The Jewish Response to Adversity

The sefarim hakedoshim famously describe a hierarchy of nature, a pyramid with the inanimate at its base and Yisrael at its apogee.

The physical world’s general rule is that things tend toward dissolution, entropy —the breakdown of order into disorder. Rocks and riverbeds slowly but surely wear away, defenseless against the natural forces that break them down.

When living things enter the picture, there is a degree of anti-entropy. Vegetative life introduces an increase of order, with the mineral feeding the growth of complex, multicellular plants; and plants in turn nourish even more complex animals; both fuel supremely complex human life. Life, for the time it exists, favors organization and complexity. It acts against entropy.

Graced with consciousness, humanity goes a step further in its resistance to entropy. Its individuals, of course, like all living things, are eventually fated to physical dissolution; but the selfawareness that is the hallmark of tzelem Elokim provides special strength to resist the “entropy of the soul,” what wears people down, namely adversity. Man, while alive, can resist not only entropy of the body but entropy of the nefesh — the challenges of life that would otherwise wear his spirit down.

The greatest anti-entropy of the human spirit lies in Klal Yisrael, which is capable not only of resisting the forces that would wear a spirit away but of something more, something unique: utilizing those very soul-assaulting forces to gain strength and perseverance.

Upon hearing the horrific threats of the Tochachah, the warning of the consequences of Klal Yisrael’s refusal to shoulder its responsibility, our forebears — we are told by the Midrash — paled from shock and fear. Until, that is, they heard the first words of the parashah that follows the Tochachah — and understood their implication: “Atem nitzavim hayom…You are standing today…”

“Why [Moshe asked the Jews,] will other nations meet their ends, yet you will remain standing? The others, when tragedy overcomes them, only angrily kick, and utter not Hashem’s Name. But you bend, when pain descends, and humble yourselves…The curses give you existence” — (Yalkut, Devarim 29).

Adversity does not break the Jews: it fortifies us. Examples of Jewish fortitude born of disaster abound, both on the individual and collective levels. Closest to us, though, is one of the most formidable: Klal Yisrael’s response to the Churban Europa.

From the crucible the Nazis built for European Jewry emerged not a charred, brittle cinder, but a galvanized, potent, solid ingot.

As soon as they mentally and physically could, the faithful survivors set about the holy task of replanting the seeds of our people’s national essence. Kehillos and yeshivos were established in Eretz Yisrael by Jews who went there after the war; and on what had once been strange and forbidding shores by those who ended up here and elsewhere. The germination of those seeds, and the bursting into blossom of the flowers that resulted have been called wondrous events, but the true marvels were the planters’ emunah and determination.

Such resolve and renewal are the Jewish response to tragedy.

We proceed this week from our yearly reconnection to the seminal Jewish tragedies, the loss of the Batei Mikdash and the resultant exiles of our ancestors.

And as we do, we must not feel broken, but energized — spurred by the re-experience of tragedy to the determination to be stronger in our resolve to turn Klal Yisrael’s day of infamy, Tishah B’Av, into a mo’ed of celebration over the return of what we lost.

The month of Av leads inexorably to Elul. No lack of meaning there.

Harav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zt”l, citing the very Midrash quoted above, identifies the very concept of teshuvah as extracting growth from pain.

For teshuvah, Rav Dessler explains, necessarily begins with pain, with the stinging feeling that one’s actions or thoughts are not what a Jew’s should be. The agony of that confrontation with one’s own inconsistency is the very fuel of teshuvah. Confronting that discomfort, difficult as it might be, is what creates the potential for growth.

“When a person…feels the internal contradiction and is embarrassed with all his heart,” Rav Dessler writes, “he thereby creates in his soul a new existence, a new life. Which is the intent of the holy books [stating] that teshuvah is a type of ‘resurrection of the dead’.”

As Tishah B’Av recedes and Elul draws closer, we take stock of our lives. And we may be pained. But that pain can be an asset, a boon to our successful preparation to arrive at the next signpost of the Jewish year, the Yemei Hadin. Because, for a Jew, pain is not pointless. It is, rather, a signal — and an opportunity — for becoming, with Hashem’s help, stronger still.