When the son of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai died, his disciples came to comfort him. Rabbi Eliezer entered and sat down before him. He said to him, "My master, do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" [Rabban Yohanan] responded, "speak." [Rabbi Eliezer] said, "Adam the first had a son who died, and he was able to be consoled. How do we know that he was able to be consoled? Because it is written, 'And Adam again knew his wife, etc.' You too should be consoled!"
Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of Adam the first?"
Rabbi Yehoshua entered and said, "Do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" Rabban Yohanan said, "Speak." Rabbi Yehoshua said, "Iyov (Job) had sons and daughters and they all died on one day, yet he was consoled for them - so too should you be consoled! And how do we know that Iyov was consoled? As it is written, "Hashem has given and Hashem has taken away; may the name of Hashem be blessed."
Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of Iyov?"
Rabbi Yose entered and sat before him. He said to him, "Do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" [Rabban Yohanan] said to him, "Speak." He said, "Aharon had two great sons and both of them died on the same day, yet he was consoled for them, as it says 'and Aharon was silent', and silence can only mean consolation. You too should be consoled!"
Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of Aharon?"
Rabbi Shimon entered and said, "Do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" Rabban Yohanan said, "Speak." Rabbi Shimon said, "King David had a son who died and yet he was consoled. You too should be consoled! And how do we know that King David was consoled? As it is written, 'And David consoled Bat-Sheva, his wife, and came to her and lay with her, and she gave birth to a son and he called him Shelomo.' You too, my master, be consoled!"
Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of David?"
He said to him: "Rabbi Elazar, my son, you have consoled me in the manner that human beings console."
There are many noteworthy details in this account that deserve an explanation; however, for now, I'd like to focus on two basic questions that trouble the reader about this narrative:
1) The first four rabbis who offer words of comfort seem to approach the issue with similar methodologies. Each highlights the suffering of a famous Biblical personality and encourages Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai to be consoled just as that historical character was consoled. What led them to adopt this approach to begin with, and, once it was rejected by Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai the first time, why did each subsequent student insist on trying variations of the same rejected theme?
2) What was the essential difference in the way that Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya addressed Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai's suffering, and what can we learn from it?
I believe that the premise of the students was a simple one: The experience of suffering is emotional and essentially irrational, and the key to coping with suffering is rising above it, escaping from the grip of the pain and taking refuge in philosophical ideas that neutralize it. Let us see how each student attempted to facilitate this transition in Rabban Yohanan:
Rabbi Eliezer cited the example of Adam. In doing so, he suggested that from the dawn of human civilization parents have lost children, and yet they maintained their resolve to perpetuate the human race regardless. If we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by tragedy, human civilization as we know it would come to an end. In other words, Rabbi Eliezer was encouraging Rabban Yohanan to stop focusing on his personal tragedy and focus on the humanity and the imperative to perpetuate our species, the proverbial "big picture" of what is "truly important". Rabban Yohanan was not consoled.
Then Rabbi Yehoshua cited the example of Iyov. Iyov recognized and accepted that tragedy and loss is an inescapable part of human life. To live and to love is to expose oneself to the pain of death and mourning. "Hashem has given and Hashem has given away, blessed is the name of Hashem." If we are to partake of Hashem's blessings, we must also be prepared to endure His withdrawal of blessing. We can't have one without the other, and so we shouldn't be overwhelmed when tragedy strikes. This philosophical idea did not console Rabban Yohanan either.
Next, Rabbi Yose mentioned the case of Aharon, who lost two sons on the day that the Tabernacle was finally dedicated. Despite the horror of this tragedy, the service of God went on, Aharon and his remaining sons set aside their inner pain and continued their faithful implementation of the Divine Will. Rabbi Yose's point was that Rabban Yohanan, as well, should not allow his feelings of despondence to overwhelm him and interfere with his study of Torah and observance of Mitzvot. He should remember that the continuity of the Masorah, our sacred tradition, is a paramount value for the sake of which all other concerns must be sacrificed. The service of God is greater than anything in our personal lives and must be perpetuated! This, too, did not console Rabban Yohanan.
The fourth student to enter is Rabbi Shimon, who cites the case of King David. Although King David lost a son (actually, a few sons!) this did not undermine his commitment to the Jewish people as their political leader and the forger of their destiny. He ensured that a stable monarchy would be established regardless of any personal suffering he experienced along the way. So too, argued Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yohanan needed to look beyond the loss of his son and consider his obligations to the community as their leader and the source of their stability, as the man who was laying the groundwork for their future as a nation. This idea also failed to satisfy Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai.
Finally, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya enters and offers his brilliant allegory, which succeeds in comforting the ailing Rabban Yohanan. What was so different about his approach? Rather than try to move Rabban Yohanan's mind AWAY from his inner turmoil and sense of loss, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya infused the loss with great meaning. Instead of distracting Rabban Yohanan from his experience of suffering or downplaying its significance relative to the "ultimate truth", the allegory deepened his perspective on the experience, affirming that it was, indeed, significant.
There is a profound lesson for all of us in this narrative. When offering comfort or consolation to someone, philosophizing is not the way to go. No one wants to be "talked out" of suffering, distracted or told to move on because there are greater or more important things to live for or to focus on. The key to helping someone cope with loss is not to downplay it but to enable them to find meaning within the tragedy, to help them develop a perspective on their experience that is deeper, healthier, and more adaptive.
In fact, the word for consolation - נחם - in Hebrew comes from the same root as "to change one's mind", because its essence is not getting one's mind off of tragedy but transforming the way one keeps one's mind ON the tragedy.