A few years ago, my congregation received a shock when they found racial epithets spray-painted all over the front of our synagogue. I knew that my 9-year-old would understand, but I wasn’t sure about Ari, my 5-year-old. I needed more time to form an explanation that would satisfy his curiosity without bursting his innocent bubble completely.
A few weeks later, the synagogue sponsored a community healing service that included local rabbis, ministers, reverends, and pastors from the extended community. My daughter asked if we could attend. My son was a bit confused. In my protective effort to shield him from the ugly truth, I had conveniently “forgotten” to mention anything.
I carefully explained that, “a very selfish and mean person took a can of spray paint and wrote mean things on the front of the synagogue.” He gave me a blank look. I continued, “People were pretty upset that someone would do such a thing to a building that we love, so they are going to have a special service where people can be strong together and talk about their feelings.” Admittedly, I felt a bit smug. Under pressure, I handled the situation with dignity and grace, and he was seemingly OK with my answer. I went back to eating my breakfast.
“Uh, Mom, so… what’s God gonna do about it?” I froze mid-chew. I looked at my son full of innocence and curiosity.
“Sweetie, wha, what do you mean?” I stammered.
“I mean,” he said emphatically, “What is God going to do about this bad person? Is he going to send a big fish to swallow him up or something?” If it were not for the earnestness in his voice, I would have laughed on the spot, but he wanted some answers. Frankly, I did, too. I wasn’t prepared for a philosophical discussion on God at 7 a.m., especially without my jumbo-sized mug of coffee.
My previous efforts to answer Ari’s curious questions about God had not been very successful. After many blundered attempts, I finally purchased a children’s book on God and promised to read it with him. The designated night to present the book was a total disaster. The toilet had overflowed, my daughter had a meltdown regarding her math homework, and my husband was out of town unexpectedly, on business. I was in no mood to talk about God in my exhausted state, but Ari dutifully reminded me that “tonight is the night.”
I forced myself to create an atmosphere that would be conducive to discussing God with a 5-year-old. I lowered the lights, snuggled in his bed, and used a soft, lilting voice as I began to read him the book about God. Ari kept interrupting me at every turn as he commented on the pictures of the leaves, which reminded him of fall, that ultimately led to questions about kindergarten and going to a new school. I felt the bubble of impatience rising within me, until I finally exploded.
“Do you want Mommy to talk about God or not?” I said rather testily. He grew very quiet, and I realized that my frame of mind was only doing him a disservice. We agreed to put it on hold.
I had a five-month reprieve on the subject of God, until that detestable vandalism event. Now, I sat at the breakfast table, caught completely off guard and not knowing how to respond to his question. Before I could even form an appropriate answer, he lobbed another God question at me.
“Do you think God is sad?”
“Honey, I do think God is sad, because God gives us a choice whether to be good or bad, and when we choose to be bad, like the man who hurt the synagogue, God is sad. But the good thing is that when this happened, there were so many people who wanted to help us.”
“What about the fish though?” he asked.
“Nope, I don’t think a huge fish will swallow anyone up, but that man will get a big consequence for what he did.”
“OK,” he shrugged. “Can I have more Cheerios?”
I didn’t like it that Ari looked at God as some ultimate destroyer comic book character. Though, when I mentally reviewed Bible stories regarding Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah, Lot, and even Moses, the overall message seemed harsh—you screw up, and God punishes you. At least that’s how Ari interpreted it, and with good reason. These vivid accounts included destruction, flood, and exile, not to mention turning into a pillar of salt and being a giant whale’s main course. The watered down kid’s versions of these stories highlighted the outcome in detail, but they neglected to hone in on people’s actions and interactions amongst each other.
As a social worker, I understood that a child’s literal application of these stories to real life scenarios was developmentally appropriate, but it nonetheless bothered me. I wanted to use this vandalism situation as some kind of educational opportunity where I could first focus on personal relationships, our responsibility toward humankind, and then, ultimately, God. So, I attempted to explain in 5-year-old terms that our behavior toward others—good or bad—creates its own powerful cause and effect relationship. Ari was now fixated on whether they were going to have popsicles at camp.
Later, in the car, my daughter noticed a church message board down the road that read, “Bnai Shalom, we are with you, God Bless.”
“That was so nice!” she said. I nodded, unable to speak because I felt a lump in my throat. I felt so completely overwhelmed by the community’s response. The vandalism of our synagogue was a collective affront to all religions, and the show of solidarity was like a balm on a very raw wound.
“Mom?” Ari piped up. “Do you think God is happy by that sign?”
I smiled, and said, “Yes, Ari, God is very happy.”
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