Let's Talk About Tragedy
One of the deepest desires of parents is to keep our children shielded from the tragedies of life. We don't want to expose our kids to the horrors of pain, illness and death. We don't want them to think about Surfside or Meron or the worst effects of COVID.
Aliza and I certainly didn't want to tell our children that their Zeida, Aliza's dad, passed away last week.
Most of that discomfort was our own. Our children were saddened by the news. But they knew that Zeida was sick. They knew that mommy had gone to visit him two weeks ago, and they knew that he didn't recognize or remember any of us. We had not denied our children the knowledge that, despite our tefillos, his terminal illness most often ends in death.
Our kids asked a lot of questions. They wanted to know about when or why Hashem chooses to take a Neshoma back to Shamayim. They wanted to know why people die at all.
Some of our answers satisfied them, some did not. Truthfully, many do not satisfy me either. After all, even Rabbis are not God. Despite our best efforts, so many things remain mysterious. (The Vilna Gaon is quoted as saying that one must live at least three hundred years in this world before beginning to understand why bad things happen to good people.)
I think that there is great value to sharing sadness, heartbreak and the challenges of Emunah with our children. Of course, all of this in an age appropriate way. As a general disclaimer: I am not a child psychologist, and Baruch Hashem, there are many people more qualified than myself to instruct us on how best to have these conversations. But I maintain that doing so is vital.
What is the value of do so? Beyond the obvious modeling of Emunah, exposing our children to the realities of life (and death) is essential in producing well rounded, empathetic adults.
This dawned on me a number of years ago while I was teaching a tenth grade girls class. It was towards the end of the year, and most girls were fifteen or sixteen years old. I asked how many of them had ever witnessed birth or death. None of them raised their hands.
This was not particularly surprising. Our society outsources all of the most extreme moments of existence to doctors, hospitals and professionals.
I asked my students to consider that had they been born two centuries ago, they would most likely have their own children already. Without question, they would have assisted in a handful of births already – sisters, aunts, mothers or grandmothers. More than likely, they would've witnessed death more than once.
I then asked them what they might be different if they lived such experiences. One girl raised her hand: “We'd have a better perspective,” She answered. “We would probably not get as upset about things as we do now.”
I asked a group of teenage boys – who will do anything for free food – if they had ever witness Shechita. None of them had. Which means that none had ever seen the process by which their steak arrives at their plate. Undoubtably, the gain of this dissonance is the ability to enjoy a shabbos lunch without thinking of the violence that was needed to produce it. But the cost is a signifiant downgrade in the respect owed to a living being who was killed for us to enjoy.
Perhaps we could suggest that the pristine and disconnected bubble that we have attempted to engineer is not actually as utopian as we might hope.
We, as human beings, still posses an enormous range of emotions, from abject heartbreak to overwhelming elation. What we lack nowadays is the range of experiences to match our emotions. If the worst thing that has ever happened in your life is that someone was mean to you on social media, then the emotions for “the worst thing ever” will emerge there. If the greatest thing that ever happened to you was getting a free snack from the vending machine, or an “A” on a test, well, that might explain why everything today is described as “awesome!”
By shielding our children and our society from the pain of this world, we are not saving them from painful emotions. We are simply shortening the range of where those emotions are felt. Ironically, a shorter range of experiences might well cause greater pain. With these limitations, “terrible” things happen more often. There is no escape from the capacity and need to feel.
This observation was made by the Piasesna Rebbe, the Aish Kodesh in his personal spiritual diary, Tzav V'Zirus.
There, he writes (#9):
The human souls loves to feel. She does not simply desire to feel happiness, but also to feel sadness and tears. People are drawn to see terrifying visions, and to hear terrible stories that rouse them to tears, simply so that they might feel.
This is a need, and like any other need, it must be fulfilled.
(The Rebbe continues to explain that a Jew should fill their need to feel with an emotional connection to Torah, mitzvos and Klal Yisrael. If Yiddishkeit remains dry and intellectual, then the need to feel will be fulfilled through other avenues, perhaps even in the world of sin.)
Beyond the importance of developing this maturity, the Avoda of appropriately exposing ourselves and our children to real experiences and real emotions has an essential communal function. It enables us to become empathetic and caring friends.
A friend recently told me that when his six year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer, other parents would hesitate to allow to their children to play with her. God forbid, she shouldn't survive, it would be so traumatic to their children. He noted that these same people were bringing over lasagnas and picking up their dry cleaning. They're good people, they simply lacked the capacity and desire and to extend the range of their emotion experiences. But everyone knows, friends are more important than lasagna.
The desire to protect our children faces off against the need for emotional growth in yet another arena, so appropriate to this time of year: Mourning the destruction of Yerushalayim. How much should we expect our children to observe the customs of this season?
The Shulchan Aruch (תקנ״א י״ד) writes that children, just like adults, are forbidden from haircuts. The Magen Avraham there grapples with the reason for this Halacha: We do not usually educate children in painful mitzvos. Perhaps, he suggests, there is a difference between personal mourning (from which children are technically exempt) and communal mourning (where parents are obliged to educate them.)
The Aruch HaShulchan (שם ס׳ לא) explains this difference:
דבזה יש חינוך ליראת השם, שהקטן כשישאל על מה זה – יבינו לו עניין חורבן בית המקדש
The education is to teach Yiras Shamayim, Reverence of Hashem. When the child asks “why?”, the parents should use that opportunity to teach about the destruction of Yerushalayim.
We need to ensure that our children are not divorced from the pain of the community, and that they are connected to eternal purpose of our people.
So, the Halacha asks of us as adults to lean into these awkward and painful emotions, and to include our children in whatever way they can reasonably handle. Knowing what is truly painful gives us all a perspective on life that no bubble can achieve. Through it, we learn to share in each others sorrow and tragedy, and that somehow, makes it just a little less painful.
Perhaps this is what Chazal (תענית ל ב) mean when they tell us:
כׇּל הַמִּתְאַבֵּל עַל יְרוּשָׁלַיִם זוֹכֶה וְרוֹאֶה בְּשִׂמְחָתָהּ Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit and see her future joy.
If we can learn to feel the pain of one another, the pain of the Beis HaMikdash, we will have the tools to experience the greatest elation possible, the rebuilding of Yerushalayim.