A rabbinic response to the Pittsburgh Zoo tragedy
Our 7-year old, reached for the paper I had turned upside down on the counter. Before I could stop him, he read the headline.
“I didn’t want you to see that,” I said. He was silent. He understood.
“It’s a terrible story,” I whispered. And hoping he’d get my meaning, I inclined my head towards my 4-year-old in the room and added, “We don’t need to talk about it now.”
I reasoned that even if I had carelessly allowed my older son to come upon this news, certainly I didn’t want to fail to protect his younger brother.
“What?” the little one asked.
We piled into the car and then rather quickly, we told what we knew, my 7-year-old and I.
“A boy got killed at the Zoo,” I began. “He fell.”
“We don’t know for sure. Awful. He slipped I guess.” “Was there blood? Did he cry?”
“I don’t know. We may never know the whole story.”
And in an attempt to conclude our conversation, I stated simply, “A two-year-old died at the zoo yesterday, that’s what we know.”
But then my 7-year-old continued.
“Yeah. He fell and landed in the cage with wild dogs and he was killed by the dogs.”
His younger brother: “How? Why?”
Yes, why? Why did he need to give his brother that last part, the details, the whole truth? And why is the car in front of us not moving faster? Why, a 1000-times why.
“No one knows. That’s what they do, wild dogs.”
“Maybe he frightened them,” one offers.
“I’m sure everyone was terrified,” I reply. “The dogs and the people and the boy. But, really, no one knows why.”
And the car grew quiet but for a still small voice.
“What was his name, the boy?”
“We don’t know. They haven’t said.”
“To protect the family’s privacy,” I replied.
And then, we were all silence.
(We now know the child’s name was Maddox Derkosh.)
But the questions would return. As more information comes in, even more questions will come. But for many of us, one big one looms larger than the others.
Where is God in all of this? Why would God allow such a horrendous thing to occur!?
• • •
Permit me to reject the questions’ premise, but to accept the privilege of answering the query.
Let me begin by saying that I do not believe suffering and sadness are the will of God. Indeed, to one who hears a tragic tale and shakes his or her head, lamenting “we just don’t understand the will of God,” my reply is the same as was provided by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin in his eulogy for his son Alex, “You bet we don’t!”
Indeed, there is simply too much we don’t understand about our own lives to deign imagine we could place this reality within the realm of God’s will. As we read in the Book of Job, “Adonai natan, Adonai lakakh … God gives and God takes… Life begins and life ends… Barukh Shem Adonai… Praised be the Source of Life.”
Then, in spite of all, we live.
Christian theologian C.S. Lewis, in his slim monograph “A Grief Observed,” put it this way: “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”
For this reason, I begin my answer to the question “where is God in all of this” from a place of silent humility and dumbstruck awe. The might of the cosmos and the sheer number of random events the universe allows fills me with a sense of deep respect and profound wonder, something akin to what Soren Kierkegard referred to as “fear and trembling.”
New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen wrote, in the single column of her career that elicited the greatest reader response, “Grief is one of the few things that has the power to silence us.”
And grief does, indeed, possess the power to silence. What more fitting response could there be, after all, to everything we trust being upended? What could be a more appropriate response to everything we thought was true being proved wrong? What can one possibly say at such times?
I suggest, respectfully, that at times, there is no more human/humane response than silence.
If there is a single verse in the Torah to which I return to orient myself when I hear a story such as took place at the Pittsburgh Zoo on Sunday, it is surely “vayidome Aharon — and Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)
The Hebrew words Vayidome Aharon come from Leviticus, specifically from a portion Jews call Shemini (Lev. 9:1-11:47). Here we read of Aaron’s response to the death of his sons (Moses’ nephews) Nadav and Avihu after they come “lifnei Adonai — before God.” We know Nadav and Avihu’s deaths are sudden and a spectacle, yet all the Torah tells us of Aaron’s response is: “vayidome Aharon — [that he] was silent.”
But, OK. Silence. And then, what? The inevitable questions: Why? and Where was/is God?
Why? Because sometimes people fall. Wild dogs attack. Bad things happen that can’t be stopped. Why? Because the conditions were such that the likelihood could come to be. And it did. The worst thing imaginable. Truly. This was it. And it happened.
• • •
Why did God allow this to happen? I don’t believe God had a hand in bringing this tragedy into being. Surely not any God I want any part of; that’s not a God I could believe in.
What, then, can we say about God in all of this, and what might we share with our children and with our family and friends? Consider this:
For those closest to the events of this past Sunday, these hours are full of grief. Our hearts ache for them. For the rest of us, the news carries and curries horror and fear. And we ought be patient with these emotions, our responses. Honor them. Respect their power and their truth.
Was it not C.S. Lewis, writing elsewhere in “A Grief Observed,” who offered how he’d not before realized how closely aligned grief is with fear, for everyone.
The anguished may sit and wail; others may silently weep. So it is that upon hearing this story, we either cry out or we cry in. But no one is unaffected. After all, we reason, if this can happen, then what else?
“What else” is that in a collection of rabbinic legends known as Leviticus Rabbah (20:10), more than 15 centuries ago, Judaism’s sages went beyond acknowledging how fear grips those who grieve. Indeed, the rabbis write that it is necessarily and always a grievous matter to God when children die in their parents’ lifetime.
What’s this? God grieves too? Yes, the rabbis affirm. And then they explain their audacious theological assertion by noting that the verse in which Nadav and Avihu’s deaths is recorded twice employs the idiom “lifnei Adonai — before God” and, thus, they assert, in response to Aaron’s silent grief was God’s redoubled silence; indeed, it is as if the Rabbis are telling us that, when grief renders us mute, God hears us in our silence and joins us there.
Now that’s a powerful understanding of God’s presence in the face of suffering and in the throes of our fear. Where is God? Exactly where we are. Crying, grieving, suffering as much, if not more, than we are.
God’s silence as parallel to our own doesn’t explain why terrible accidents occur, of course. But that might be OK. For as we know, there are indeed times when the inexplicable happens and it is silence that is ours — and, seemingly, God’s — most appropriate and powerful response.
And then from here, we ought go one better. For what God offers to us, so can we do for others.
So it is that when we offer one another — even in stunned silence — our comfort and solace, our companionship and support, for engaging in such a simple and godly act as joining another person in their time of trouble, for our coming together lifnei Adonai — in the presence of God — we make life’s most precious and precarious experiences just a little more safe and a little more sacred.
With this awareness amidst all we cannot control or understand, we should be quick to reassure our children and ourselves: in the absence of certainty, can we be with one another when we need one another most. Now let’s take care of one another. Go in silence and go in peace.
(Rabbi Aaron Bisno holds the Frances F. and David R. Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit at Rodef Shalom Congregation. He and his wife Michelle are the parents of two boys, ages 7 and 4.)