Understanding Communal Difficulties and Challenges (Klal Yissurim) – Part 1

When we speak about yissurim (difficulties and challenges), we usually think about their impact and their justice in terms of individuals, as in the famous question — Lamah yeish tzadik v’ra lo? — Why do the righteous suffer? But, of course, just like there are yissurim for individuals, there are also yissurim for the klal (the communal). What are the principles of yissurim which affect the klal, as opposed to yissurim which affect individuals?

How are we meant to relate to communal yissurim?

We read the Shema every single morning and every single evening. There is an obvious message to us in the second paragraph (Devarim 11:13–21): If we listen to the mitzvot that G-d commands us, to love G-d and to serve Him properly, then G-d will give rain to our land at the right time, so we will be able to gather in our harvest. G-d will provide grass in our fields for our cattle, so we will be able to eat and be satisfied. But if we are not careful, and we turn towards idolatry, then many difficulties will occur. There will be no rain, the land will not produce its crops, and G-d will banish us from Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel).

We also read a long section of tochacha (rebuke) twice a year.

In Bechukotai (Vayikra 26:3–46), it says — If the Jewish people observe the Torah, they will receive a multitude of blessings, including prosperity in Eretz Yisrael. And if they do not follow the Torah, then they will be subject to a horrific series of frightening consequences, including desolation in Eretz Yisrael.

And, in Ki Tavo as well (Devarim 28:1–69) — following the Torah leads directly to many blessings, including prosperity in Eretz Yisrael, while laxity with the Torah results in a massive number of terrible decrees, including, once again, desolation in Eretz Yisrael.

Even the mishnayot in the fifth perek of Pirkei Avot (5:11–12) spell out a direct, observable relationship between our transgressions and the devastating consequences which will then occur in Eretz Yisrael.

The ninth of the thirteen attributes of G-d is v’tashlich b’metzulot yam kol chatosam (And You will cast all their transgressions into the depths of the sea). The Tomer Devorah (1:9) positively characterizes this, by focusing on the spiritual achievement of the Jewish people, not the often painful physical process it will take for them to get there. He wrote — “This is [actually] a wonderful attribute of G-d — For if Israel transgresses, they’ll fall into the hands of an evil ruler, and then they will do teshuva.”

We see this pattern very clearly numerous times in Shoftim:

  1. The Jewish people did evil.
  2. They were attacked and persecuted.
  3. The Jewish people did teshuva (a spiritual return).
  4. G-d sent a prophet or deliverer to save them.
  5. Then the Jewish people had peace for several years until, tragically, they chose to do a different type of evil. And later, this destructive pattern recurred once again.

Why does communal yissurim happen? 

In light of all these sources, the prophet Yirmeyahu (9:11–12) asks a puzzling question — one that would seem to have had a clear, straightforward answer — “Who is the wise man who will understand this, and who is the one that G-d has spoken to, who may explain this? Why has the land [of Israel] become desolate, and become parched like a desert, so that none pass through?”

The Gemara Nedarim (81a) explains that none of the Sages and Prophets could answer the question of why Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) had become desolate.

And then Yirmeyahu himself answers — “But G-d has said — Because they abandoned The Torah that I placed before them, and did not listen to My voice, nor follow it.”

What could explain Yirmeyahu’s question and answer? How could it be that no one but G-d Himself could see the seemingly crystal-clear relationship between our abandonment of the Torah and the destruction of Israel?

Rav Nosson Weiss, a Rebbe at Aish HaTorah, points out that, throughout Jewish history, yissurim to the klal have explicitly happened because of idol worship or some other critical klal (communal) issue. The most extreme expression of klal yissurim is churban — destruction. This reasoning addresses some fundamental problem in the world which cannot be solved except through destruction and then rebuilding from the rubble.

Rav Noach Orlowek explains the phenomenon of communal yissurim somewhat differently. When something positive is no longer helping the Jewish people but maybe hurting them, G-d then takes it away from them. Examples include — the Beit HaMikdash (Temple in Jerusalem), Eretz Yisrael, and sometimes even one of the gedolei ha’dor (greatest sages of the generation).

