Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
Reflecting on the shock and horror into which we were all thrust upon hearing the news of the barbaric atrocities perpetrated against our brothers and sisters in Israel, a verse from the Book of Beresheet – which we started reading that week – came to mind.
Yosef told his brothers that he dreamt that “anahnu me’alemim alumim betoch hasadeh – we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field” (37:7). The root of the words “me’alemim” and “alumim” is a.l.m., which can also mean “mute.” In addition to the primary reading of the text, which refers to Yosef’s vision of himself and his brothers collecting sheaves of grain, Yosef was also foreseeing a time when their descendants would be “mute” – and not just mute, but doubly mute. A mute person is capable of nonverbal communication, expressing himself through various gestures and motions. Yosef described a reality of “me’alemim alumim,” where people are not only mute in the sense of being unable to speak, but also in the inability to express themselves at all.
This is what happened to all of us, and to people around the world, in the wake of the horrific attack on Israel this past Simhat Torah. Even professional news reporters with years of experience relaying information, and reporting on horrible tragedies, broke down while reporting on what happened in Israel. All of us felt “mute,” not knowing what to say, not knowing how to react, in the face of such an unspeakable atrocity.
However, Yosef’s prediction does not end there. He continues, “vehineh kama alumati vegam nitzavah – and behold, my sheaf rose, and also stood upright.” Yosef foresaw that although we will experience horrors that will make us “mute,” that will paralyze us, we will rise again, to even greater heights. We will not remain paralyzed. We will rise from the sorrow, pain and trauma of the tragedy, and stand tall and proud yet again.
The question that we must all ask ourselves, then, is how we do this. How do we rise from the depths of despair after what our nation just suffered?
I would like to humbly present one insight which shows us at least what we must not be doing at this time, if we want to recover and stand tall once again.
What the Rabbis of the Talmud Wished Not to See
The Gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin (98b) tells that a number of the greatest Amoraim (Talmudic sages) expressed a wish regarding the time of Mashiah’s arrival. They prayed, “Yeteh velo ihmineh – Let it come, but I wish not to see it.” They of course prayed that Mashiah should arrive, but they also prayed not to “see” the events unfold.
The conventional understanding of this prayer, which is how I had always read it, is that the period preceding Mashiah’s arrival will be fraught with hardships and will be characterized by the moral deterioration of society. The Mishnah at the end of Masechet Sotah describes that in the final generation before Mashiah, the young will not respect the old, and societal norms will break down. The Amoraim thus prayed not to witness this moral collapse.
In light of the recent events, however, I would propose an additional reading. Perhaps, these Amoraim foresaw that in the generation before Mashiah, it will be possible to “see” everything. Events will be photographed and filmed, and will instantly be made available – or even shown live – to everyone in the world. And these rabbis implored us not to see everything, not to spend our time looking upon the terrible atrocities that will occur.
The Gemara tells the story of Elisha ben Avuyah, who was among the greatest sages of his time. He was the teacher of the great Rabbi Meir, one of the most important Tannaim (rabbis of the Mishnah). Unfortunately, however, Elisha ben Avuyah ended up becoming an apostate, rejecting Torah observance. He deviated so far from Torah belief and practice that the rabbis derisively referred to him as “Aher” (“the other”), not willing to even mention his name. The Gemara (Hullin 142a) relates that Elisha was led to apostasy because of a gruesome and tragic site which he beheld during the period of the Romans’ persecution of the Jews. There was a great rabbi named Rabbi Hutzpit Ha’meturgeman, who worked as the “voice” of the rabbis, loudly projecting the rabbis’ words to large crowds during lectures. The Romans cruelly removed the Rabbi Hutzpit’s tongue from his mouth, and threw it into the trash. Elisha ben Avuyah could not fathom how this tongue, which was used to communicate the sacred words of the Torah, disseminating Torah knowledge to thousands of students, could end up in a garbage heap. This sight shook Elisha to his core, and, unfortunately, he never recovered. The disturbing thoughts and questions led him along a downward spiral, to the depths of apostasy.
If this is what happened to Elisha ben Avuyah, an outstanding Torah sage, then we are certainly at risk of endangering our souls by seeing the gruesome sights that our barbaric enemies spread through all the various media channels. A crucial part of their strategy is to demoralize us, to shake our faith, to make us feel scared and vulnerable. The gruesome photographs and footage which they purposefully and revoltingly broadcast are intended to do just that. We must not fall into the trap.
