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When Tragedy Strikes

When Tragedy Strikes

''Kinos'' by Chassidic artist Hendel Liberman
"Kinos" by Chassidic artist Hendel Liberman

If one were looking around at recent events in the greater Peabody, Massachusetts, community, where I live, one would note that there have been three untimely and tragic deaths of prominent community members, two influential individuals are suddenly battling serious illnesses and a number of young children in their youthful prime have been killed in tragic mishaps.

This is too many people in too close a proximity to ignore.

And it is not only happening in Peabody, Massachussets.

Is this a message from G‑d, calling us all to take heed, or are these just random events?

While this question is a great philosophical one that has been discussed by Jewish scholars over the ages, for many of us, this is a very real reality. And we must find some answers so that we may move forward.

As Jews we are no stranger to tragedy and difficult times. This is the story of our people. From the beginning of time, and highlighted in the book of Exodus which begins with the exile of our people in Egypt, our people have suffered at the hands of our enemies throughout the generations.

A distinction perhaps is that in our past it has been suffering that has been wrought by outside forces, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks etc., while now we seem to be seeing an unidentifiable enemy bringing pain and suffering to individuals and their families and by extension all those who cannot help but be touched, and thus entire communities.

Our suffering has no outside force, no enemy nation upon whom we can lay blame. Whom can we blame for these illnesses for which proper cures don't yet exist? Ultimately we are forced to go back and look to G‑d and say, what is this and why?

I'm not a prophet, who can definitively explain why, and I don't have access to supernatural powers with which to give authoritative answers. I do, however, know that in time of trial, Jews are encouraged to look to the guide book of life, G‑d's blueprint for creation, our Holy Torah and its commentaries, for direction, clarity and inspiration.

A Story

There is a story told about two friends who were followers of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch. Each had certain difficulties in their personal and business lives. Each spoke to the Rebbe about his friend's and his own plight. There was a difference, however, in the manner in which each presented the woes.

After the first chassid described both problems, the Rebbe replied, "It appears that your situation is worse?"

The chassid responded, "Well, about myself, I know that I don't deserve anything better, therefore, it is forbidden to complain about my situation, and I will have to be satisfied with what I have."

The Rebbe covered his holy eyes with his hands and meditated for a short while. Then he said, "'If one prays for his fellow Jew, his own prayers are answered first.' May G‑d (blessed be He), grant you success."

A short while later, the blessing was fulfilled and he amassed great wealth and success.

When the second chassid arrived at the Rebbe, he presented the same situation regarding his and his friend's distress, however he began by discussing his own affairs at great length and in full detail. His entire oratory was devoted to a description of his financial problems and his request for a blessing. After he finished discussing his own situation, he sighed and added that his friend's affairs were also in a very bad state.

"I certainly don't question the judgment of G‑d (blessed be He)," said this second chassid about his friend's troubles, "for whatever He does is undoubtedly the way things ought to be. Nevertheless, my friend deserves great pity."

The Rebbe covered his holy eyes with his hands and meditated deeply, but made no reply. A short while later, two fires broke out at that chassid's warehouses and everything was destroyed, resulting in a loss of several thousand rubles. None of the damage was insured.

A few days later, this chassid traveled to Lubavitch to see the Rebbe and tell him of the two disasters. Upon entering the Rebbe's chamber, he began to weep with great bitterness, saying that the two fires had cost him fifty-thousand rubles. He then poured out his heart in bitter lament.

The Rebbe fixed a stern glance on him, and then said, "When you described your friend's poor situation —the loss of his entire fortune and his large debts —you took comfort in the fact that Heaven acts with justice. But when your own property is involved, you raise a furor and cry bitterly. It seems that your standards regarding other people and those regarding yourself are totally different."

Eventually the Rebbe suggested a path of penitence this chassid, and his wealth, too, was restored.

The message in the story is a clear one. Only regarding one's own difficulties may one say, "G‑d knows what He is doing." Regarding someone else's suffering, one must cry and complain and beg G‑d to restore the other's health, wealth or whatever may be lacking.

Maimonides (Laws of Fasting 1:3) describes a person who sees the difficulties of the community and says, "it is just happenstance and there is no order to these difficulties," as a cruel individual. Maidmonides quotes from the Talmud (Shabbat 106b) which says that when a crisis arrives in a community, it is the duty of the community to introspect into their actions and see if perhaps certain mitzvot need repair or improvement (including those mitzvot between man and G‑d as well as those between man and his fellow human being, especially the command of ahavat yisoel, love for our fellow).