G-d’s relationship to the klal and the prat

The Ramchal in Da’at Tevunot explains that there are two different ways G-d relates to the world — hanhagat hamishpat (through justice) and hanhagat hayichud (in terms of the unification of His Name):

Hanhagat hamishpat (G-d relating to us with justice) means that everything that occurs to us is a function of judging, although tempered with rachamim (mercy). G-d acts towards us in terms of what we deserve. (Rashi — Bereshit 1:1).

Hanhagat hayichud (G-d relating to us in terms of the unification of His Name) refers to the fact that everything in history is to bring about the goal of yichud Hashem. This fact is not just a response to our actions but is also bringing the world to its ultimate perfection.

In Olam Ha’zeh (this world), perhaps hanhagat hamishpat is the primary way G-d relates to individuals. In contrast, hanhagat hayichud may be the primary way He refers to the klal, even though the individual plays a vital role within hanhagat hayichud. The example that the Ramchal gives of hanhagat hayichud in Olam Ha’zeh is chevlei Mashiach (the difficulties preceding the Mashiach), which are certainly yissurim of the klal.

The Ramchal is, however, careful to clarify that, ultimately, there is no contradiction between these two different systems. “We who have the true Torah don’t view what happens to people as keri (randomness), but rather as mishpat (justice), as the Torah (Devarim 32:4), says — ‘Hatzur tamim pa’alo, ki kol drachav mishpat — The rock is perfect in His work, for all His paths are just.’”

The Torah is teaching us that whatever occurs to us, including those challenges which come upon the community, are all complete justice. As the Ramchal himself expresses this — “Certainly, the ultimate s’char v’onesh (positive and negative consequences for our behavior) will be in Olam Haba (the world to come), to give every one what is completely appropriate for them.”

The Vilna Gaon explained the difference between communal and individual responsibilities with a question: Why did the Torah exempt some types of soldiers from war (for example, those who built a new house, planted a new vineyard, or just got married within the past year)?[Seemingly] they either were decreed to die the previous Rosh HaShanah, in which case this exemption will not save them, even if they do return to their homes, or weren’t decreed to die, and therefore, they should have nothing to worry about, also if they do stay and fight in the war.

He explains that, in this world, there is both mazal klali (general influence) and mazal prati (specific influence). If there has been a decree of death on a particular city or nation with mazal klali, it may then affect even those individuals who are physically there, yet had no specific order on them independently. This reason is that the mazal klali of that place will overpower their mazal prati as individuals. And, therefore, it may help someone to leave a battle; since there may have been no mazal prati decree specifically on him.

The purpose of yissurim is to teach us to do teshuva

HaRav Yerucham Levovitz explains that the nature of yissurim is in the book Devarim (8:5):

V’yadata im sl’vavecha, ki ka’asher y’yaseir ish et b’no, Hashem Elokecha miyasreka — And you should know with your heart, that just like a parent chastises (gives yissurim to) his child, G-d your L-rd chastises you (gives you yissurim).” Onkelos, in his authoritative translation and commentary on the Torah, explains that the word “y’yaseir” (referring to yissurim) means “limud” — to learn. Similarly, the Gemara (Megillah 14a) says this:

Gedolah hasarat taba’at yoteir m’mem-chet nevi’im” — When King Achashverosh gave his signet ring over to Haman, signifying that he could now attack the Jewish people, that was a more significant [benefit for the Jewish people] than the 48 Nevi’im (prophets).” As much as the Jews attained from the 48 Nevi’im, they must have attained even more from these challenges. What did they gain from the Nevi’im? Wisdom, understanding, and Torah. They, therefore, must have gained even more than this from these challenges. (Da’at Chachmah u’Mussar).

