Monthly Archives: November 2012

Talking To Your Children About Tragedy

It has been a very difficult few weeks for so many millions of people, particularly in New York. Two weeks ago we were reeling with shock – we are still reeling with shock – at the news of the horrific murder of two little children Leo and Lucia Krim, at the hands of their nanny.

For all of those who are parents or grandparents, all who love children, this was so very hard and difficult – a tragedy that sickens, but also that comes so close to home. The protective bubble, the lifestyle that we have built in this neighborhood and city (that is truly such a special place), that cocoon that we build for our families (including trusted nannies) – we realize that it’s not a bubble, or a wall, or a solid foundation, but rather, like so much, is just so thin, such a fragile thing. Then there is the fragility, the vulnerability, the realization that what we thought was so solid – homes, brick walls, neighborhoods – was anything but. And then the realization that what we relied upon – power, light, heat – could be cut off (and still not return for two weeks). Our pleasant, ordered, reliable world (in the strongest, most prosperous city in the world) became anything but reliable. This has been deeply, deeply disconcerting. And that it could take weeks longer is just unbelievable.

I spent a day this week in Far Rockaway, doing some volunteering at JASA, a social services agency that operates a complex of 25-story tower blocks full of elderly Russian Jewish immigrants. These are solid built buildings so there was no sign of water damage, but there is no heat or light, save a small amount from emergency generators, and there are no elevators. Our task was to try and persuade residents to leave for shelters, particularly before Wednesday’s storm.

I met one elderly Russian man and we communicated in a mixture of languages. “I was in the Russian army,” he said, “and cold doesn’t bother me.” So I said, “You are not in Russia now, this is America!” And he said, “No. This feels like Russia to me.” And, it is indeed. Disorientating, frightening, to see how quickly our security, our comforts, all the things we rely on, fail.

I want to speak this week about how we talk to children about disaster, but I hope the words are somehow applicable to all of us, whether we are parents of small children or not. How do we help bring up our children? How do we support others in our lives? How do we find the resources, ourselves, to cope with so much pain, tragedy and uncertainty? The world can be a scary place – how can we learn coping skills?

I’ve often been fascinated by the parsha of Chaye Sarah. However much you look at it, it’s an anticlimax from earlier in the Torah. Last week’s parsha had so much: the Angels, destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, the birth of Yitzchak, the sending away of Yishmael, treaties and kings, and, finally , Akeidat Yitzchak.

That’s a parsha!

This week, Chaye Sarah, we have a funeral, a wedding, another wedding, and another funeral. We have some water and some camels, and that’s it. (With the exception of the camels, it sound like my typical Sunday!)

Why couldn’t the parsha have been divided up differently? Why not throw in some action? Perhaps hold the akeidah over from last week?

I think the answer is that we should never lose sight of the importance of the humdrum, the routine, the ordinary aspects of life. Of course, weddings and funerals are not exactly routine, but they happen, they are part of the rhythm of life. Everything in last week’s torah reading is larger than life, everything in this week’s is … predictable.

I spoke last Shabbat about how Avraham Avinu, at each one of these awesome moments, demonstrates the chesed, kindess, that, at times of super human challenges, is to be performed

Chaye Sarah gives us no less of an important message: In ordinary life, day to day life, a funeral, seeking a partner for marriage rather than money or looks or anything else, Chesed is the sole criteria.

Chesed is not just what we do when hurricanes and tsunamis and wars (G-d forbid) happen, rather it is what we do every day of our lives. That is the message of Chaya Sarah, indeed the life of Sarah Imenu.

In reading and thinking about speaking to children about disasters, some common themes emerge: Don’t make children frightened, don’t tell them why they should be worried, always try to be calm and reassuring. Most importantly, don’t talk, listen. Allow children to express their fears and their concerns, to give voice to, rather than to bottle up, their anxieties. Then you can discuss them. We can reassure, offer love and support, but we can never, ever promise that bad things will never happen.

