Dear Rabbi Fried,
You mentioned last week, as you often do, that we Jews in America are in the midst of a “spiritual holocaust.” If that is the case, how could you ever be in a state of comforting? (I.e., the Shabbat following the Ninth of Av is called the Shabbat of Comforting.) How could one be in a state of comfort in the midst of a holocaust?
I once approached one of the leading sages of the past generation, Rav Zelig Epstein ob’m, with a very similar question. I was discussing with him, over two decades ago, the phenomenon in our generation of Baalei Teshuva, or Jewish returnees to Judaism. He was in great wonderment over this occurrence since he, as a survivor of prewar Poland, only saw Jews leaving Judaism but not returning. The Baal Teshuva was virtually unheard of, and it gave him unbounding joy to hear about this movement and what was happening in Dallas at the time.
I asked the Rav, how can one truly be joyous over the disconnected, distant Jews becoming connected and more observant, when the numbers of those Jews pale greatly in comparison to the 100,000 Jews per year who become disconnected, often disclaiming their Judaism completely? For this reason, another sage of his generation, Rav Shimon Schwab ob’m, coined the oft-used term Spiritual Holocaust of America. Even if hundreds per year return, when you do the math, there doesn’t seem to be much to rejoice in.
Rav Zelig replied that, although we certainly need to be sad and mourn the enormous loss of so many of our brothers and sisters to assimilation, we still have good reason to rejoice in the return of those hundreds. This is because those being lost are the continuation of the European Holocaust during World War II; that physical holocaust hasn’t ended and is continuing in the spiritual realm. Just like we mourn the Holocaust of Auschwitz we mourn the spiritual holocaust of America.
On the other hand, the returnees, the Baalei Teshuva, exclaimed Rav Zelig, represent something else entirely; they are ushering in the Messianic era.
The venerable Rav said that this message is implicit in the prophecy of Isaiah (27:6, the Haftarah of Parshas Shemos), “Those coming will set down the roots of Jacob; Israel shall blossom, and the face of the earth will be filled with their fruit.” What roots of Jacob will “those coming” plant? All Jews grow out of the roots that Jacob already planted so long ago.
He answered that the roots planted by Jacob were severed by the European Jews’ forsaking the covenant of Jacob. That disconnect was rendered complete by the Holocaust, which almost completely broke the chain of transmission of our heritage from parents to their children. This is why Jacob lost his prophecy when, at the end of his life, he wanted to reveal to his sons, the tribes of Israel, the future of the Jewish people. (See Rashi to Genesis 49:1.)
When he looked forward prophetically at the overview of Jewish history and saw the unspeakable Holocaust, when nearly all that was built over thousands of years was destroyed and the tradition was uprooted, he became sad and lost his prophecy, which rests only with joy. He proceeded to bless his sons rather than reveal the future if it ended, in his vision, so bleakly.
What Isaiah was shown is where Jacob’s prophecy left off: that after the destruction there will yet be a new generation who will replant the uprooted roots of Jacob. These are the Baalei Teshuva: those who don’t have an unbroken chain of tradition from their homes but will, with the inner strength of their Jewish souls, pick up the broken pieces, replant the saplings of those uprooted roots and bring the Jewish people back to healthy growth. Their fruit will fill the land, meaning that, as the Sages teach, that in the merit of these Baalei Teshuva we will merit the redemption.
So, ended Rav Zelig, although we truly must mourn every Jew lost to our people, we certainly have much to be joyous in these beautiful Baalei Teshuva. This is because when we see them, we are beholding the very Jews who, in their merit, are ushering in the era of Moshiach.
The meaning of “Nachamu” is not simply “comfort.” The deeper meaning is to look at things in a different way, a paradigm shift. (See Rashi to Genesis 6:6.) Although we have just emerged from a period of the remembrance of so much destruction and pain, we Jews have good reason for hope. We have the promise we will never be forsaken, and our redemption is not far off. In our times we have all the more reason to be ever so hopeful; we have the beautiful Baalei Teshuva raising the banner of Moshiach, leading us all in the glorious march to his arrival, may it be speedily in our days.
Dear Rabbi Fried,