The Ran (Drashot 6) writes — Sometimes calamity strikes in distant places and islands. The purpose of this is to arouse the Jewish People to do teshuva; they should see and become afraid, lest they suffer the same lot, but when they fail to become moved upon witnessing such things, the calamities continue, drawing closer and closer. Without a doubt, a person who sees these tragic events -which are warning signals sent from G-d- yet remains in his old ways, is compared to a person who committed an offense and was consequently cautioned against doing it again. Yissurim must awaken both the one directly afflicted and the ones all around him to do teshuva. (This Too Is for the Best — Reasons for Yissurim — pg. 51-52).

G-d has a personal connection to each of us

Since G-d is so tremendous and elevated above every aspect of the physical world, how could He possibly know or care about what happens here? Rav Shimshon Pincus (Bein haMetzarim — Deepest love of G-d for the Jewish People) explains that the enormous wisdom of Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon), more than anyone else, is what allowed him to understand the animals. Similarly, G-d can know and care about what happens here, precisely because He is so much higher and more elevated than we could ever imagine.

Not only does Judaism believe that G-d has a connection to this world and that G-d is supervising and directing the world, but it also speaks about G-d having a personal relationship, a love and a concern toward every one of His creations.

While the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people is expressed through all of the chagim (holidays), the three weeks before Tisha b’Av express the most profound concern and the most personal relationship between G-d and His nation. The Gemara (Chagigah 5b) even tells us that G-d cries on Tisha b’Av.

These days also recall the many difficulties throughout the generations. The message of the three weeks is — the Torah is not merely empty words. When the Jewish people don’t correctly follow the Torah, the result is terrible destruction. Why is this situation so complicated? Because maintaining the Torah is not a game. Besides this, there is an additional message. The fact that laxity in our fulfillment of the Torah results in such damage shows the connection between G-d and Am Yisrael.

Rav Pincus (Sicha on Meah Brachot) explains this with a principle concerning relationships — Wherever love is more significant, like, within a family, a split or anger will end up being that much more intense. Therefore, when there’s anger between G-d and Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), G-d forbid, it necessarily results in awful calamities. 

Principles of the Holocaust and Communal yissurim from Rav Avigdor Miller 

Rav Avigdor Miller, one of the greatest leaders within American Jewry, wrote and published many different books explaining Jewish fundamentals. The one book which he wrote but never ended up publishing was his perspective on the Holocaust, titled “Divine Madness.” It was discovered and published by his family only many years after his death.

The following are sections from his book which explain essential principles of klal yissurim (communal afflictions and difficulties).

Discerning Hashem’s conduct of history:

Rav Miller writes that it would [seem to] be proper, when considering the misfortunes of some community, to declare that we are incapable of understanding Hashem’s ways. On the contrary: belief in Hashem’s conduct of history demands of us to study His deeds and to attempt to fathom their causes and purposes. As the verse in Tehillim (94:10) says — “He who chastises nations, is He not thereby correcting or rebuking? Is He not teaching men knowledge?” [Therefore,] could a believer deceive himself into thinking that Hashem would act without apparent reason?

How much could we discern the purposes of G-d’s conduct? Although no human is capable of fathoming His intentions even in the smallest events, even our little minds can determine some reasons, meaning, and explanation of methods.

Every act of G-d has multiple purposes, including the phenomenon of Nature: how much more purposeful are His acts of history. One of the chief goals of His works is to impart real knowledge and awareness of Him.

Thus, the first and most fundamental event is to awaken men from the lethargy of habit and materialism and to cause them to think of G-d.

The Gemara (Yevamot 63a) tells us — “No misfortune comes upon the world except because of Israel.” Rashi explains that Hashem brings misfortune to frighten His people, and to warn them to improve, to do teshuva, to become better. They should think, “It could have happened to us!” Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to study the events of history and to see what connection they had with Israel.

The Jewish Nation is not like the other nations of the world; it is a nation whose existence is only for the Torah. This idea was the message which Hashem gave to us just before the giving of the Torah (Shemos 19:6) — “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a Holy Nation.”

Our worldly job is to speak of Hashem and to serve Him, and whatever happens in the world is reminds us of this great mission. We must listen to history and understand that this is Hashem’s voice speaking to us.

