I just returned from the funeral of my 11 year old cousin, Chaya Spalter, and my mind is a whirl. I have never been to the funeral of a child, and as anyone especially a parent can imagine, the grief is overwhelming. It is one of the most abnormal and cruel twists of fate that can ever occur. The notion of a parent burying a child, C”V, turns the natural ways of the world on its head.
My Uncle spoke very powerfully about the concept of faith, G-dly actions we cannot understand and how to move on. But as I drove home, I could not help but ponder, how do we apply this to our daily lives? What lesson do we take away from this? How is it that so many chapters of tehillim were said, so many tears were shed, yet two parents and a bunch of siblings are sitting shiva this week?
As Jews, when faced with question like this, we turn to the Torah for guidance and inspiration. To make some sense of the fog. As divine providence would have it, the way Pessach fell out this year caused that we should learn the portion of Shemini three consecutive weeks in a row. This portion of the Torah relates the story of how Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, were suddenly ripped from this world in one fell swoop. When Moshe comforts Aaron, he tells him: Now I know that they were greater than me and you. Hashem told me that Bekrovai E’Kadesh- through those that I am close to, I will become sanctified. ‘I thought’, said Moshe, ‘that it would be me and you. Now I see that they are greater than both of us!’
First of all, who said they died because they were great? The commentaries give us a whole laundry lists of misdeeds they did that brought about their death. Second of all, even if they were great, who says they were greater than Moshe and Aaron? G-d can have many people He considers close to him at varying levels. Perhaps they were a level below Moshe and Aaron?
The Kli Yakor explains that when G-d wants to send a message to the world, he doesn’t kill evil or even mediocre people. He specifically targets the best of the best. Only through the passing of the righteous can the communication properly be transmitted to the rest of us. If a regular person dies, it does not tend to impact us too much. But when a righteous person dies, especially for the diminutive, minute misdeeds that are attributed to Nadav and Avihu, that makes everyone sit up and take notice. If these righteous people can have that happen to them, even though they are on this high spiritual level, how much more so can such a thing happen to me! I had better correct my ways. This is why G-d says that ‘through those that are close to me, I become sanctified’. Everyone who sees this, will hopefully take it to heart and bring themselves closer to G-d, thereby sanctifying Him. That is how Moshe knew that they must have been the greatest. Only through the very public and very tragic passing of the spiritual elite, can the message really come across.
The same concept applies to our praying. If you really think about it, why do we pray that someone who is sick should get better? Are we questioning G-d’s ways? Are we hoping to change His mind? Assuming He does change His mind, does that mean He was mistaken in his earlier decision to make the person sick in the first place? G-d, to whom the past present and future is completely laid out before Him, changing His mind would mean that His earlier determination was possibly incorrect. Do you really want a G-d whose mind is changeable? Then to add insult to injury, before and after praying we give charity, as if we are bribing G-d with our good deeds. Do we really want a G-d that is so fickle and bribable?
The reality is, we daven not to change G-d’s mind, but to change ourselves. We give charity not to show G-d what good boys and girls we are, but to improve our sensitivity towards our fellow man, improving our human interaction. That is how we can override decrees. It’s not that, heaven forbid, G-d changed his mind. That is a logical absurdity! Rather, the decree was made on so-and-so the son of so-and-so, as they are in their current spiritual state, that such-and-such should happen. However, by davening and improving oneself, you are no longer the same so-and-so you were before. You are now on a different spiritual plane. You changed your status, G-d didn’t change His mind. Likewise, by a community bettering itself, it can change the spiritual playing field so that it impacts the individuals in the community that require a different outcome then what they are currently facing. That is what we need to strive for. If the end result seemingly didn’t change, that does not necessarily mean we failed. We don’t understand G-d’s ways and infinite wisdom. But we can understand what He wants from us: constant refinement on both the spiritual level and in our human interactions.
No one can ever say why Hashem chose to take a young girl in the prime of her life. But the take away message is clear: if G-d can take back the soul of a young girl, still in its pristine and pure form- actually I would argue that after suffering for almost a third of her life, her soul was on a loftier level then when it first came down here – how much more so do the rest of us need to take notice and find ways to improve ourselves quickly. If her parents, faced with the most difficult of challenges, were able to be stoic and have faith in the most trying of times, how much more so do we need to have faith with the little challenges life throws our way, that pale in comparison. We may not know the ‘why’, but we can certainly know the ‘what’ we need to walk away with.
May it be Hashem’s will, that ‘death be eternally swallowed up’ and all pain and suffering be removed from this world so that we can rejoice, together with Chaya, with the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu, speedily, Amen!
By Sruli Schochet