By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
There is an oft-repeated concept that tzaros transpire so that we should learn a lesson. This is rooted in theGemara (Yevamos 63a) which states, “Rabi Elazar ben Avina says: Ein puraniyos bah le’olam elah bishvil Yisroel – Calamities only come to the world because of the Jewish people.”
Rashi (ibid.) explains that catastrophes occur so that the Jews will become fearful of what sin causes, and will repent and do teshuvah.
It is worth noting that it was during the month of Elul ten years ago that one of the greatest tragedies to ever befall this country transpired on 9/11. Four years later, one of the greatest natural disasters took place during the month of Elul, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans. It is not for nothing that Hurricane Irene blew in as we were bentching Rosh Chodesh Elul.
The story is told of Rav Yisroel Salanter, who was gripped by trepidation from the beginning of Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur.
“Is Elul a dangerous bear,” asked a simple Jew, “that you are so stricken with fright?”
Elul, replied Rav Yisroel, is much more fearsome than a bear, for Dovid Hamelech testified that he had been victorious over a bear: “Gam es ho’ari gam hadov hikah avdecha“ (Shmuel I, 17:36). Yet, regarding Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s din, said Rav Yisroel, the posuk in Tehillim (119:120) states, “Somar mipachdecha vesari umimishpatecha yareisi.” Dovid was consumed with fear due to Hashem’s judgment.
Dovid Hamelech, said Rav Yisroel, had far more respect for the force of mishpat than he did for a wild animal.
Hakadosh Boruch Hu gave us a gift right before Rosh Chodesh Elul, a gauge of our own with which to measure our feelings of awe at the impending Yom Hadin, and a reminder to properly prepare ourselves for the Day of Judgment.
He showed us that people react when they’re scared. They scurry, scramble and grope for solutions, for in serious times, no one wants to be caught unprepared.
On Friday night, in Kabbolas Shabbos, we recite the chapter in Tehillim (96) that concludes with the words, “Lifnei Hashem ki va, ki va lishpot ha’aretz.“ The meforshei Tehillim explain that the Ribbono Shel Olam’s approach is gradual. He’s coming closer. He’s coming closer. Ki va. Ki va.
This week, we saw experts pinpointing the hurricane’s approach with the greatest precision, identifying its path each mile, speculating as to how much longer it would take until it reached us.
Ki va, ki va…
The region’s elected officials rushed to fulfill their duties, holding press conferences and meetings and reassuring their constituents that no detail was overlooked. They were ready. No leader wants to fail in his responsibility, dropping the ball when it counts most, so they all worked overtime, cutting their own vacations short and sleeping on office sofas.
We may not be politicians, but each of us is charged with leadership over his own olam kotton, his own private universe, and he has responsibilities.
Are we as concerned with being prepared as they were?
There is a special brand of irritation reserved for those “relaxed” souls who insisted on disregarding the constant warnings and instructions to evacuate, the rafters who insisted on tempting fate and needed a special rescue, the ones who insisted on remaining on the beach until the last minute. The governor of New Jersey reprimanded those “more concerned with their tans than with their safety.”
Are we like that too?
The Associated Press reported about Charlie Koetzle, a 55-year-old man who has lived in Ocean City, Maryland, for a decade. “He came to the boardwalk in swim trunks and flip-flops to look at the sea,” reported the AP. “While his neighbors and most everyone else had evacuated, Koetzle said he told authorities he wasn’t leaving. To ride out the storm, he had stocked up with soda, roast beef, peanut butter, tuna, nine packs of cigarettes and a detective novel.”
Can it be that we are as foolish as he?
The Brisker Rov would compare this stubborn refusal to react, to a fellow smuggling goods from one town to another over a border. If he is caught, his punishment will be harsh, and he is appropriately frightened as his journey approaches. He is consumed with the ramifications of being penalized and is unable to focus on much else. With each day, his trepidation increases, and on the day of the actual journey, he can barely speak.
