Personal Reflections on a Tragedy

I heard the news from a friend, who just the night before voiced his fears that the kidnapped teenagers were dead. I was in the middle of asking him for clarification on a particularly difficult Tosfos, when suddenly our discussion was disrupted by his sudden pronouncement of a word not usually spoken in such contexts. It goes without saying I cannot repeat it here. I thought that perhaps my understanding of Tosfos has been that bad. But he continued
“I might have been right about the Israeli kids who got kidnapped”
I quickly took a look at my facebook news feed. And the news hit me in torrents; “Baruch Dayan Emet” abounded, some repeated with no other addition, people relying on a standard formula to convey their grief. Others were more anguished, pained, even angry. Calls were made for peace, for repentance, for prayer, for good deeds, while others for war, for justice, for the killing of guilty parties, at the very least.
I found myself wanting to add to this collective mourning, to convey my own emotional response to this tragedy. I started typing, then backspacing, typing again, backspacing again, retyping and backspacing again and again. What could I possibly write? What could I possibly say? I had nothing to say, the blank canvas of the status box seeming to be the best depictor of the empty horror I felt. But to say nothing is entirely different from saying “nothing”. How do I say “nothing”?
I found myself thinking of Sefer Shmuel Bet, 12:22-23. After David’s sin with Batsheva, Natan tells him that the child of this union would die, and indeed, it was struck with an illness, and despite David’s fasting and prayer, the child died. David’s advisers don’t want to tell him though, but David infers on his own that yes, the child is dead. Whereupon he gets up, and he eats, as if nothing happened. And his advisers don’t understand. His child just died, and he’s acting like he doesn’t care? So they ask David, what are you doing? You fasted for this child, you prayed for this child, and now that he’s dead, you’re just going on about your business? David’s response:

  וַיֹּאמֶר–בְּעוֹד הַיֶּלֶד חַי, צַמְתִּי וָאֶבְכֶּה:  כִּי אָמַרְתִּי מִי יוֹדֵעַ, יחנני (וְחַנַּנִי) יְהוָה וְחַי הַיָּלֶד.וְעַתָּה מֵת, לָמָּה זֶּה אֲנִי צָם–הַאוּכַל לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, עוֹד:  אֲנִי הֹלֵךְ אֵלָיו, וְהוּא לֹא-יָשׁוּב אֵלָי

He gives what seems to be at first to be a heartless and callous, though accurate, statement. I cried and fasted for him when he was still alive, now that he’s dead, what am I supposed to do? This sentiment is accurate but it is also completely not understandable. Is there not any sort of sadness for this child? That’s why the end of David’s statement is so interesting: “I will go to him, but he will not go to me”. David is talking about his own mortality here, fatalistically so. He’s already accepted death, he’s just waiting for his train to arrive at the station. He has accepted his child’s fate because he’s accepted his own, and he’s unwilling to put any more effort in. This inaction and unwillingness to put in effort becomes a key theme in the continuation of the David story, as he watches helplessly as his children rape and kill each other, and eventually is forced out without so much of a fight by Avshalom.
So, at first, we may be forgiven for thinking like David, looking at all the mass tefillos and mitzvot and everything done for those teenagers, looking at their effect, and thinking “why did we even bother?”, and then wondering “why do we even bother?” What point is all of this effort, if tragedy strikes nonetheless? Why even pray, if God doesn’t seem to take notice, why even do good deeds, if this is Torah and this is its reward? Better to just accept it as how life works on this earth, don’t try to think about whether God is good or not, don’t try to make sense of this world, and just wait till death eventually overtakes you. We may throw up our hands and say, “we did what we could, but, now that its happened, there’s nothing to do anymore”
This approach, like David’s reaction, makes logical sense, but it is also  a wrong one. Being Jewish entails belief in an all-powerful God who is good, who desires good for all his creations, who demands that we perfect the world in accordance to his will, who works through and guides nature and historical processes. That belief is not just something you sign off on, it is something that has implications for your life and for your identity and for the way you see the world. And throwing up your hands and saying “it’s out of my hands now” is being too much of a coward to accept the implications of your religion. It is saying God does things for no reason, capriciously ending people’s lives tragically so that observers can look on and not make conclusions, which is why the Rambam calls such a belief “cruelty.” It is possibly even saying that God isn’t powerful enough to stop such things from happening. But most of all, it is assuming that your belief in God has no bearing on how you interpret events, and makes no demands on your worldview, that being Jewish is just the yarmulke you wear and the chulent you eat and the shacharis you attend. It is an approach that seeks to place responsibility anywhere but yourself. I reject that, and I reject that vehemently.

