Aside from being the first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi was also the Ba’al Kriyah of his shul, reading the Torah every Shabbos.
Naturally, whenever he would travel, there was a big tumult who should Lein in his place. And it so happened that one year, the Rebbe was away for our Parsha, Parshas Ki Savo in which the terrible curses are read.
The leining began without a hitch. The Chossid chosen to read was clearly an expert; not only in the grammar and tunes, but his reading and inflections displayed a profundity of understanding of the words he was reading.
But in the middle of the reading, there was a sudden commotion: the Alter Rebbe’s son, Rabbi Dov Ber, had fainted.
When he was revived, he was asked what had affected him so much. “I could not bear to hear such curses,” he said. “But surely this is not the first time you’ve heard them?!” the chassidim asked. “You hear them every year!”
“It’s true that we read these curses each and every year, but when I hear them from my father, I don’t just hear the curses, I hear the blessings in them as well.”
Each one of us has experienced moments of hindsight induced clarity. On some level, we can all relate to stories of the job offer that tragically fell through, which enabled us to get the much better job later. Of course, we all know of the house or shidduch that didn’t work out, only to yield much better opportunities just when we thought it was impossible. Countless stories abound of missed trains and planes which ended up saving their lives. Or painful and invasive surgeries that unwittingly and miraculously revealed hidden cancers.
Sometimes we are fortunate to see the blessings in the curse.
But oftentimes we are not. Those that have lost loved ones to COVID are not easily finding the blessing in this curse. Those that cannot visit their kids or hug their grandchildren; those who will not be attending shul this Yom Tov are all having a hard time seeing the Bracha.
Reb Shlomo of Krasna explained that it is for this reason that we read the Tochacha, the curses softly. Because the ability to hear the Brachos in the horror and tragedy is a secret. And secrets must be whispered. I cannot whisper the secrets of the Alter Rebbe and I do not know the secret of hearing the brachos in illness and tragedy. I don’t know how to whisper meaning to those who have suffered and are sill suffering. To those who have been hit hardest by this pandemic, I can offer only comfort, love and support.
But for many of us, this year has been shocking, but not shattering. Our lives have been shaken but not turned over. We have seen the curses, but many have heard the whisper of Brachos as well. So allow us for a moment to whisper together a little.
Many in our community and beyond have noted that as the world shut down we have enjoyed more time with family. The past few months have afforded us a deeper appreciation of Torah and Tefillah, greater opportunities and more quality and quantity time with our children. Of course, not all of us, and not all the time.
But some have found extra hours in the day in place of our daily commutes. Some no longer have to travel out of state for business. Naturally, none of this has been simple. It has all come with a cost - sometimes higher than we wished to pay. But there have been Brachos. (And some of the women of our community are the most honest regarding the Brachos of having their husbands at home for extended periods, often for the first time since marriage.)
But as I speak to some of the chevra, there is a strange and tense guilt in appreciating and graciously accepting the Brachos within this cursed year. We count ourselves “lucky” for these “benefits”. We feel as if by some twist of fate we dodged a bullet. And we feel a sense of shame in expressing gratitude to Hashem for these opportunities. We wonder: How can I be grateful for a situation that has caused so many others so much pain? This thought is indeed noble, but misguided. If Hashem is turning the world over and we are gaining something - anything - from it, that warrants recognition and gratitude. (The Halacha (או"ח סי' רכג ס"ב) is clear: If a person loses a loved one and simultaneously inherits a fortune, they make two Brachos; דיין האמת - that Hashem is the true judge in this tragedy, in addition to שהחיינו - how fortunate we are to receive this inheritance!)
But that’s where the misguided nobility ends and the Yetzer Hara takes over. The thoughts spin around our heads: “Do you really think you deserve to have been spared the worst of this pandemic?! No way! You who does ______________, and you who doesn’t ______________..?!” (Feel free to fill in the blank for your own Yetzer Hara.)
And of course, since it’s an election year, there are different flavored Yetzer Haras for Republicans and Democrats. The Republican Yetzer argues that “it must be that there really wasn’t ever any danger. You were saved from nothing, and this is all a big overhyped mistake. You have nothing to be grateful for.” The Democrat Yetzer Hara retorts that “You got really lucky so far - but just you wait... It’s coming for you. Don’t think you’re anything special.”
But in the meanwhile, if we’re honest, we realize that many of us have been spared from a calamity that has engulfed communities around the world. And our lack of desire to display understanding and gratitude is devastatingly dangerous.
A pillar of our understanding of Torah and the Universe is that the Ribono Shel Olam is a good accountant. In His infinite wisdom he is giving each of our communities and families exactly what we need. If this year has presented youwith new opportunities and perspectives, then this is what Hashem wants for you.
After one-hundred-and-twenty, the Master of all Worlds will ask us: “Do you remember 5780? Do you remember how I put the world on pause and turned it upside down and saved you and your family? Do did see how I gave you these opportunities to fix your broken relationships, your broken schedules and priorities? Did you see how I buried the greatest Brachos in hidden worlds where no one was bothering you...?”
Are we confident that are answers will satisfy us then?
Throughout Elul we have been sounding the Shofar, and the Rambam famously tells us that the sound of the Shofar is designed to wake us up. It’s waking each of us on our level. To come to minyan, to put on tefillin, to daven, to learn. It’s waking us up to give tzedaka, to lose weight, to control our anger. It’s waking up us to spend more time with our family and less time with our screens. It’s waking us up to go for a walk or run, to read a book, to clean out the garage. The shofar of this Elul is waking us up to hear that the world might be going back to “normal”, but that our normal must be, and needs to be quite different. It’s waking us up to make time, to make Aliyah, to make difficult decisions, to make a change.
The Bracha we will say on the Shofar is לשמוע קול שופר - to hear to the sound of the Shofar. Amazingly, the Ba’al Halachos Gedolos writes that the correct bracha is לשמוע בקול שופר - To Listen to what the Shofar is saying. (We don’t accept this opinion להלכה, but the sentiment is certainly true: We have a lot of listening to do.)
Chazal tell us that we read these curses before Rosh HaShana so that the “year and it’s curses will end.” And we all know that there is much we’d like to see an end to of this year. But there is also a tremendous amount of Bracha yet to be claimed before this year is completed.
There is no shame in being grateful for your Brachos, knowing that even in the pain and confusion, Hashem is holding our hands, helping us through, giving us exactly what we need.
Hashem should help us to wake up and listen to the whispered Brachos in these challenging times, and give us the courage to hear Him cheering us on towards 5781.