A guide to speaking to our children about the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting

“Bridging Our Vision with Harsh Reality:
On Education and Values in a Time of Crisis”

Rabbi Ronen Ben-David
Principal, OTS’s Neveh Channah High School for Girls, in Memory of Anna Ehrman

February 16, 2018
1 Adar 5778

All cultures are comprised of an encompassing educational layout, of which the greater part is home-based; a smaller part is school-based and the remaining parts are simply there, floating in space.  All cultures set for themselves core values pertaining to what is right and what is wrong; that which is allowed and that which is forbidden; truth versus untruths.

The aforementioned correlate directly with the primary vision or intrinsic aspiration the specific culture holds dear.  “Education” is not a stand-alone term.  It might be more accurate to talk of “educating towards something”.  What are we educating towards?

We educate towards impressing the basic tenets of our culture upon members of our society.  When is it most difficult, albeit most important, to return to our primary vision?  When we get a reality check which demonstrates how far removed we really are from that vision.  It is during such times especially, when the very ground seems to be slipping from under our feet, and the heart is bursting with pain – it is then that the true power of educators is most apparent.

As both a rabbi and an educator, my inherent vision, my personal aspirations and conduct are all connected to the word of God and the Divine visions of the prophets.  The prophet Isaiah speaks quite clearly of arms and weapons when he prophesizes of the future:  “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

This is a fascinating prophecy about Tikkun Olam and world peace.  A vision of co-existence, and a world void of physical violence (as well as spiritual and emotional violence, as later becomes clear from the words of the prophet).  It is exhilarating to teach this Biblical chapter in the classroom, and to imagine, with the students, a world where perfect dialogue exists, and where each and everyone has his/her rightful place.

But what does one do when bullets from a semi-automatic rifle shatter this idyllic vision?  What do we tell our students and children when the bodies of their friends lay strewn before their eyes, when it was yet another friend of theirs that murdered them all?  Do any words exist at such a time?

I think this is the moment when vision and process must be connected.  Vision is an aspiration or goal, often times a very far-reaching one, which can be realized only in the long term.  This means that reality cannot be changed in an instance, even when one constantly busies oneself with the aim.  This is similar to the fact that the reality of redemption does not suddenly come to be; rather, a process of redemption gradually transpires.  There isn’t world peace, but a long process toward world peace.

The road to achieving these lofty goals may be paved with much evil of the most devastating and painful kind.  That is the reason that in times of crisis in particular, it is so important to tackle reality head on; this includes dealing with the evil part and its roots as much as with the vision.  None of the various components may be omitted.

In many of his writings, Rav Kook makes the distinction between evil, per se, and the roots of evil.  The roots of evil, explains Rav Kook, are connected to the greater vision; however, evil, per se, is nothing but evil and must be opposed and mitigated.  How does one go about doing this?  How can one connect such oppositional forces?

This is where the educator comes into the picture.  Perhaps the most important and most complex role of the educator is educating towards a complex reality where dialogue still exists.

It is easy to face evil and demonize it.  When one sees dozens of bodies of innocent boys and girls, who were murdered by a madman for no reason, the easiest would be to blame the madness itself and condemn it.  But the media and politicians will do that, anyway.  So what is expected of the educator is so much more: as a key representative of culture, s/he must make sure such events do not recur, which, in turn, means that s/he he must delve deeper into the situation.

The murderer this week in Parkland, Florida, as well as his predecessors, had heard often enough that murder is detestable, and all knew well that what they were doing was evil – yet they still went ahead with it and committed the horrendous deed.

Therefore, permit me propose a four-phase educational process we have used here in Israel following devastating terrorist attacks.  From my own experience, I have seen that it can be used to build an educational framework which can be used anywhere.  The wording is geared towards the homeroom teacher, but the process is just as suitable for parents working with children at home.

AIRING OUT FEELINGS

First and foremost, it is important to let the young boys and girls air out their emotions and say anything that comes to mind.  This may be done in small discussion groups where everyone is given the chance to express what is on his/her mind and heart.  It is best not to allow electronic devices to be present while this session is going on, and to let each voice be heard in a non-judgmental environment.  The same goes for sessions conducted at home.

