Rabbi Gelb’s Thoughts on Newtown, CT

Dear Ramah Families:  Our hearts are filled with sadness for all the victims of last Friday’s tragedy in Newtown, CT, and their families, friends, and community. Our thoughts and prayers are with the parents, teachers, school administrators, and clergy who will be helping families in the coming days and weeks deal with their grief as well as their fears and concerns about safety.

The health and safety of our camp community has always been Ramah’s highest priority. In the coming months, our camp staff and board will continue our practice of evaluating our plans to ensure that we take every precaution to provide a safe and wonderful summer experience for all of our campers and staff.

We pray that goodness and hope will prevail during this difficult time.   

 Below are some of my thoughts about this tragic event and are offered in the hope that it may be in some way helpful as we all struggle to find meaning and understanding.  I want to thank my brother, Jim, who always acts as my editor, sounding board, and collaborator, but went above and beyond in the writing of this piece.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ed Gelb 

Like most of you, I have spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about the horrific tragedy that occurred last Friday in Newtown, CT. I feel obligated to read about the poor children and heroic adults who lost their lives, but in doing so feel an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and grief. Many have written about how we should respond on a practical level and about the role of violence and guns in our society, and that is appropriate. I have also been wrestling – I’m not sure how successfully – with the theological implications of this event.

I remember being asked a theological question during my rabbinical school interview and answering, “I don’t think too much about that.” The dean responded, “Maybe you should start thinking about it more.” I have faith that God exists, but I always have maintained that even if I knew 100 percent that there wasn’t a God, I wouldn’t change how I live my life. Additionally, I have always been comfortable with the notion that as a human I have a limited ability to understand the eternal. Still, I took Rabbi Artson’s advice to heart, and have struggled with reconciling my deep fundamental beliefs that God is good, that God is all-powerful, and that nevertheless evil has free rein in the world.

In the ancient world, where polytheism was the dominant belief system, the idea of gods both good and bad existed. Humans were often caught in the struggle between these gods. Such a framework might help explain a Newtown. But Judaism believes in one God. And while the Torah at times describes God as being vengeful, destructive, jealous, and holding a grudge, our rabbis understand God to be totally good. The overriding notion of a just and loving, if inscrutable, God persists. However, our rabbis struggled mightily with the existence of evil and actually changed the last word in the “Barchu” (the call to prayer) from “evil” to “everything.” The prayer now reads, “Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, creating light and fashioning darkness, and making peace and creating everything.” This softening of words notwithstanding, the notion that evil exists in our benevolent God’s universe is well accepted in Judaism.

Is God all-powerful? I find it very hard to imagine the creator of the world as anything but. Additionally, our tradition cites numerous times of God acting in history. So, what happened in Newtown begs the question of why God did not act to stop it. This question, of course, could be asked of all tragedies, like the Holocaust and 9/11. For me, two critical life beliefs collide when tragedies happen: the notion that God is all-powerful and the idea that every person has free will to do what he or she pleases. On an intellectual level it does not seem possible to assume the existence of free will and to have God intervene every time something bad is about to happen. Remember, when the world’s evilness spun out of control in the story of Noah, God restarted the human journey with the flood. This event was so horrifying that God vowed never to intervene like that again. So on some level we can rationalize God granting people absolute autonomy. But still, why not stop what happened to those innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary? If any of us had the power to stop it, wouldn’t we? If God has that power, why didn’t He use it? The answer is I don’t really know. I may sound like I am apologizing for God, but I believe that perhaps the world was created as imperfectly as possible but at a level that could still be perfected by the works of God and man.

What role is there then for a benign God in such circumstances – complete passivity? I think not. The movie The Frisco Kid, while primarily a comedy, offers some profound insights into Jewish thinking about God’s place in our daily lives. Gene Wilder plays Avram, a naïve eastern European rabbi stumbling his way from Philadelphia to San Francisco in the middle of the 19th century.  Avram finds himself explaining the Jewish god to an Indian chief frustrated by a drought.  When Avram asserts that God can do anything, the chief asks why he can’t make rain.  Avram responds: “Because he doesn’t make rain. He gives us strength when we’re suffering. He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness . . .” We all feel at times like we cannot go on and yet we summon the strength to get up in the morning and to do our best. I believe that God, although invisible, acts in that capacity. Thus our first prayer upon arising each day, the “Modeh Ani,” gives thanks to God for restoring our souls, giving us the opportunity to start anew.

Even so, the idea of evil’s persistence in the face of God’s goodness and power is difficult to reconcile. On some levels, our notion of what is evil and awful can only be understood by us in the context of our finite lives and a short expanse of time. The concept of “a world to come” – that we may suffer now but get a payoff later – may have some resonance with respect to more common bad happenings. However, what possible future ecstasy could begin to make up for the suffering of the survivors and victims at Sandy Hook elementary? Parents burying their 7 year olds is a pain that cannot be repaid in any construct I can imagine. They will live their lives with this pain forever in their hearts.

Where does that leave me? To be honest, I’m a little angry with God. But I am angrier at humanity. We have all helped to create a world where this could happen. Selfishness, gun proliferation, poor attention to mental health, and a host of other man-made issues allowed the conditions to exist where this could occur. We can and will do better. I know we have this ability based on the great insight of Fred Rogers, the minister who hosted a famous PBS children’s show: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” It is our role to provide the help and support to those who have suffered and to work to make our world a better place where tragedies like this cannot happen. This work will take lifetimes and needs our prolonged attention. I welcome your comments.

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