One of the themes is the importance of stability, routine, security. When life changes, not everything has to change. Familiar routines, meal times, bed times, and indeed shabbat, daveningbentshing, become life lines.

That is, indeed, a hidden part of the life of Avraham and Sarah.

We have to be careful about analyzing the Avot and Imahot. We have to be careful of turning torah narratives into psychological (or pop psychology) case studies, particularly because the torah doesn’t tell us anything about these people’s real inner lives and relationships. Consider the following: the Torah recounts not one conversation between Sarah and Yitzchak, her only son! Not one! Does this mean that they did not speak? Of course not, but the torah deals with other issues. We can say with certainty that, upon her death, Yitzchak mourned his mother, grieved for her deeply and sorrowfully.

When Yitzchak married Rivka, and took her into his mother’s tent, the Torah tells us, poignantly:

וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ

And Yitzchak was comforted for his mother.

Yitzchak mourned his mother, because we are told that he was, only later, comforted from her passing. But how did that comfort work?

Let us remember. Yitzchak, a young man (maybe a child) , is woken early one morning by his father, roused from his warm bed and out in to the cold night.  Akeidat Yitzchak, that searing, terrifying ordeal, is a test of faith for the two of them.

Yitzchak never saw his mother again, she died when she heard what had happened. His life had turned tragic. We can not imagine what Yitzchak Avinu endured in those years. We know one thing – apparently, he withdraws from the world. After the Akeidah there is no mention of him. There is no mention that he came off the mountain, no mention that he was at his mother’s funeral. His father doesn’t even raise the question of marriage with him directly, he sends his servant to find him a wife. Yitzchak is surely the model of the trauma victim: withdrawn, scarred, deeply affected.

And here is the unexpected thing: Yitzchak goes on to have an astonishingly successful life. He marries. He sustains relationships. Even his difficult child Eisav (who would try any parent) he loves and is loved until the end. Yitzchak works, he prospers, he carries on. He develops and betters his father’s work. He remains loyal to G-d and his father, and he prospers and succeeds in unimaginable ways. He is, as we will see in next week’s parsha, a multi-millionaire: worldly, conversant with G-d, friend of kings.

What happened? What saved Yitzchak from the scars that made him almost disappear from the torah text?

There is only one answer.

His mother!

As Yitzchak marries, we are told:

וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק, הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ

And Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother.

Rashi says, it doesn’t mean, literally, Sarah’s tent, but rather this tent became like Sarah’s tent. That tent had been characterized as a unique place. As Rashi describes it:

שכל זמן ששרה קיימת היה נר דלוק מע”ש לערב שבת וברכה מצויה בעיסה וענן קשור על האהל ומשמתה פסקו וכשבאת רבקה חזרו

For as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one Sabbath eve to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent.

The possibility of nechama, of comfort, of going on to be able to sustain relationships, build a family and a career came because Yitzchak had been raised in Sarah’s tent.

As we have seen, the most important thing we can all do (and especially for our children) at time of tragedy, when we hear bad news or live through terrible events (like 9/11 or awful hurricanes and disasters), is to be as consistent as possible. To give the security that comes from keeping life together as much as possible.

In Sarah’s tent, no matter what storms were raging outside, no matter what else was happening, there was a safe place. The candles burned (all week), the dough baked (all week), the cloud hovered (all week).

This is so important for psychological health. Being able to cope with upheavals is to keep everything else constant.

But let’s look a little deeper.

Shabbat candles symbolize Shalom Bayit,peace in the home.

Even in times of crisis there was peace, serenity. Sometimes parents inadvertently frighten their children because of their own anxieties. But in Sarah’s tent, there was peace – not shouting nor anxiety.

Dr David Pelkowitz speaks about a child, one of a set of twins of about 5 or 6. After 9/11 the boy was frightened for months and months and eventually the boy was taken to speak to a therapist. The therapist asked: “What makes you frightened?” and the child answered: “I keep hearing about the twin towers being destroyed. Why do people hate twins?” What we say, and what kids hear, and what they pick up on, is so important.

