Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Osama Bin Laden was killed by US forces. We were all reminded of the greatest tragedies that have befallen Jews and Americans in the past century. As the mother of two daughters under the age of 3, I was relieved not to have to explain the news to them. Like so many other mothers of young children, I wondered how I will answer their questions. But to be honest, I’m not too concerned about the curiosity of preschool minds. There is a lot of good advice out there, and my husband and I will use our best judgment and follow their leads.
I’m more worried about how I will respond when the girls are older and more sophisticated. What will I say to my tween daughters when they ask me why the Holocaust happened? Or 9/11? How will I explain assassinations carried out by Americans? Murders committed in the name of peace?
The problem is not that I don’t want to have those conversations; it’s that I’m not sure what to say. Every night I sing the Shema to my daughters, and not just because it’s what Jewish parents have done for generations. I actually believe those words, “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Like millions of Jews before me, I struggle with reconciling my belief in God with the atrocities that happen and that pain we inflict upon each other. How do I understand why good people do bad things, why bad people do even worse things, and why terrible things happen to good people?
The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t often understand people, I certainly don’t understand God, and I can’t explain my faith to you anymore than I can explain the evil that exists in this world. But I do know that I am a Jew, one of the people of Israel. The Torah tells us that Jacob changed his name to Israel after he fought with God, and the word for our people can be understood as “struggling with God.”
Struggling doesn’t necessarily mean fighting. In my mind, it means a deep engagement with the issue at hand. It means we care enough to be concerned, to be confused, to interrupt, to disagree, to get pissed off, and to come back for more. Because struggling also means staying connected, even when it isn’t always easy. I have a tremendous respect for the Jewish ability to struggle with the hard questions, with the best and worst of humanity and history. We could simply forget our history of slavery, but every year we not only tell the story, but we relive it at our seders; we discuss the ways in which are enslaved, and how we enslave others. We could try to put the Holocaust behind us, but instead we remember, we bring an entire country to a standstill. We continue to struggle.
In the face of such violence and tragedy, maybe that’s the best I, as a Jewish mother, can do for my children. I can’t protect them, and I can’t give them answers. But I can tell them about my struggles with God and humanity, and my own doubts and fears. And I can create a space for their curiosity, their confusion, and their struggles. Perhaps I will find my answers in their questions.