The Brisker Rov would paint the picture of the traveler on his wagon approaching the border, his horse chugging along, totally unaware of the severity of the situation. The horse’s reality is unchanged, even as, a few feet behind him, his passenger is shaking with fear.
Di ferd veist fuhn gornisht!
The level of fear that one feels before the yemei hadin, taught the Brisker Rov, corresponds to his level of intellect and his appreciation of its significance.
Those silly people on the beach, laughing as they were rescued, showed the sophistication of the ferd in the moshol and let their immaturity serve as a lesson to us.
We have a process of preparing ourselves, beginning this week with the daily kol shofar, the wake-up call at the end of a year that featured so many other stirring calls .
A study of the hurricane preparations can help prepare us for the impending yemei hadin.
Take, for example, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s admonition, “Waiting until the last minute is not a smart thing to do. This is life-threatening.”
Speaking of the need to properly prepare for the storm, the mayor said, “I would think that the vast bulk will comply. Unfortunately, there’s a handful who will not comply until it’s too late. And at that point in time, you can really get stuck.”
He had one more admonition: “We do not have the manpower to go door-to-door and drag people out of their homes. Nobody’s going to get fined. Nobody’s going to go to jail. But if you don’t follow this, people might die.”
We have to take seriously the fact that Rosh Hashanah is fast approaching. Chazal have clearly laid out our obligations during this month of Elul. Our rabbeim and parents have drilled it into our consciousness since we were young. Sifrei mussar and machshavah that aid us in preparing for the Yom Hadin abound. We must avail ourselves of them and dare not wait until the last minute, for the consequences of neglecting to make ourselves ready can be catastrophic, chas veshalom.
In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Frank Bruni writes about the summer that’s coming to a close:
“A ceiling defined the season, and there was no skylight in this one, no sunshine filtering through…
Economists talked ceaselessly of the ‘downturn,’ so prolonged that it has come to seem less a dip than the new normal. Then, of course, there was the ‘downgrade,’ courtesy of Standard & Poors, which rewarded our galling political constipation with an unprecedented demotion to AA+ from AAA. We could mock the inept arithmetic en route to it. We could quibble with the reasoning and motivations behind it. But none of that changed the symbolism – or the symbol. We were one vowel shy of what we used to be.
“And we were under siege, by not just the economy but also the elements. Extraordinary flooding gave way to severe drought. The earth trembled where it wasn’t supposed to. And then, to top it all off, a hurricane drew near, screaming toward some of the country’s densest population centers and threatening a magnitude of damage we were hard-pressed to afford. Nature hammered home the message that the Dow was sending as well: we had only so much control over our fates and better hunker down.”
In short, Bruni reiterated what we already know, but would do well to review: “Ein lanu al mi lehisha’ein elah al Avinu shebashomayim.“
We had a summer that began with the petirah of three gedolei Yisroel, in quick succession, followed by the brutal murder of a sweet young child. This was followed by an unprecedented assassination of a tzaddik and an upswing in attacks on Eretz Yisroel’s defenseless border towns.
So to differ with the very-eloquent Times columnist, while we also hit a ceiling, our ceiling does have a skylight, a shaft of light that shines in and tells us, “Ki eisheiv bachoshech, Hashem ohr li” (Michah 7:8).
We reiterate this every day. Even if an entire encampment stands in our way, even if war comes our way, we will not fear. Because “bezos ani botei’ach.” We have a shaft of light that can break through any ceiling, a rock that can save us in any storm
Hashem ori veyishi, mimi ira.
These days are called the yemei harachamim. There is a well-known homiletical explanation of the term “Kel molei rachamim,” comparing Hashem’s compassion to a cup filled to the brim with water. One need only jostle the cup slightly to send water pouring over its edges. Hashem is molei rachamim. He is filled to the brim with mercy and love for us. We need only move Him ever so slightly to cause a shefa of His great healing rachamim to rain down on us.
We have the tools – teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. And we have the time – the thirty days of Elul.
This week, we were reminded to prepare, to respond to early warning signals, and to make sure that we are safe, sheltered and warm, yachbi’eini tachas Yado, in His embrace.