Va'etchanan: Recovering from grief
Va'etchanan: Recovering from grief

When Grief Debilitates

This Shabbat is all about comfort. After commemorating the destruction of both Jewish Temples this Tuesday, we are in a state of grief and in significant need of comfort. Yet the question is how does one find comfort after such immense grief? If we find it difficult to recover from the loss of a loved one, how does one recover from the grief of losing a people, a Temple, a country and a nation?

In the summer of 1954, the Chabad community of Melbourne, Australia, was reeling from shock and grief when two families of the close-knit community lost young children in relative succession. Rabbi Shneur Zalman Serebryanski a senior rabbi in the community, wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM about his efforts to build a rabbinic academy in Melbourne. In his letter he wrote, “Although they are in deep grief, I nevertheless urged them to champion this cause.” 

The Rebbe replied by thanking Rabbi Serebryanski for his letter and then gently chided him. “In my opinion, you should have written because they are in deep grief, I therefore urged them to champion this cause.”

The Rebbe went on to explain that this is the spiritual meaning of the rabbinic dictum, “tithe so that you will be enriched.” Our sages meant it in the literal sense. If you give to charity and enrich G-d’s children, G-d will in turn enrich you. Said the Rebbe, the same is true on a spiritual / emotional level. When you are emotionally drained, when you are in the grip of grief, work to lift others up. Infuse joy into their hearts and G-d will infuse joy into yours. “Charity shall lift a nation.” When the nation of Israel is in grief. the way to refill the spiritual and emotional tank, is to reach out and enrich others.

By Building

In 1956, Fedayeen terrorist infiltrated the Kfar Chabad village in Israel. They entered the synagogue during the evening service and raked the worshippers with rifle fire, murdering five children and one teacher, and wounding ten others. The village was in deep grief. They had survived the Stalin era in the Soviet Union and arrived in Israel spiritually unscathed, but this tragedy knocked them down. What had these innocent children done to deserve such tragedy?

In their grief, they considered disbanding the village. It was too dangerous to remain. The price of staying was too high. If the terrorists infiltrated once, they might infiltrate again. Grown men cried. Mature women grieved. Children were left without anchor. The village elders wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York for guidance, but it would take four days for an answer to arrive.

For those four days, the Rebbe reportedly secluded himself. What he did during that time, nobody knows. Did he cry bitter tears, pour his heart out to G-d, seek guidance from on high or inspiration from the ancient tomes of his vast library? Nobody knows, but three days later he opened the door and instructed his secretariat to dispatch a three-word telegram. “Bhemshech habinyan tinachemu,” by your continued building you will be comforted.

The villagers gathered in the square, the elders read the Rebbe’s succinct reply, and the people accepted their new mandate. When your heart is empty, you must fill another’s heart and your heart will soon fill too. In the land adjacent to where six holy lives were snuffed out, they broke ground for a vocational school to help the poor and disenfranchised train for and find work.

These three words saved a village. These three words contain a message that is still being unpacked today. When you are empty, when you are in grief, enrich G-d’s children and He will in turn, enrich you.

Three Cities

On the Shabbat of comfort, the Shabbat immediately following the ninth of Av, the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction, we read the Torah portion that describes the Jewish exile and diaspora. After Moses foretold the terrible state that Jews will reach in the diaspora, the Torah relates that “Then Moses decided to separate three cities on the side of the Jordan.”

Moses designated three cities of refuge where future Jews, who would kill a fellow Jew inadvertently, would find protection from family members seeking to avenge the victim. These cities would not receive refuge status until the entire land would be conquered and settled. Yet Moses decided “then” and there to allocate land for these cities. The Torah emphasizes that it was done “then”. What was so important about doing it Just “then”, why not some other time?

I would like to suggest that there is a message in the timing. As soon as the Torah concludes the description of the sad and gripping Jewish diaspora, it informs us that Moses performed an action to help others. The timing is uncanny. Perhaps the lesson here is that when we feel melancholy and depressed, when we are in despair and in grief, the solution is to stand up and do something for another. Enrich G-d’s children and G-d will enrich you too.

Happy and Successful

Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, broke happiness down into three measurable components, pleasure, engagement and meaning. When you do only for yourself, you can have pleasure and you can be engaged, but it won’t necessarily bring meaning. Without meaning, you will be lacking one of three components of happiness. However, when you do for others you have all three: You can be engaged, you can find meaning, and derive even more pleasure than when you do for yourself.

Thus, the scientific explanation for the spiritual promise, enrich G-d’s children and He will enrich you. Get active, reach out to others, help them and become meaningful to them. With this you will discover purpose and you will find happiness. 

Comfort, comfort my nation. The double comfort use of the word comfort teaches us that when we comfort others, we are in turn comforted.