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October 13, 2015 / 30 Tishri, 5776
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Helping Our Children Deal With Tragedy (Conclusion)

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Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

We are all aware of the terrible churban that recently took place in Yerushalayim’s Merkaz HaRav yeshiva, where eight precious neshamas were taken from us.

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?” What is going on in Eretz Yisrael (and in Sderot and Ashkelon in particular) is very frightening to 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

Perhaps the simplest way of explaining “tzaddik v’ra lo” (loosely translated as, “Why bad things seemingly happen to good people”) is to frame things as many sifrei machshavah 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 mashal (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 wants 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 five-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 is 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, “Hodi’eini na es derachecha – Please make your ways known to me” (Shemos 33:13). The Gemara (Berachos 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 lir’os es pa’nai – You shall not be able to see My face” (Shemos 33:20).

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 to understand all 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 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.

It is still extremely 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 machshavah 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 neshamah back to the heavens.

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) in Hashem. I do not think that we ought to tell our children that we can explain everything – because we cannot.

While writing this column, a mashal was dropped on me by my son. He asked for some driving directions. It turned out that my directions were in conflict with both GPS and MapQuest (gasp!) I told my son, “Trust me.” And since I have given him good driving directions over a period of 10 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.

The tragic event in Merkaz HaRav yeshiva is really a microcosm of the history of our people. From the initial sale of Yosef that was so hard to understand when it occurred (but eventually resulted in the salvation of Yaakov’s children) 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 bad things seemingly happen to good people, eventually we become stronger as a result of these events.

About the Author: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam and founder and director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S.

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