Reflecting on empathy and an unspeakable tragedy for the Jewish community

The funeral for the seven deceased Sassoon children. Credit: YouTube screenshot.

“In the end it is for their benefit and for our benefit, but we cannot understand the master plan,” said Gabriel Sassoon, the father of seven Jewish children from Brooklyn who died in a house fire over the weekend, at their funeral in Jerusalem on Monday.

At the tenderest possible moment, Sassoon shows the ultimate perspective-taking ability. No matter what else the father is feeling, inwardly and outwardly, the fact that he was able to say those words in that moment means—in my estimation—that he is a bigger person than most.

From a Jewish perspective, what is the “appropriate” emotional response to such a jarring life event? Is it okay to be “angry” at God? Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” shed some light on the subject in a September 2011 op-ed for

“For years, I wondered why the Kaddish, a hymn of praise to God with no mention of death or loss, was the prayer we asked mourners to recite at services,” Kushner wrote. “I have come to understand that asking the one person in the congregation with the most reason to be angry at God for what has happened in his or her life to publicly praise God is not to demand an act of hypocrisy. It is to recognize that a prayerful relationship to God remains even at a time of pain and anger. Ultimately I would like to think that the mourner will come to see God not as the source of his grief, but as the source of his resilience in the face of grief and the inspiration behind the efforts of friends and neighbors to comfort him.”

He continued, “I would like to believe that God is not offended by our righteous anger at the world’s unfairness, nor does He need our flattery. Just as in our personal lives, there are few moments more reassuring than the experience of getting angry at someone we care about and discovering that our love is genuine enough to survive the anger. We should find it reassuring that we can get angry at God because we expect so much from Him, and at the same time recognize how much we need and rely on Him.”

Rabbi Kushner’s words strike a meaningful balance, and help us come closer to understanding what is the proper—or perhaps, realistic—emotional response to incomprehensible situations. But for those of us who have, thankfully, not endured a personal tragedy comparable to what the Sassoon family is going through, it still might be difficult to empathize. And I specifically write empathize, rather than sympathize. It is much easier, and more natural or intuitive, to express sorrow and pity for the victims of tragedy as opposed to understanding and sharing their feelings.

In the aftermath of the Saturday’s tragedy in Brooklyn, both sympathy and empathy are necessary—but empathy is what will pave the way forward for both the Sassoon family and the entire Jewish community, which mourns with them. What must mother Gayle Sassoon and the only surviving sibling, Siporah, be feeling after they escaped the fire but none of the seven others did? How must Gabriel Sassoon be feeling after he was away at a conference for Shabbat and not there for the fire, not there to help his family at the time of the emergency? And how did he feel upon hearing the news after the fact through a third-party messenger?

These questions are painful to ask and think about—but such pain is of course nothing near the Sassoon family’s pain. If we do not know the family and are not able to comfort them directly, all we can do is put ourselves in their shoes and try to understand what they are feeling. Hopefully, we can appropriately mourn the seven deceased children and use that pain—and perhaps the energy resulting from it—to appreciate our own lives and live life to the fullest every day. Such talk may sometimes sound cliché, but not in times like these. 

As a Jewish journalist, I am most often reporting on deaths resulting from terrorism in Israel and Europe, rather than deaths from so-called “random” events such as last weekend’s fire in Brooklyn. Due to the abundance of “bad news” on Israel and the Jewish world, usually relating to serious ongoing threats faced by Israelis and all Jews, I find myself being “desensitized” to the news—treating such events as “articles” rather than what they are in real life, tragedies. But Saturday’s fire, which was the first piece of news I read after Shabbat ended, hit closer to home—quite literally. I grew up in Brooklyn’s Madison neighborhood, about a mile away from the Sassoon family’s home in Midwood. The fire also hit home because, as an observant Jew, I routinely use an electric hotplate to warm up food on Shabbat. It was reportedly such a hotplate that caused the fire in the Sassoon home. For these reasons, when it comes to this tragedy, it is easier than usual for me to “feel” the story, to put myself in the position of the Sassoons.

But as I see it, even though discussions about fire safety in the Jewish community are important and should be robust, now is not the time for such discussions. The emotion associated with the tragedy is still too raw. Before delving into the practical matter of the future of the hotplate or blech in our community, let’s step back for a second and feel the story, and let’s exhibit some empathy. I commit to doing so, and I also commit to not being desensitized by this story. If anger is our emotion of choice, let’s not focus our individual and collective anger on the hotplate. Let’s allow the highly qualified authorities investigating the incident to assess the blame where blame is due. The hotplate is not the point right now. The point is what happened to the Sassoon family, not why. As Gabriel Sassoon said, “we cannot understand the master plan.”

Posted on March 23, 2015 .