Changing After Tragedy
One year ago, on Rosh Chodesh Nisan 5775, a fire broke out in Brooklyn. Seven children perished, and the entire Jewish People was badly shaken. One year later, as we look back at what happened, I see a powerful message.
Before expounding on this message, I would like to relate the following story that I heard from Harav Ben Tzion Bruk, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshivah of Novardok in Yerushalayim.
After World War I, yeshivah bachurim went back to their home towns. They had spent the war in yeshivah, and had not witnessed what had taken place.
One bachur reported that when he got home and beheld the aftermath, his initial reaction was that everything around him had changed drastically. The buildings were bombed out, the trees were gone, and absolutely nothing was as it had been before the war.
Suddenly this bachur let out a piercing scream from the depths of his heart. He realized that despite all the changes that had occurred, the people of his town were just as jealous and greedy as when he had left town before the war. He thought to himself, After all that has happened, how can they stay the same?
We are suffering from the very same malady as the people of that town. A year ago, when the Sassoon family children passed away, we were all shaken up. How can we be the same? We are obligated to think deeply into what took place a year ago and make changes in our lives as a result.
Step One: Recognizing Hashem’s Infinite Love
In order to make changes in our lives, there is a critical precondition. Hashem’s actions contain infinite depth and if we view them superficially, we will never be able to use them to elevate ourselves. Only if we analyze what happened as if we were studying the most intricate sugya in Shas, can we hope to pull out a message that will help make a lasting change in our lives.
The Sassoon Family fire took place on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. During the levayah of the seven Sassoon children, many of the maspidim mentioned the passuk of bnei Aharon who were burned up on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu, “Bikrovai ekadesh — With those that are close to me I will be sanctified.” (Vayikra 10:3).
It is very difficult to understand what the Torah and Chazal mean in saying that the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu was kiddush Hashem. How was Hashem’s Name sanctified by what happened to bnei Aharon? Hashem’s chessed is endless, in the way He runs the world and provides for every single being.
We don’t understand what Hashem’s love is. The reason for this mistake is that we think of love in human terms.
In truth, Hashem’s love is much, much deeper; it is the highest form of love possible. It is such an elevated form of love that it is impossible for any human being to fathom. This recognition is the first step to changing ourselves after the Sassoon family fire.
Step Two: Recognizing Hashem’s Infinite Chessed
Once we have accepted that Hashem’s love of us is without bounds, we must take this recognition to the next step and try and relate this to His chessed. Our acts of kindness are not always so good. At times, when we do a favor for someone we may just be feeding bad habits.
Our Father in Heaven, however, has infinite love for us. He expresses this love in the way He does acts of kindness for us. And His acts of kindness know no bounds.
In Shemoneh Esrei we describe Hashem as gomel chassadim tovim. When we see things take place that appear to be the opposite, we must realize that our eyes are fooling us. There are no bad actions from Hashem, and everything that He performs is “good chessed.”
Step Three: Recognizing How Small We Are
Once we have accepted that Hashem’s love of us is without bounds, we must take these recognitions one step further. How do these perceptions affect our lives? How can we make sure we will not remain unchanged after witnessing such an earth-shattering event?
The answer is that, in truth, we are so small that we cannot possibly understand. To grasp the kedushah of a tragedy like the deaths of Nadav and Avihu or the Sassoon children, is to grasp how minuscule we are and realize what we need to do. If we think about how small we are then we will stand in awe before Hashem and we will strive to reach true greatness.
How does our smallness manifest itself? We make big issues out of small things. We look at other people who have machlokes or are angry or jealous, and we think how foolish they are. However, when it comes to our own issues, we feel that they are real. When such thoughts come into our head we have to take a step back and remember how small we really are.
The biggest obstacle to achieving the highest spiritual levels is that we do not have a scale of what is big and what is small. As long as we maintain this superficial outlook, we will never go anywhere.
Step Four: Recognizing That We Can Become Bigger
Once we have grasped how small we really are, then we are able to strive for the highest levels of Divine service. Although as humans we are very small, the Torah reveals to us that we can reach the highest levels. We can never reach Hashem’s infinite greatness; we can but touch on this attribute.
The Torah instructs us “v’halachta bidrachav — go in Hashem’s ways.” Jews are meant to learn from Hashem and be like Hashem. One of these commandments is Kedoshim tihiyu; we are commanded to be holy.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 90:2) raises the possibility that we are commanded to be as holy as Hashem Himself. Although the conclusion is that Hashem’s kedushah can never be attained by a human being, we are nevertheless obligated to strive and get as close as we are able to. What does this mean on a practical level?
As we have described, Hashem is completely above these parameters. Hashem’s actions are guided by His infinite love for us. No other factors enter His decision-making process.
We must strive to elevate our lives as closely as possible to this level. This means factoring out considerations of jealousy, hatred and all other bad attributes when making decisions. If we do this, then we will have fulfilled the mitzvah of kedoshim tihiyu .
After the Sassoon family fire, and all of the other tragedies we have witnessed, Hashem will no longer let us be small. We have to cast away our concerns over vanities — all of the things which stop us from achieving true greatness. Only when we do all of this can we be big, and begin to emulate Hashem who is Gomel chassadim tovim, the One who bestows loving-kindness upon all His creations.
Chazal tell us that in the future, we will no longer make the brachah of Dayan Ha’emes, but only the brachah of Hatov u’Meitiv, He Who does good. May we be zocheh to see the day when all machlokes will fall away and Jews will live in harmony. The world will be filled with wisdom, and then we will be big, and we will understand. Until then we have to live with emunah and use tragedies such as the Sassoon family fire to grasp how small we really are.