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How Do We Explain the Tragedy in Yerushalayim to Our Children? - Part Two
When (Seemingly) Bad Things Happen to Good People
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 happening 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

In part one of this series, we addressed a number of suggestions as they relate to the topic of helping (you and) your children sort through tragedies that raise the timeless question of “Why (seemingly) Bad Things Happen to Good People”:

1) Explain to your child that the question of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is one that has been asked by our greatest leaders – among them Moshe Rabbeinu (see Shmos 33:13).

2) Do not verbalize or imply that respectfully asking for answers to questions like these is disrespectful, or represent a lack of emunah in Hashem.

3) Create an environment where your child can freely ask this type of question.

4) Do not be intimidated to admit that you don’t have ‘all the answers.’

In this column, I would like to share with you some practical explanations that can hopefully help your children ‘get their hands around’ hashkafos that can help them try and make sense of a terrible tragedy that seems to defy logic.

Perhaps the most simple way of explaining ‘tzadik v’ra lo,’ loosely translated as, “Why (seemingly) Bad Things Happen to Good People,” is to frame things as many sifrei machshava do in terms of a linear timeline. The underlying theme is that one cannot properly comprehend events unless they can view the entire time frame associated with that occurrence. There are many variations of a common mashul, analogy, used by our chachamim to drive home this concept. A well-known one tells the story of a city dweller, who needed to spend time in the fresh-air environment of a farm while convalescing from an illness. As he had no understanding of the farming cycle, he was shocked and distraught to see a beautiful field plowed. “Why are you making this grass into mud,” he asked? The farmer told him to be patient if he wanted to understand things. Things really turned south when he saw the farmer throwing wheat seeds into the ground. More waste and insanity, he thought. Again, the farmer told him to be patient. The city dweller felt better when he saw beautiful sheaves growing, but that quickly dissipated when he saw the threshing and grinding. On and on the story goes, until the city dweller finally saw freshly baked bread. At that point, it all made sense to him.

The nimshal is simple but profound. In order to understand things, we need to see a ‘full story.’ In the case of the farmer, it was a six month event. In the case of making a scrambled egg, it is a 5-minute timeline. (Why did you break those perfectly good eggs?) However, Hashem’s world is timeless, and mere humans cannot understand events in this world as the timeline of our lives in so short compared to Hashem’s eternity.

This would explain the dialogue between Moshe and Hashem after the sin of the egel (Golden Calf). Moshe asked Hashem, “Hodiani noh es drochecha – Please make your ways known to me,” (Shmos 33:13). The Gemorah (Brachos 7a) explains that 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 understanding was the ‘derech of Hashem that Moshe wanted to understand.

Hashem informed him, “Lo suchal liros es ponai, (Shmos 33:20) – You shall not be able to see My face.” Several pesukim later, Hashem informed Moshe that He would permit him to see the ‘back’ of Hashem. To see one’s face is to examine every detail of their being. Moshe wanted a clear understanding of what transpires in this world. Hashem denied his request, not because He did not wish to grant it to Moshe, but rather because it is simply impossible for a human being to understand all of the details of Hashem’s world.

Hashem was explaining to Moshe that humans have a limited life span, and cannot always understand Hashem’s world. We cannot see the ‘face’ of Hashem – as we are unable to see the larger picture. Just as flying in an airplane affords people a different view of the earth, so too, Hashem, in His infinite wisdom and His global view, sees things in a way that we humans cannot. Hashem, however, did grant Moshe the ability to see things in retrospect – to see the ‘back’ of Hashem.

Now, it is still very, very difficult to make sense of such a terrible tragedy even with this insight. Therefore, it may be helpful to offer another thought that many sifrei machshava expand on. This relates to the concept of an exemplary person fulfilling his or her life mission in a shorter period of time. Once that mission is completed, Hashem calls that neshama back to the heavens.

I strongly feel that whatever twists and turns this discussion takes, one theme that parents should stress to their children is that after all is said and done, we must have emunah, faith or trust in Hashem. I do not think that we ought to tell our children that, “We can explain everything,” because … we cannot.

As I was writing this column, a mashul was dropped into my lap by one of my children. My son called me and asked for some driving directions. It turned out that my directions were in conflict with both GPS and Mapquest. Gasp!! I told my son to, “Trust me.” And since I have given him good directions over a period of ten years, he did.

Ultimately, it all boils down to bitachon. And it may be helpful to explain to our children that just like we trust our parents because we have a reservoir of good faith, so too, we need to place our faith in Hashem who provides for our every need.

This tragic event in Merkaz HaRav is really a microcosm of the history of our people. From the initial sale of Yosef, that was so difficult to understand at the time it occurred – but eventually resulted in the salvation of the children of Yaakov, and throughout the many generations, we have gone through very difficult times filled with seemingly inexplicable tragedies, and what sustained us though all those difficult times, was our faith in Hashem.

It is interesting to note, that when Hashem informed Moshe that he cannot see His ‘face,’ chazal tell us that Hashem showed Moshe the knot of the tefillin. I would like to suggest that the image of a kesher is one of two individual straps joining together to form a knot. What happens is that the two straps become hidden from view at times, and actually reverse direction at times. But both straps emerge as a stronger and firmer unit. Perhaps this was the deep understanding that Hashem shared with Moshe – that although humans cannot understand “Why (seemingly) Bad Things Happen to Good People,” eventually we become stronger as a result of these events.

How Do We Explain the Tragedy in Yerushalayim to our Children - Part One

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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