Those who do not wish to speak should be allowed a different form of expression.  In such groups where the members find it difficult to express their inner emotions, one can give out all sorts of objects and have them say a few words that also connect to the object (examples of word-provoking objects: a Tanakh, a flag, a picture of teenagers, etc.)  Each one talking in his/her turn must be given the feeling that what s/he expresses is important for all to hear, even if the content is harsh or crude.  Let us not forget that they have all just experienced the taking of another person’s life, which is the ultimate evil manifested.

PIECING IT ALL TOGETHER

The educator must listen with great attentiveness, thank each of the speakers in turn and quiet down those who disrupt the discussion circle.  But as this is going on, it is imperative that the teacher think all the while how to piece it all together and sum-up what has happened.  It is crucial that this summing-up is done from a place of respect, and be “on the same page” as what was expressed by the speakers.

Furthermore, it is important to say explicitly that we do not always have the answers to all the questions, but that does not mean there is no room for questions, even the toughest of questions.  There are plenty of examples in our own Jewish sources, throughout the centuries – from the Tanakh, through the Talmud, the writings of the Middle Ages and up to modern times – where people have stood up to God in defiance and have expressed their claims, following events of great complexity.  It is possible, and even desirable, to bring one such story to the group discussion.

PRAYER

As Jews, we believe in the power of prayer, and that the person who prays stands before his/her Creator, expressing to Him thoughts and words that are sincere, and often times very harsh.  We also believe that God listens even if we do not always get exactly what we ask for in our prayer.

From my own experience, it is best to give out to the students little pieces of paper and ask them to each write a little note to God expressing what they wish for.  They get to keep the notes when they are done.  This can be followed by the recital of Tehillim, and a special prayer for the injured (Mi Sheberach).  Then allow a few moments for the recital of personal silent prayers.  This is a very powerful experience, which can be extremely difficult emotionally, so it is important to pay attention to each and every one.

ATTEMPTING TO UNDERSTAND THE CAUSE

This is the more difficult part of the educational process.  When it comes to such awful shooting massacres, one usually reverts to the question of gun control.  On the other hand, it is also a well-known fact that restrictions placed on the sale of alcohol created a huge black market, and the same can happen with firearms.  Placing restrictions may be the right thing to do, but it is not the root of the matter.

At the core of issue there is another question altogether:  when a person feels his/her sense of power has been undermined, what borders would s/he cross, or not, in terms of behavior?  What does the predominant culture say about taking justice into one’s own hands?  Why do people tend to honor, and even admire, a person who goes out on a revenge spree after s/he or his/her family have been hurt?  Are such people not committing a crime after all?!

All of these questions have one fundamental answer:  a primal sense of justice makes people see things in black and white and divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys”. This is where the educator must speak out unequivocally and say that while justice is a good thing, seeing the world in black and white and dividing up people into “good guys” and “bad guys” can be a bad thing. When such an approach is taken to extreme, we see a nineteen-year-old pick up a gun and murder innocent teenagers and adults.

And now, with great caution and care, let us return to where we began.

BACK TO THE VISION

It is difficult to imagine a life of co-existence when I perceive those around me as enemies.  In a war-stricken world, where people are mainly concerned with who is right and how one contends with those who are wrong, the concept of peace often seems unattractive.

Notwithstanding the above, we belong to a religion that teaches us that all human-beings are sons of Adam, without any exception.  Recognizing the intrinsic good present in every person does not mean we consent to every action performed by every person.

The Divine code of ethics expressed in the Torah and that reverberate in the words of our Sages guides us so that we do not lose the vision embodied in the verse, “every man is beloved for he was created in the image of God”. At the same time, we dare not forget that there are people who deserve “the four different types of deaths imposed by the Beit Din”.

This is an opportunity to learn that the ultimate vision and aspiration is “and the wolf shall dwell with the lamb”, without letting go of the intermediate need to fight against evil.  All this requires profound dialogue. But as was stated earlier, we are a nation of educators who believe in educational processes, and these processes are the way to achieving full redemption and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).

Rabbi Ronen Ben-David is Principal of OTS’s Neveh Channah High School for Girls, in Memory of Anna Ehrman.

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