Facing Tragedy

The power of the internet and the news media has made the tragic massacres of school children in Connecticut, and, to a lesser degree (no less a tragedy, but less a focus of the world media), in China, the world’s issue.

After the shock and the sadness begin wear off, two related questions dominate the conversation.  “How could this have happened?” and “How can we prevent this from repeating in the future?”  Here in the US, it will soon degenerate into a political argument about guns, mainly because that debate is predictably along party lines and even though the election is over, the rancor and discord remain in the air.  (Here I want to compliment President Obama’s very human, honest and non-political first response to this tragic crime.) There will also be a short discussion about mental health management which will lead nowhere.

As a people, we have had more experience with tragedy than any other.  We, in living memory,  saw not 20, not 200, but more than a million Jewish children, equally innocent as these, slaughtered by the Nazis.  And as a people we asked much the same questions.

I don’t think we, 21st century Americans, are any more likely than we, the Jewish People are, to find significant answers to these questions.  Much that happens in this world is far beyond our understanding.  That doesn’t mean we meekly accept horror and injustice, but it does mean that there is no single, obvious and easy answer (see my previous article for thoughts about the limitations of direct action).  Try as it will, the US government will no more be able to prevent recurrences of these massacres than the United Nations have been able to prevent genocide in the post-World War II world.

The challenge of how to respond remains.  Stipulating that there is no single approach, perhaps one helpful insight comes from an often-told story about Rabbi Daniel Goldberger zt”l, one of my most profound teachers, mentors and a dear family friend.  When asked by someone to explain the Holocaust, he replied that while he couldn’t give her any answers as to why God allowed it to occur, he could, and apparently did, cry with her over the tragedy.  It requires a tremendous re-calibrating of our egos to admit to ourselves that our true knowledge is always very limited.  Causes of events, good, bad and neutral, are complex and intertwined, and even if we could, hypothetically, determine a cause with precision, it doesn’t logically follow that we’d thus be empowered to prevent a recurrence–we’d still not be able to control many, if any, of the contributing factors.

Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt”l, writing in Malchut Shlomo about Chanukah, teaches that the way the world is organized at this time, the norm is that Evil overpowers Good.  We’re taught that Chanukah comprises two separate miracles, the oil and the military victory.  Indeed, we need to recognize that in our not-yet-perfect world it truly is a miracle each time things go well, when the virtuous win and when Evil is thwarted.

Our tradition repeatedly warns us to not rely on miraculous Divine Intervention.  However, we’re always encouraged to pray for these miracles.  Our modern, empirical-driven world-view trivializes prayer as superstition, wishful thinking, and as cowardly inaction.  Perhaps during this Chanukah period, when we try to remember that the world is much more than we can observe and measure, we might push back against that dismalism and give simple prayer a chance.

Beyond that, we can reach out in love, starting from the center and moving outward first to our family and loved ones, then to our greater communities, nations and finally to all mankind.  It doesn’t, of course, sound very “practical”, but we continually witness that the “practical”, on it’s own, isn’t very effective.

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One Response to Facing Tragedy

  1. deborahatherton says:

    I found this post very moving and reflective, Harry, and a really profound response to a terrible tragedy.

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