The Rabbi and the President

It was the Sunday evening after the terrible tragedy in Newtown.  Rabbi Yisrael Deren and his wife, Vivi, directors of Chabad in Connecticut, had come to the console the mourners.  Standing at the side of the Pozner family, attempting to help them cope with their pain and loss, they met President Obama.  The Derens both understood the deep anguish the Pozners and other families were feeling,   having themselves lost children to sickness.

Rabbi Deren and the President spoke for a while.  “Mr. President,” Rabbi Deren said, “in the wake of this tragedy, we need to institute a moment of silence in public schools.”  For many decades spiritual leaders and educators have advocated a moment of silence.  This would cause children to meditate briefly each day on the concept of a Divine being.  To recognize that we are accountable to something beyond ourselves.  Being that it is silent, it does not infringe on the separation of church and state.”

Rebbitzen Vivi Deren, the Rabbi’s wife, described the conversation.  “My husband made a suggestion to the President, that in the effort to draw good from the unfathomable evil that occurred, we should offer a moment of silence at the beginning of each school day.  This moment of silence will allow those children who want to pray the opportunity to do so.  It will foster discussion between parents and children of the spiritual values they hold dear as a family.  This suggestion was first made years ago by the Rebbe, who always held the clear vision of a world perfected by the partnership of G-d and human beings.”

Rabbi Deren’s conversation with the President reflected a profound question.  How do we respond to this tragedy?  Do we look deeper into ourselves and our society and examine the values we transmit to the next generation?  Do we ask what moral principles stand at the core of the educational process?  What ideals do we want to the next generation to aspire to?

Sadly, the President did not take the rabbi’s suggestion.  Instead, he focused on defensive measures to stem violence in the future.  Gun control is an important issue.  The debate over guns pulls the focus away from the essential issue.  How can one person consider taking the life of another?  We may think we can defend ourselves by regulating the mode of delivery of that act of violence.  The real challenge is instilling in the next generation a set of values that preclude the use of the violence.

The core principle of Judaism is monotheism.  As Jews, we have a unique mission to the broader society.  To encourage a child to recognize that there is a Divine being that is the source of morality, that we as humans have a mission in this world to improve it, to treat each other with dignity and respect, the chances are that acts of violence will be reduced.  The beauty of a moment of silence is that it fulfills this goal, without infringing on the rights of others.  Having children begin the school day with a few moments of reflection could impact their direction in life.

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