The tragic events of last Friday that unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School have left not only an avalanche of loss and grief for those directly affected, but a struggle to explain the unthinkable for an entire nation watching with horror and tears from afar. High school students on the cusp of entering adulthood are particularly engaged in trying to reconcile the chaotic realities of the world they are awakening to around them with the idealistic and values-driven version of their existence promised to them as children. This event has significantly widened that gap.
At Shearim High School for Girls, we felt that discussing with our students the question of why it happened would not be productive – we as Jews have previously had ample opportunity to ponder the whys of unthinkable events, and have received a mix of a more global perception of G-d’s wisdom and love with an acceptance of our limitations in understanding G-d’s decisions on any micro level. Specific to this tragedy, we do not know why Adam Lamza chose to commit the ultimate crime by murdering as many young children as he could, and also can never glimpse why and why in this way G-d chose for these lives to be ended. So on Tuesday morning before morning davening at Shearim High School we chose to discuss lessons that we could draw from the attack in Connecticut, in an effort to provide some bridging of this chasm and bring aspects of what we observed into our worldview.
Two points were highlighted in our discussion, and a third was mentioned but which deserved more attention. Girls were encouraged to think and reflect in their own personal way as well:
Appreciate the gift in everything you have – We all have expectations as to how our lives are meant to develop; we will graduate high school, attend university, marry, raise a family with a certain number of children, have a successful career, encounter a significant but not unreasonable number of challenges, and reach a distant old age. We are entitled to none of these expectations. That we can breathe, walk, talk, have parents and siblings, and even think about our futures are tremendous gifts from G-d, gifts that were given to us to be appreciated and used wisely. Gifts that were not to be the lot of these children, nor of their parents. It sometimes takes losing a gift to get us to appreciate it; we can see now what that loss looks like, and pay more attention to our multitude of blessings.
There is no glory in violence – Dramatic and random public attacks seem to be on the rise in the US, and this event, although more extreme than its predecessors, does not appear to be totally isolated. Our society glorifies violence and then asks of us to differentiate between what we role-play on a computer console and real-life. Most of us can successfully make that distinction, but there is a stress placed on our societal systems with this demand, and as with any stress, the weakest links snap. Mentally unstable and delusional people exist in every society; I lived in Jerusalem for a number of years and met many such people there. But their delusions involved them thinking that they were Messianic, or extremely pious, or the reincarnation of some great sage. They snapped under the stresses that the values of their society placed upon them, and sometimes they did things as a result that were damaging to others. It never occurred to them, however, to pick up a gun and start shooting. Perhaps it is because that was not part of the jumble of values their minds received as part of their society. We cannot control our surroundings, but we can control what aspects we partake of and what values we transmit to those around us, and by doing so we can bring a bit more light into the fog created by the ubiquity of virtual combat.
Value the potential of young children – The obituaries written about the victims of the Connecticut attack noted the special attributes of each child, and what they could have given the world had they survived. I believe those descriptions to be true, but these children were not unusual. We could say similar praises about those children around us as well. But do we pay attention? Do we value their potential, which is often hidden by the growing pains of every young person? I feel fairly confident in saying that I pay attention to and nurture the talents of my own children, but do I give thought to the other children around me? Do I realize what greatness my neighbor’s son, or the girl that comes over to play with my daughter, contains within him or her? Every child needs to know that they have something that is appreciated by others. Could I not foster that ability with an encouraging word or a compliment to their parent? Wouldn’t that small investment of focus and word likely pay off in an immeasurable way, by communicating that others notice and value their character?
When we try to learn from tragedy it brings a measure of merit for those that suffered. May our reflection provide a bit of context and meaning to this dark moment.
A Story Worth Repeating
The Torah is very frugal with its expressions. One extra word can convey a world of meaning, one additional letter an entirely new law. So it is rather striking that the Torah devotes almost two entire weekly portions to a message that could have been summed up with the words, “And they built the Tabernacle (Mishkan).” Perhaps we would throw in “As G-d commanded”, just to be safe- but that’s it. Why the long-winded and detailed explanation of how the Jewish People created each previously-explained part of the Mishkan and the priests’ clothing according to G-d’s specifications?
