What to tell our kids

What to tell our kids?  In the wake of Orlando terror, parents everywhere have been seeking responses that are developmentally sound, emotionally safe, and morally reassuring.  Wrong things happen.  Sad things happen too.  Even though bad people do bad things, heroes and communities do step forward.  But what can we believe in?  What does this do to our faith – in people, in the world, and in God?

Curiously, the Bible’s first appearance of the word Amen occurs in the Torah portion Naso but it’s context is hardly what we would expect.  Amen first comes not as a devotionally faithful affirmation.  Rather it is a response to toxic situation characterized by madness. The passage describes an irrationally jealous husband who forces his wife to undergo a demeaning ordeal to ascertain whether she is guilty of adultery.  One rabbinic source depicts the hurtfully possessive husband as one within whom the spirit of madness has taken up residence – the Hebrew phrase ki tishte is reread ki shote (when madness abides) (Num. 5:12).  Although the devotional word Amen will come to indicate a sacred affirmation, its initial Biblical occurrence is in a faith-dissolving ritual of dark distrust.  Religion, when disfigured demonically, can be torn from the arms of compassion to those of cruelty.

A word about gentle faith in God feels timely and helpful. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel categorizes three different types of religion: those promoting self-satisfaction (personal salvation), those promoting self-annihilation (denial), and those promoting fellowship (existence as coexistence with God).  Judaism at its best champions the latter, inspiring our partnership with a God who lives, loves, and listens in spite of seeming utterly hidden. 

Heschel opens his book on the philosophy of religion, Man Is Not Alone, by suggesting that nature commands our attention in three ways: power, loveliness, grandeur. Power we exploit, loveliness we enjoy, and grandeur fills us with awe.  He then poses some worthy queries.  Is it conceivable that things like music, love, order, and beauty come from something lifeless, inferior to you and me?  Why should we assume that the Being who made us and sustains us is incapable of that which we are capable of – sensations like feeling, caring, concern? 

A deeply personal God is also revealed in this week’s portion of Torah through the Priestly Blessing: “May God bless and keep you.  May God cause God’s face to graciously glow upon you for good.  May God turn God’s face toward you and make you whole” (Num.6:24-26).  As an often prayed blessing, the focus on second-person-singular is rare for our liturgy which almost always prefers second-person-plural.  So blessings for safety, goodness, and wholeness, are channeled from a God who turns toward you singularly and personally.

Orlando’s agony is, at once, about disfigured Islam, access to guns, and homophobia. It also challenges faith. May we prove ourselves to be witnesses not for the erasing of God’s Name (suspected adulterous ritual) but for the receiving and the bestowing of the (Priestly) blessing of God’s good Name.

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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