Uri Friedman, managing editor at the Atlantic Council, is confronted by “life’s biggest questions” amidst the turbulence of Covid 19 by his five-year-old son, and is hard-pressed for answers. Writing in The Atlantic’s August 2020 edition, Friedman presents his and his wife’s struggle with their Covid-induced home schooling. After weeks of coming to grips with yet another roller coaster in what began as a calm millennial generation, the Friedman’s marshalled their creativity and energy to run an in-house pre-school. Exhausted after weeks of planning a curriculum and teaching their son, he decided to turn the tables and get direction from the student himself:
“That’s why I finally asked my son what he wanted to learn. Like many children his age, my son is insatiably curious. The questions poured forth: ‘What is G-d?’ ‘Who made the world?’ ‘Does space ever end?’ ‘How does the weather work?’ ‘How does my body work?’ ‘How do emotions work?’ ‘Why did the dinosaurs disappear?’ ‘When will the coronavirus end?’ ‘What happens when you die?’ Every day now, we devote time to answering the previous night’s question.”
Friedman’s ability to answer questions dead-ended as summarized by the article’s title, “My Son Is Looking to Me for Answers—And I Don’t Have Them Anymore.” He writes, “What would I say now when he asked what kindergarten would be like, or when he’d be able to go? My answers were gone. I had no idea.
Yet, the Friedman’s are responsible parents and brave our unknown future by engaging the process of questioning and exploring the world without necessarily needing the answers:
“So I’m using my son’s nightly questions as opportunities to investigate the world together. We watch a couple YouTube videos explaining the Big Bang theory and the creation story in Genesis, then discuss what we’ve seen. Or we Google an image of the solar system before constructing our own solar system with bouncy balls and a flashlight. We are learning together. We are confronting uncertainty together. I try to share in his wonder. And he loves it.”
I identified with Uri Friedman as a fellow Jew facing existential challenges including raising children in an uncertain world. Friedman suggests that solutions to resolving our predicament are limited only to new approaches, the past has no role in our current playing field:
“We can learn that this moment demands new answers, and that the first step in generating new answers is acknowledging that we don’t have the old answers to the old questions.”
Judaism teaches the opposite – that the past itself is the foundation for the future, and hidden in the old questions and answers are vital teachings – and combined with contemporary insights, we strive to navigate the world. I’m not referring to the R&D to produce a vaccine. G-d willing that will come and we must make all efforts to do so. Rather, I’m referring to the Divine laws and ethics given at Mount Sinai as the eternal framework for Tikun Olam, to perfect ourselves and by extension humanity, and offering that as an answer to our children. For children, just as adults, need to know that there are transcendent, foundational laws, morals and answers.
The Passover Haggadah demonstrates the importance of asking questions, and for providing answers. Both are critical in processing the world. Moreover, the Haggadah demonstrates that the answers should specifically address the nature of one’s child: Are they genuinely seeking to understand? Are they recalcitrant? What is their level of sophistication? Do they have the ability to ask discerning questions? Nevertheless, there are times we cannot ascertain the answers; the Torah teaches that things can be hidden from us and known only to G-d. In that context, Friedman’s words apply, “He doesn’t need me to have the answers at the ready, so long as I am ready to explore his questions. He needs me to be on the journey with him—as a guide, yes, but not necessarily an expert one.”
One of Judaism’s primary principles of faith is Hashgacha Pratis – Divine Providence whereby G-d oversees and directs the world through His omniscience and omnipotence. Such a cataclysmic event as Covid 19 is no less part of that system. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, the great Jewish thinker and Kabbalist writes:
“G-d constantly supervises His entire creation, giving it existence and guiding it according to the purpose for which He created it.” (Maamar Ha’Ikarim, Perek Ha’Hashgachah)
The Ramchal writes further that Providence includes overseeing every individual:
“[Providence] must oversee and scrutinize every detail of one’s activities, and produce consequences in response to one’s conduct and actions. All of a person’s deeds, as well as the outcome of those deeds, are scrutinized, and Providence is then extended to him in the particular manner that suits the consequences, and [the individual is judged] measure for measure.” (Derech Hashem, Part II, Chapter 1:3, based on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translation, Feldheim Publishers.)
If our past behavior somehow triggered the Covid 19 world, improved behavior can lead us out of this, into a better world. King Solomon famously wrote in Kohelet, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” King Solomon wasn’t writing about tech, he was writing about philosophical and moral approaches to meaning. The values and principles G-d taught Abraham and later to the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, and subsequently to the hundreds of thousands of prophets who lived up until the beginning of the Second Temple Period, are just as vitally relevant today.
Just as Freidman was able to teach his son Genesis, revealing that it was in fact G-d Who created the world, he can go deeper, and teach him that we’re in good hands – G-d is still actively guiding humanity to our ultimate destiny. We still may not know when kindergarten will open, but He certainly deeply cares about each of us and enabled home schooling as a temporary go-to solution.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in Sabbath Day of Eternity, citing the Ramban and Sefer Hachinuch, demonstrates G-d’s concern and active involvement in the world through the Ten Commandments:
“Some people think that G-d created the world and then forgot about it. They may claim to believe in G-d, and even admit to some abstract Creator, but they insist, at the same time, that His existence has no bearing on their lives. To them, G-d is a remote philosophical abstraction. We see G-d as much more than this. When G-d introduced Himself in the Ten Commandments, He said, (Exodus 20:2) ‘I am the L-rd your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.’ G-d was telling us that He is involved in the affairs of man and has a profound interest in what we do.”
Friedman’s son asks important questions about the nature of G-d and death. Both issues reflect upon and impact the way we live our life. As many Jewish sources explain, although we cannot see G-d nor comprehend His essence, we have insight into some of His attributes such as compassion, loving kindness, pursuing truth, forgiving, and being humble. In fact, an essential goal of life is to build a relationship with G-d: by Jews through the 613 mitzvot-commandments, and by non-Jews through the Noachide Laws. The purpose of both are to provide the framework mentioned above, to perfect one’s character and society. The aspiration towards this goal is expressed in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers, “Let humanity unite in becoming a single society- agudah achas, in serving G-d wholeheartedly.”
In addition to YouTube and Google, the Friedman’s might also consider Rabbi David Fohrman’s Aleph Beta educational animated videos that are engaging for all ages. The Mishnah recommends, “Aseh lecha rav–Find yourself a rabbi.” Two examples of many are Partners in Torah to explore questions through Jewish texts or local rabbis to study the Morasha Curriculum or Thinking Gemara Series.
Friedman concludes that we have been shortchanged by our old models of thinking, and the road back to a better world is through an ongoing process of questioning, but not in the answers:
“Today, we are struggling to figure out how to transcend the old normal that failed us during the pandemic, how to address the existential challenges of our age, and how to build back a better and more resilient world. If we want to face today’s hard realities, but somehow manage to retain and transmit our idealism and sense of wonder, the key won’t lie in the answers we give our children—but in the questions we explore together.”
Friedman is correct in his disillusionment. In a secular world, who can one rely upon for clarity, ethical guidance and truth? Yet, there is an antidote. In addition to “Aseh lecha rav,” – at bedtime, just after Uri Friedman’s son asks his last question to explore the next day – the writer can open a Siddur and say together with him the eternal words, “Shema Yisroel HaShem Elokeinu HaShem Echad—Hear Israel the L-rd is our G-d, G-d is One.” Over time, the family can discover the answers they were searching for after all.