Rejoicing Amidst Sorrow

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

This shiur is dedicated in memory of 
Rabbanit Freida Heller z"l,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 3rd of Iyar,
by Vivian S. Singer.


In the Book of Tehillim we find two successive psalms, both attributed to the "sons of Korach" - chapters 84 and 85. The content of these two psalms differs. The first speaks of the Temple - "How lovely are Your dwellings, O Lord of Hosts" - and describes the soul's profound longing and yearning:

My soul longs and faints for the courtyards of the Lord;

my heart and my flesh sing to the living God...

For one day in Your courtyards is better than a thousand; I would rather stand on the threshold the house of My God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

In the second psalm, the aspirations are somewhat lowered. The psalmist still speaks optimistically about the future of Israel, and foresees the revival of the nation and its land - a wondrous historical phenomenon - but without the vision of the Divine Presence dwelling among them. There is no mention of "God's dwelling" or "God's courtyards." The psalmist suffices with three verses that correspond to the situation in which Israel found itself on the 5th of Iyar, 5708 (May 14, 1948):

O Lord, You have favored Your land,

You have brought back the captivity of Ya'akov.

You have forgiven Your nation's iniquity,

You have pardoned all their sins.

You have withdrawn all Your wrath,

You have turned aside from Your anger.

"O Lord, You have favored Your land" - You have, as it were, made peace with Your land after two thousand years of desolation. The land is being built up; the land offers its produce and the trees give their fruit.

Most importantly - "You have brought back the captivity of Ya'akov." The nation of Israel has returned to its land and the "tabernacle of David" is gradually being developed. The vision of "God's dwelling place" seems far off, it is true, but what exists is enough reason to offer praise and thanksgiving to the Holy One.

"You have withdrawn all Your wrath" - the travails and suffering of exile, which resulted from God's anger, have disappeared; the sins have been forgiven. "You have forgiven Your nation's iniquity, You have pardoned all their sins."

But the psalmist does not conclude here. He goes on to implore:

Restore us, O God of our salvation, and erase Your anger at us.

Will You be angry at us forever, drawing out Your fury for all generations?

Will you not revive us again, so that Your nation may rejoice in You?

Show us, O God, Your mercy, and grant us Your salvation.

This requires some explanation: in the preceding verses, mention was made of how God has "withdrawn all His wrath" and "turned aside from His anger." What, then, is the meaning of this plea that comes afterwards - "Restore us, O God of our salvation, and erase Your anger at us"?

In order to understand this, we must conclude that the psalmist foresaw what would happen to the nation of Israel in its land after the 5th of Iyar, 5708. He saw the six thousand lives that were sacrificed in the War of Independence, when the entire Jewish population of the country numbered no more than six hundred thousand. He saw the other wars that Israel would fight for her continued existence - the Sinai Campaign, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the War of Attrition, the Lebanon War, and the present-day war against terror. The sons of Korach implore, "Restore us, O God of our salvation, and erase Your anger at us."

What does this verse mean? At first glance it would seem to mean, "Restore us, the nation of Israel, to You, the God of our salvation." But in the Midrash Tehillim (85:2) we find that Chazal understand it differently:

The children of Korach said:

For how long will You continue to say, "Return, O wayward children" (Yirmiyahu 3:14)? Israel says to You, "You return first" - as it is written, "Return, O God - how long?" (Tehillim 90:13). You answer, "No - Israel should return first." You will not return by Yourself, nor us by ourselves; rather, both of us together [shall return], as it says, "Restore us, O God of our salvation."

Chazal understand the children of Korach to be offering the following prayer: Master of the Universe, we indeed believe that You are "the Rock Whose work is perfect and Whose ways are all righteousness" (Devarim 32:4). But You have given man intelligence; You have blessed him with knowledge, understanding and wisdom in order to delve into and understand the holy words of Your Torah. We ask that we should also understand how You exercise Your providence over us. "Why do You look upon the treacherous, and are silent when evil people destroy righteous ones?" (Chabakuk 1:13). "We are killed for Your sake all day long!" (Tehillim 44:23). According to the understanding that You have bestowed upon us, Master of the Universe, it seems that You too need to repent, as it were. You have stood aside for too long, silently contemplating our suffering. It will not help only for You to return by Yourself, nor for us to return by ourselves. Rather, "Both of us together - Restore us, O God of our salvation."

