Michael is a graduate student at Emory University getting his PhD in American Religious Cultures. His work focuses on North American Jews and therapeutic culture. He is a Fellow of the Tam Institute of Jewish Studies at Emory, and an alumnus of the Atlanta 2005 Wexner Heritage Program.
Purim was wonderful this year. My three children really get into the joy of the holiday. They eagerly anticipate shaloch manot deliveries, filled with treats; shaking their groggers vociferously at the sound of Haman’s name, and dressing up in costumes. Yes, even my teenagers love going to school in costumes. Purim seems to bring out their innocence, creativity, and joy. At times like these, children seem to live every moment in the present, fully creative and fully free. In their innocence, they can imagine a world full of miracles and joy. When I see this in mine and other children, I have hope for the future.
Yet, at the same time, we are bombarded daily with horrific headlines from TV, radio, newspapers, and the Internet. Famine, murder, war, terrorism, nuclear threat, crime, genocide, malaria, poverty, global warming, natural disaster—some days it feels like that is all we see or hear. How do we go on in the midst of such horror? Where do we go from here? How do we send our children into a world like this? How can our children be a blessing in the world?
The Maggid of Dubno (c. 1740-1804) tells a beautiful story about the power of children. As the story goes, there was a large family that lived in a village in a clearing in the forest. The parents loved their children very much, and wanted to protect them from all of the possible dangers of the world. Every night before bed, the father locked the house up tight, securing all of the windows and barricading the doors. “You can never be too safe!” he would say to himself proudly. One night, the parents awoke to the terrifying smell of smoke. The smoke was filling the house. They quickly jumped out of bed and went room-to-room gathering all of their children. When they got to the front door, they couldn’t get out. It was stuck. The parents desperately ran to each window to find an escape, only to find that each was also stuck as if locked from the outside. They did not know how they were going to get out of the house rapidly filling with toxic smoke and fire. The youngest child yelled to his father that he had found a small opening in one of the windows. Unfortunately, the opening was far too small for anyone in the family to fit through, except for this youngest little boy. The father quickly lifted the child through the window, and he ran into the village to get help. Moments later a group of people came back to the house and using a battering ram, smashed down the front door and saved the family. The Maggid concludes the story by saying, “just as sometimes the smallest child can fit through the cracks of the house to save the whole family, so too do the prayers of children fit through the cracks of Heaven to reach God to save us all.”
Yet every terrorist was once a child. Their freedom, creativity, and pure potentiality can also be turned towards evil. Children are not the hope of the future, unless we nurture them, love them, and teach them to really see the world and question it.
At my first Wexner summer retreat, Rabbi Ed Feinstein gave an explanation of the story of Moses’ birth, early years and, finally, his saving a Jewish slave that can help us understand what I mean by seeing the world. In the Torah, the entire story from Moses’ birth until the time he kills the Egyptian comprises just twelve verses. In those twelve verses forms of the verb “to see” are used six times, and many times in unusual ways. Why is “to see” so important to this story? Rabbi Feinstein explains that all of the essential characters in this short story had an ability to see beyond what they were being told to see by their society and its leaders. When Moses was born, his mother “saw that he was good,” and did not allow him to be put to death, which were Pharaoh’s orders for all Jewish male babies at that time. Pharaoh’s daughter spied the reed basket floating in the Nile and saw that he was a Hebrew child, and chose to save him and raise him in the Royal Palace, despite the orders of genocide by her father.
Finally when, Moses encounters a slave being beaten, he is shocked and looks from side to side to see if anyone else sees what is happening. While every Egyptian of the day looked out on the landscape and saw tremendous economic prosperity and progress—pyramids, temples storehouses being built all around—Moses saw the human impact, the slavery, brutality, and genocide. He was able to see this injustice despite having been raised in the royal palace with power, wealth, and privilege.
Similarly today, many people walk into our mega shopping stores and all they see is prosperity and progress—cheap prices and all the goods one could ever want. Others see, instead, the unfair working conditions, child labor, sweatshops, and inequitable distribution of wealth that often enables that “prosperity.” As adults, we must seek to teach our children to understand the myths within which they live, to see the world and question it. It has been said that prophecy is simply seeing the world as it really is. Let’s teach our children to be prophets, so their prayers can reach into Heaven.