages and other ways to alert the masses that there are those who need our support. Oftentimes people don’t know what to do to connect to the sense of loss that we’re supposed to feel over the Temples we’ve lost. But there is plenty of loss around us today, and not only should we sense it, but can help transform it into positivity, which can lead to the ultimate hope: the geulah shleima.


This Dvar Torah is written in memory of my grandfather, William Radman (Akiva ben Yehoshua). Although I’ve heard so much about him, as you can likely surmise, I am named for him and was never privileged to meet him. I cannot, therefore, confirm or deny any thoughts of his pertaining to bees or other winged, stinging insects. But as his yahrtzeit falls today, 7 Av, I am left thinking that his approach to bees would be more in line with “don’t bother them and they won’t bother you” and with regard to helping others, to do so as much as possible.