Early on in today’s daf (Moed Katan 25a) a ‘suggestion’ is made that children die young because their parents did not mourn the death of an upright person – which parallels a number of similar ‘suggestions’ mentioned elsewhere (Shabbat 32b) which also attribute the death of children to various transgressions of their parents.
You will note that I have deliberately used the word ‘suggestion’, and this is because when tragedies – especially those as painful as the loss of a child – occur, there are those who attempt to comfort those in mourning by providing them with a rationale for what has happened.
The problem with this is that, whatever the intention of the individual doing so, not only does a person making such a claim express hubris – as if they are, to use a phrase employed by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ‘claiming to have God’s phone number’, but it can also cause incredible anguish to a parent who not only is overcome with pain, but who now is forced to cope with the suggestion that what has happened is somehow their fault.
Significantly, this point was brought home to me three times in the past two weeks. Firstly, while recently learning the sefer ‘V’Aleihu Lo Yibol’ (which is a 3-volume collection of rulings and insights of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach – Vol. 3 p. 164) I read a poignant exchange on this issue where, soon after the tragic death of his baby, a father approached Rabbi Auerbach and, having cited the above-mentioned teachings that young children die due to the sins of their parents, he asked what he needed to do in terms of repentance.
Let us pause to reflect on this: This parent just lost a baby. But because of a teaching, which is likely to have been shared with him during his hour of greatest grief, he now felt guilty and sought spiritual guidance about how he should ‘fix’ whatever sin that he may have done that has caused this tragedy.
In response, Rabbi Auerbach replied to the father: ‘we do not understand the decision-making of God, and why, or for what purpose, different events take place. Certainly, we cannot associate any tragedy with any particular action and thereby claim that because of this action, this particular tragedy occurred. Of course, we need to strive to be committed to all aspects of Torah, the service of God and the performance of good deeds. But it is impossible to point to anything and say that this was the cause of the death of the baby.’
The second reason why my headspace was directed to this topic was because I recently had a spiritual coaching session with a mother whose child is very unwell and who, having heard of teachings such as those found in our daf, was feeling that what was happening to her and her child was a form of divine punishment.
Let us pause to reflect on this: This parent is – as we speak – wrestling with the challenge of a child who is unwell. Yet, based on what she had previously learnt, or had recently been told by others, in her hour of greatest worry she was feeling the burden of guilt – implying that what is happening to her is, in some way, her fault.
In our session I shared a range of perspectives with this mother such as teachings from Rabbi Sacks who explains that, ‘Poverty, disease, famine, injustice, and the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful are not the will of God. They may be part of human nature, but we have the power to rise above nature. God wants us not to accept but to heal, to cure, to prevent’ (Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas pp. 48-49), and in doing so helped her move away from a perspective of guilt to find some clarity during this incredibly difficult period.
Thirdly, in recent days I corresponded with a parent whose two sons had died some years ago and who, during the most painful chapter of their life, was confidently and insistently told by rabbis and peers that whatever was happening was a message from God.
Yet, whatever the intention of those individuals who said what they did, they were received by the grieving parent as words of pain and cruelty rather than words of comfort and clarity, and in response to this, and the fact that these words came from representatives of religion, this particular parent felt the need to distance themselves from religion.
Personally, I don’t have God’s phone number, I don’t know anyone who does, and I believe that when tragedies take place, our task is not to have the hubris to claim to know why these events have happened. Instead, our primary role is to be there to provide comfort and support to those in distress while also having the wisdom to know what to say, as well as what not to say, when others are suffering.