Have you ever asked why do bad things happen?
Have you wondered why Hashem brings trouble and problems into our lives? I
would like to share with you an insight I just learned: troubles are
windows that allow us to see something we cannot see from inside our
The Hebrew word for trouble, nisayon, is related to the verb nasa, to
raise and hence the word for “flag” is in Hebrew nes. Thus, a time of
difficulties and challenges provides us with the opportunity to rise above
our limitations and gaze into what we could not have gazed before. Pain
and suffering are the very fuel through which we grow; they are like
stepping-stones that permit us to climb higher and see new things. As
children who do not want to grow up, we too resist the growth and the
manner in which it comes but Hashem, desiring our improvement, does not
refrain from sending our way the pills that taste bitterly but bring us
the blessing we need. Our Rabbis therefore teach us that “one is obligated
to recite a blessing over trouble as one has to make a blessing over
I reflected on this thought as I passed by my synagogue in Forest Hills
the other day. Havurat Yisrael, founded in 1981, had a very attractive
building in the heart of Forest Hills from which it sent the light of
Torah throughout the neighborhood and the entire city. Classes, an active
Bet Midrash and numerous programs and activities throughout the day, sent
a message of dynamism and energy that brought many Jews closer to Judaism.
In 20 years, Havurat had become a leading institution in kiruv (outreach)
and thousands of families, some of them living in other cities in the US
and Israel, had their first taste of Torah at Havurat.
But this day the lights were out. There was no minyan, no shiurim, no
children waiting for their parents, no music, no life. Inside, an empty
shell, humid, dark and desolate seemed to me as if it were crying for us.
Sometime in the summer of 1998, a dedicated teacher teaching Torah at
Havurat went into the synagogue looking for some humashim. As she entered
the room, she felt the floor sounded as if it were crunchy under foot.
Somewhat alarmed she quickly called on one of her students to investigate.
The student, an engineer by profession, immediately diagnosed the
situation as a structural damage and the class quickly left the building.
The next day, the Queens Commissioner of Buildings investigating the scene
almost fell into a gaping hole. The earth had collapsed and a crater
several feet in diameter and over 6 feet deep was discovered.
Understanding the danger that this situation presented to people, the
Commissioner immediately condemned the building and presented us with an
immediate order to vacate the premises.
It was Friday and Shabbat services were
coming soon. The saddest thing was to post the gabbayim at the entrance to
the building as people were coming to shul. Dressed in Shabbat garb and
many holding the hand of their young children and babies, people had to be
turned away from the building. I will never forget those days.
The cause of the collapse was faulty construction next door. Apparently,
contractors working without permits and conducting complex engineering
maneuvers without adequate supervision had caused the building columns to
move which resulted in the caving in of the floor and danger of collapse
of the whole structure. In the following days we carefully packed the few
things we needed, turned off the lights and closed the door behind. A once
thriving synagogue had now become desolation. In the place where children
played and parents learned, there was now just silence.
But Havurat Yisrael did not end. People came and they prayed with us
wherever we were. Our classes continue, we hold our daily services and
other activities in a rented private home and our Shabbat services are
held at the Dov Revel Building, by courtesy of Touro College and its
precious leader, Dr. Bernard Lander. And we are planning our return and
our rebuilding. But in this period, we have learned a precious lesson: the
value of an idea. We realized that Havurat Yisrael was not just a
building, a place in physical space. Havurat was primarily an idea, a
vision of how to approach people, how to learn together and how to develop
a community of people who learn and grow. Through our troubles, we have
come to appreciate each other more and the fellowship and friendship have
We will go back to a building. We are developing plans for a Center For
Jewish Life that will play a major role in the Jewish life in New York.
But when we return, we will be somewhat higher. Our troubles have
deposited in all of us something we did not have before: a new perspective
on what is the essential and what is peripheral.
As I shed a tear for the building that is no more, I said the blessing
over troubles, trusting that Hashem knew best and that when we return we
will be like a flag atop a pole proclaiming to the world that Hashem is
just and that his ways are always ways of mercy and goodness.