A deeply moving dialogue with Rabbi Chananya Chollak, International Chairman of Ezer Mizion, on the Power of Faith in Times of Trouble and Pain
We caught Rabbi Chananya Chollak shlita at a late-very late- night hour, when he was finally able to part with another day of exhausting work, saving lives on the one hand, and providing emotional support for fellow Jews in pain on the other. Only then was he able to allot us an hour of quality time to say the things only he, from his unique vantage point, can say.
Rav Chollak oversees a vast empire of chessed, servicing over 650,000 people each year. These include the disabled, the elderly, the special child, the mentally ill and those suffering from serious illness. Yet, unlike the Fortune 500 CEO, he spends a great deal of time with people. It is he who will visit a family in the hospital to strengthen them as they begin their journey along the dark tunnel named Cancer. The family members-including the children- will receive his personal cell phone number with instructions to call him at any time. They can see that he means it and so they do. Anytime. It is he who has undertaken the unenviable task of notifying a family member that his loved one is no longer in this world with the sensitivity that only he can bring. And it is he who does not have a minute of spare time but will listen for hours to those who need the compassionate human contact and understanding to enable them to cope.
Is it true that there has recently been a distinct rise in the number of cases of cancer in our communities? – we began with the question of the hour.
Rabbi Chollak: Unfortunately, the statistics speak for themselves. While in the U.S., for example, heart disease accounts for about 19% of illness and death, as compared to 16.5% from cancerous diseases, the situation here in Israel is different: About 24% of deaths result from cancer, and less from heart disease. These numbers say it all.
If I am not mistaken, the statistics show that in Israel, about a hundred people die every day from the dreaded disease. This is precisely how it was in the days of King David, and consequently, he instituted the idea of saying a hundred berachot a day to counteract the deaths. There is no question that we too have to embrace the example of our forebears and strengthen our berachot, as King David did at the time.
Maran Hagaon Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky shlita said to me: “You should know that we are currently at the tail end of ikvesa d’meshicha – the days just preceding the coming of Mashiach. That is why we see so many tragedies. The “accounts” of all the generations must be wrapped up. There’s no time for nonsense,” the Rav said. “We have to snatch more and more mitzvos, increase our Torah study and acts of chessed, because we are very close to the end… The Amora’im in the Talmud said of this period: ‘Let it come, but I should not see it.’ We have to strengthen our emunah and our mitzvah observance and try to carry out the charge, “V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha – Love your fellowman as yourself, by smiling to others, by thinking about what we can do so that the other fellow will have it good as I have it good. An entire world is at our fingertips. Let’s renew the good in the world, and then we will merit seeing the actualization of ‘Shine upon Tzion with a new light and may we all soon merit its luminance.'”
Rabbi Chollak, you experience the most devastating cases first hand every day, you see with your own eyes what is happening in our camp. Aren’t you ever bothered by piercing questions, as the seraphim cried out so bitterly – “Is this the reward of Torah?”
Rabbi Chollak: Thirty years ago, when I saw all the terrible troubles striking our people, I went to the Kehilos Yaakov, Rav Yisrael Yaakov Kanievsky zt”l, and I asked him: We say in our tefillah ‘Avinu Malkeinu‘ – before Hashem is the King of the world, He is first our father. How can it be that a father would want to afflict his children so much and give them such bitter suffering, both physical and emotional?” He answered me with his own question: “You want to understand?! And what happened in the Holocaust you already understand?!” I asked him, “So what do we have to do?” “Nu…” – he responded – “Now you are asking the way you should…” He went on: “What to do? To strengthen ourselves in some area, to take on one resolution and keep at it consistently. Then, to go further, another improvement, another improvement…” For example, to say berachot with the proper intent, and in this way, to really feel at every moment that the Creator is managing the world – but to keep it up and then advance at a consistent pace.
I spoke recently at a retreat for more than a hundred families who have a member with cancer. The father of one of the sick children, a traditional Jew, came over to me and asked: Rabbi Chollak, maybe you can explain to me what G-d wants from my little boy… Why He wants him to experience so much agony?
