Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dealing with Tragedy


Unfortunately, Jews are no strangers to tragedy. Last week's horrific murder in New York was another terrible episode, especially due to the fact that the monster who admitted to the crime is Jewish himself. However, that fact is largely irrelevant. There are always going to be bad apples among a group; it is how others respond to those bad apples that defines the group. Through no fault of his own, little Leiby Kletzky asked the wrong guy for directions and landed up in the hands of evil. There is no logical explanation as to why that happened. It's almost reminiscent of the beginning of the Second Intifada when Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami took a wrong turn and also landed up in the hands of evil.

When tragedies like this occur, it's common for people to express their religious convictions by blaming all sorts of things as the root cause, from gossip to gay marriage to the Internet. Sometimes people want answers for unanswerable questions so badly that they're willing to believe almost anything. The bottom line is only God knows. While this may not be an emotionally satisfying response, it's the best we can do given our limited intellect. We must not succumb to playing the blame game. Blame should only be directed at the person who actually committed the crime and/or anyone who explicitly assisted them.

Nobody can know for certain why God allows a particular event to happen. It is all conjecture. Especially due to the fact that we no longer have prophets who can relay direct messages from God, every explanation given for why something occurs is simply a guess. As tempting as it is to provide some sort of divine reasoning, who are we to claim to know why God does something? Turning to God is an important element in dealing with tragedy, but it is also important to refrain from false explanations that can eventually reach the mourners and inflict additional emotional damage. In fact, one of the morals of Iyov (the Book of Job) is precisely about the inscrutability of God's ways.

We learn from Iyov to simply be there for mourners and keep quiet unless prompted to speak. As it states, "They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him, for they saw how very great was his suffering" (Job 2:13). Only after Job began to speak did his three friends also begin to talk - and that's when further problems ensued. Despite Job blaming God for his fate, the Talmud tells us that a person is not held responsible for what they say while in pain (Bava Batra 16b). But Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar all felt obligated to act as God's defender, and started to give presumptuous explanations as to why tragedies befell Job. God found all the condemnations of Job's friends to be inexcusable (Job 42:7). In fact, God said that He would only forgive them if they first received forgiveness from Job himself.

While divine explanations are beyond our grasp, there can still be practical lessons to come out of terrible events. In this case, if a child looks disoriented or lost, see to it that they contact their parents or the police. It's better to err on the side of caution than to assume a child is safe. If you're ever in such a position and having trouble taking action, think of Leiby. And although the details in this particular case are unclear, if it ever becomes known that a person within your community is violent or sexually abusive, you must speak up before an innocent person gets hurt. As it says in Tehillim (Psalms 97:10), "Ohavei Hashem Sinu Ra" - those who love God must hate evil. Standing on the sidelines when evil rears its ugly head is not an option. It must be confronted.

One of the positives that tends to come out of episodes like these are the displays of Jewish unity. But, hopefully, demonstrations of goodwill are not limited to such situations. We should be striving for good interpersonal relationships regardless of items in the news. It should never have to take some horrific event to unite us.

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