What to tell our kids

All around the streets of Tel Aviv last weekend, people expressed concern for the safety and well-being of American Jewry. The Hanukkah attack on a Monsey Rabbi’s home sent ripples of apprehension throughout the Jewish world. With the calendaring turned to 2020, we look for guidance from our tradition to help us face our uncertain times.

What should we say to our kids? Our course we first seek to reassure them. It’s important that they trust that those invested with responsibility are doing all they can to keep them safe and healthy and happy.

At the same time, they’ll sense it if we begin to feel uneasy about things. It’s important to be able to talk about matters in ways that are developmentally sound, emotionally safe, and spiritually helpful. 

One of the most gifted leaders at doing this was Fred Rogers. It’s no accident that our emotionally needy times have seen a rebirth of appreciation for the body of his work.  Mr. Rogers knew how to speak to young children about fear and anger and even death.  Consider how his program – which began airing shortly after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and ended following September 11, 2001 – dealt with frightful times.

This week’s portion of Torah specializes in emotions. Shock. Fear. Relief. Each of these heartfelt sensations finds a prominent place in the reunification of Joseph and his family. When Joseph sends his brothers to retrieve their father Jacob, he is worried about the emotional upheaval their father will experience. This is why he sends wagons. “And when Jacob saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, his heart was soothed” (Gen. 45:27).

Why did seeing wagons help Jacob emotionally? Traditionally the wagons (agalot) allude to a Deuteronomy law (egla arufa) pertaining to ‘shared responsibility’. Jacob finds this allusion calming because it evokes a spirit of ‘reassuring accountability’.

Facing those who seek our People harm is, alas, not a new challenge for us. But the vast number of well-meaning allies of our People that we today enjoy is historically new. Landing back in Boston on New Year’s Eve, I was moved to read of one proposal that is a natural outgrowth of so many good people who seek to generate faith-warming responses to our chilling challenges. 

May we too find allusions to a spirit of shared responsibility and reassuring accountability from fellow-travelers of all faiths to prove helpful and inspiring.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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