Addressing the tragedy of those who pass away young
A poignant Medrash (Medrash Raba — Shir HaShirim) addresses the tragedy of those who pass away young:
Hashem comes down to take the shoshanim (literally roses, but understood here as tzadikim) from His orchard (beit knesset and beit medrash — shul and study hall), every single one at the right time, when they have [each] completed [their task]. What is the difference between the death of elders and young people?.
A group was learning Torah under a fig tree. Every morning, before the group arrived to begin their learning, the owner of the fig trees was already harvesting the figs that had ripened and were ready to be picked.
When they saw that he made sure to get to the orchard before them every morning, they said to one another — “Let’s change our place [of learning]. Perhaps he suspects us of eating his figs and that is why he [always] makes sure to get to the orchard before we do.” They, therefore, went and sat down [to learn] in a different place.
The next day the owner of the fig trees got up and didn’t see them. He searched after them until he finally found them. He said to them — “Rabosai (Gentlemen), there was one mitzvah that you were doing for me, since your Torah was being learned in the shade of my fig tree, and now you want to remove it from me?”
They said to him — “Chas v’shalom (G-d forbid)!” He then asked them — “Why [then] did you leave your place to go to a new place?” They answered — “Perhaps you suspected us.”
He replied to them — “Chas v’shalom (G-d forbid)!” He then explained — “So why do I get up every morning so early to pick my figs? Because once the sun shines on the [ripe] figs, they become wormy.”
They immediately returned to learn under his fig tree. The following day he did not get up early to pick his figs. He rather waited until they had finished their learning, but [by then] the [ripe] figs were indeed found to be wormy.
At that moment they said — “The owner of the fig trees spoke well. He knows the seasons of his figs, when they are ready to be picked, and he picks them at the proper time, neither early nor late.”
And if he knows the seasons of his figs, and he picks them at the exact proper time, [certainly] HaKadosh Boruch Hu (the Holy One, blessed be He) knows the seasons of the tzadikim, and when to take them from the world. Every single one of them is taken at the proper time and season, according to when its nefesh (soul) has completed its task in this world, neither early nor late. They are not taken according to the number of years of their lives, but rather according to the fulfillment of their task in this world. And this is beneficial for the generation, either to chastise them or to arouse them to do teshuva, since this special one was taken from them that had previously shielded and protected them.
In Medrash Tanchuma on Parshat Ki Tissa (Gimmel) it says:
Rabbi Tanchum bar Abba began to discuss the possuk in Kohelet — “The sleep of the worker is sweet, whether one eats little or much.” They said to Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) — If anyone else had said this verse, we would have laughed at him. It is actually just the opposite! Whoever is hungry and eats a little will not sleep well, while one who eats well will have a sweet sleep!
He answered them — “I am speaking only of the tzadikim and those who toil in Torah… One person lived for only 30 years and was involved in Torah and mitzvot from the age of 10 until his death, while someone else lived for 80 years and similarly began with Torah and mitzvot from the age of 10 until he passed away. One might think that since the first one toiled in Torah [and mitzvot] for only 20 years and the second one toiled for 70 years, Hashem would give the second one more schar. Therefore, I say — “whether one eats (i.e., accomplishes) little or much.”
Because the one of 20 years can say to Hashem — “If You had not removed me from the world in half of my days, I would have lived longer and accomplished much more in Torah and mitzvot.” Therefore, I say — “whether one eats little or much” — because the s’char of one is equal to the s’char of the other.
Rebbe Levi said — What is this comparable to? To a king who hired laborers to do his work. While they were working, the King took one of them for a walk with him. In the evening the workers came to collect their wages along with the worker who had walked with the king. Could the king then tell this worker — “You worked for only two hours, so take only according to how much you worked?” He could then answer the king — “If You had not taken me away from my work to walk with you, my wage would have been much greater!” The king [in the mashal] is Hashem and the workers are those who toil in Torah [and mitzvot]. Some toil in Torah [and mitzvot] for 50 years, while others toil for 20 or 30 years. They could claim — “Had You not removed me, I would have continued to toil in Torah [and mitzvot]!” Therefore, Shlomo HaMelech says — “whether one eats little or much” — their s’char can actually be equal.