Our sages teach us a two-pronged approach that the Torah advises in times like these. On one hand, when viewing the person/s in crisis, we are obligated to cry out to G‑d in frustration, not accepting G‑d's plan of pain and suffering for the other, protesting G‑d's decision and begging Him to reconsider. On the other hand, for ourselves, we need to realize that this can very well be a not-so-veiled message from G‑d that we, as a community, need to investigate within ourselves and our actions and improve our observance of mitzvot and Torah study.

A verse in Proverbs reads, Et asher yehav Hashem yochiach, which literally means, "He whom G‑d loves He rebukes." On a literal level, this is teaching us to celebrate our struggles as it is a sign that G‑d loves us.

The great Chassid, Rabbi Michel of Zhlotchiv explained that in the Heavenly court they read the same verse differently. Es asher yehav — If you love [your friend], Hashem Yochiach - you will rebuke G‑d. He is not suggesting that one blaspheme, G‑d forbid, but rather, as described earlier, to pray to G‑d as we do everyday in our prayers, for better times and happier occasions and not to accept the difficulties as an acceptable state of affairs.

When you are witness to a suffering, perhaps it is a personal message to you, to use this opportunity to take upon yourself another good deed in memory of those that have passed or in honor of those who need healing.

Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman is director of Chabad of Peabody, Massachusetts.
Drawing by Chassidic artist Hendel Lieberman.
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Anonymous Albuquerque, NM via August 2, 2008

mishaps when tragedy strikes Maybe G-d is trying to show us that we as humans can get along when earthquakes floods,etc. Then we should be able to get along the rest of the time. Reply

Rosa Brooklyn, NY August 1, 2008

Reply by Anonomous to Rosa Hello,

Thank you so much for clarifying "Teshuva" for me: I am uplifted by your words. Posting my comments and questions on has been one of the best ways for me to learn, and grown and hear the wise thoughts of fellow Jews.

Spirituality is a struggle but you have built a virtual Jacob's Ladder of ideas and understanding to which I and countless others grasp in our journey to Teshuva.

I'd like to add that I am fond of popular spirituality books. Imagine my awe when I read the words of the Rebbe; "When we learn to nullify the ego, we will reach a New Age." The Rebbe said it first! Reply

Anonymous August 1, 2008

To Rosa July 28 Not always does Teshuva mean that somebody is sinful. Tehsuva literally means return. When the soul came down to this world it was to a certain degree disconnected from holiness. It came down to make this world, into a holy place just like the world that it was in, before it came down. That is done by increasing in good actions. Sometimes, G-d sends a message to the world saying I want some more good actions. Reply

Davida Coral Springs, FL July 29, 2008

When Tragedy Strikes Powerful conclusion and advice, especially as we approach the nine days. A refuah shleima to the beloved members of your community. May their families find comfort in the Torah inspiration you illuminated in their merit, and may G-d give them miracles. Reply

R Allen Providence, R.I. July 29, 2008

Heavenly Justice? When I was a child, I suffered greatly from illness and mental distress.

I had a chassidic rabbi tell me that this was most likely caused by a previous life. He said that reincarnation is sometimes utilized to bring punishment to the person for sins in a previous life.

Needless to say, this was traumatic (on top of previous trauma) and did no good. Reply

Rosa Brooklyn, NY July 28, 2008

Yours is a powerful and introspective message but may I be more positive by viewing the Jewish community in a better light? I believe we are gathered in great efforts to better our communities, our fellow Jews and the world at large. There are countless gemachs and organizations that serve the needs of families and individuals who need money, jobs, food, shelter, etc. Perhaps I am biased by the amazing response in New York but still, why must Jews continue to be berated and beseeched to teshuva in the face of calamities? What are our great sins deserving of endless suffering? Reply

Freidy Yanover, jnb south africa jnb, south africa July 28, 2008

Clear thoughts shared in a strong and empowering message.

Thank you! Reply

Racheli Metal Las Vegas, NV July 28, 2008

Time to introspect Thank you Rabbi Schusterman for the necessary reminder that tragedy can and must serve as an alarm bell ringing to awaken us from apathy or inaction. May we all take heed, first with our selves and then looking to others so that we can improve our ways, and mend our fences in the larger community. We need NO MORE reminders.

We can and also must beg from G-d that enough is enough - we can't bear the suffering of our fellows any longer.

Whether we are worthy or not, we need Moshiach now! If not in our merit then at least in the merit of our friend, neighbor, fellow Jew. Reply

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