With you in your sorrow

Last month a young, vibrant woman, Hayley Varenberg (nee Sevitz), beloved daughter of Pauline (past director of Nechama) and Alan Sevitz was taken from the world in a tragic accident in Israel. 
In our quest for consolation, we have asked Rabbi Kalman Green from Constantia Shul to share some thoughts and Torah insights with us. Our heartfelt condolences and wishes go out to Pauline and Alan, their children, son-in-law Eli and brother Aubrey Katzef. Hamakom Yenachem Etchem.

Avigail Popack

Life it is a perfect song
All things come from G-d
Whose melody can make you strong
All things come from G-d
And if you learn to sing along
All things come from G-d.
The love that laughs, the care that cries
All things come from G-d
Even doubt and even pain
All things come from G-d

Tony Kosinec — All things come from G-d, 1973

One recites a blessing for the bad that befalls him just as he does for the good, as it is stated: “And you shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all you might” (Deut. 6:5).
… “with all your might” means with every measure that He metes out to you; whether it is good or troublesome, thank Him.
— Mishna Brachot, chap 9, mishna 5

On the first night of Chanukah this year — a time of hope, a time of flickering light gathering strength to chase away the darkness, tragedy struck a devoted and beloved family of our community, as Hayley Varenberg — nee Sevitz — was killed in a horrific bus crash in Israel.

How does one, how do we as Jews, deal with and attempt to process such an assault on our sensibilities?

Grieving aside, there are so many fundamental faith issues that are here called into question:
• One’s sense of security in the world
• One’s belief in a benevolent and loving G-d
• Why her? Why not me?!
• What about reward and punishment?
• Why are bad things happening to such good people?!

There are three reactions which the Torah shares regarding suffering.

The first, as epitomised by the holy sage Nachum Ish Gamzu, is to say: “this too (gam zu) is good” — whatever seems to be happening right now, however it appears, I know that all things come from G-d, and therefore must be intrinsically good.

The second response was exemplified by the great Rabbi Akiva, whose dictum was: “all that G-d does is for the good.” The good might not be readily apparent; and the “medicine” might well be extremely bitter and horrific (think chemotherapy), but the ultimate goal is good.

These two responses are each very lofty states of mind and heart, and not many of us can honestly be expected to live up to them.

There is one more perspective to suffering. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks puts it most eloquently in his 2011 pre-Selichot address. He quotes the teaching of the mishna at the top of this article, that just as we are enjoined to acknowledge and to thank G-d for the blatantly good in our lives, so too, are we expected to acknowledge and to bless G-d when bad things happen.

And he continues, “In Judaism, we can recognise and give voice to the reality that bad things truly are bad things. Judaism does not confuse good with bad.” 

Over good things (winning a lottery? having a baby?), we say a blessing: “sh’hechiyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu lizman hazeh”. Over the bad (eg. when a dear one passes away), we recite the blessing “boruch Dayan ha-emet”.

If the perception of the bereaved is one of pain and loss, we do not use religion to mitigate that suffering.

We understand, in Judaism, that a person’s quality of life, in fact the very vibrancy and vitality of their being, is not measured by the quantifiable criteria of bank accounts, possessions, educational degrees, or even years of existence — but rather by their impact for good on the world around them — by whom they’ve touched, and how they’ve touched.

We understand, in Judaism, that the offspring of the righteous — their true progeny — are their acts of goodness and kindness.

We understand, in Judaism, that as much as we have free will about how we react, the steps of man are guided individually by G-d Alm-ghty, as we recite in a blessing every morning “… haMachin m’tzadei gever…” “Who directs the steps of man…”

We understand, in Judaism, that “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My way…”

We understand, in Judaism, that as much as there is a ‘personal’ identity and aspect of the soul, the true identity — in its expanded, most essential self — is as a vibrant, indestructible part of Klal Yisroel. 

We understand, in Judaism, so much — but dear G-d, there is so much that we don’t understand…

Why this person?! Why now?! Why like this?!

At the Burning Bush, G-d revealed to Moses one of the most profound secrets of all: “I show you My face not in pleasure, but in the burning bush — in pain and suffering. I show you My face not when you want to see it, but when I want you to see it.”

When we face unfathomable suffering, we are not expected to be better than Moses. We too close our eyes and just weep.

Maybe it takes a G-d to witness so much pain and be able to bear it. We just want to be human… We don’t want to look at G-d’s face in such moments. It’s too terrifying.

There is no answer to a loved one’s death… an answer would actually cheapen the loss, effectively justifying and validating G-d’s actions — which would be totally inappropriate and wrong.

We are not here to explain G-d’s ways — we are here to share the pain of the loss, and the darkness and confusion of not understanding.

Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik is quoted as having expressed the teaching that when misfortune occurs, then as Jews we shouldn’t be asking המל — why? — rather we should be asking המ-ל — for what? — what must be done with this situation going forward.

The saddest day of the Jewish calendar is Tisha b’Av — the 9th of Av — the date which marks the destruction of both our holy Temples in Jerusalem — and do we not surely each have our own destroyed temples and shattered tablets in our lives?

The Shabbat immediately thereafter is referred to as Shabbat Nachamu — wherein the prophet exhorts us to be comforted.

Rabbi Shlomo Katz (who was here a few years ago for Sinai Indaba), teaches that the word “Nachamu — “ומחנ — be comforted — is composed of the initials of four words: “Nerot Chanuka Mosif V’holech — the candles of Chanukah are to be lit in an ever-increasing order”

The self-same Chanukah that brought so much darkness into so many lives, calls on us to bring light into that darkness… the light of goodness, the light of Torah, the light of mitzvot, the light of G-d — “ner haShem nishmat adam… (the candle of G-d is the soul of Man)”; and that light is to be brought in ever-increasing measure — through the learning of the Torah, through the reciting of Tehilim, through the giving of Tzedakah, through the doing of acts of kindness, through teaching, sharing, helping, befriending…

Rabbi Sacks posits that when bad things happen to us (G-d forbid!), we can either suffer, endure, or we can grow.

May the good G-d keep us from any further suffering; may He supply us the strength and the companions to endure; and may He bestow upon us the wisdom to continue to grow — until that day when our mourning shall be ended, and Death is swallowed up forever, and He gently wipes away the tears from off all of our faces, as He removes the reproach of His people from off all the Earth — for the L-rd has spoken it.

Rabbi Kalman Green

Nechama exists to be there for you – with you – in your sorrow.  If this article has addressed grief issues with which you find yourself grappling, or just reminded you of your losses and scars, please feel free to contact us for counselling on: 021-465 9390 or e-mail admin@nechama.org.za

Visit the Nechama website www.nechama.co.za.

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To read the most read article of the February issue, click here

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