But, let’s note something about David’s response: It’s very frum! What God does, he does for the best! Who am I to argue with God’s plan? If he killed my own child, it must be because it was the best thing! Though such a response begins from a noble and pious place, it too, is insufficient. All it does is again, abdicate one’s responsibility towards alleviating suffering in this world by explaining such suffering as really a good thing. I thus also reject any approach that seeks to minimize the very real suffering that goes on in this world, as if a crying child must be silenced for the theological problem they pose. Rav Soloveitchik, in Kol Dodi Dofek, says my point more elqoquently than I can hope to accomplish:

“Judaism, with its realistic approach to man and his place in the world, understood that evil cannot be blurred or camouflaged and that any attempt to downplay the extent of the contradiction and fragmentation to be found in reality will neither endow man with tranquility nor enable him to grasp the essential mystery”
So, what then, is the proper response to tragedy? I would say, responsibility. God demands that we react to evil, to eradicate suffering, to improve ourselves and the world. Thus, we must react towards tragedy with responsibility, using it as an opportunity to strengthen our resolve to carry out God’s will. Misfortune and suffering are thus things that we should be very much aware of, because our goal is a world in which those two no longer exist. Any existence of suffering, misfortune, injustice or immorality thus calls upon us to correct it. Note that this is not the same as knowing for sure why God did x or y or whatever; anyone who claims they know for sure is probably lying to you. That, however is not the point. Our religion is not concerned with figuring out why things happened; it is concerned with what do we do now that they did. As Rav Soloveitchik continues:
We do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty but, rather, about the path wherein man shall walk when suffering strikes. We ask neither about the cause of evil nor about its purpose but rather about how it might be mended and elevated. How shall a person act in a time of trouble? What ought a man to do so that he not perish in his afflictions? The Halakhic answer to this question is very simple. Afflictions come to elevate a person, to purify and sanctify his spirit, to cleanse and purge it of the dross of superficiality and vulgarity, to refine his soul and to broaden his horizons. In a word, the function of suffering is to mend that which is flawed in an individual’s personality. The Halakha teaches us that the sufferer commits a grave sin if he allows his troubles to go to waste and remain without meaning or purpose.
So, I can hear my “liberal base” already shouting at me. You’re one of the crazies! You’re one of those guys who would blame hurricanes on gays and women not being modest and people wearing crocs! You’re one of those irrational mystics! Well, partially. I suppose I am one of those irrational mystics who believes that when God does something, he does it for a reason. I am one of those irrational mystics who believes that when God does something, we ought to act upon it to improve ourselves and our community, and thus, I am one of those crazies who believes that it is valid to call for greater observance in some mitzvah as a response to tragedy. I do, however, differ with such people on a crucial point: It needs to be responsibility, not blame. It needs to something we do, not something they should do. There is a large difference between blaming a tragedy on others and blaming it on yourself. The latter leads to self-improvement. The former leads to nothing.
So, now that I’ve rejected the numerous different schools of theodicy that I disagree with, and outlined an approach that I agree with, one that prioritizes action and improvement of the world, have I come to terms with this death? Of course not. Because theodicy or no theodicy, action or no action, three innocent teenagers are now dead, and there is no bringing them back, and that is a terrible thing, and nothing makes that into a good thing, or even an okay thing. That needs to be the first step. Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak Shavuous 21) notes something very interesting about what we say when we hear tragic news: “Baruch Dayan Emet” If we really believed what we were saying, that we are blessing the true judge, then we would never say it! Every single tragic event wouldn’t really be a tragedy, it would be an action of the true judge! If evil and suffering did not really exist, we wouldn’t say a bracha on it! Rather, says Rav Hutner, in this unredeemed world, there is an impassable barrier between what we believe to be true and what we feel to be true. We know, we believe that God is one and all-powerful and that all is for the good, but we see evil and unfortunate things around us, and it is on that emotional reaction we are making the bracha. That emotion Rav Hutner speaks of, that unredeemed and unmitigated sense of horror and recoil at misfortune and evil, has validity enough to make a bracha on it, even if there is a acknowledgement on our parts that there is something we can do to redeem that evil. And that’s what brought me to Vayikra 10:3
 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.
Reacting to the news of the death of his two sons, to Moshe’s explanation of its cause, Aharon is silent. Not because he’s just accepted passively, not because he because he likes or doesn’t like Moshe’s explanation. Because right now, there is nothing to say. Later, there will be service to do, new laws to be learned out, action to be done. But right now, Aharon has nothing to say. Which is why I made that my facebook status. There is action to be done, sure. Death and suffering must be redeemed by man’s search for meaning. But right now, there is death, and there is suffering, and I have nothing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s