MURDER IN THE FIRST GRADE was Newsweek's cover story. Time magazine gave us an equally frightening blurb on its front page: WHEN KIDS KILL KIDS.
A 6-year-old boy shot his first grade classmate to death in an elementary school near Flint, Michigan. And the world has reacted, strongly: schools are no longer safe; children are no longer innocents; society is breeding monsters; the future of civilization is imperiled by the violence of even its youngest members.
The outrage, the shock and the pain are, of course, all perfectly proper. Everything that's been written is true. But as anyone familiar with the deeper nuances of the Hebrew language -- in which the word for truth is emet -- will tell you, the fact that it's true doesn't mean that it's emet.
And, therein, lies a second if smaller tragedy that happened in these last few weeks -- the inability of contemporary pundits to put the horrible deed of an immature child into perspective.
Emet, the Sages teach, is the perfect word to express the idea of truth. Actually spelled A-M-T and vocalized as emet, this word meaning truth is formed by three letters that represent the first, middle and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. To warrant a description of emet something must be totally true -- from beginning to end as well as everything in between.
A partial truth is not truth merely modified by an adjective.
A partial truth is not truth merely modified by an adjective. Its very incompleteness alters its definition and turns it into falsehood.
Is a 6-year-old killer irrefutable confirmation that we have ALL lost our way, that mankind has become deprived of its moral moorings?
Perhaps it's instructive to reflect on the perceptive insight of Professor Julian L. Simon, distinguished Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute, in his classic and comprehensive analysis of our times, "The State of Humanity." He writes:
Almost every absolute change, and the absolute component of almost every economic and social change or trend points in a positive direction, as long as we view the matter over a reasonably long period of time.
Professor Simon acknowledges that most people fail to perceive the truth of this statement. Anecdotally, he recounts the reaction of his mother, born in 1900 and witness to a dazzling wealth of advancements in her lifetime, who disagreed with his claim that living conditions had markedly improved:
When I asked mother why she thought things had only gotten worse, she replied: "The headlines in the newspapers are all bad."
Headlines by their very nature reflect one aspect of reality. They emphasize the unusual. They trumpet news of the peculiar and the unexpected.
A story about the birth of quintuplets shouldn't send all expectant couples scurrying to buy 5 cribs. What is newsworthy is almost by definition not normal.
Did you know that Adam and Eve had another son aside from Cain and Abel?
Cain, the killer, will always get more publicity. So will Abel, his hapless victim.
Poor Seth. Almost no one remembers his name. And that's probably because he never got into any trouble. Cain, the killer, will always get more publicity. So will Abel, hapless victim of the first act of murder. Yet the true story of mankind is the tale of the masses of human beings who maintain their divine dignity and prove by their "normal" behavior that they are in fact created in the image of God.
No one should fail to note with profound horror the events that occurred in Flint, Michigan. They demand our tears and our grief, as well as a call to introspection for all the sins of our culture which may have served as contributing causes.
What we must not, however, allow this incident to do is to cloud our vision of the greater picture which far more fully portrays the emet of our days:
Children aren't killers. A Talmudic teaching that we recite every day as part of our daily prayers reminds us of this in no uncertain terms: "The soul which you have implanted in me is pure." We begin life in innocence, unstained by sin. To call a child a "bad seed," unredeemable and incorrigible, runs counter to a basic tenet of Jewish tradition.
The decline of morality is not a foregone conclusion nor is the breakdown of society an inevitable and inescapable reality. The Messianic vision, which has sustained us throughout the centuries, posits an ascending curve which allows for optimism and hope.
A culture should not be judged by its deviant behavior, but by its response to that behavior. The child who didn't really understand what he did doesn't define us. Our sense of compassion, our shared pain for the victim as well as her family -- these are a far better barometer of our society.
There's one more reason why I don't see in this incident proof that our children have turned into monsters and that the whole world has gone to hell. It's simple, really. If we say that kids kill kids, that they are bad, that they can do the unspeakable, then they will do the unspeakable. It can become, God forbid, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As Jews, we know, in the words of the Bible, that "children are a heritage of the Lord." If we view them as anything less, we condemn them to our mistrust and almost ensure their waywardness. If we view them instead for what they are, bearers of unlimited potential with a natural striving for the good and the holy, then nothing will be beyond their reach -- and ours.