How is it that in a community whose love and dedication for their children is legendary, disturbing signals that something very wrong is happening sometimes go unnoticed? It seems almost inconceivable that in the most functional families, in the best of schools, in state-of-the-art classrooms, red flags are on occasion ignored for far too long. How could it be that parents whose lives to a large extent revolve around their children, who truly care about them with every fiber of their being sometimes wait until there is a crisis before acting?
As is true with every other facet of our lives, we must turn to the Torah for guidance and answers.
Chazal (Gittin 55a) tell us about three of the most heartbreaking and devastating episodes in our history — the destruction of Yerushalayim and the Beis Hamikdash, the churban of Tur Malkah and the churban of Beitar. This Gemara, which many individuals learn on Tishah B’Av, begins with a teaching of Rabi Yochanan. Quoting a passuk in Mishlei (28:14) — “Praiseworthy is the man who always fears, but he who is stubborn of heart will fall into misfortune” — he tells us that the destruction of Yerushalayim occurred because of the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, the destruction of Tur Malkah because of an episode involving a rooster and a hen, and the destruction of Beitar came about through an episode involving the wheel of a chariot. These incidents, at the time they occurred, seemed minor. However, as it appears from Chazal, had the proper actions be taken at the time, colossal consequences would have been avoided.
When the host discovered his enemy Bar Kamtza — instead of his friend Kamtza — sitting among the invited guests, he proceeded to throw him out, ignoring his pleas and his offer to pay for the entire banquet.
The chachamim present at the seudah certainly had the best intentions when they chose not to get involved; they preferred to avoid a greater controversy and a potential chillul Hashem. But Bar Kamtza was determined to take revenge, and he went to tell the Caesar that the Jews had rebelled against him. One thing led to another, and the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed.
We cannot begin to comprehend the greatness of the chachamim of that generation, but as Rashi explains the words of Rabi Yochanan, the decision not to get involved was made without considering the broader picture, the consequences of inaction.
Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men, teaches us: “One who trusts his heart is a fool, but one who walks with wisdom will escape” (Mishlei 28:26).
The attribute of bitachon is a fundamental part of avodas Hashem. But one must be careful not to confuse inaction prompted by a desire for comfort (at a time when we are obligated to act) with true bitachon. Praiseworthy is one who is always fearful and takes concrete steps to avoid disastrous consequences, and rejects the temptation to fill one’s heart with false bravado that all will be good.
It is a human trait to try to avoid getting entangled in complex circumstances. When a situation arises and only a subtle signal is emitted, there is a natural inclination to choose to rely on wishful thinking and declare “all will be good.” When a child starts acting a little bit out of character, it may cross the mind of a parent or responsible adult that the change just might be connected to something very disturbing. A fleeting thought surfaces: Could this really have to do with what I thought I may have noticed the other day?
Whether it involves a relative, a family friend, a guest, or a total stranger, acknowledging it and pursuing it will likely upset the proverbial apple cart in a very painful way. Being vigilant and following an uncertain lead could make things terribly complicated. It can shatter close relationships and put an entire family into a state of upheaval.
When a child comes home from school or calls home from camp and alludes to something shocking, it is very tempting to let it ride, to assume that the child really meant something else entirely, and that what the adult suspects is only a figment of imagination. Later, Rachmana litzlan, when it becomes apparent that inaction is no longer an option, it is no longer a red flag or a missed signal, but a full-fledged explosion, with heartbreaking consequences for years to come.
The Ribbono shel Olam told Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai, “I have carried you on the wings of an eagle and brought you to Me.”
Rashi teaches us that all the other birds fear the menace from other creatures that fly above them, and clutch their offspring with their feet. But eagles fly higher than all other birds, and fear only the arrows of man from below. They therefore place their offspring on their wings, saying “better the arrow should enter me than my son…”
So, too, the Ribbono shel Olam, so to speak, “carried” Bnei Yisrael. When the Egyptians shot arrows and hurled stones at Bnei Yisrael at the Yam Suf, it was the anan Hakavod that stood between the enemy and Bnei Yisrael and intercepted the arrows and stones.
The ultimate prototype of parenting is based on the relationship Hakadosh Baruch Hu has with Klal Yisrael. At a time of crisis, we must evaluate what Torah parenting is supposed to be. It entails training ourselves to have the instinctive reaction that “better the arrow should enter me than my son…”
No matter how uncomfortable doing the right thing may be, no matter how great the personal costs to our jobs, to our relationships — even with our closest relatives — we must put the safety of our children first.
This applies equally to parents, and all those involved in chinuch at every age and every level — from playgroup teachers to a menahel of a yeshivah gedolah. All of Jewish education is based on a relationship akin to a parent and a child; when we are instructed in the first parashah of Krias Shema to teach the Torah to “our sons” — it actually refers to talmidim.
When we internalize this concept, it will, b’ezras Hashem, help make it possible that we will not miss any subtle signals or red flags and instinctively react in the proper manner.
We must acknowledge that there are some adults, fortunately very few in number — who may seem on the outside to be fine, upstanding, even respected individuals — and in private, act in inappropriate, dangerous ways to children.
We must learn to be on the lookout for signals that this may be transpiring. Any changes in behavior, any new fears or phobias, must be carefully looked into to see what the cause may be. While doing our utmost to ensure that we are not reaching any erroneous conclusions, we must make every effort to discover what lies behind these changes and take the proper steps to deal with them.
We must also be on the constant lookout for red flags indicating the other, often related plague that is affecting so many of our youth: the crisis of various types of addictions and substance abuse.
As we get ready to send our children to camps, it is an especially important time to assure our children that they should never hesitate to share with us anything that is on their minds or in their hearts; that no matter what they will relate to us, we will react with empathy and support. They need to be told that if anyone tells them to keep something secret from their parents, that is a clear indication of something very troubling and dangerous. When they call home, let us listen carefully to their voices — to both what they do say and what they don’t say. When we see them next, let us observe closely the look on their faces.
Most importantly, we must constantly pour out our hearts in tefillah to the Shomer Yisrael, that He protect the most vulnerable and most precious of our assets — our children. While we must make every possible hishtadlus on their behalf, ultimately, their safety and security is dependent on the infinite mercy of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
May all of Klal Yisrael merit a safe and uplifting summer.