I had just picked up the kids, and we were en route to their favorite after-school snack spot when we noticed the American flag flying over the post office. "Hey," my daughter asked, "why is the flag only halfway up the pole?" Because, I answered, it's the one-year anniversary of the day Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.
But what could I say after that?
My kids are old enough to know the facts about Hurricane Sandy - and about the school shootings in Newtown, and the Boston Marathon bombing, and the mall attack in Kenya, and the thousand other terrible things reminding us that the world is not worthy of our precious children. When they were younger, I struggled with how to share such news with them (in another post, I'll offer the guidelines that have worked for our family) - but even now, when they can access and assimilate the information themselves, my kids still need me to help them understand.
Which is hard, because we may not understand these things ourselves. Confronting evil and suffering - well, that's about as tough as it gets. Judaism has grappled with this issue for thousands of years; and though our sages have come up with many responses, not a single one has emerged as the definitive answer. So when our kids ask us why things like Hurricane Sandy happen, why people set off bombs at sporting events, why adults kill schoolchildren, and we say, "I don't understand" - that's actually a pretty Jewish reply. Because we don't understand.
But our reply can't end there. Because not understanding the deeper theological significance of an event isn't an excuse for failing to confront that event. We may not be able to explain to our kids - or to ourselves - why there is evil in the world; but we can tell them this. We can tell them that even though awful things happen, the universe - and God Who created it, and humanity that fills it - are good. We can tell them that when we feel overwhelmed by the suffering of others, that's our cue to see how we can help. We can tell them that - in the amazing words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav - while the entire world is a very narrow bridge, the essential thing is to have no fear at all.
We can teach our kids that it's okay to wonder, to question, to feel uncertainty and doubt. We can tell them that's what Jews have done for thousands of years. And maybe we can even bring comfort to them - and to ourselves - by echoing these poignant and beautiful words of our suffering, wondering Psalmist:
For the leader. A psalm of David.
How long, Eternal One?! Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I have cares in my soul, grief in my heart all day?
How long will my enemy loom over me?
Look, answer me, O Eternal One, my God!
Light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes exult when I stumble.
But I trust in Your faithfulness.
My heart will exult in Your deliverance.
I will sing to the Eternal One, Who has dealt bountifully with me.
A song of ascents.
I lift my eyes to the mountains - from where will my help come?
My help will come from the Eternal One, Maker of heaven and earth.
God will not allow your foot to slip; your Guardian does not slumber.
Indeed, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
The Eternal One is your Guard, your shelter at your right hand.
The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Eternal One will guard you from all evil; God will guard your soul.
The Eternal One will guard your coming in and your going out, now and forever.