Each lost child was a private miracle

Rabbi Albert Friedlander, Dean of Leo Baeck College, confronts the misery and pain which evil leaves behind, and concludes that prayer and silence are our only adequate response.
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The Independent Online
The shortest and saddest sentence in the 'Torah is "vayidom Aharon": "And Aaron was silent when his sons died". But behind the stunned silence of the moment there lies great anger.

In Dunblane, all religion is confronted by the angry grief of parents who cannot understand how a caring, loving God could visit this suffering upon them and their innocent children. Survivors and onlookers both feel guilty and helpless here, wondering how the tragedy might have been prevented and how we can assuage the grief of parents. Trained counsellors enter the scene, and the compassion and concern of the community reaches out to enter the heart of that darkness. The clergy is also present and tries to bring the comfort of religion facing the reality of evil. But there is no balm in Gilead here.

The cruelties of war can be rationalised in some fashion, and those who die in defence of their country can be acclaimed as heroes. But the wanton slaughter of five-year-old children defies analysis. When the Holocaust swept across Europe, Jews were tempted to view the 6 million victims as "martyrs". But martyrs die willingly for their faith - and there were a million children who perished in the camps. Few rabbis could or would explain this in terms of a Divine Plan, although some tried to do just that.

Post-Holocaust theology, in Judaism and in Christianity, relies less upon the image of an ordered universe in which everything goes in accordance with God's wishes. All that is left in the arsenal of religion is the teaching of human freedom: everyone is able to do good or evil, without divine intervention.

But is that a "licence to kill"? All over the world, fanatics murder "in the name of God" or as prisoners of a political creed which demands violence. In Dunblane, as in Hungerford, no political statement was made by the murderer. These men were not necessarily mad; they were evil.

There is a basic Jewish teaching of the yetzer hara, the "good inclination", which resides in every human being. Set against it is the yetzer tov, the "good inclination" which can conquer evil. To a certain extent, that brings us back to the "free will theory" - but not completely. We now know that there are humans who will always run out of control, and that evil by human agency can always meet us in the street or at home (earthquakes, or hurricanes cause suffering but are not evil, as Bertrand Russell pointed out a long time ago).

We are still left with the grieving mother and father who need our comfort more than theological proofs regarding the nature of God. But there is no balm, no full comfort when the children die. As in Aberfan, the parents of Dunblane will mourn until the end of their time. The future has gone.

For many years, I was privileged to be a friend of Otto Frank, Anne's father. He was a heroic person who overcame his grief by dedicating his life to the Anne Frank Foundation which preserved Anne for the world. Each month, he would answer hundreds of letters written by children to "Anne Frank". His daughter came to life again in the work of fighting prejudice against all minority groups, as well as in her diary, which abides as an inspiration to children and adults.

For every parent, each lost child was a private miracle. The rabbis compare this to a person to whom a jewel is entrusted for a while - one that may be taken away at any moment. "But," they point out, "a tiny jewel may be as perfect as a great one, with its glowing facets, its purity and its inner light." They would turn to the bereaved parents and point out that it is they, the parents, who suffer. The child is at peace. And it can and should be of comfort that these five-year-old children only knew love and friendship. They were surrounded by love in their home. And they were without flaws. It would take a strange religion to see evil in an infant, in a little child. Evil did enter our world last week in Dunblane, and destroyed goodness.

Our compassion and love belongs to the sufferers. We will say special prayers for the children and their teacher in our synagogues today. When we encounter evil, there must always be prayer. It is at least one answer of religion.