Despair might be the easiest response right now.
For many of our children, “normal” has lost all of its meaning. In less than five years, they have experienced a pandemic and all of its ill effects — increased rates of depression and anxiety, reliance on electronic devices, social disconnect, educational and extracurricular disruption, as well as the possibility of traumatic loss — and they now face an overflow of devastating news, images of hostages and dead soldiers, and antisemitic propaganda going mainstream as we reach the three-month mark of the October 7th attack on Israel. We as parents and educators face the challenge of modeling how to react to all of this, as we try to cope with it ourselves.
Despair might be the easiest response right now, but it’s the wrong one.
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Continually, just as our new normal reaches equilibrium, we will be beset by a new new normal. With our increasingly globalized world and ever-shifting news cycle, it is more reasonable to expect our world to change than to remain the same.
“You cannot step into the same river twice,” expresses ancient philosopher Heraclitus. It is not only that the river has changed — we have, too.
We must find new ways to respond to new normals, rather than submitting to them in panic and despondency. That is especially true for how we relate to our children as the world around us mutates. Children learn from how we respond to circumstances. Wendy Mogel, who authored best-selling parenting book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, expresses something we intuitively know as true: “If a child is distressed and sees Mom react with panic, he knows he should wail; if she’s compassionate but calm, he tends to recover quickly.”
Our children learn how to respond by observing us — so we must avoid despair when we inevitably experience change. Our readjustment to “normal” is the model our children use as they reorient themselves. If we spend our time scrolling hopelessly through social media and expressing ourselves in outbursts of overwhelm and hysteria, our children will add these coping mechanisms to their toolboxes.
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After surviving the Holocaust, philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote that the Jewish people must add an additional commandment to the traditional 613.
This 614th commandment demands that the Jewish people survive and remember those they have lost. Perhap even more poignantly, it forbids the Jew to “deny or despair of God…[or] of the world.” Fackenheim is expressing a Jewish value that is shared generation after generation, the same value attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: “Men tor zich nisht m’ya’esh zayn — it is forbidden to despair!”
On a spiritual level, we cannot allow this new new normal to bring us to despondency. The 614th commandment is not an invalidation of the emotional pain and grief so many of us carry with us daily. It is instead a recognition of the Jewish mandate Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks describes: “to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair.”
We can tell our children the truth: this is challenging; this is difficult; this could break our hearts; but our Jewish legacy is to brace ourselves as we encounter “[the] sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.”
When twentieth-century poet Edmond Fleg wrote about his identity, he articulated it with great clarity. “Je suis juif parce qu’en tous temps où crie une désespérance, le juif espère — I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.”
Despair might be easiest, but it’s not what our ancestors chose.
Despair might be easiest, but we — Jews — we hope.