OU Executive Vice President, Emeritus Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb delivered the keynote address on Tuesday, December 25 at a program at Great Neck Synagogue, on the tragedy in Newtown, CT. Rabbi Weinreb spoke on the topic of “Answering Unanswerable Questions, Replacing Despair With Hope.” He stated prior to his address, “I will speak from a psycho-spiritual and Jewish perspective on how to respond to the immediate event, what to say to children, how to respond in the longer range, how to place the event in the broader context of personal suffering, contemporary American society, and Jewish history. I will stress the heroism of the teachers, and mention issues of mental illness.”
RABBI WEINREB, IN KEYNOTE ADDRESS ON NEWTOWN TRAGEDY, DECLARES ‘GOD STANDS FOR LIFE AND THIS ENTIRE ACT REEKS OF DEATH’; GIVES ADVICE ON HOW TO DEAL WITH CHILDREN IN FACE OF TRAGEDY; CALLS FOR ‘THOROUGH’ GUN CONTROL
By Stephen Steiner
Combining the sadness of Tisha B’Av, the soul-searching of Yom Kippur, the remembrance of Rosh Hashanah, and the renewal of Rosh Chodesh, Orthodox Union Executive Vice President Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, speaking to the Great Neck, Long Island Jewish community, called the mass murder of children and adults in Newtown, CT “a profanation of the name of God. God stands for life and this entire act reeks of death.”
Speaking at the OU member Great Neck Synagogue on the night of December 25, before an audience of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, with the Orthodox attendees including Chabad, Rabbi Weinreb delivered the keynote address of the program, “A Great Neck Community Evening of Reflection: Responding to the Tragedy of Newtown.” The program included the personal reflections of Great Neck native Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown; ministering to the one Jewish family involved in the tragedy, that of Noah Pozner, and joining with his fellow Newtown clergy as a comforter in times of great despair, Rabbi Praver has become a nationally known figure.
It was left to Rabbi Dr. Weinreb, however, to put the event in context of the times Americans live in as well as of Jewish history, providing the insights of a rabbi along with those of a clinical psychologist. His address ranged from thoughts on the media, to the need for gun control, to how to deal with children in face of tragedy, and even to the music of Gustav Mahler. Rabbi Weinreb spoke for slightly more than a half hour, but provided the wisdom of the ages, going back at least to Rabbi Akiva. And yes, drawing on Jewish tradition, he provided hope. Rabbi Weinreb expressed pride at the actions of Rabbi Praver, explaining “By the way he carried himself and came across in the media, he made a Kiddush Hashem,” a sanctification of God’s name.
Noting the psychologically protective tendency of people to distance themselves from tragedy by saying “tragedy happens to the other,” Rabbi Weinreb declared that “by coming together tonight we are sending a message. It is not ‘the other’ – this didn’t happen to someone over there, it happened to us. This is us.”
The teachings of the sages emphasize this point, Rabbi Weinreb said. Rabbi Akiva, “who knew tragedy,” dying as one of the ten martyrs mourned on Yom Kippur, said, “‘How precious is the human being, created in the image of God. We are all connected in some way, connected in the image of God, in the commonality of mankind.’ A tragedy like this, Rabbi Akiva would say, ‘should make us aware that we are all tzelem Elokim,’ in the image of God.”
Noting the stages of grief that people experience, and that in the first stage “the proper response is silence” – as Aaron was silent following the death of his two sons (Leviticus 10:3) — Rabbi Weinreb criticized the media for being too intrusive with the families in the early days after the shootings, when they should have been emphasizing “how we are all joined face to face by unspeakable horror.”
Rabbi Weinreb devoted a large portion of his presentation to how to deal with children in the face of tragedy, by emphasizing the Jewish concept of “Kiddush HaChaim,” the sanctity of life. The distinguished clinical psychologist provided a list of ten practical suggestions on how to talk to children about an horrific event. They include:
- “Get a clear picture of where that child is coming from; you cannot give the same answer to every child. You need some sense of who they are, where they come from. Then you can gauge that child’s level of understanding, what they can accept.”
- “Listen carefully to their thoughts, keep quiet, listen to each other.”
- “Adjust your response to the child’s needs — if the child is younger or older or precocious.” He referred to the young girl who played dead and ran out of the school building telling people, “All my friends are dead” as an example of a precocious child.
- “Assure your child that he or she is safe. How can you do that with the environment filled with possible murderers? A lie sometimes helps. “Judaism teaches an important message, that you don’t always have to tell the truth. You can tell them ‘You’re safe, it won’t happen again, we’ll keep you safe.’”
Rabbi Weinreb referred to Janosz Korczak, the doctor who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto for two hundred children and who preserved an environment in which the youngsters, all of whom died in Treblinka, could feel safe until they were taken away.
When saying that the tragedy won’t happen again, Rabbi Weinreb declared, “The way to do that is not by arming other people. Gun control is an absolute necessity,” he said, dismissing the notion that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The rabbi called for “rational, sensible, thorough gun control,” which would lead to “creating an environment which is pure, creating a sense of mutual trust. Mutual trust in our lifetime has been eroded. We must create a new sense of trust.”
He continued with his suggestions:
- “Let children express their feelings.”
- “It is important to begin healing, to go on with life – but not immediately.” Noting that we sit shiva for seven days, but that at the end of shiva, when the mourners “walk around the block or go to the park, they are returning to life.”
- Finally, “If necessary, seek professional help in dealing with grief.”
Music can play a part in healing, Rabbi Weinreb said, referring to the Jewish-born composer Gustav Mahler’s song cycle, Kindertotenlieder – songs on the death of children. “First there is silence, but at some point you return to the ability to compose songs,” Rabbi Weinreb said. He noted that Mahler’s five-song cycle was set to the poems of another individual who had lost his children; after Mahler lost his own four-year-old child several years later, he said that he could not have composed the songs.
Turning to hope and renewal, Rabbi Weinreb declared, “Our mission as a Jewish people is to be a light to the nations.” He quoted Rav Kook who referred to “the mystical secret sanctity of life,” and who “advocated a life that was appreciated intrinsically for all it has to offer, and not because death is inevitable.” Rav Kook said, “Life is the essence of spirituality, life is the essence of God.”
Again quoting Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Weinreb urged, “It is possible to prepare the world for a full understanding of what a meaningful life means – a life of joy, of compassion, of accomplishment. But an individual person cannot do this alone. The nation of Israel can do it.”
Rabbi Weinreb called for fulfilling the Jewish mission of emphasizing life. “This is something we can do as a group, with Divine assistance, each of us in our own way to change the world. We can do it. We have to do it. We have to do it.”
And there was silence, soon broken by applause.
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