When something happens in Thailand, does it have anything to do with us? We hear about an earthquake across the globe, does it impact us? Can we learn something from this tragedy? A Jewish businessman who lived in China took a business trip to Poland. One could not be in Poland and not take a day off to visit with the saintly Chafetz Chaim. The man rearranged his schedule so that he could detour to Radin. Perhaps he would be fortunate to receive a blessing from this saintly leader of world Jewry.
The man arrived in Radin and immediately proceeded to the home of the Rebbe of the Jewish People. He presented himself before the Chafetz Chaim, who, upon inquiring his place of origin, asked, “What is new in China?” The man replied, describing life in China, “There are a few Jews and even less opportunity for them to earn a living. There is no rav or shochet, ritual slaughter.” The Chafetz Chaim agreed with his visitor, “It is the same all over the world. I have had vignettes from all corners of the globe – each with the same sad story. This is why I wrote a short sefer, book, entitled Netzach Yisrael, the eternity of Yisrael. It will strengthen the hearts and minds of Jews all over.”
“Tell me more about China,” the Chafetz Chaim asked. The man related that a large dam had burst, flooding a large valley and destroying everything it its wake. Thousands of people had perished, thousands of homes had been destroyed. It was a cataclysmic disaster.
Hearing this, the Chafetz Chaim began to tremble. He wanted to hear more about it. He asked the man to tell him every detail about the disaster that had befallen China. After a few moments of relating the events in China, the guest became perturbed and gathered up his courage (or chutzpah) and asked, “Rebbe, what does this have to do with us? How is world Jewry affected by what takes place in China?”
The Chafetz Chaim calmly responded, “If a man were to build a stage in the town square of Warsaw and proceed to make a proclamation in Yiddish, who would you say was his intended audience?” “Clearly, he was speaking to Warsaw’s Jews,” the man replied. “Why do you say that?” asked the Chafetz Chaim. “The majority of the city’s residents are gentiles. Do we not always follow the majority?”
“True,” countered the traveler, “but only the Jews understand the man’s language.”
“It is exactly as you say!” the Chafetz Chaim replied with a slightly raised voice. “All of these disasters are signs from Heaven. They are Heavenly messages sent to the world – for whom? For those who understand the language! What do the Chinese comprehend about middas HaDin, the attribute of Heavenly Justice? The messages are directed towards those who learn, who study the Torah and are able to understand that Hashem wants us to repent. He is talking to us: See what happened in China – it could be you next! How do Jews in Poland become aware of these messages? Hashem catalyzes a Jew from China to travel to Poland. While he is there, he relates the catastrophe that took place in China. Now the Jews in Poland have a Heavenly imperative to repent.” Heavenly messages are dispatched all of the time; unfortunately, we are not always tuned in to listen.
The believing Jew is acutely aware that there are no coincidences in life and that things do not just happen. There is a rhyme and reason for everything. Nothing can affect us unless it is so decreed from Heaven, and, likewise, we cannot escape Heavenly retribution. Last, we must remember that punishment is not an end in its own, but only a medium from which we are to derive a lesson, a window into Hashem’s demands of us.
In his Hahe’erah Sheb’nistar, Horav Eliav Aderi, Shlita, focuses on the forty-day punishment of the Mabul, Flood. Veritably, that generation had sinned so egregiously that the Heavenly decree against them had been total annihilation. That entire generation, except for Noach and his family, were to be wiped out from the face of the earth. Nothing would be left of them. Could this punishment not have been executed through the medium of a giant tsunami? Why did Hashem send a torrential rain that lasted specifically forty days?
Rashi states that the number forty was by design. The yimei yetziras ha’velad, gestation period of a child, is forty days. Thus, Hashem punished them, for, through their immoral behavior and illicit relationships, they had caused Him to create many illegitimate children. Forty days of destruction for the forty days of their destroying the many potential neshamos, souls, which they compelled Hashem to bring into the world. Alternatively, Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, writes that the number forty implies creation (forty-day gestation period). The Mabul lasted for forty-days, alluding to it setting the tone and foundation for the re-creation of the world. With the decimation of that society, the world as we had known it then, the world that was left was actually the beginning of the creation of a new world.
We find this idea in Hilchos Shabbos. Destroying an edifice is considered kilkul, destruction, and, thus, not under the halachic purview of meleches machasheves, calculated labor, the criterion for determining the validity of an act of labor. Accordingly, one who destroys on Shabbos is not chayov, liable. Shabbos labor must be constructive. If, however, the destruction is for the purpose of building – ie, knocking down a building in order to lay a new foundation to build another edifice – one is liable. Destruction for the purpose of construction is actually a constructive labor. Ridding the world of evil, so that good can be planted, is constructive. It is a good thing.
Hashem repays us middah k’neged middah, measure for measure, gives out retributive justice. This is a tremendous kindness, because, when we receive a punishment and we engage our minds, we are able to identify the area of our life in which we are deficient. This, says Horav Yechezkel, zl, m’Radomsk, is what David Hamelech alludes to in Tehillim 62:13, U’lecha Hashem ha’chesed ki atah teshalem l’ish k’ma’aseihu, “And yours, my Lord, is kindness, for You reward each man in accordance with his deeds.” Teshalem means to pay back – reward and punishment. What act of kindness is there in punishment? The Radomsker explains that, when Hashem punishes k’ma’aseihu, according to the individual’s actions, measure for measure, he allows the offender the opportunity to introspect and peer into his deficiencies, to see where he went wrong – and correct the area in which he has strayed. The greatest blessing is to point out one’s failings discreetly, so that he can repair them. Hashem does not punish; Hashem instructs.
The Talmud Berachos 5a states that a person who has yissurim, troubles, suffering, should introspect and investigate his actions. In other words, nothing “just happens.” Chazal are teaching us that the correct response to suffering is to study one’s actions, to delve into his motives and intentions: Are they pure? Are they worthy? Ostensibly, one will figure out what has catalyzed his present predicament, and he will do something about it, like correcting his lapse.
There is a story that occurred concerning Horav Isser Zalmen Meltzer, zl, that underscores this idea. A man came to visit Rav Isser Zalmen. While the two men were talking, they heard a noise from the kitchen. Quiet, followed by the Rebbetzin’s crying out. Rav Isser Zalmen ran to the kitchen. Quiet, followed by hushed voices, as the Rosh Yeshivah and his Rebbetzin discussed something. Then, they both left the house, leaving the man waiting and wondering. When Rav Isser Zalmen returned, he went right back to his discussion with the man as if nothing had occurred. “Where were we?” he asked. The man, of course, was not prepared to return to the conversation until he became privy to what had just taken place. A noise in the kitchen; the Rebbetzin cried out; the hushed discussion; both leaving and returning a while later. The man felt that he deserved an explanation. Obviously, he must have been close to the Rosh Yeshivah to make such a request.
Rav Isser Zalmen began to explain what had happened. A pot of milk in the kitchen had boiled over and spilled. He and his wife had a discussion to figure out how such a thing could have happened. The Rebbetzin suddenly realized that she had forgotten to pay the milkman for the milk. They both left immediately to search for the milkman and pay him. When he received the money, the milkman remarked that he did not know how he would have purchased food for dinner that night.
If things do not go smoothly, one should stop and ask himself: What did I do, what am I doing wrong? Whether one calls it retributive justice, tit for tat, what goes around comes around, or middah k’neged middah, measure for measure, it is something very real in our lives, something that, if we were only to open our eyes, might change the course of our lives.