Miscarriage will merit to both Olam Haba and techiat hameitim
Rav Zilberstein (Torat HaYoledet) wrote a beautiful message of Divrei Chizuk l’Mapelet (Words of support and strengthening for a woman who had miscarried) which is also relevant for a parent who lost a child at any age:
The mother of the child that died young, should not say — “My pregnancy was pointless and my birth accomplished nothing,” since there were eternal benefits to her actions. In the Gemara Sanhedrin (110b) there are differing opinions as to when a child achieves Olam Haba — From the time of birth, from when they can speak, and from the time of conception. Rashi explains that the opinion which holds — “the time of conception,” would include a case where a woman suffered a miscarriage; her child would also have a portion in Olam Haba. In fact, the Gemara Ketubot (111a) says explicitly that a child which was miscarried will also come back to life once there is techiat hameitim (the revival of the dead).
Rav Moshe Feinstein writes in Igrot Moshe (Yoreh Deah, 3:138):
Ravina [who held the opinion that a child achieves Olam Haba from the time of conception] was the final arbiter of the halacha, and the halacha follows him. The definitive halacha is [therefore] that from the moment of conception, even in the case of a miscarriage afterwards, the child has a portion in Olam Haba, and will come back to life once there is techiat hameitim (revival of the dead), like a tzadik gamur [completely righteous person], untainted from any transgressions.
Rav Zilberstein continued:[And] the mother [was the one who] merited to establish this great chessed with the neshama by facilitating the fulfillment of its true potential here.
The Gemara Sotah 12a says that Miriam the prophetess told Amram [her father]: “Your decree [that all of the men in Egypt should divorce their wives, to avoid having any boys that would be drowned in the Nile] is worse than that of Pharaoh, because Pharaoh decreed only in this world, while your decree applies even to Olam Haba.”
Rashi explains that since these children [that Amram is preventing from being conceived] will never exist, they will not be able to get to Olam Haba. We see from this that it is worthwhile for a neshama to be brought down into this world and afflicted with the pain of being drowned in the Nile, and also for the parents to have to endure this pain, to see their precious offspring thrown into the Nile, in order that through this, the neshama will be able to get to Olam Haba.
If even a baby that is never born will be zocheh to both Olam Haba and techiat hameitim, then this is certainly true of an infant who dies shortly after birth. When it comes to children that pass away young, we need to remember this critically important lesson taught by Miriam — All of the pain that these children went through, and all of the pain that their parents went through, was all worthwhile for the precious moments of their life, as well as the Olam Haba that they are now enjoying.
The statement of “sh’echad hamarbeh v’echad hamamit — Whether a lot or whether a little” is a principle in nigleh (the revealed Torah), not nistar (the hidden secrets of Torah) .It is a simple logical idea, built upon the reality that every single person has their own unique chelek and tafkid (portion and purpose) in this world, and that is how they are evaluated. And the yissurim (painful difficulties) that they endured were also meaningful for them, because they had the effect of being a kaparah (atonement) and purification for them, as well as serving as a limud (lesson) for the rest of the Jewish people.
Misfortune should cause teshuva, not depression or guilt
The Manchester Rosh HaYeshiva once spoke to a group of fathers and mothers who had lost children, Rachmana litzlan (G-d should protect us):
In truth, it is impossible for anyone of intelligence to believe that man was created merely to exist in this world. Who in this world is happy and tranquil in the fullest sense? [Our lives are filled] with all sorts of suffering and sicknesses, pains and preoccupations.
Moreover, if the purpose of creating man was [only his existence in] this world, it would not have been necessary to have breathed a soul into him so lofty and Heavenly… as the Mesilat Yesharim (first chapter) points out.
