The Midrash says that when Iyov heard about the tragic deaths of the two sons of Aharon HaKohen, he said, Af l’zos yecherad libi v’yitar mimkomo; “Even for this, my heart trembles and it leaps from its place” (Iyov 37:1). Iyov had suffered as no other man. He believed that he did not deserve such extreme pain and misery to be visited upon him. He had led a virtuous and pious life, and he had done no wrong, certainly nothing of the caliber to warrant such serious punishment. He claimed that the physical/emotional pain of losing his children and his possessions paled in comparison to the mental anguish of losing his exalted standing among his peers. He was devastated, and he could not find any reason to justify his pain. His friends attempted to present reasons for his punishment, all of which Iyov vehemently refuted. He had done no wrong.
At the end of Sefer Iyov, a new participant enters into the debate – Elihu ben Barachel. This young man becomes incensed with the failure of Iyov’s friends to give Iyov a satisfactory cause for his suffering, thus allowing him to justify his self-righteousness. Elihu begins his explanation by saying that, while Iyov may have valid questions, he must understand that one cannot argue with Hashem. This alone is the reason he is wrong. Man can ask questions, but he cannot engage Hashem in a debate as if he were the Almighty’s equal. One addresses Hashem in the form of a request or a prayer, but never as an argument or critique.
Having said this, Elihu alludes to what happened to Nadav and Avihu, citing Aharon’s non-reaction Va’yidom Aharon, “And Aharon was mute” (Vayikra 10:3). Here Iyov posits that no one had ever suffered as he did, and that no one had accepted, albeit grudgingly, his lot in life as he did. Now he hears about Aharon HaKohen. This created within him the sensation of, “My heart trembles, and leaps from its place.” He begins to delve deep into his own reactions, wondering if there ever had been any justification for his questions. Perhaps all of his issues are the result of a lack of emunah, faith, in Hashem?
The question that glares at us is quite simple. Based upon the timeline of history concerning the life of Iyov, he lived either during Moshe Rabbeinu’s period or later. Thus, he was certainly aware of the tragedy that had befallen Aharon’s sons, as well as the unusually noble reaction of Aharon to this conflagration. Why, all of a sudden now, after Iyov himself had sustained the loss of his sons and other miseries, did he begin to tremble? Why had he not trembled earlier – before he became a partner in suffering?
Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, derives a practical lesson from here. One does not hear someone else’s pain until he himself has suffered in a similar manner. That is human nature. After Iyov himself suffered greatly, he was able to appreciate Aharon’s reaction to a similar tragedy. When he perceived the incredible strength of character exhibited by Aharon, his unequivocal faith in the Almighty, his ability to accept the hand of strict justice without uttering a word of complaint, Iyov began to tremble. He saw that the little pedestal of questions that he had erected for himself was wrong.
Zachrah Yerushalayim yemei anyah u’merudeha, “Yerushalayim recalled the days of her affliction and sorrow” (Eicha 1:7). Simply, this means that, while in exile, the nation recalled the churban, destruction, that precipitated their present affliction and sorrow. In its commentary to Eichah, the Midrash defines merudeha as being derived from marod, to revolt/rebel. Thus, the pasuk is interpreted in the following manner: In the days of her affliction, the nation came to acknowledge and remember its revolts against Hashem. Rav Zaitchik explains that when life is good, the sun is shining in one’s face, the hour is filled with joy, it is impossible to speak with the person concerning his past wrongs, his failings and iniquities. He is on cloud nine, and no one can penetrate his smug feeling. He believes he did no wrong, and, thus, he is firm and resolute; he goes on doing his own thing, ignoring the signs indicating future concern. Everybody is wrong, except him. After all, look, he has it made! Furthermore, he is unable to listen to the pleas of those who are suffering, whose lives are filled with constant misery. Someone who has it good cannot taste the bitter life of the individual whose life is a constant challenge.
When the tables are turned and the errors of the past come to haunt him, when all those “innocent” iniquities prove to be not quite so innocent, when payback time is beginning to take its toll on him, his mind becomes open to the plight of others. When the high and mighty begin to fall, they are suddenly blessed with eyes that see others and with ears that hear their pain.
