The shocking tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School shakes us to our core. How can this be? How do we maintain faith in God in the face of such heart-numbing pain? “And I appeared to the patriarchs … But my name I did not make known to them” (Exodus 6:3).
Our sages understood this as a scathing rebuke of Moses for having dared question God’s sense of justice. Moses cried, “Why have you dealt so poorly with your people?” (Exodus 5:22). He could never reconcile the suffering of his brethren and that of a merciful God. How can our loving father in heaven stand by when his children are massacred?
God responds by telling Moses that he has heard the cries of the people and feels their pain. Oh, sure, he remembers the covenant he made with our ancestors to care for their children and protect them, and he assures Moses things will get better soon. However, he doesn’t address Moses’ essential plea and the cry of humanity during the 3,000 years since: “Why, oh why, God, must we suffer before it will get better?”
I was a newly ordained rabbi at San Francisco’s historic Congregation Chevra Thilim when one day I received a call from a woman in New York. “Help me find my brother; he is the only surviving member of the family and he is somewhere in San Francisco.” After some effort, I found him living in unthinkable conditions with no ability to care for himself. I helped him move to a proper care facility. Though I visited regularly, he remained closed, never telling me his story.
One day I asked him to put on tefillin together with me, and he started shaking, motioning me to one of the dressers. Deep in a drawer was a small, weathered bag, and with a trembling hand he removed an old pair of tefillin, which had belonged to his father and were given to him for his bar mitzvah. They were the only possessions he had left from his father. He hadn’t touched them since the war. “Do me one favor,” I said, “and I will never bother you again with this. Put on your father’s tefillin just once to honor his final wish.”
The floodgates opened, and he began to tell his harrowing story of survival. He escaped the camps and hid in barns with animals night after night. After the war, he turned his back on the God he said had turned his back on him, declaring that “Judaism was over.” After the war, he moved constantly so no one could ever find him again. We cried together. Later, he asked me if I would return the next day. When I walked in, he was waiting for me with the tefillin already on.
Then I read of Lenny Pozner, the father of little Noah, the youngest victim in Newtown, Conn., who in his unfathomable grief confronted God in the most Jewish of ways. He put on tefillin with Rabbi Yisrael Deren, a dear colleague of mine. To me this demonstrates the incredible strength and resilience of our people, perhaps even greater than our patriarchs, matriarchs and Moses himself.
You see, in the 2,000 years of our exile, there have been few Divine appearances or revelations, no manna from heaven, no splitting of seas, yet we cling tenaciously to the Torah and its traditions. Though God seems to be hiding, we keep searching for him, and with every seeming rejection we embrace him tighter. When we struggle to find the words to offer some measure of consolation to those whose lives have been shattered, invariably it is we who walk away humbly, with our faith in God bolstered by these giant human beings.
To my survivor friend of blessed memory, I have never forgotten your courageous faith.
There are no words that can heal the broken hearts and shattered lives in Newtown. Yet perhaps we can all find some consolation in Moses’ never-ending challenge to the Almighty: Where is your fatherly compassion? Your children desperately need your embrace, dear God. As you remembered our ancestors in their time of need, remember us now. May we witness those prophetic words, “Death shall be banished forever, and the Lord will wipe the tears from all our faces” (Isaiah 25:8).
Until then, we stubbornly remain your loyal children.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.