And the bread/dough was always blessed.

I think this means that there was reassurance that meals would be served, guests entertained. The home was a place of routine, but also of Chesed. The dough that Sarah made was baked to be shared, to be given away.

One of the most effective things we can do as communities, and even more as families, is Chesed. We have to respond. Not only is it a mitzvah, but also, doing Chesed helps to reassure us that, if the worst happened, we wouldn’t be on our own.

This week, in Far Rockaway, I visited the Shar Yoshuv yeshivah, which, thanks to the incredible Chesed organization Achiezer, has been turned into a staging area for all sorts of much needed services. I saw a family  with small children come in and start to look for warm clothes. It was a very sad sight, but I was comforted by one thing. For any active, communally involved Jew it didn’t look like a clothing give away, it looked like a(n only slightly) disorganized shul Chanukah gift fair. If you are part of a community, then if you ever need to take, it’s so much easier, so much safer and less jarring, when the Jewish community is your family.

Margaret Thatcher famously remarked that in all of her years as Member of Parliament for Finchley, a very Jewish neighborhood in London, no Jew ever came to her for financial assistance. It was understood that the Jewish community looks after each other. I was always brought up knowing two things: if Jews were in trouble in Europe, we could go to Israel; if a Jew was ever overtaken by poverty, the community would help.

And lastly – the cloud hovered over the Tent of Sarah.

The cloud represents the shechinah, the Divine Presence. And the shechinah dwells only in a place of simcha, of happiness. Sarah’s tent was not a fraught, tense place, rather it was a place where people laughed and were at ease, relaxed, at home, safe and secure. It was a place where you felt the love of G-d, and the love of parents.

I am not a very good parent and so I don’t normally talk about parenting. But there is one thing I try to do. When I see that kids are having a tough time at school, or with friends or whatever, I always say to them: “No matter what, whatever happens to you at school or outside, never, ever forget that you have parents and grandparents who love you and who think the world of you, and who know how so very special you are.”

That’s how I was raised. Whatever challenges I faced, I always felt I was somebody special, because I mattered to somebody.

And that’s what we need to do.

In these difficult, tense times, when we are so aware of how vulnerable we are on so many levels, our job is recreate Ohalei Sarah, tents of Sarah. To build homes and communities – safe, warm, welcoming and reliable places, places of peace and serenity, places of warmth and Chesed, and most of all, places of unconditional love.

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Posted by on November 11, 2012 in current affairs, Modern Orthodoxy, parsha, Rabbi Shaul Robinson


Sandy, Parshat Vayera and the Kindness of Strangers

Shabbat shalom.

I want to welcome everyone to shul today, all our visitors those who are here for the bar mitzvah, and an equally warm welcome to those who are here because they have been displaced because of the storm. We all join you in hoping that any damage to your homes and neighborhoods is soon repaired and that you and your loved ones are safe and well.

I’d like to speak about the hurricane and what kind for a week it has been for our city and our region. The incredible destruction of so many neighborhoods, communities towns and cities within a few miles of here destroyed – people freezing, starving, in the dark – these are real human tragedies of a truly awful extent. To all those affected – those bereaved or injured, those whose lives have been devastated, those who have lost homes and businesses – our thoughts and tefillot (prayers) are with you.

It may have been Tennessee Williams who coined the phrase “The kindness of strangers”, but it is something we have seen played out in our streets and neighborhoods this past week, and something that without question has its roots in our parsha.

Possibly no parsha (portion) in the Torah focuses our thoughts on the importance of Chesed – acts of loving kindness – to a fellow human being, as the parsha of Vayera. Sometimes we wonder, in our secure world, why Chesed seems to matter. Doesn’t everyone we know have enough? Aren’t people in need, by definition, from different towns, neighborhoods, countries?

But we don’t think that anymore, and we understand why. Chesed has to be practiced, and perfected. It has to be a habit – because one day it’s going to be needed, badly.

