In addition to his Rabbinic post in Cincinnati, Rabbi Eliezer Silver, zt’l worked tirelessly to save thousands of Jewish lives during World War II. As President of the Va’ad Hatzalah (Rescue Committee), he spearheaded initiative-after-initiative in the desperate hopes of rescuing his Jewish brethren trapped in war-torn Europe. Be it fund-raising (to the tune of $5 million (approximately $85 million in today’s economy)) or galvanizing domestic political pressure. Be it securing emergency visas or his legendary efforts to save Jewish children who had been taken in by French monasteries during the Holocaust. No efforts were spared. Neshamas were at stake.
The story is told how a survivor of the concentration camps ultimately emigrated to America and found his way to Cincinnati. While this gentleman had kept Torah and mitzvahs in his youth, the atrocities of the war (through which he lost virtually all of his family and loved ones) had broken his belief in Hashem and Morality. His interest in observance and mitzvahs was snuffed out amidst the pain. Far be it for us to judge such extreme tests of faith. Suffice it to say, that some members of Cincinnati’s orthodox community encouraged this fellow to meet with Rabbi Silver in the hopes that some consolation and meaningfulness could be salvaged.
At this fateful meeting, as the story goes, the parties exchanged pleasantries. At some point in the conversation, this emotionally-broken yet defiant individual declared, “Rabbi! Hashem took the good ones [to heaven] and left the p’soles (i.e., the inferior ones) to live.” Feeling this fellow Yid’s pain to his core, Rabbi Silver embraced him, began to weep and said only, “You’re right.” The hugged one another and cried together for who knows how long.
Rabbi Silver offered no sophisticated discussions about how those lose ones were somehow someway in the Next World. No “defense” of Hashem’s Divine Master Plan (that often escapes our comprehension). No “everything has a reason we just don’t know it.” No pep-talk in emunah or bitachon. Just a sincere attempt to meet a heartbroken Jew where his emotional rubber met his emotional road.
The post-script is that they developed a deep-seated respect for one another and sincere friendship. It is reported that, Rabbi Silver ultimately inspired this man to re-embrace his heritage and resume his keeping of Mitzvahs. Years later, they recounted their initial meeting, whereby he reminisced, “Rabbi, had you responded in any other way, I would have said good-bye and walked away.”
“They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to go around the land of Edom, and the spirit of the people grew short with the road.” (21:4).
“The hardship of the road … became difficult for them.” (Rashi, 21:4).
Anyone who’s traveled for an extended period of time can relate to the rigors of the road (ask the 1992 Astros who played a record 26-straight games away from the Astrodome). Living out of a suitcase is no fun and take-out food becomes tiresome. But, hey, the Jews were seasoned desert voyagers by this point. They still had their faithful shepherd Moshe and still merited water and nourishment via Divine channels. Why all of a sudden did they “speak up against Hashem and Moshe [kvetching] Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness? For … our soul is at its limit with the insubstantial food (i.e., the mahn).” (21:5-6).
Perhaps this outburst and the emotional state that gave rise to it can be traced to the death of the beloved Aharon HaKohen (just a few lines earlier in parshas Chukas). As the Mishna in Avos attests, the calling card of Aharon HaKohen was his love and dedication to the emotional well-being of his fellow Yidden. He was known throughout the Am Yisrael as one who “would pursue peace and instill love between parties to a quarrel and between a man and his wife.” (Rashi 20:29). Notwithstanding his role as the Kohen Gadol, the lofty stature associated with being the Jewish Nation’s “second-in-command” and the national obligations he shouldered, Aharon HaKohen never lost sight of the individual and his or her particular plight.
Returning to the Am Yisrael’s frustration with the “hardship of the road,” Rashi offers the following emotionally-astute diagnosis: “The expression ‘shortening of spirit’ applies to anything that is difficult to a person, like a person upon whom something disturbing falls, and this state of mind is not broad enough to accept that thing, and he does not have room within his heart where the pain might abide. “ (21:4).
Perhaps throughout all these years of desert-wandering, the Am Yisrael suffered similar “hardships,” and yet, those difficulties were bearable because of Aharon HaKohen and his unique capacity to mend that emotional breach in the heart of his fellow Jew. Now, however, in the post-Aharon era, no one was as-equipped to provide the emotional bandwidth necessary day-in and day-out to endure trials and tribulations. In short, the “hardship of the road” was felt more acutely now that Aharon was not available to provide chizuk and support.
In our own lives, I venture to say one need not look far to find someone whose “state of mind is not broad enough to accept” hardship or who “does not have room within his heard where the pain might abide.”
You can provide those emotional shoulders for someone to lean on.
You can be those listening ears for a troubled soul to voice their pain.
You can walk in the shoes of Aharon HaKohen and provide the psychological scaffolding to enable a Jew to keep on trucking despite the static of self-doubt urging them to throw in the towel.
Forget about dissertations and sermons. Torpedo the deep philosophical justifications and banish the clichés for some other time. Reconfigure the architecture of your own heart in order to provide the “room” which your fellow lacks in his own heart.
With sincerity, you can be the one to mitigate their loneliness.
With patience, you can help them right the ship.
With heartfelt validation, who knows how much life you can breathe into another. And in so doing, you will have carried the torch of Rabbi Eliezer Silver whose dedication and understanding bore the hallmarks of Aharon HaKohen who brought all of us closer to Torah. How? Not with drashas and scholarship. Not with sermons and theology. But rather with his undying love of shalom, his selfless pursuit of shalom and his unwavering love of his fellow.