From within the walls

Arumor has been circulating that a Hamas official was interviewed by a foreign correspondent who asked him how, a week into the war with Hamas having fired a thousand rockets into Israel, not one Israeli had been killed. The Hamas official replied, “What can I do if  their G-d loves them? But, the minute their G-d gets angry at them, wait and see what will happen…” I couldn’t substantiate that this interview really took place, but the sentiment it expresses—that when all is going well it means that G-d loves us—is a universal, deeply rooted feeling. And its opposite conclusion is equally tenacious—that when tragedy strikes it means that G-d does not love us. For many Jews the hardest part of Tishah B’Av is not the fast, but the difficulty in conjuring up mourning for the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash that happened 2,000 years ago. Living inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, I have no such trouble. On the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, when the Romans breached the walls, a heaviness descends on the Old City that grows denser and darker until Tishah B’Av, when the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed. And every year I am plagued by a question. The Romans broke into Jerusalem by the northern wall of the city. In those days the northern wall, now at Shaar Shechem, was a few hundred meters farther north, where Rechov Meah She’arim ends. Still, to walk from that point to the Temple Mount, even walking very slowly, could not take more than 30 minutes. How did it take the Roman legions three weeks to reach the Temple? The answer, of course, is that Jewish defenders valiantly fought them every step of the way, so that the lanes of the Old City (the only Jerusalem that existed at the time)were strewn with Jewish corpses, and blood flowed through the streets in crimson rivulets. The “Three Weeks,” the period we are now in, is called in Hebrew Bein Hametzarim, meaning “between the sieges.” When the Romans finally reached Har Habayis, they had to mount a second siege around the fortifications of the Beis Hamikdash. Some 22,000 kohanim were killed trying to defend the Temple.

Jewish Rabbis

We lost that war. We lost our Beis Hamikdash. We lost hundreds of thousands of Jews. As Josephus recorded: “For the ground was nowhere visible for the dead bodies that lay on it.” Yet the most trenchant loss was the feeling that G-d was not with us. In the aftermath of the Destruction, the Romans taunted, “Your G-d has abandoned you.” And many—perhaps most—Jews believed it. And when the exile stretched into centuries of persecution and torture, the Chris tians built their distorted theology on their slanderous conviction that G-d had reviled the Jews and that the beloved “Israel” was now the Christian Church. In the massacres and expulsions and ghettos of Europe, how hard it must have been to cling to the truth— that G-d still loves us. In fact, the very first Tishah B’Av, when the sin of the spies caused the Israelites to reject the Land of Israel and cry “for no reason,” calling down the Divine decree that on future Tishah B’Avs we would have a reason to cry, what was the real sin that invoked such Divine fury? According to some commentators, it was not their fear of entering the Land, but rather their declaration, “Because G-d hated us, He took us out of Egypt.” [Devarim 1:27] Feeling hated by G-d is true severance of our relationship with Him. But how does a person not feel rejected and hated by G-d when disappointment hits or tragedy strikes? If we feel that “G-d loves us” when all goes well, how can we not feel the opposite when we lose our dreams, our battles, our health, or our loved ones? In The Ladder, my webinar workshop for single women, I discovered that two enemies must be fought off. One, of course, is the depression that descends on older singles who see their friends married and with children while they are marooned on an island of loneliness and repeated rejection.

The other enemy, no less pernicious, is the feeling that G-d does not love them because He has not blessed them with a husband and family. Both of these feelings are ploys of the yetzer hara. The equation that G-d’s love equals a felicitous life must be severed with the sword of Truth. My friend, whom I’ll call “Aviva,” exemplifies how it is possible to feel G-d’s love even in the darkest situation. Aviva lost her beloved 12-year-old daughter Seri to cancer. At every point during the excruciating twoand-a-half-year losing battle for Seri’s life, Aviva looked for and found G-d’s love and blessings. The day of the diagnosis, as all of us cancer survivors can attest, is the worst. Aviva, however, managed to ferret out the good even on that traumatic day. She and her children were living in Israel, with her husband commuting back and forth to America for work. When Seri complained of pain in her knee and hip, Aviva took her to the emergency room at Shaare Zedek Hospital. The doctor thought it was a joint problem, but when the new shift came on, the Arab doctor looked at the blood work and said, “I think it’s cancer.” As Aviva recalls, “They immediately sent us to Hadassah Ein Kerem. We got to Hadassah at 5 p.m. By 8 p.m. they were doing a bone morrow biopsy. By 10 p.m. we knew it was cancer. In general, what I had heard about the Israeli medical system was that nothing goes fast, nothing goes smoothly. You need permission for every test. But here I was, alone without my husband, and they were taking such good care of us.

The next day was Friday, when the hospital is on low staff. Seri needed a CT scan. They took her down and there was no waiting in line. She got her scan right away. A young woman, an English-speaking psychiatrist who was doing her training as a trauma specialist at Hadassah, suddenly appeared by Seri’s bed. She was a friend of a friend, who had notified her that we needed help. While I went to talk to the doctors, she stayed with Seri and calmed her down. Seeing all this good made me feel that G-d was with me.” The feeling that hits so many who are plagued by tragedy, that they are being punished by G-d, was dispelled for Aviva when she went to rabbanim. She asked them if Seri’s cancer came because there was something that she or her husband had to be metakken, if Seri was bearing the brunt of their sins. The unanimous answer was that she and her husband could definitely work on fixing something in themselves, but that they shouldn’t look upon Seri’s illness as a punishment. “So,” sums up Aviva, “I didn’t have any source to look at it as a punishment. So I didn’t.” Aviva never asked, Why me? When she went into the pediatric oncology ward at Hadassah, full of religious, non-religious, and Arab children, it was so obvious to her that G-d put cancer into the world for His own reasons. As she explains, “If I asked, ‘Why me?’ I would have to ask, ‘Why anyone?’ And I knew the answer: that we’re in galus, and we don’t know why we have to do the things we have to do. The only question I always had was: What am I supposed to be doing with this nisayon, other than taking care of my family?” Aviva and her family moved back to America for Seri’s treatment. During the following two and a half years, there were many ups and downs.

A lesson she learned from Rabbi Paysach Krohn got her through the bad times. He taught that we make the blessing, “l’havchin bein yom u’vein lailah,” to bless the distinction between day and night, because otherwise we would have one interminable day. “I learned,” says Aviva, “that if I had a bad day, that day would eventually end, and there was a chance that the next day would be better.” Aviva came to Eretz Yisrael for Yom Kippur two months before Seri died. She davened, “I don’t know what this year will bring, but I’m not up to losing her. You will have to carry me, because I’m not up to losing her.” She returned to America at peace. “I knew that whatever would be, G-d would take care of me. We made a deal.” Even in Seri’s death, Aviva found G-d’s chesed. “At the end, my greatest consolation was that Seri wanted to leave. She asked, ‘Why is it taking so long?’ She was so peaceful. She wanted to go. And that made me able to let her go. G-d did a chesed for me to see her that way.” Asked what she learned from her tragedy, Aviva answers, “I learned to realize that G-d gives us gifts, and we are not in control of what happens with those gifts. But we can enjoy them as much as we allow ourselves to. And I learned to try to appreciate each day and see the good.” There is a time to mourn. Tishah B’Av is one such time. But there is never a time to feel unloved by G-d.

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