Our parsha opens, famously, up with multiple acts of Chesed. Avraham is sitting at his tent awaiting guests (and we have seen, this week, what an unbelievable mitzvah, hachnasat orchim, hospitality of guests, is), but there’s another act of Chesed, too:

Vayera elav Hashem: Hashem appeared to Abraham.

This is bikur cholim, visiting the sick, says Rashi. Avraham is sick, he’s in pain, he’s had an operation, and he needs a visit. And I think there is an important lesson.

Avraham is a person who does Chesed, who does for other people. Suddenly, it’s not so easy for him. He’s ill. And Hashem comes to check up on him. Sometimes in life, even the biggest doer of Chesed is going to be on the receiving end. And that’s ok. It’s not easy – imagine what its like to be in a position where somebody comes to you and says: “I know you could use help.” He/she means well, but it hurts to take. I know there are many people in shul today who wish they were elsewhere. To a generous person, to suddenly need help, to be a guest, is so very difficult.

This week we were collecting and distributing clothes and blankets in shul. I got a call from a member who was volunteering in a shelter. A person had come by, a Jewish lady from the West Village. She had walked up town because she had no heat, no light, no power in her apartment – and it was getting cold. She needed blankets, and the shelter didn’t have any to provide. So he called the shul and he sent her over to us.

I met her in the ballroom, and I gave her a bagful of warm blankets. Then she asked, if, by any chance, there were any warm coats. I looked around and I found a zippered-up garment bag and I opened it. Inside there was
– and I don’t know if it was real or not but – a full-length, beautiful fur coat that somebody had donated. I gave it to her and she tried it own, and she started crying.

And I knew why she was crying. To suddenly find yourself needing a coat, wanting a coat from a clothing drive when you’ve never needed to take a penny from another person your whole life – I think I’d cry too. But whoever gave that coat (and chances are that it was somebody in this room) – what a mitzvah you did!

As the parsha opens, Avraham is being made to understand it’s not “them” and “us” – “we” who give, “them” who take. You never know, and you have to know, what it’s going to feel like to need to have to accept Chesed.

Avraham Avinu is the one who teaches the world the importance of Hachnasat Orchim, hospitality to strangers: a meal, a place to wash. It’s something that we have seen all over the region, and it’s something we have seen in our neighborhood (thankfully spared so much trauma): people opening up their homes to guests, strangers.

But then comes one of the most challenging stories of the chumash. The destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, the five cities of the plane. In previous years I have make a joke about Hashem destroying the 5 towns … but this year it isn’t funny at all. Indeed just the opposite. In the coming weeks we will hear more and more of the
stories to come out from communities like the 5 towns, of people who have lost so much, who are helping neighbors, friends, strangers. (I saw a picture of a prayer service, a minyan and Torah reading, in a shul with no
power.) More and more stories of fortitude, Chesed and, yes, heroism are gradually emerging. But amidst the story of destruction (that seems eerily familiar from this week’s events) is Avraham’s reaction. Avraham,of course, pleads for the people – whoever they are. They stand for the opposite of what he does – he is good, they are bad, very bad people. But Avraham asks for them to be saved. And he does it without bias.

Yesterday we were filling up a car outside shul. (A member of the shul kindly volunteered to drive some bags of much needed coats, blankets, toys and clothes to a shelter.) A few wonderful volunteers and staff members (amongst them our bar mitzvah boy, Alexander, were loading the car. And a Jewish couple stopped outside to see what was going on, and I started to talk to them. They were from outside the city and had no power. I explained what the bags were, and where they were going. He asked me if there were Jews in the shelters (really, more a question of clarification than anything else). I answered by saying, when Avraham asked for Sodom and the other cities to be saved, he didn’t say: “Sodom? I have mishpacha, family, there. There are Jews  there, save them.” Instead he said: “Hashem, please don’t destroy them – any of them.”