This might be the meaning of the Amoraim’s prayer, “Let it come, but I wish not to see it.” They were not only praying, but also warning us not to look, not to see what our enemies want us to see. If viewing such images could ruin Elisha ben Avuyah, then it can certainly ruin us, Heaven forbid.
In order to transition from “me’alemim alumim” to “kama alumati vegam nitzavah,” from the shock and paralysis we experienced at the beginning of this war, to regaining our strength and confidence, we must avoid the awful sights that will only paralyze us further.
More generally, we must resist the temptation to be glued to our devices, following the developments. Certainly, it is important to stay informed. It is important for us to know what is happening. But we do not need to be checking the news every ten minutes, or even hourly. This is not productive, and, even worse, it can be destructive. It can paralyze us and crush our spirits.
Imagine one of our beloved IDF soldiers is in the middle of an intense battle, and he decides to pause every ten minutes to check his phone to get the latest news. This would obviously be terribly irresponsible, and perhaps grounds for being court-martialed. We, too, are in the battlefield. We of course aren’t doing the actual fighting on the ground, but we all have a role to play. We are helping Am Yisrael during this crisis through our mitzvot, our Torah learning, our Tehillim, our prayers, our hesed, our charity, and our efforts to grow. Watching the news accomplishes none of these goals. It diverts our attention away from what we need to be doing, and also saps us of the emotional energy we need to get things done. We need to curb this urge and direct our minds toward the important, valuable activities that we ought to spend our time involved in. We, too, are “soldiers” in this war.
“I Know Their Pain”
Instead of focusing our attention on the scope of the horror and the atrocities perpetrated against our people, let us focus instead on the reasons for hope for the future.
When Gd spoke to Moshe for the first time, at the burning bush, He informed Moshe that He would soon be redeeming Beneh Yisrael from Egypt. He began by saying, “I have seen the torment of My nation that is in Egypt, and I have heard their cries…and I have indeed known their pain” (Shemot 3:7). We might wonder what is added by the final clause in this verse – “ki yadati et mach’ovav – I have indeed known their pain.” If Gd has “seen the torment” and “heard their cries,” then He certainly “knows their pain.” What, then, did He mean when spoke of “knowing” the pain they were enduring?
The answer emerges from an analogy to a father who brings his ailing son to the doctor for a critically important but exceedingly painful procedure. During the procedure, the boy cries out in pain. The father finds it very difficult to see his beloved child’s pain, but he realizes that the procedure must be done. But after hearing the boy cry frantically for an extended period of time, the father can no longer take it. He tells the doctor to stop. He just can’t bear to see his precious child suffer so terribly.
Gd had informed Avraham Avinu that his descendants would be oppressed for 400 years (Beresheet 15:13). However, after just 210 years, He said, as it were, “I can’t take it anymore!” For reasons we cannot understand, Gd determined that Beneh Yisrael needed to endure a 400-year period of oppression, to prepare them for the mission that they were assigned to fulfill. But after 210 years, He “knew their pain.” It was too much for Him to bear, so-to-speak. We are Hashem’s beloved children, and He feels our pain. Our suffering is His suffering, and so at a certain pain, He is compelled, as it were, to end it.
Now, too, Gd has brought us onto the “operating table,” having determined that we need to undergo a difficult “procedure.” But we can draw comfort from our firm belief that Gd feels every bit of pain that has been suffered. The grief is incalculable – grief over every precious life that was so cruelly taken, for every family that has been destroyed, for every community that has been burned to the ground – but we know that our Father is grieving along with us. We are confident that He cannot handle this intolerable pain any more than we can, that He cannot bear to see His cherished children suffer. And so we can rest assured that He will soon take us off the “operating table,” and alleviate our pain and suffering.
The tragedies and crisis which have befallen us had the effect of “me’alemim alumim,” of paralyzing us, but let us ensure not to get stuck in our paralysis. We have the power to rise from the depths of sorrow and despair. And this process begins with firm, steadfast emunah in Hashem’s boundless love for His people, and the realization that He cannot bear to see us writhing in pain. Just as He stepped in to redeem our ancestors from Egypt, may He soon step in to redeem us from our current troubles, and bring us Mashiah speedily and in our times, amen.