What Will I Tell My Children?

Like many Jewish families across the world, we lit three extra candles before Shabbat this week and last.  It brought the trauma of the boys’ kidnapping into our home, giving them life and personality, they were no longer just another story the kids heard at school.

Our 4 year old asked who the boys were, why were we remembering them.  ‘Are they our friends?’  he asked, to which my wife replied that they were more like cousins, distant cousins who we don’t really know so well.

Our sons were satisfied with that, as were we, for there really is no other way to explain the connection we feel to those boys.  However one might historically deconstruct it, being Jewish feels like being part of a family.  For better and for worse.

And now our cousins are dead.  How can I explain this to my 4 year old and 6 year old, what should be the words that come out of my mouth in the morning?

I’m already alarmed at some of the rhetoric, the regression to demonising Palestinians and Hamas, as if this will somehow help us make sense of things, will allow us to bear the loss better.

I could tell my children that they were murdered by very bad men, which would have some truth to it, and maybe I should just stop at that.

I could say that there are good men and there are bad men.  Good Jews and bad Jews.  Good Palestinians and bad Palestinians.  Though I’m not sure where this story goes.

It seems facile to state it, but there is good and bad in all of us.

It’s facile yet important, because part of the reason we want to talk about how bad these people are is because it bolsters the sense that we are good, and that there is in fact no bad in us.  In psychoanalytic terms, we evacuate our souls of evil, projecting it onto the welcoming face of a murderer.

‘They are bad, and that’s why they did it, but we are good, so we don’t need to worry.’

‘There was nothing we did to help them become bad – how could there be, for after all, we are good?’

‘There isn’t even any point in asking these questions of ourselves, for we are the good guys and they are the bad guys.’

And I know that by even making such a suggestion, of countenancing any self scrutiny at this moment, that I probably run the risk of being labelled as bad, of being tarred with that brush.

Let me then clarify, in the present terms, that I am not saying that we are bad and they are good.  Nor am I saying that we are bad and they are bad.

I am simply stating that both they and we are bad and good.

And that at this moment of pain and loss, of national and communal mourning, I am saying that it feels dishonourable and dangerous to ratchet up the rhetoric of good and bad.  For I presume that it is non-controversial to state that the language of ‘good and bad, them and us’ has played a part in the ideologies which led to this murder.

But once more, what will I tell my kids?

I will not tell them that God wanted these precious souls so dearly that he had to take them early, that they are sitting comfortably with Him in heaven.

Shall I tell them that whilst people are neither good nor bad, there are bad things, and sometimes they just happen?

That they always ‘just happen’, but that today they ‘just happened’ to us, to our family?

Our one year old had a fall recently and nearly died.  When our 4 year old came to visit him in hospital a few days later, he told me that he thought his brother had died.  He didn’t seem distressed by it, he just thought that it had happened.

So maybe he’s already grasped it, that things just happen, and maybe I’m in danger of ruining that clarity by injecting any kind of story which attempts to ‘explain’ things.

God for me is a reminder that we do not understand, that the world is totally other, that life is in many ways indifferent to us.

Elisha ben Avuya was ejected by the Rabbis for proposing something along these lines – he was, ironically, labelled ‘Other’ by the community – but his pupil Rabbi Meir was able to offer a softer version and get away with it.  He compared God to a king behind a curtain, who doesn’t intervene in the fight to the death going on in his presence.

That feels like an apt metaphor for just now.

I also don’t want to tell my 6 year old that these boys were murdered because they were Jews.  I’m not ready to pass on the psychic trauma of victimhood, to shape his Jewish self-understanding in that way.

The usual story goes that we tell our children narratives so that world doesn’t seem disorderly and random to them, so that they are not terrorized by the chaos.

But I wonder, it feels very possible to me that the adults are more comforted by these stories than the children, that it’s the adults who must cling to rigid structures to make sense of this tortuously difficult world.

Maybe the children are fine with chaos, their capacity for play and spontaneity makes them more receptive to the idea of life as a random game, one in which bad stuff sometimes just happens.

Maybe it’s the stories of the adults that scare and confuse them.

I also don’t want to talk to them about revenge, for we have passed the point in this conflict wherein that raw and visceral emotion can do anything but increase the devastation.

I’ve never understood how we as Jews nurtured a sense of loss for 2400 years and yet expect others to forget their victims or homeland overnight, or even over a century.

There are Jewish sources which celebrate revenge, but these are not interesting, nor are they relevant or practical.

The Book of Lamentations, from that same destruction 2400 years ago, responds to loss in a very different way.  It ends with the famous words: ‘Return us to you, Lord, and we will return, may our days be renewed like before’.

For the families and friends of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, the days will never be as before.

And perhaps for my children too, a sense of loss has lodged itself permanently in their worldview.

Yet this response speaks to me because it does not promote anger, an emotion which only depletes and distorts us.  In its stead it asks us to return within, to dig deeper, to re-connect with concern and compassion, and to remove the internal dark forces  which obscure their power.

In the end that’s all we can really do, the raging we witness is ultimately only a frustrated expression of our helplessness.

It seems that there is loss which hollows out our insides and takes our breath away, but filling the void with poison is not the solution.

So, returning to my children, perhaps I’ll just say the following:

‘My dearly beloved sons, you should know that there is tremendous love and beauty in the world, and you should savour and appreciate every glimpse of those that you are blessed with.  Sometimes, however, they seem to absent themselves, and terrible things can happen.  This hurts and confuses us, and we want to go out into the world and fix things, to ensure that it won’t happen again.

But before we do that, we must first spend a little time on our own, fixing the hurt inside us, ensuring it doesn’t become bitter and twisted, and that we don’t end up making the world even worse.  And if everyone would do this, then maybe, just maybe, we might dare to imagine a world in which fewer terrible things would happen, in which peace might stand a chance, and in which the courage of humanity might triumph over despair.’

Yes, maybe that’ll do, though I’m still not sure if it’ll be them or me I’m talking to.

About the Author
Elie Jesner is a Psychotherapist, Educator and Writer based in London. He teaches Talmud, Psychoanalysis and Judaism at LSJS, JW3 and JCoSS. He writes at thinkingdafyomi.com, a website for psychoanalytic and philosophical explorations of the Talmud .
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