Adapted from the sermon Rabbi Goldberg gave last Shabbat to his congregation, Boca Raton Synagogue. Reprinted with permission from the author.
When we send our children to school, we take for granted we will see them at the end of the day. School is supposed to be a safe place, a nurturing environment that promotes learning, growth and happiness. And yet, this past Wednesday, a day we will never forget, Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, just 20 minutes from here, became a place of inconceivable and tragic devastation. Seventeen lives cut short, abruptly ended out of insanity and evil.
Each one of these horrific school shootings strikes us and breaks our hearts, but this one happened in our backyard. If we don’t know students or staff at the school directly, we all know people who know someone who goes there or has a connection to the school.
Yesterday, my daughter and I went to the funeral of 14-year-old victim Alyssa Alhadeff. Neither of us ever met Alyssa or her family, but we felt drawn to grieve with her community and to show solidarity with her friends and family. Their rabbi, my friend Shuey Biston, introduced me to the parents and all I could say was, “You have never met me, but I am here representing my community to let you know how terribly sorry we are and that we are here to do absolutely anything in the world to give you strength and comfort during this painful time.”
Our hearts broke as we watched Rabbi Biston tear keriah, not only on Alyssa’s parents but on her two young brothers, and then recite with them words that are almost impossible to say, but that reflect the deepest faith, Dayan Ha’emet, God is the Judge of truth.
As the funeral began, it occurred to me that normally parents light a Shabbos candle each Friday night for each of their children. However, this past Friday night, rather than light a Shabbos candle corresponding with Alyssa’s life, her bright light, her mother was going into Shabbos having lit a shiva candle—to mourn her dark passing.
At the funeral we learned about how mature Alyssa was, how she excelled in soccer and was a leader among her friends. She wanted to be a doctor and help people. She was fun-loving and a great big sister. Alyssa’s mom said that when she would lock the door at night, Alyssa, who was fundamentally positive and optimistic, would say, “Mom, why are you bothering to lock the door? Nothing bad ever happens in Parkland.”
We heard one story, but each of these 17 victims is a unique expression of God, a world unto themselves. Children who were described as angels in their kindness and compassion. Adults, including heroes like Scott Beigel, who was murdered because he unlocked his classroom door to let more students in, and Aaron Feis, a coach who died while pushing a student out of the way and jumping between her and the shooter.
Seventeen, mostly children, filled with potential that will never be fully realized, contributions we will never benefit from, dreams and aspirations that will never be actualized. Their lights have been extinguished and the world is a darker place as a result.
How do we maintain any hope in the future? How do we not become pessimistic, fatalistic, lose our faith in humanity and in God? Friday was the 10th anniversary, a decade since the Mercaz HaRav massacre. Eight yeshiva boys, guilty only of the crime of learning Torah, were gunned down and murdered in their yeshiva. When one learns of these incidents, in which innocent children are murdered in cold blood, why should we maintain faith in the world, why should we believe it is safe to send our children to school?
I want to share with you an incredible midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:13):
“When this decree was signed and delivered to Haman, he and all his associates began rejoicing. As it happened, Mordechai was just then walking in front of him. He saw three children coming from school and ran after them. They followed Mordechai to see what he would ask the children. When Mordechai came up to them, he asked one of them to repeat what verse they had just studied. He said: ‘Be not afraid of the sudden terror or of the destruction of the wicked when it comes.’ The second one followed and said, ‘Plan a conspiracy and it will be annulled, speak your piece and it shall not stand, for God is with us.’ Then the third spoke up and quoted the verse: ‘Even when you age, I remain unchanged; and even till your ripe old age, I shall endure. I created you and I will bear you; I will endure and rescue.’ When Mordechai heard this, he smiled and was exceedingly glad. Haman said to him, why are you so happy over these words of these children? Mordechai answered: Because of the good news they have given me, that I need not fear evil that you have formed against us. Haman got angry and declared he would lay his hands on the children first.”
The Vilna Gaon (Kol Eliyahu) explains that the verses the children recited correspond with three times that Amalek attacked us and three separate methodologies they employed, and yet, here we are, still standing, not only surviving, but thriving.
The Maharal explains that when Mordechai saw that the children continued to learn, that they were quoting verses and drawing from Judaism, he was confident and optimistic in the Jewish future.
When Mordechai was feeling despondent, when he was anxious about what would be and where he would find the strength to continue, he looked to the children, the school children, who despite the grave threat and the horror they faced, maintained an incredible degree of optimism, hope and faith.
At Alyssa’s funeral, a few of her friends spoke in addition to her family and I was so impressed by how the message was not one of anger, bitterness or politics, but a call for honoring her memory by being kind, optimistic, good and caring to others. Rabbi Biston quoted the Rebbe, who taught that when we are struck by extreme darkness, our mission is to respond with extreme light.
Our children are watching and listening to how we react to events like this week. Does it make us grow cynical, angry, hardened, pessimistic or negative? Does it cause us to lose our faith? They are looking to us, but the midrash reminds us that in these moments, we should be looking to them. We should emulate their childlike positivity, their faith and belief that all will be good.
In our parsha, we are told that the wood that was used for making the Mishkan came from atzei shittim, acacia trees, which our rabbis teach (Shemot Rabbah 35:2) aino oseh peirot, does not produce fruit. We can have beautiful structures, buildings and walls, the nicest classrooms and most ornate furniture, but without children they rot, decay and disappear. Walls cannot produce continuity, only children can. Buildings don’t provide faith and a future, only children do. V’shachanti b’tocham, Hashem tell us He dwells in people, in children—not in walls and buildings. It is so important that we preserve the belief and innocence in our children, and the faith, optimism and hope of the children in us.
Each day, we remind ourselves of the three verses these children chose in communicating to Mordechai their faith. In the 16th century, R’ Shlomo Alkabetz, author of Lecha Dodi, writes that based on this midrash there is a custom to say these three verses right after Aleinu each time we recite it. Chabad sings them, but we all have them in our siddur. We end our davening by invoking the faith, optimism and resilience of the children who gave chizuk to Mordechai and who continue to inspire us today.
The events of this week were tragic, but we must respond with increased faith and extreme light. Seventeen candles in our backyard were extinguished. We owe them our best effort to make our light burn brighter and to illuminate the darkness caused by the absence of their light.
By Rabbi Efrem Goldberg