When I first heard the ambulances, I didn't even pause to think about what happened.
I was cooking for Shabbos as my boys ran in and out of the kitchen. When we lived in Israel, I was used to checking the news anytime I heard more than one or two ambulances, but here in quiet, suburban Connecticut, I had stopped doing that.
After the sixth echo of ambulance sirens, I began to wonder what was going on. I picked up my phone to check the news and just kept shaking my head in horror and disbelief as I read about the shooting in a nearby elementary school that left 20 small children and six teachers dead. I was so shocked that I didn't notice my six-year-old standing next to me and peering over my shoulder.
"What happened?" he asked me.
I closed the news story and tried to think how and if to explain the shooting. "Nothing, it's okay," I said, heading back to the kitchen as the helicopters and ambulances echoed in the distance. A couple of minutes later, I noticed that it was eerily quiet in the living room. I peeked through the doorway and saw both my sons with their noses pressed to the window, listening to the sirens rolling through the mid-morning winter light.
Then I heard my son say to his little brother, "Something bad happened, but I don't know what. Shhh, Ima doesn't want to say." And as they stood there, stiller than I had seen them stand for a long time, the questions began to run through my mind.
Why did he do it? Minutes after the tragedy, everyone wanted to know what the killer's motive was. What could possibly be a reason for killing 20 children? Police still haven't figured it out, but people are trying to guess. He was angry. Depressed. Was he on drugs? Insane? People want to pinpoint a motive so that they can somehow understand what happened. But evil needs no motive. It randomly destroys. It fills the world with hatred. It is the opposite of light.
But I have seen senseless, random goodness too. Like the elderly woman who I used to see on my morning runs in the Judean hills, picking up each piece of garbage on the street at dawn and putting it into a huge, plastic bag that she dragged along with her. Each morning I wondered what she was doing. One day I finally asked her and she said, "I'm cleaning the world. One piece at a time." At first I thought she was a little crazy but gradually I began to admire her random goodness. She was making the world better even if no one else saw it. Even if no one thanked her. Even if no one understood why she was doing it.
Why did God let this happen? We ask this question after most tragedies. Why didn't God cause the gunman's car to break down? Or have the kids somehow not be in the classroom? Or have his guns get stuck? God could have saved those children so why didn't He?
I don't know any strong answers to this question, but something that Avivit Shaer said after she lost her husband and five children in a freak fire last year still stays with me whenever I hear myself ask this question. She said that she has many questions for God, but she has begun to understand that God does not give us answers in this world. "It's not that there are no answers. But we humans are not equipped to handle the complexity or wholeness of God's answers. He has eternal considerations."
When I hear someone who has lost her entire family in one night say these words, I can stop my own whys. I can accept that there are answers even though I don't know what they are.
Why is this story in my life? Sometimes we hear about an event and forget about it soon afterwards. Or we dismiss it as too far away to be relevant. But every news story that we read and every event that crosses our paths is meant to teach us something. So what is the message in the wake of this tragedy? Maybe it's that we should appreciate each day with our own children. Maybe it's that we should realize that human suffering is never far away, happening to someone else. It should and does impact everyone that hears about it. Or maybe the message is that we should be sending our kids off to school not only with a sandwich but with a prayer for their safety.
But for me, the most crucial message hit me when I explained to my son what happened.
The ambulances were still blaring when I walked back into the living room and found the boys racing matchbox cars on the floor. I sat down next to them and watched them play before telling my six year old vaguely what had happened in words that hopefully wouldn't terrify him. I asked him if he wanted to say a prayer for the children who were 'hurt' and their parents.
He nodded without looking up from his cars, and then he started singing a song he had recently learned in school. "Esau was coming with 400 men but Yaakov was davening to Hashem." I sat there confused for a moment until my son said, "This is my song for the mommies and daddies. I'm sending them Yaakov's prayer so they shouldn't be scared. So that they should know how to pray for their children. Should I sing it again?"
I nodded as I thought about the words my child was saying. Evil is loud and senseless and comes in an army of 400 men. It comes in the deafening gun shots in a kindergarten classroom. Goodness is quiet. It comes in a prayer that no one else can hear. It’s in the almost invisible steps of an elderly woman cleaning the streets at dawn. And goodness sits behind the scenes in a life like Avivit Shaer's who could have given up and crawled into a hole of grief after losing her family in the fire but instead continued teaching and inspiring her high school students with her rock solid faith and perseverance.
Even though goodness is quieter and humbler than evil, it is far more powerful. Perhaps this is the message we need to hear in the face of such a senseless tragedy: the power of goodness is far stronger than evil. We don't have complete answers to the whys that run through our minds in the aftermath of the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. But we have hope. If every single kind deed that we do is far more powerful than any evil act, then we can at least wake up each morning with determination like the elderly woman who cleans up the world, street by street.
My son's song soon drowned out the sirens in the distance, and I hoped somehow that it reached the parents a half hour away outside the school. I stood by the living room window as he sang and pressed my own face against the glass, remembering the words of Avivit Shaer: "It's about bringing light into the world even when it looks dark." Piece by piece. Song by song. Word by word. Let's rebuild.