We live literally a few blocks from where the kidnapping and heartless murder of Leiby Kletzky took place. I have to admit that like everyone else, I felt shell shocked at the nature of this crime. Over the years, in both psychotherapy and addiction treatment, I’ve worked with victims of violent crime (and their families) and also with perpetrators of violent crime. Although I’ve avoided becoming jaded, I have become a bit harder to shock.
The evil of this crime shocked me.
Many people had questions about what happened and I thought I’d share some of the questions I received, and the attempts we made at answers.
Some of the questions from our non-Jewish friends had to do with Leiby’s parents’ specific and Judaism’s broader, response to this tragedy.
Q: How can Leiby’s parents thank God at a time like this?
A: The ancient Jewish teachings offers a myriad of insights into how people can best deal with tragedy. Why so many teachings on the subject of tragedy? Because tragedy is a part of each and every human life.
No one escapes pain in their lifetime. Our tradition teaches us that we may never know the Heavenly reasons for why Leiby or any other innocent is harmed, but we can instead, focus on what our response should be.
For instance, we might focus on the fact that tragedy often has the ability to bring people closer together. Also, when tragedy strikes, we can even amaze ourselves at our ability to transcend our perceived limitations. We can even do the emotional equivalent of lifting a car off an injured child.
Q: Leiby’s parents’ response included lots of other thank-yous. I understand the focus on thanking the police, the searchers, and the people who prayed for their son, but isn’t a little righteous anger allowed?
A: The Kletzkys appear to be an exceptional family, a family that really walks the walk and talks the talk of utter faith in the goodness of God and belief in the path of their Jewish tradition. The natural stages of grieving, as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. But whose to say that these five natural feelings cannot be felt, acknowledged and then channeled into words and deeds that are positive, even noble?
This transformation is very different from denial. The transformation involves making an active choice to not let your pain control your essential self. Again, this doesn’t require you to deny that you are feeling these painful, conflicted feelings—it just means that even as you experience them, you channel them towards positive action.
Is everyone capable of this kind of “emotional heroism”? On the surface, we might feel the answer is a resounding “no.” No one naturally wants to be tested, either. Still, hearing about inspiring people can help us recognize and cultivate that place of heroism inside ourselves. That place where we can take our painful feelings and emotions, acknowledge their reality and embrace their message, and then move on to think noble thoughts and do acts of kindness.
Q: Leiby’s parents’ message struck me as universal in general, but not so much in the particulars. For example, they suggest that to show gratitude for being alive, we should give charity regularly. Okay. That’s doable. But they also say to pray and thank God for life and that we should light Shabbat candles. What about me and all the other non-Jews who obviously don’t have Shabbat or don’t believe in prayer?
A: I think a basic thing about tragedy about general, whether on a larger scale like the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan or on a personal scale, like this murder, is to use the feelings and thoughts that come up in a positive way, and go from there. During an impromptu group session with mentally ill adults in recovery from addiction last week, we talked about all the emotions that were triggered by this murder. Powerlessness, fear, anger, and other uncomfortable emotions were felt by all present.
We discussed various ways in which these feelings could be coped with without being denied. One of the approaches we came up with was to improve our connections to others.
Declare responsibility for yourself, your words, and your actions—and you’ll find that integrity, dignity and compassion follow and lead to improved relationships.
It seems simple and it’s a bit challenging to put into practice. However, by taking responsibility for who you are and what you do, you not only strengthen yourself and improve your relationships with others, but you may even inspire others to follow suit.
Of course, very real, on the ground actions also can occur. Police, policy makers, and citizens are working to create practical ways to prevent a crime like this from ever, God forbid, occurring again.