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UPDATED: How Do We Explain the Tragedy in Yerushalayim to Our Children?
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Chicago Community Kollel

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Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

We are all aware of the terrible Churban that took place in Merkaz HaRav in Yerushalayim where 8 precious Neshomos were taken. We also have read that these boys were of the special few who chose to take a few minutes to learn while others were preparing for the Rosh Chodesh Seudah. Obviously, they were really special.

How can I explain and respond to my children when they ask why Hashem has punished these young innocent bachurim who were the "cream of the crop" and were doing the right thing? What is going on in Eretz Yisroel, in Sderot and Ashkelon etc. is very frightening to young kids, especially when young children are suffering so much.

How can we explain the right Hashkafah to children who are questioning Hashem's ways?


Rabbi Horowitz Responds

There is a timeless Yiddish saying – “Vos es feilt in hasbarah, feilt in havanah” – that is probably most appropriate in analyzing your dilemma in responding to your child’s questions regarding this horrible tragedy. Loosely translated, it expresses the stark truth that when we find it difficult to explain concepts to others (hasbarah means to explain, while havanah denote understanding) it is often because we ourselves don’t understand them fully.

This adage often rings true in the arena of parenting, as so many of the challenges we face when raising our children are really issues that we as parents are in midst of grappling with. So I guess we ought to discuss both of these issues simultaneously: How do we process tragedies through a Torah lens, and how do we respond to the questions that our children pose in trying to understand them.

As this is such a difficult subject, I will start with the do not’s before the do’s, as it is a far easier place to begin.

1) Do not suppress the questions of your children – about this topic or any other. Always keep in mind that you never solve anything by taking that easy route. As I often note, an unasked question is an unresolved one. Creating an environment where your child can freely ask you anything that is on his or her mind means that you are positioned to properly be mechanech him or her.

2) Do not be intimidated or frightened to admit that you don’t have ‘all the answers,’ especially to questions as difficult as these. It will be very refreshing for your child to see that you are finding this difficult. In fact, you will have the opportunity to model appropriate behavior when you are stumped or find yourself looking for answers that are over your pay grade – by posing the question to a Rav, Rebbitzen or Gadol with whom you are comfortable.

3) Do not verbalize or even imply that respectfully asking for answers to questions like these is disrespectful or represent a lack of emunah in Hashem. Quite the contrary; you ought to explain that looking to gain insight into the workings of Hashem’s world is really a sign of closeness to Him.

It might not be a bad idea to mention that the question of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is one that has been asked by our greatest leaders and nevi’im over the centuries. According to the gemorah (Brachos 7a), when Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem, (Shmos 33:13) “Hodiani noh es drochecha – Please make your ways known to me,” Moshe wanted to understand the age-old question of why so many righteous people suffer while it often seems that the wicked are prospering. This was the ‘derech of Hashem that Moshe wanted to understand.

In fact, according to Rashi, it seems that this was something that Moshe had wanted to ask previously, and waited until this opportunity presented itself – once Hashem’s rachamim (mercy) was granted to the Jews. (This request was posed after Hashem forgave the Bnei Yisroel for the sin of the egel, the golden calf. It would seem that Rashi was wondering why Moshe chose that specific time to ask Hashem to understand His ‘derachim,’ for this request, at least at first glance, does not seem to follow that logical thread of Moshe’s beseeching Hashem to forgive Klal Yisroel.)

What is noteworthy and perhaps worthwhile mentioning to your child is that a simple reading of those pesukim would indicate that even our greatest leader and Navi, Moshe Rabbeinu, was told by Hashem that a full and complete understanding of Hashem’s ‘derachim cannot be granted to humans during their lifetime. (For further treatment of this subject, including some thoughts on the dialogue between Hashem and Moshe that is most relevant to this subject, please feel free to review this dvar Torah on Parshas Ki Sisa).

You may worry that your child (and you) may be distressed to find out that there are no easy answers to these questions. But in all likelihood, the fact that our greatest tzaddikim were preoccupied with these thoughts will be comforting to him or her and not leave them feeling like they are on the outside looking in just because they are bothered by these questions.

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

P.S. I recently wrote an essay in Mishpacha "Rambam or Ra'avid?" exploring the pros and cons of discussing hashkafa matters with your children.

Next week: Some practical things you can tell your children (the do’s) to help them get their hands around this most difficult matters, as well as tips from experts in the field of grief counseling that may help you help your children.

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