In true Jewish fashion, I will respond with another question. The Torah states that upon completion of all the construction, Moshe blessed the Jewish People. Rashi explains that Moshe’s benediction was that it should be the Will of G-d for the Divine Presence to rest in the Mishkan. This is a very puzzling blessing indeed; wasn’t G-d’s main intent in commanding the project to have a place for His Presence to rest? If they built it, wouldn’t He come? Could the directive to build the Mishkan be a Heavenly practical joke? Why would Moshe feel the need for additional input?
Both Torah statements demonstrate the vast gulf between the planning and successful execution of any project. We all have experienced the world of cost overruns, unexpected delays, and general mayhem that accompanies any significant building plan. There is great skill in designing and planning a structure; there are entirely different skills that go into making it a reality. When the Torah tells us that the Jewish People collected all the materials, went step by step through the design, made sure everything was done exactly with just the right amounts of resources, on time and on budget, it is telling a story of love, of immersion into fulfillment of the Divine Will, of how G-d set high expectations and we rose to the occasion, on time and under budget.
The Torah’s lesson, though, is not just that we accepted G-d’s direction. The Jewish People’s focus and enthusiasm in carrying out the Mishkan construction project defined and was exclusively its success. Although G-d told us to construct the Mishkan to be His House, it was intended to fuel our longing to be close to Him and to have a place in which to relate to Him. G-d’s Tabernacle design was an invitation to us, and how we chose to respond dictated how close He would get to us. Ultimately, what brings G-d down to us is not the existence of a House of Worship, but the presence therein of eager worshippers. This was Moshe’s blessing to the beaming and exhausted Jewish Nation Engineering Corps – that their intent and love be sufficient, so that G-d would indeed dwell among them.
We undertake various projects in our lives, and usually focus exclusively on “getting the job done”. But how we do the job is often as important, and perhaps more important, than whether we accomplish the actual task. This is especially true if we are attempting to create an entity that will endure beyond the efforts we put into its formation. When we build a synagogue, a school, or a business, the kinds of thoughts, amount of dedication, and degree of unity of purpose that goes into development shapes the passions and feelings that the institution will project in its daily operations. Those vibes will be a larger contributor to the fate of the institution than anything else. It’s not just the amount of planning and expertise that creates a successful atmosphere, but the love and caring that radiates from the walls. That is a message that cannot be repeated enough.
I’ve Fallen But I Can Still Get Up
This week’s Torah portion depicts the confrontation between Jacob and Esau that took place upon Jacob’s return to the Land of Canaan, a clash that ended amicably as the brothers parted in peace. The Torah relates that as Jacob approached his brother, he bowed seven times. The commentaries say that these genuflections were a message to Esau and his bravado, that as many times as he appears to overpower his younger sibling, Jacob would still recover and eventually prevail.
This concept is reflected in the verse in Proverbs 24:16, “Seven times will a righteous one fall and yet rise.” We often envision a tzadik (righteous individual) to be someone with a strong natural push towards spirituality, generosity, and devotion to G-d in general. Everything they do is measured, thought-out, done out of selflessness and commitment to the greater good. They are good at being great.
It is this misconception that is put to rest by King Solomon in the above verse. The tzadik does not start out with a spiritual silver spoon in his mouth. He or she does not intuitively grasp right and wrong – and even if he or she does, the skill does not qualify that person as pious. True piety is not evident in how we succeed, but in how we fail. The righteous one is committed to trying again, because of the importance of the task, and the relative unimportance to him of his self-image. He is defined by his devotion, not his accomplishment, and because of that he perseveres. The rest of us may try at times, even try hard, but are willing to accept the notion that we are just not cut out to be so spiritually great, or find the sacrifices involved too extensive. The righteous succeed not because they are innately better, but because they care more.
It is not just the reaction to failure that distinguishes the tzadik, but his/her initiative as well. It is difficult to take on challenges that are likely to end in the short-term in failure. Most shy away from tasks that are too far out of their comfort zone. The righteous one is willing to embark on the bumpy road if it holds out at least a possibility of spiritual gold at the end.