This message is Hashem’s system; He cannot afford to keep quiet, because His chosen people must fulfill their function in this world, whether they want to or not. The prophet Yechezkel (20:33) declared to the Jewish nation — “With a powerful hand, an outstretched arm and poured out wrath, I will rule over you.” Either you choose, or I will want.

What lessons can we learn from [communal tragedies like] the Holocaust? [There is one] great lesson [that we can certainly] learn: that what is written in the Torah will come true. And it’s written in the Torah: If you will not listen to Me and you will scorn My laws, then I am going to chastise you, sheva al chatoseichem (seven times for your transgressions) (Vayikra 26:18), again and again.

[The opening verse in Megillat Esther says —] “And it was in the days of Achashverosh.” From the seemingly extra word “and,” we know that the decree against the Jews was a result of events that preceded it. This verse teaches us that Haman didn’t happen so suddenly. It was a connection to past events. The sooner we get that into our heads, the more quickly we are going to become Jews, because without understanding that, one doesn’t begin to be a Jew. A Jew, first and foremost, believes that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is in control of the world.

Anyone who reads Chumash could expect [calamities] to happen [in response to communal transgressions]. People are only able to be deceived when they’re ignorant and under the influence of propaganda [that].

The Holocaust was one of the strangest events in history:

Germany had, for 150 years, been the most disciplined and civilized of nations. The transformation of the nation of justice into the society of injustice is one of the strangest events in human history. It was indeed a manifestation of the Hand of G-d.

This hatred against Israel was especially remarkable, given the tremendous disadvantages and losses that the Germans willingly undertook to still their blood lust. Yet, the Nazis took the trains, which necessary for troop transport and war materials, and diverted them for the senseless transportation of Jews to the killing centers. The Germans bled themselves white to kill as many as possible. This fact was an open miracle of the most horrible kind and unmatched in ferocity.

The death trains contained Jewish scientists, medical specialists, industrialists, and armies of free labor taken away from German factories.

In the times of the Kaiser, had someone told a German that someday his people would become such barbarians as to kill innocent Jews, he would have put his hands on his children’s heads and sworn by his children that this could never happen in Germany. Germany was the most orderly, law-abiding country in Europe and perhaps in the world, and for such a thing to happen was unthinkable.

The Torah (Devarim 28:59) foretells, “V’hiflah Hashem et makotecha v’eit makot zarecha — And Hashem will make wondrous plagues upon you and plagues upon your seed…” “Wondrous” implies “unexpected” and also “unequaled.” If any part of our history serves as a fulfillment of this, it certainly was the destruction of six million of our people, done by a nation that had prided itself on its superior civilization and highest criteria of good manners. This event was the most surprising (“wondrous”) of all the plagues that ever befell our people.

The fact of universal hatred against our people is one of the great miracles of history. These were all miracles. They were the most horrible of events, but we are justified in calling them miracles because the idea behind good miracles and these horrible ones is the same. The purpose of a miracle is that people should open their eyes and see that there is something above man: there is a G-d who conducts the affairs of the world.

{Rav Shimshon Pincus says something very similar to this — Someone who doesn’t believe that G-d is the guiding force behind all of Jewish history isn’t a kofer (denier). He is merely stupid.}

[Rav Miller continues –] Messages in the Holocaust:

Every Jew was required to carry a special identification card, and his passport and ration card bore the word “Jew”… Every man and woman was required to adopt a Jewish first name (unless he had one already).

There were lessons without number. The prohibitions of using exclusively German first names, of patronizing German restaurants and dining cars, and of relations with Aryan women (to cite a few examples out of many), were Torah lessons that were difficult to overlook. But they were ignored.

The decrees of Nazi Germany focused on separating Jews from Gentiles in every possible manner. There would be no social contact: no business contact, no contact in schools, housing, travel resorts, shopping.

[And] the commandments of the Torah (as well as those of the Sages) aim at separation [as the verses tell us] “I separated you from the nations” (Vayikra 20:26); and “You shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a Holy Nation” (Shemot 20:6); and “Behold a people that dwells alone” (Bamidbar 23:9).