One comes to recognize the real purpose of the world merely by pondering creation itself…The wonders of creation proclaim the infinite wisdom of their Creator, and the higher purpose for which the world was intended.
Childbirth is surely one of this world’s great wonders…Nevertheless, the advent of childbirth brings with it many real concerns. One hopes and prays that the child will be born healthy. When the child is born healthy, one prays that he or she will merit a long and healthy life, a life of Torah and yirat Hashem (fear of G-d) that will bring the child’s parents nachat (satisfaction) both in this world and the next.
There are times when parents’ hopes are not realized, Rachmana litzlan (G-d should protect us). A baby may be born with an illness, or some other health problem. Or a child may be born healthy only to be taken from this world at a young age. How does one cope at such times? There is but one answer. As the Gemara Makkot (24a) points out — “Chavakuk came and established [all of the mitzvot] upon one [principle], as it says — “Tzadik b’emunato yich’ye — A righteous person will live by his faith” (Chavakuk 2:4).
Only with emunah can one cope with the travails of this world. First, one must strengthen his emunah in hashgacha pratit, his belief that whatever occurs is a precise expression of G-d’s will. Nothing at all is left to chance.
The Gemara (Bava Batra 10a) relates that Rav Pappa slipped while climbing a ladder and nearly fell off. Rav Pappa reflected upon his brush with death and searched for a spiritual lapse that might have been its cause. It was obvious to this great sage that what others might have called an “accident” was, in fact, Divinely ordained.
When a child departs this world, its parents must recognize that this could have happened only because HaKadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One Blessed be He), Whose compassion is infinite, willed it to be. For what purpose was this child sent to this world and why did it have to depart so soon? No one can know for certain. However, our emunah that this world is merely a corridor leading to the World to Come [as we learn in Pirkei Avot 4:21] makes what has occurred comprehensible in general terms. The child was a pure and lofty soul that needed to achieve a certain goal so that it could attain perfection… Viewing such occurrences in this sort of light makes it possible to cope, and go on with one’s life.
While misfortune should be a cause for teshuvah, one must not confuse introspection with depression or guilt. Fathers and mothers who have lost a child should never blame themselves for what has happened. It is G-d’s will that we serve Him amid a spirit of joy; guilt feelings make such service impossible. Tragedy should make a person strengthen his belief in hashgacha pratit, that nothing is haphazard and that every deed, word and thought is significant. Such reflection will lead to strengthening one’s service of G-d.
Introspection should focus not only on oneself, but on one’s family as a whole… Whether in time of joy or sorrow, emunah in G-d and His Torah must be our guiding light. Only through emunah can a Jewish home become a Mikdash Me’at, a miniature sanctuary; and only through emunah can we overcome the vicissitudes of life, and fulfill our mission in this world amid a spirit of joy.
We should learn from the young who had less quantity of life to have much quality.
While those who passed away young certainly had much less in the kamut (quantity) of their years, they often had a special degree of eichut (quality and values) in their lives as well. While it is difficult to say that they were fulfilling everything they were capable of, they often tried very hard, and under extremely difficult circumstances, to fulfill what they could. And this strong eichut (dedication and hard work) may actually have transformed whatever mitzvot they managed to do into a much larger amount. While they never had the opportunity to fulfill the entire lifetime of accomplishment which they longed for, they could certainly say to Hashem, in the words of the Medrash Tanchuma: “If You had not removed me from the world at such a young age, I would have [been able to] have lived much longer and accomplished [so] much more.” Their s’char (spiritual benefit) should, therefore, not be diminished.
To the degree that they were able to combine the more minimal kamut which was decreed upon them with a special eichut which they chose, they thereby merited an Olam Haba that was truly fitting for them. We should all learn from this to make the same types of choices with the quality of each of our own lives as well.
This should be l’zechut ul’illuy nishmat Ruchama Rivka, a”h, bat Asher Zevulun.