It is difficult: to feel the cold when one is in a warm room; to understand hunger when one has just had a six-course dinner; to be sensitive to the needs of others when one seems to have it all. One winter, when the city of Brisk had no heat, its Rav, Horav Chaim Soloveitchik, zl, left his heated home and stayed in the shul. He explained, “I cannot feel their cold as long as I am in a warm home.”
Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, was a legend in his empathy for a fellow Jew. No favor received ever went unrequited. No Jew’s pain was ignored. He did not alleviate their pain – he personally felt it. In a classic hakoras hatov, gratitude, episode, related by Rabbi Paysach Krohn, we learn how the Rosh Yeshivah acknowledged and paid back a favor he had received many years earlier.
It was a cold, dreary, rainy day in Bnei Brak. Rav Shach was well into his nineties and very frail. Yet, he asked his grandson to arrange a car for him, so that he could travel to a town near Haifa. The grandson was not happy about this request, claiming that the Rosh Yeshivah was in ill health and too weak to go out in the inclement weather. The Rosh Yeshivah was adamant. He had to attend the funeral of a certain woman.
It took two hours to reach the cemetery. The grandson figured it would be a large funeral if his grandfather was making such a supreme effort to attend. He was wrong. There was barely a minyan, quorum, in attendance. A small group of elderly men and women braving the cold, wind and rain, stood in solemn respect around a freshly dug grave, It was truly a sad experience. Apparently, the woman had had no children, and the few remaining relatives and some neighbors gathered together to pay her final respects.
When the funeral was over, the venerable Rosh Yeshivah recited Kaddish Yasom, the Mourner’s Kaddish. He stood there a few moments amid the pelting rain and simply stared at the grave. His grandson attempted to take him to the car, but Rav Shach was not yet ready. It almost seemed as if he wanted to remain in the cold rain and get wet. Finally, shivering and shaking, the Rosh Yeshivah signaled that he was ready to return.
Clearly, this entire day, beginning with his grandfather’s request to attend the funeral, to stand out in the cold, stymied Rav Shach’s grandson. He expressed his incredulity. The response came by way of a story, which speaks volumes about Rav Shach’s perception of the middah, character trait, of hakoras hatov, gratitude.
When Rav Shach was a young boy of twelve, a yeshivah for select illuyim, brilliant students, opened. There was no dormitory, and food was sparse. The older students slept on the benches of the shul, while the younger ones found a place on the floor. Rav Shach was by far the youngest student. Despite his youth, he was granted a place on a bench. This attests to his brilliance and dedication.
While the conditions were tolerable in the spring and summer, the harsh winter brought its challenge. There was no heat. It is difficult to sleep on a hard floor; a cold floor is almost impossible to sleep on. A few months of this physical deprivation was getting to the budding young scholar. After all, he was only a “kid.” What made things worse was the letters that arrived from his uncle, a prosperous blacksmith, asking his nephew to join him in the business. The young boy ruminated over the offer. Veritably, he wanted to learn and dedicate his life to Torah, but if he froze at night and, as a result, could not sleep, he could not learn. He might as well become a frum, observant, prosperous professional. He decided to give it one more day before making a decision.
That morning, a woman came to the yeshivah with a small wagon filled with blankets. Apparently, her husband was a blanket salesman, who had tragically been killed in an accident. She was here to donate the remaining blankets to the yeshivah students. Rav Shach was one of the fortunate recipients of a blanket. It made a world of difference for him, and it played a critical role in keeping the young boy in yeshivah that winter.
End of story? No. Rav Shach went on to become the gadol ha’dor, preeminent Torah leader of the generation. That woman, regrettably, had a sad life. She never remarried. After moving to Eretz Yisrael, she settled in Haifa. She died as she lived: quietly, without fanfare. “This is why I attended her funeral,” Rav Shach said to his grandson.
“But why did you keep on standing there, after the funeral, getting soaked to the skin?” the grandson asked.
“It has been so many years since that incident, and, over time, one tends to forget. I wanted to remain out in the cold, so that the frigid sensation that gripped me then would inspire me now to pay the proper gratitude for her gift.”