I answered him: I am not any wiser than you, but I’ll try to think together with you and help you. Tell me, were you once on the Jermak Mountain? “Yes,” he replied. Did you see the wide expanse from there? I asked, and he answered, “Yes, in all its glory.” I went on and asked: How did the houses and people look to you? “Tiny, some even microscopic…” he replied. I asked further: How far could you see – could you see the mountains of Damascus or Lebanon? He answered with a smile: “Of course not. The ability of the human eye to see from a distance is limited. There is a certain horizon beyond which you can’t see anymore…” I didn’t stop there; I asked him one more question: And if you had a pair of telescopic binoculars, would you have been able to see at a greater distance?… He nodded, and added, as if he was reading my train of thought: “Of course. But even binoculars have their limits…”
I patted him on the shoulder and said: “Listen to what you yourself just said. Our physical ability to see things is limited, and when we look into the distance with our eyes, things we know are big suddenly become tiny. When we look at the horizon, we think that there is nothing beyond our limited sight, but suddenly, when we look through the binocular’s lens, buildings and other objects pop into view, though with the naked eye, they seemed to be nonexistent. Yet, even the binocular lens is limited, and the horizon still fools us. It looks as if the ‘beyond’ is desolate and unpopulated, but we know for a fact that an entire world exists there. If our eyesight is so limited that it cannot see past a few hundred meters, if the world past these few hundred meters is concealed from us, how can we presume to understand the mysteries of life?! But we can rest assured that beyond the “horizon” of our understanding, there is a clear, orderly system that holds the explanation for all that we experience here, in the “corridor” of our life…”
If we know how to perceive Hashem’s ways, we will see that His ways are concealed, but all the good He does for us far exceeds the bitter trials we experience. I am reminded of what I said not long ago at the funeral of my wife a”h, when they asked me about the pain I must be feeling, and I responded: When I say the words “Hodu Lashem ki tov – Give thanks to Hashem for He is good” every day, I truly believe that Hashem does only good for us and everything comes from His desire to benefit us. If, with our small eyes, we are unable to perceive this, it just attests to our own inadequacy.
But in times of trouble, we lose the presence of mind to look properly at the good that lies in everything. How do you help these people cope with the tzarah that has stricken their family?
Rabbi Chollak: In addition to drawing inspiration from Torah sources that teach how much good is hidden in all that the Creator does for us, one can also look deeper into the subject from a different angle.
I was once present at an incident that I will never forget. There was a family that lost several babies in the ninth month, shortly before the birth. When the fourth child of that family died, we received a dispensation from halachic authorities to do an autopsy on the fetus in order to try and pinpoint the source of the problem and perhaps help them for the future.
I was asked to be present at that operation alongside the pathologists. They checked the little body from head to foot. It was an amazing scene beyond anything you can imagine to see how the 248 limbs and 365 organs were so exquisitely constructed in such a tiny body, with complex systems that no human being could ever have come up with. It was a terrible experience, but also the most strengthening one I ever had.
With your permission, let me ask you: Do you know how many times your heart beats every day? I’m sure that you don’t know, so I’ll tell you: Your heart beats a hundred thousand times every day, baruch Hashem. If it would stop even once, your life would be in danger. Can anybody begin to grasp the tremendous power Hashem imbedded into our lives and everything that happens to us? Only if we realize how much chessed the Creator does for us every single moment, without end, will we be able to cope with nisyonot, trials. With all the tragedies happening in our midst day after day, we must work-we must expend effort- to appreciate the Divine Providence that governs every single thing that occurs to us, morning, noon, and night.
It is known, as our Sages say in Tana D’bei Eliyahu, that just as Avraham Avinu was tested by ten extremely difficult trials in his lifetime, so every Jew undergoes ten trials in his life, and Eliyahu Hanavi records them. We all have nisyonot mapped out for us. Hashem decides for each one what kind of tests he will have and how he will be able to cope with them successfully. All we have to do is strengthen ourselves in emunah and bitachon, faith and trust, in the knowledge that everything is from Him, and as our Father, he wants only that we should enjoy the good he has in store for us in this world and the next.
Sickness and pain is the “Mt. Everest” of our lives. It is not meant to frighten us, because fear is paralyzing. It is meant to give us the right view on life, because what you see from “there” you don’t see when life is “as usual.” The Sages say that the Shechinah hovers over the patient’s head. The Shechinah rests anywhere that it is not pushed away. “I shall dwell among the oppressed and the humble.” The ill person’s view on life is free of the kind of self-importance that negates the presence of the Shechinah, and that is why there is space there for the Shechinah to rest in its full glory. Amid the pain and tears, this realization also brings the person to a joy that becomes the root of his salvation, as the pasuk says, “A man’s spirit shall sustain (him in) his illness.”