Historically, Jews always responded to Communal yissurim with teshuva:

In every previous black hour, the Jews responded with a prayer to G-d. In Egypt, B’nei Yisrael cried out to Hashem (Shemot 2:23–24, 3:7,9, 14:10). Always, Israel utilized the peril or calamity as an occasion to cry out to G-d. Under the oppression of Aram, they cried out to Hashem (Shoftim 3:9). The same thing under the tyranny of Yavin and Sisera (ibid, 4:3). They cried out for succor against Midian (ibid, 6:5); they cried out against Ammon (ibid, 10:10); when sorely beset by Yaravam, the tribe of Yehuda cried to Hashem (Divrei Hayamim II, 13:14); in Shushan, they fasted and prayed for three days for Hashem’s aid (Esther 4:16). In every instance, they were rescued from their enemies “because they had faith in Him” (Divrei Hayamim I, 5:20). [And] the Maccabees [also] “cried out to G-d” (Chashmona’im 3:50, 4:9, 4:27).

At Haman’s decree, the entire nation fasted and wept to Hashem (Esther 4:3). And thus, the Jewish People did in every generation when they faced some peril. Hashem sent the danger or oppression for our benefit.

[And] in every instance, the nation improved as a result:

[The verse in Megillat Esther says —] “Kimu v’kiblu hayehudim — The Jews fulfilled and accepted” (Esther 9:27): “they fulfilled that which they had already accepted at Sinai” (Shabbat 88a). In most of these episodes, G-d rescued them, or the affliction was [at least] partially mitigated. Great catastrophes were visited when many failed to cry out to Hashem because the people had been influenced by Menashe (Melachim II24:3), or at the Second [Temple] Destruction when many were demoralized by the Tzadukim (Sadducees) and the Herodians.

Such an analysis of calamities has always been the distinctive practice of the people of Israel. In every generation, the leaders rebuked the people for their transgressions. In their sermons and their books, they pointed out the faults of the people. Not only the leaders but the Jewish populace criticizes itself. Three times daily, every individual declares his [transgressions], and also in the Days of Teshuva, and continuously all day on Yom Kippur, and at every Mussaf when we state that because of our [transgressions] we are in exile, and numerous other times during the year. In all misfortunes that befell our nation, they justified G-d and blamed themselves, [as it says in Eichah (3:42) —] “We have trespassed and rebelled,” and “Let us search and examine our ways, and return to G-d” (ibid, verse 40). Every misfortune converted into an impetus to self-searching and self-betterment.

When some public misfortune came, however small, the Sages and the people attributed it to their own [transgressions]… When men search themselves for crimes, they discover them. We must be our own severest critics because we expect great things from ourselves. We check the precious metals for the smallest impurities.

Throughout Jewish History, our forefathers always attributed their misfortunes to their transgressions. Now, it is not true that misfortunes come only because of sins. But the “good tiding” is that the Jewish nation will always utilize misfortune to become better.

[Rav Miller concludes –] Olam Haba (the world to come) is a key to dealing with Communal yissurim:

In viewing the events of history, we must keep in mind the principle: “The world is judged according to the majority” (Kiddushin 40b), and the minority of the righteous undergo the tribulations sent because of the transgressing majority… But you cannot understand anything if you don’t believe in Olam Haba [where any perception of injustice to individuals in this world will be taken care of]. Olam Haba is the ikar ha’ikrim, the heart of the matter.

Rav Shimshon Pincus (Yad Hashem haysa bam l’ra’ah — Struck by G-d’s Hand) explains that throughout all of the generations, G-d showed us His steady hand, above the laws of nature. The message that G-d wants to teach us from this strictness of judgment is that the Jews are not living in the natural world. We are living in G-d’s world, and He is guiding it according to His system. Both the degree of our obligations and the severe consequences when we don’t live up to them follow G-d’s policy, beyond the boundaries of the physical world.

Part 2

​More articles on this and related topics can be found on the Jewish Clarity web site.