This evening, I felt compelled to put down my paperwork and share my feelings on something that has been troubling me.
In light of what’s been going on in the world, with hurricanes Harvey and Irma bringing a colossal amount of destruction, it's become increasingly common for some people to question their faith.
As a Rabbi, I am no stranger to being on the receiving end of these questions from adults, but these two hurricanes in particular have genuinely piqued the curiosity of many Jewish children.
In fact, in recent days I've been asked quite a few times for my thoughts on how to best address children's questions such as:
"Why did G-d make these hurricanes? Why did He cause people to lose their homes? If G-d is kind, like we learned in Hebrew school, then why did this happen?"
When your children ask these questions, it may seem scary in trying to come up with the 'right' reply.
Some parents I know have tried to shy away from the questions and change the subject altogether, while others have attempted to cobble together something that would sound like a 'Jewish' answer.
Because it’s a tricky and emotional matter, I'd like to share with you the perspective I've shared with my own family.
First, the Torah makes it clear that everything G-d does is for the ultimate good and has meaning. Moreover, He sometimes makes use of natural phenomenon and current events to get our attention, especially when we're asleep at the wheel of life.
That being said, in the modern world, since prophecy no longer exists, it is impossible to know the precise reason why G-d did X, Y, or Z ... and that includes hurricanes.
So where does that leave us?
The Jewish tradition teaches that the most we can do is use these moments as opportunities to reflect, introspect, and improve.
There is undoubtedly a reason, life is not random, and it is via the search for self-improvement in our relationship with G-d and mankind that we'll find meaning during times such as these. And on a related note, to be frank -- I am repulsed by the high number of people on Facebook and other social media platforms who I've seen express definitive explanations for these tragedies.
With my own two eyes, I've seen people post that the hurricanes were, "a punishment for voting for Trump," or "because the people in Texas and Florida are sinners," or that the storms were "G-d's wrath in response to homosexuality."
I want to ask each one of these people -- How do you know? Did G-d send you a text message from Heaven? If so, please send me a screenshot!
As a parent, I want my children to embrace the Jewish idea that, yes, everything has a reason, and G-d runs the world. As a curious, intellectual human, you're supposed to study these events and try to glean ways you can improve -- whether personally, in your family, or externally, in your community, by helping those around you find peace and comfort.
However, it is intellectually dishonest to claim with certitude that you know the definitive reason as to why G-d acts in the fashion that He does, especially in the wake of tragedy. And, by creating these assumptions and passing them off as religious dogma and binding fact -- it only exacerbates negativity and resentment towards people of faith, and that's a deed that does nobody any good.
In closing, I'd like to share with you a passage from the Talmud (Megillah 15b) that speaks to the outlook I describe above and informs my view. It tells a story of Queen Esther, where she’s struggling with a vast decision and turns to G-d for support.
In this passage, Queen Esther is thinking of going to King Achashveirosh and revealing to him that she's Jewish. The only problem? She wasn't invited ... and the rule was that if you'd go to the king without his request, you’d be put to death if he wasn’t happy to see you. Ultimately, Esther decides to approach the king anyway, because she wants to avert the horrible decree of death that Achashveirosh and Haman had put on the Jewish people, her people.
What made Esther so bold?
In part, it was because she lived a life of great sanctity and purity, and could feel the Shechinah (G-d’s Divine Presence) propel her forward, giving her strength to enter. Yet, upon entering the palace, that sensation of Divine Presence vanished.
As would be expected, Esther responded in the timeless Jewish fashion. She used this event in her life as a personal mirror, to reflect and ultimately bring her character and deeds into even greater conformance with the will of her Creator.
The Talmud relates what she came up with. Esther thinks, "Oh, I know what happened. I recently called King Achashveirosh a 'dog,' because I was upset. And the truth is, from the Torah perspective, there's a certain modicum of respect that needs to be accorded to the heads of state and leaders. Maybe that's what I did wrong, maybe that's why G-d took away the Shechinah from me, and that's why I felt a change when I entered the palace."
The Talmud goes on to say that while Queen Esther introspected, she found the wrong reason!
The truth was, she had entered Achashveirosh's palace, a place of idolatry. And G-d's Divine Presence is not going to coexist in a place of idolatry.
And so, even a righteous woman on the level of Queen Esther must deal with the fact that life is filled with ambiguity, and that in the modern world, there’s no fool-proof mechanism for finding perfect clarity in discerning the motives of the Divine.
While it's tempting in times like these to offer ourselves and our children black-and-white answers, it's not necessarily endorsed by the Jewish tradition. In fact, it's perfectly OK to accept that life is very full of 'gray' moments.
By telling our children the truth -- and guiding them towards self-improvement and introspection as a response to tragedy -- they will grow to become full-fledged, inspired humans, ready to embrace the world, for all its ups and downs.
After 4,000 years of Jewish history, one thing is certainly clear: to be a Jew at times requires us to embrace and feel at ease with uncertainty.
There’s always meaning in life, but you’re expected to find the right one.