Making Sense of Tragedy: Rabbi Clevenger Unpacks Sandy Hook with Seventh Graders

by | Dec 20, 2012 | Our Stories

Today I set out to finish our unit on Chanukah with your kids and ended up having an incredible discussion with them about the tragedy in Connecticut and Jewish ideas about life and death.  Rashi has done an excellent job of helping students talk about the Sandy Hook killings and it was not my intention to have further discussions in class, but this is where we went.  I want to share a detailed account with you, mostly because I am proud of what just happened, and also so that you can follow up if you choose.

Class began with my explaining that the ancient Jews believed that when terrible things happened to us, it was God’s way of letting us know that God was angry.  I spoke with them about how the descendants of the Maccabees, the heroes of Chanukah, were the Hasmoneans.  The Hasmoneans were the priests who ran the ancient Temple, and they were largely corrupt.  They sold sacrifices to the highest bidder and made the Temple more a place of business than of religion.  Many Jews were also highly assimilated into Greco-Roman culture by that time.  When the Romans came and destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, it was believed by some Jews that the Romans were the weapon that God sent to punish the Jewish people for their corruption and assimilation.

I shared with students that in modern times, especially since the Holocaust, most people do not believe that suffering is a punishment for sin.  I used as an example that no sane and reasonable person would ever say that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for the sins of the Jewish people.  I informed your kids that there are some people who do say that, but that they are completely wrong.  Then a student drew a connection to the shootings in Connecticut: “It would be like saying that the kids and teachers who died in Connecticut did something wrong and that God sent the shooter.”  Everyone immediately agreed that this idea is completely wrong and disgusting.

A student asked if the idea that people are punished for their sins is like karma.  I explained briefly that karma is a Hindu religious concept based on belief in reincarnation, and that since Jews don’t believe in reincarnation, karma doesn’t work within our theological system.  Instead I shared the text from Pirkei Avot, a text from the Mishnah (200 CE) often called “The Wisdom of our Fathers.”  The text says: “A mitzvah leads to a mitzvah.  A transgression leads to a transgression.  It’s good to be righteous.”  We noted that this text is not about people, just about mitzvahs and transgressions, and that it ends with the very general statement that it’s good to be righteous.  I shared with the students the list of 26 Acts of Kindness that were sent home this morning, and suggested that engaging in this work would be a way to ensure that a mitzvah leads to a mitzvah, but also that a transgression can lead to a mitzvah, that we can respond to tragedy by trying to fill the world with more goodness.

Then we got into a conversation about whether it is sadder when children die versus adults (who may be spouses and parents themselves).  There was respectful dialogue on that question.  One student asked why the principal and school psychologist at Sandy Hook tried to stop the gunman, and others responded with their beliefs, also varied and respectful.  A student asked why Rashi chose not to inform students and teachers of the events in CT during the school day on Friday, and I explained about a desire to keep things calm in school and of a respect for the rights of parents to share this information with their children in a way that each parent felt was appropriate.

We all left the room knowing that something very special and important had happened here.  One student chuckled as he realized that this incredibly deep conversation had come from a simple text study about Chanukah.  It just goes to show that our kids are making connections that we can’t even imagine, and that they are eager and ready to use what they know to make sense of the world in which we live.  None of this surprises me, but I am so grateful to have been part of this moment with your kids.



P.S. I also told the kids that I was willing to bet that the thing that each of their parents wanted to do most after hearing about Friday’s tragedy was to hold their kids.  I described my own teary-eyed drive to pick up my children on Friday afternoon, how even though I knew that they were safe, I just wanted to hold them.  I suggested that they ask you if this was indeed what you were thinking and feeling too.  Be prepared for the question.