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.
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.