Opportunities in Trying Times

Yehudah Halevi encapsulated in a few words the emotions of the Jewish heart: “My heart is in the East [a reference to Eretz Yisrael] and I am in the West.” News from Eretz Yisrael, whatever and whenever, is not just current events but part of a process that affects every Jew. The Jewish heart is eternally connected to Eretz Yisrael and the Jews who live there — all the more so in times of crisis. This being the case, it is natural that the violence and fear that has affected so many people there has shaken loyal Jews of all stripes to their core. Nevertheless, Jewish people are seasoned to handle perilous situations. We ought to seek ways how to shed light into darkness, give clarity to confusion.

There is a fascinating story that might guide us in our situation. The Rebbe Reb Bunim of Peshischa, zy”a, lived through a period of revolution, when the Poles rose up against Czarist Russia. It was a time of great tumult, and the tzaddik himself was thrown out of his home by Cossacks who took it over for their own use. Finding himself in this challenging and dangerous situation, the Rebbe’s reaction was that now would be an opportune time to finally grasp a certain Tosafos that he was never able to understand.

That he was able to remain focused on intricacies of Torah study despite such circumstances certainly illustrates greatness. But what did the Rebbe Reb Bunim mean by saying that the havoc was an opportunity to make clear what he didn’t understand until then?

The tzaddik himself explained his statement in a fascinating way. Torah is a heavenly gift and one must merit comprehending it. It is similar to a treasure that is hidden behind locked gates and the keys stored away. The spiritual gates are not open at all times, nor are they open to all people. One must be worthy of entering gates that are initially closed to him. However, this is only as long as normal circumstances prevail.

When we see tumult in our world, we are only seeing a part of the story. Political or social unrest is merely a reflection or permutation of what is occurring in the higher spheres. As such, if we see that the normal order of society is thrown into chaos,  then it is a sign that the usual rules of the spiritual world have been suspended as well. The real theater of war is in the heavens, and if so, gates that would normally be locked to an individual might be open and (so to speak) unguarded now. The Rebbe Reb Bunim never lost focus. For him, the understanding of a Tosafos was not a mere intellectual endeavor but a gate leading to a further closeness to Hashem. He identified the tumult in his house as the opportunity of a lifetime to enter this gate.

Here lies the guide for us as well. Our usual outlook on times when the middas hadin, Hashem’s strict judgment, seems to be dominant is to view it as a time of difficulty and distress. This is certainly a legitimate conclusion. Chazal tell us that once Hashem permits the destructive forces in the world to act, they may not differentiate between the wicked and the righteous. It is a scary time for everyone, as we know that no mortal is free of sin.

However, the Rebbe Reb Bunim guided us to a deeper perspective, to focus on the fact that precisely because the regular rules of the world do not apply, it goes both ways. The heavenly gates are now unlocked, not only for the undesirable and destructive but for the desirable and constructive as well. With Torah and tefillah one can attain things that are normally beyond one’s abilities and hidden away behind locked gates.A very similar lesson can be learned from Korach. Although the Arizal points out that the final letters of the words “tzaddik ka’tamar yifrach” spell out Korach’s name, a sign of his spiritual stature, at the time that he challenged Moshe Rabbeinu’s authority, he was certainly in the wrong. So grave was his offense that no existing punishment sufficed for him and Hashem brought into existence a briah chadashah — a new creation, the pi haaretz that swallowed up Korach and his followers. The simple view of this phenomenon illustrates the severity of his misdeed and the appropriate punishment for it.

However, commentaries point out another point of view. A punishment dictated by the Torah is, in essence, not merely part of a disciplinary system, but a means of kapparah, atonement, for the negative effect of aveiros. A passage of the Zohar indicates that there are certain aveiros for which one cannot attain kapparah. For such an aveirah, Korach’s punishment — the “new creation” that broke the laws of nature, highlighting the severity of his sin — was at the same time a departure from the norm, allowing atonement for what would otherwise have been an irreversible sin. Hashem never gives us a one-sided situation. The most terrible of circumstances always have the potential to be turned into something very positive. When we hear of difficult times, it is a usual and appropriate reaction to increase our Torah, tefillah and maasim tovim. However, this is not only because we believe that it could help the situation, but because we should sense that the gates of Heaven are open. It is a time when we can grasp and achieve things that we would not be able to in times of greater serenity.

This applies not only to spiritual goals, but in all areas of life. A few years ago, a politician coined a quotable soundbite when he said, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

It is something that we see commonly. There are times when parents and children have a strained relationship for years, and when they must confront a crisis, it brings them together. Crisis can cause people to shut down, but it often can be an impetus for them to open up.

No matter how undesired a situation is, despair is never an option for Klal Yisrael. It is not part of our lexicon. There is no test over which we are not able to prevail; rather, it is up to us to find the opportunity contained within it. What our brethren in Eretz Yisrael are experiencing over the past weeks is certainly cause for grave concern, but with many gates open so wide, with Hashem’s help we will not only prevail but turn it for the better.