Several weeks ago, newspapers pictured a young boy, head in hands, in front of the remains of his family home, which had been destroyed by a Texas tornado. At about the same time, in Nepal, entire mountainsides slid away; avalanches buried mountain dwellers and climbers; entire villages slid down the slopes of the greatest mountain range in the entire world.
We are now in the days after the holiday of Shavuos. Summer is coming, with all its dangers, and the Three Weeks commemorating the destruction of the two Holy Temples is looming. Let us contemplate what is happening in the world.
I saw the following in the name of Rabbi Mendel Weinbach o.b.m., with reference to the catastrophic Japanese tsunami of 2011: “When news of an earthquake in Japan a century ago reached Radin, the Chofetz Chaim assembled his talmidim and delivered a mussar lecture. This was a lesson we all must learn. While we sympathize with the people of Japan in their hour of suffering, it is incumbent upon us to learn from their disaster.
“The truth is that this lesson was delivered millennia ago by the Prophet Zephaniah, who declared in the Name of G-d: ‘I have cut off nations; their pinnacles are desolate; I have made their streets waste so that none passes by; their cities are destroyed so that there is no man, there is no inhabitant. I said: Surely you will fear me and will learn a lesson’ (3:6-7).
“The words of the Prophet are quoted by Rabbeinu Nissim, who points out that when people fail to learn from the disasters which strike others, they cause such tragedy to come closer to them. One who fails to see natural disasters as a Heavenly warning and fails to make any improvements, he concludes, is comparable to one who has sinned after being warned and thus exposes himself to retribution.”
What is it about such epic catastrophes that should cause us to “fear G-d and learn a lesson?”
In this week’s Torah portion, Miriam is afflicted with leprosy after having spoken evil speech against her brother, Moses. Imagine! This is Miriam the Prophetess, who saved his life! Yes, she herself was afflicted because of her sin! But she was on the level of one who wants to be perfect in the eyes of G-d. And so, G-d allowed her instantly to understand her sin and return to G-d on the spot.
What a lofty level!
We, however, in this forlorn generation, have pushed off responsibility. We say, “It’s not my fault. The other person is at fault.” This leads to slanderous gossip, because we blame the other person for our troubles. So we push responsibility away from ourselves, and when we do so, we push away the immediacy of G-d’s messages to us and we push away the cure!
When we hear of tragedies and catastrophes in distant lands, the prophet is telling us, “No, it is not distant from you. You have pushed off responsibility, but the responsibility is on you!”
What precisely is so frightening about these distant catastrophes?
Well, if you were in Nepal and your mountainside started sliding down thousands of feet into the valley, you would not be asking that question! If you were on the seashore in Japan in 2011 and G-d withdrew the barrier between the sea and the dry land so that there seemed to be no more “roka ha’aretz al hamayim” - “One Who spreads dry land over the waters” - you would not be asking that question!
G-d wants us to know that “Lo bashomayim hi… this commandment… is not distant. It is not in heaven… nor is it across the sea… rather the matter is very near to you!” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) These epic catastrophes could come upon us, G-d forbid! Only because we push off responsibility does it appear that they do not pertain to us. We want to believe that our lifestyle is secure and “it only happens to other people.” We want to believe that we can go on with our “normal” lifestyle and that we need not be concerned.
My friends, the word “Nepal” in Hebrew has a very specific meaning. It means “to fall!” “Mapala” is “downfall.” The very word “Nepal” should have us all shaking.
A few weeks ago in the Yated Ne’eman newspaper, Rabbi Yitzchok Tzvi Schwartz quoted the Chofetz Chaim in regard to the term “chevlei Moshiach” - “birthpangs of the Messiah” - which he explained as referring to “chevel,” a rope, and he was quoted as saying, “Before Moshiach comes, G-d will stretch a rope from one end of the world to the other and shake it rampantly. Those who hold on tightly will survive. Those who let go, won’t. These turbulent times are testing us in our faith in G-d. We must hold on tightly until the end.”
My friends, the violent events of today’s world surely presage the imminent coming of the Final Redemption and the reign of the Messiah. The rope is the Torah, that which binds us tightly to our Father in Heaven. There is nothing else but that rope to cling to in this world. When the avalanche is sliding down the mountainside, we have one rope which is always within reach, and that is the “umbilical cord” binding us to the eternal stability of the Torah and its Author, the Master of the Universe. There is nothing else but that rope. There is no other safety but the safety of Torah.
As we approach the Three Weeks we should know that we are being mightily tested. The tests increase in severity as the day of redemption approaches. No “trick” or “shtick” will get us through, only our cleaving to the Master of the Universe.
“Ele v’rechev … some with chariots and some with horses, but we – in the Name of the L-rd, our G-d, we call out. They slumped and fell, but we arose and were invigorated. G-d save us! May the King answer us on the day we call!” (Psalm 20)