Avraham Avinu never discriminated in his Chesed, neither should we. Of course, as Jews, we are going to help our fellow Jews rebuild their lives and communities, but we are not going to limit our aid to the Jewish community.

What happened after the destruction is very relevant too:

וישכם אברהם, בבוקר:  אל-המקום–אשר-עמד שם, את-פני יהוה

“And Avraham rose early in the morning, to the place he had stood, before G-d”

From here we learn that Avraham invented Shacharit, morning prayers, but Sforno points out that it also means that Avraham, even after the decree, never stopped davening, praying. He stood there praying for the people, hoping that some would be spared, and looking out for any possible survivor, anyone who he could aid.

Our parsha continues in this theme, that even as Avraham grew in stature and importance, he never stopped practicing Chesed. Even when he was a man making treaties with the king and involved in important matters, we read:

וייטע אשל, בבאר שבע

And Avraham planted an eshel in Beersheba.

What is eshel? The rabbis say it means he planted a place of Chesed. Treating אשל as an acrostic, the letters can stand for: achilah shtia lina: a place to eat, drink and sleep. He though of people’s needs and he provided it for them.

And that is the incredible thing about Chesed, and something we all have to focus on in the coming weeks. You have to think about what the other person needs. One of the most reported stories from the “dark zone”, lower
Manhattan, is about people needing a place to charge a cell phone. A person may think that Chesed is about
blankets or food or water but, if you need power to charge a cellphone, providing that is Chesed, too.

I want to say I am so proud of the response of our community, spearheaded by our youth department. At our emergency clothing drive we filled at least 150 big black bags full of toys, games, coats, blankets and clothes. Our youth director Ben reported what it was like at a shelter on 49thst where he saw kids who hadn’t changed their clothes since Sunday. We were able to deliver dozens of bags of clothes – your kids clothes are being worn by someone who really needs them.

Finally, at the end of the parsha, comes the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Hashem commands Avraham
to take his child, his beloved child Isaac, and offer him up as a sacrifice. Avraham learnt something very profound that moment. His job is not to question, to seek to understand. G-d runs the world, and he makes the wind blow and the rain fall. Things happen at His will that we can’t begin to understand. When Avraham is
asked to do the unthinkable, he understands that his test (which is our test, too) is to live with faith even when we see things that we can’t possibly reconcile with what we think should be. He doesn’t complain or criticize, because he knows that what he thinks doesn’t count. This week I’ve already heard at least a dozen explanations of why the hurricane happened: bitul torah (neglect of Torah study), failure to observe Mikvah (family purity), tsnius (lack of modesty), gay marriage, lack of support for Israel, etc. I am always amazed that people always know why these things happen, and it’s always a lesson for other people. It always conforms to the world view of the person speaking.

But that’s wrong. It’s very wrong, and it was never Abraham’s way. His response was not “why did this happen?”, but rather “what can I do?”

That is the most profound of Jewish lessons.

Remember the beginning of the parshaAvraham is in the middle of aconversation with G-d, and he sees strangers coming to his tent. He turns to G-d and says: “Wait. There is something more important that I have to
do”. And everyone asks, how could he do that? Why would he do it? Sure, he wanted to do a mitzvah, hospitality, but he was already doing a mitzvah! He was talking to G-d!  What could be more important?

Do you know what is holier than talking to G-d? What is it that makes you even closer to G-d than having a conversation with Him?

Answer (And I learned this from one of my students): Acting like him. Not to be G-d, but to be G-dly. Not to try to understand G-d, explain G-d’s ways, or to call yourself a prophet. What is even holier than speaking to G-d is being like G-d, resembling Him, doing deeds of Chesed.

Running to the guests meant he was running towards G-d – closer and closer to what G-d wanted of him (rather than standing still and talking to G-d.)

Hashem doesn’t need us to be G-d, he needs us to be G-dly. To feed, clothe, offer a shoulder, or
a bed, or a power outlet, or a shower, or a coat, to people who suddenly find themselves without these things. These are not the little things, the small details, these are the pinnacle of what a human being can become.

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