King Shelomo declares, "There is a time for everything, and a moment for everything that is under the heaven" (Kohelet 3:1). For example: "A time to mourn and a time to dance" - i.e., there is a specific time when we mourn and eulogize, and a specific time for dancing and joy. This applies to the mourning and joy of an individual, but when it comes to Am Yisrael as a whole, the mourning and joy are sometimes intertwined.

The children of your bereavement will yet say in your ears, "This place is too narrow for me, make room that I may dwell." And you shall say in your heart, "Who bore me these? For I am bereaved and alone, an exile and a wanderer, so who has raised them? I remained alone; these - where do they come from?" (Yishayahu 49:20-21)

The sense of bereavement is still fresh and powerful, but it cannot suppress our excitement at God's salvation.

This year we celebrate Yom Ha-Atzma'ut with praise and thanksgiving, with singing and dancing - in the midst of a burning sense of bereavement and sorrow. We cannot hide our sadness after the especially shocking and saddening events of the month of Nissan that we witnessed this year. But at the same time we have no wish - nor are we able - to suppress our praise, thanks and joy for all that we have merited to see here in Israel since the 5th of Iyar, 5708.

If we ourselves have mixed feelings this year, what can we say of the generation of 1948, when the bereavement of the 5th of Iyar reached terrible proportions - but we still recited the entire Hallel with its blessing, with a sense of joy and thanks? During the months between the 29th of November, 1947, when the U.N. voted in favor of the Partition Plan, and May 14, 1948, when independence was declared, hundreds of lives were lost. On the eve of Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, we received the bitter news of the fall of Gush Etzion, after more than 150 fighters lost their lives there and those who remained alive were taken captive by the Jordanians. And all of this was after the fall of the "Convoy of Thirty-Five" and the Convoy of Nebi Daniel, with fifteen more victims. After all this, we still recited Hallel.

The historical consciousness at the time was high; the entire generation felt that the declaration of independence of the State of Israel was different from the declaration of independence of any other state. This was a wondrous phenomenon, a one-time event in all of history. A nation grievously stricken after the Holocaust rose up and declared its independence in order to open the country's gates to the tens of thousands of Holocaust refugees. The State of Israel was born in the midst of a cruel war, with thousands of casualties. But if we were to tell of all the miracles and wonders that we witnessed in that war, we could go on forever - and since 5708 we have witnessed the growth, development and empowerment of the State in every sphere. This phenomenon has no parallel anywhere in the world. It requires great spiritual power combine sorrow and joy simultaneously. Indeed, we have something of that power. It is the legacy left to us by the generation of 1948.

We read in the Book of Tehillim (46:1), "To the conductor for the children of Korach, a song for hidden things." Our Sages teach:

"...Who alone performs great wonders" (Tehillim 136:3) - What is the meaning of "alone?"

R. Prozdik bar Nachsha explains: He alone knows what He is doing. And so the children of Korach declare, "to the conductor ... for hidden things."

Rav Avdimi of Haifa said: The things that we have seen are hidden; we ourselves do not know what we have seen. (Yalkut Shimoni)

Unfortunately, there are some people who pretend to know everything. We have no portion with them. We declare that the things we see are hidden and closed to us. We have many questions; we do not understand the reason for our many sufferings during the process of our salvation. "It is good to thank God, to declare Your mercies in the morning and Your faithfulness at night" (Tehillim 92:2). We thank God when we see His many mercies in the clear daylight, but we also continue to thank Him at night, out of faith. The gloom of the night does not obscure the mercies that He performed during the day. For all that we saw and experienced during the day and the night - for what we understand and for what we do not - we declare, "It is good to thank God."

