By Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
Jewish history is replete with heroes. While some of our heroes may fit into the conventional stereotypes, using their superhuman strength or sharp acumen to achieve salvation in challenging situations, most of our heroes were people of great character and deep faith, who rose above their dire circumstances and limiting beliefs to better themselves and those around them.
One that comes readily to mind is Aharon HaKohein, who suffered through one of the most sudden and dramatic shifts of personal circumstance in Jewish history. On 1 Nissan, 2449, after many months of waiting, the Mishkan was formally dedicated. At that time, Aharon was conferred with the status of Kohain Gadol, and assumed the primary role in performing the daily avodah.
However, this moment of great joy quickly turned tragic. As we recently read, immediately after Aharon dutifully completed his personal avodah, his great sons Nadav and Avihu lost their lives.
One can only begin to imagine Aharon’s enormous pain. Just a few moments earlier, Aharon was in the midst of experiencing perhaps the greatest day of his life. Now, his world was turned upside down, and he was forced to quickly accept the painful loss of his beloved sons.
How did Aharon react to such challenging circumstances? The answer is with great strength and courage. Aharon silently accepted Hashem’s will and continued to perform the avodah as if nothing tragic had occurred. For this, he was rewarded with a special, direct command from Hashem.
When Aharon heard that his sons had been G-d fearing, he remained silent, and was rewarded for his silence… From where do we know that he received a reward for his silence? From the fact that he was privileged to have the divine utterance addressed to him alone, as it is said (Vayikra 10:8), “And Hashem spoke to Aharon.” (Vayikra Rabbah 12:2)
This same greatness of spirit can be seen in the conduct of Rabbi Akiva, who lost twenty four thousand disciples during the sefirah period. Again, let us try to comprehend how awesome this tragedy was. The personal story of Rabbi Akiva is well known. Until the age of forty, he was a poor, ignorant shepherd. From this lowly beginning, he rose to become the greatest sage of his generation, and one of the greatest in history.
However, he was not content with his personal growth. Rabbi Akiva invested great degrees of effort to nurture his own students. Soon he developed one of the largest cohorts of talmidim ever known in our history. Imagine the great satisfaction that Rabbi Akiva must have received from the knowledge that he was directly responsible for such tremendous outpouring of Torah study.
Suddenly, and without warning or explantaion, everything started to collapse underneath him. This great mass of talmidei chachamim quickly dwindled, until they were completely gone. One can only begin to imagine the deep sense of loss and pain that Rabbi Akiva must have suffered as a result of this great tragedy.
Still, he did not become despondent. Rather, he rose up yet again, this time in his advanced years, and raised a small group of talmidim (including R’ Meir, R’ Yehudah, R’ Yosi, and R’ Shimon bar Yochai) who “filled Eretz Yisroel with Torah” (Bereishis Rabbah 61:3). It was through them that he would rebuild once again, and ensure that his Torah legacy would be preserved.
The lesson that we must learn from these spiritual giants is clear. In these very challenging times it is easy for a person to become despondent, and allow his circumstances to overtake him. Still, it is our responsibility to emulate Aharon HaKohein and Rabbi Akiva and do everything within our power to rise above our personal adversity and continue to pursue our one true goal, the fulfillment of ratzon Hashem.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting (ImpactfulCoaching.com). He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.