How can we achieve this level of commitment? What can we use to motivate us to become righteous, and not feel that it is for the spiritual ‘naturals’? We can start by recognizing how much better we would feel about ourselves if we grew. The tool of the destructive voice inside is to inform us that we are not good enough, that trying to be righteous is a manifestation of our deluded ego, not of our dedication to goodness. ‘Who are you kidding, pretending to be so good’, it says. That is the voice of Esau, of brute strength aiming to conquer all that is before it. Rising above that negativity would open new horizons for us, and make what seemed impossible until now doable. Investing in that, and accomplishing that, would be worth a lot of pain and frustration, even a lot of failure.
The actions of our forefathers are a guide to us, says Nachmanides in his introduction to the book of Genesis. The actions of Jacob in this meeting read as instructions to us in combating the Esau inside of us, our more material, selfish selves. Jacob’s message is: the foe may seem formidable, and we may at times bow and cower before him, but we are not defeated. We are not afraid to try, not afraid to lose, because arises from all that failure is a better us, and that is the ultimate success.
Homo Sans Sapiens
Human foibles never cease to amaze. Be they idiosyncrasies of the modern era or age-old miscalculations doomed by historical ignorance to be repeated, people consistently do things that run counter to all logic. And we dare to call ourselves homo sapiens, meaning ‘wise man’! It is a debatable pronouncement, to be sure.
An example of astoundingly irrational behavior occurs in this week’s Torah portion, as it recounts the seventh plague G-d visited on the Egyptians. Moshe tells Pharaoh and his subjects that G-d will rain down “barad”, a lethal concoction of fire-bearing hail, upon them. He then tells them how to save themselves and their possessions – simply bring them inside your homes, he says. The hail won’t affect what’s safely inside, he promises. The humiliated Egyptians have already suffered six devastating plagues at the hands of G-d. One would think that Moshe’s prediction would at least merit some precaution, that Pharaoh and his people would keep themselves and their property indoors at the appointed time, to be safe. But the verses say otherwise.
“One who feared G-d would bring his servants and cattle inside. And one who did not pay attention to the word of G-d, left his servants and cattle in the fields.”
There were those, and apparently not a small number, of people who ignored Moshe’s warnings, and took their chances with the hail, with disastrous consequences. The phrasing ‘and one who did not pay attention’ stands out in particular. Perhaps we would expect the Torah to describe such miscreants as ‘defiant’. Perhaps ‘heretics’ would be appropriate. But could there still be Egyptians who were simply ‘not paying attention to the word of G-d’? One would think that six plagues would at least get them to take such Divine previews somewhat seriously! What where these people thinking?
R’ Yakov Yisrael Kanievsky (The Steipler Gaon) in his work “Birkas Peretz” addresses this question. He says that the Torah here teaches us a fundamental lesson in human behavior. Humans don’t act on their thoughts. They act on their emotions. That, of course, is not news to us. What the Torah hammers home here is how far that goes. It takes effort for humans to do anything based on logic. By nature, humans do what they want to do, and develop logical arguments to justify their actions and positions. It is to the extent that if someone does not want to admit to a fear, a danger, or a higher authority, they will find a way to explain it away. The Egyptian property owners in question convinced themselves that the first six instances of Divine retribution were an accident, or sufficient, or G-d demonstrating his mastery of the beginners’ set of miracles. They said that such hail is beyond even G-d’s abilities, or that G-d was setting the Egyptians up with his other feats, so that Pharaoh would let the Israelites go when he heard this latest threat. G-d would never be so cruel to the Egyptians, they thought. He wouldn’t be able to beat the Egyptian gods who were masters of fire, they reasoned, or He really wants all of us to stand up to Him, to earn His respect. But in reality, they were in denial that they, the mightiest people on the planet, were really not so mighty. They did not want to face that fact, so it didn’t intrude on their decisions.
The problem is, it is not just the Egyptians who suffer from this irrationality. Every one of us does this to ourselves, more often than we care to admit, and perhaps more often than not. Logic, reason, prudence, and reality can be quite subjective, unless we make recognizing and acting according to objective logic and reality a priority. Having “Yiras Shamayim’, a strong awareness of the awesomeness of G-d, gives us the ability to prioritize such a life of truth. Without it, we can experience open miracles, and yet simply not pay attention. As we see from the plague of “barad”, the results can be catastrophic.
Rabbi Raphael Landesman is currently Head of School at Shearim Torah High School for Girls in Phoenix, AZ. He writes Torah content for the Phoenix Community Kollel's weekly "Shabbos Spirit" and periodically for the Arizona Jewish News.