"For a small moment I have abandoned you, but I shall gather you up with great mercy" (Yishayahu 54:7). We have witnessed God's great mercy in the establishment and the building of the State of Israel. We have also had small moments - and we pray that we should always be able to distinguish between the small moments and the great kindness to which we are witness every day, even at a time of mourning.

When we speak of Yom Ha-Atzma'ut in connection with the difficult events of the past year and a half, another point should also be kept in mind.

In recent years, I have spoken on several occasions about what the actual establishment of the State gave us - beyond the prophetic vision of the ingathering of the exiles and the signs of the revealed redemption. I mentioned three spheres:

a) the establishment of the State as a response to the distress of Jews who have no home;

b) Israel's significant role in the psychological rehabilitation of Holocaust survivors, and

c) Israel's serving as a counterweight of kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's Name) to balance the great chillul Hashem (desecration of God's Name) of the Holocaust. Many times, I have recalled the words of the gaon Rabbi Menachem Zemba of Warsaw, HY"D, concerning those who "wish to see very soon the establishment of Jewish sovereignty, out of their great desire to sanctify the name of Heaven in the eyes of the nations, to show them that after thousands of years of Israel wandering about the earth, the pain of their national destruction has not yet passed, and they shall live again." These words were uttered prior to the Holocaust. After the great chillul Hashem of the Holocaust itself, a historical response of kiddush Hashem was required. The establishment of the State and its victory in the War of Independence against the combined Arab armies was a kiddush Hashem.

I believe that there is a further area in which the State of Israel is meant to make a decisive contribution, and that is the area of Jewish identity.

In his book Meshekh Chokhma, R. Meir Simcha points out that while Israel was in exile, the main thing was to maintain Jewish identity, so that "they would not lose their national existence and form." In this respect he sees the positive aspect of the Egyptian exile: even though they worshipped idols, they retained their separate national status. This was not true of the Babylonian exile, where they kept the basic laws of the Torah but did not safeguard the barriers to assimilation.

So long as the Jews in exile were Torah-observant, there was no problem with their Jewish identity. But once a large portion of the nation had abandoned the Torah and began to assimilate, we no longer knew what could preserve Jewish identity. The establishment of the State seemed like a gift from the Guardian of Israel to preserve the Jewish identity of those who had distanced themselves from Torah and mitzvot. We believed that identification with the State of Israel would strengthen, to some extent, the Jewish identity of even those Jews who were very far removed.

To tell the truth, during the years since the establishment of the State this has become less certain: Are Israeli citizenship and the use of the Hebrew language alone - with no study of the content of Judaism - sufficient to ensure Jewish identity? We have been witness to heated opposition on the part of certain secular groups to the very mention of the verse, "It is a nation that shall dwell alone, and shall not be counted among the peoples" (Bemidbar 23:9). They perceived this as an expression of "exile mentality," and were certain that that period had completely ended, and that today we may consider ourselves a regular nation like any other.

The difficult battle against the murderous terrorism that came in the wake of Camp David brings the State of Israel back to its destiny of strengthening Jewish identity. The fact that it has become clear that this is a war for our existence, with the enemy denying our right to exist as the State of Israel within any borders whatsoever - this has deepened the consciousness that the nation of Israel is truly unlike any other nation, and the definition of Am Yisrael as a "regular nation" is a delusion. Indeed, we are "a nation that shall dwell alone, and shall not be counted among the peoples."

A further point should be made: With all our outrage at the wave of hypocrisy and anti-Semitism throughout the world, and with all the hurt that it entails, this phenomenon does offer one small ray of light. This wave has brought about increased solidarity on the part of world Jewry, as well as some strengthening of their Jewish identity, in this period in which Jewish identity represents an existential problem of Am Yisrael.

Let us conclude with the continuation of the same psalm mentioned above (85:9-10):

Let me hear what God shall say,

for He shall speak peace to His nation and to His pious ones;

but let them not go back to their folly.

Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him,

that honor may dwell in our land.

(Translated by Kaeren Fish)