“Hey mom i dont know whats going on here at school but i love you and im so thankful for everything youve done for me. i love you so much”
“everyone is saying theres a shooter on campus i dont know whats going on but i love you and sad so much”
These are the text messages that a teenager sent her mother in the middle of our country’s latest school shooting, this time at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California on Thursday, November 14, when a 16-year-old student showed up on his birthday with a handgun and shot five students, two of them fatally, before shooting himself in the head.
The school is expected to remain closed until December 2, when it will reopen and students will be expected to go about their lives as if this didn’t happen, as if they aren’t dealing with the very real trauma of surviving a mass shooting, the trauma of such a shooting taking place in their school, a place where they are supposed to be protected and safe. Because this is “business as usual” in America in 2019, when we force our children to grow up and they lose their innocence.
In Parashat Vayeira we read of the disturbing narrative when Abraham kicks Hagar and Ishmael out of their home. Ignoring the questionable and disturbing actions of our biblical patriarch, I can’t help, but focus on the Hebrew of what happens. Hagar is sent into the wilderness, with her child, her yeled in Hebrew, by her side, with a little bit of bread and a skin of water. They wandered aimlessly until the water was gone and Hagar expected she would die.
Not wanting to watch her child die, the text says: “Al ereh b’mot hayeled,” “don’t let me look at this child dying,” again using the word yeled. But when Hagar began to cry, the Torah tells us “Vayishma Elohim et Kol HaNa’ar,” “God heard the cry of the lad,” using the Hebrew word na’ar instead of yeled. A yeled is a young child, a kid, vulnerable and dependent on a parent, much like Ishmael was in this moment. But a na’ar, is more than a lad, more than an adolescent, or a young adult, or a teenager. A Na’ar is someone who is forced to grow up – someone who was vulnerable before, but empowered at this moment. A na’ar is someone who no longer follows, but instead is ready to lead.
We have no more yeledim. We have no more children. In this day and age, our children have grown up too fast. They have been forced to. They have become na’arim. Our children have more lockdown drills in their schools than fire drills. More than 230,000 schoolchildren have been exposed to gun violence in their schools since the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. We have forced our children to grow up way to soon. We have destroyed any age of innocence for them. We have turned yeledim into na’arim long before they should be forced to deal with the hardships and heartache of this world.
Why was it that Hagar cried out, but it was Ishmael’s voice that God heard? And why is it that after hearing Ishmael’s cries, does an angel call out to Hagar in return? Dr. Ellen Frankel teaches that “sometimes it’s our children, speaking from where they are, who teach us how to see what we need to survive… [that] a child’s tears reach the heavens.”
We have failed our children. This most recent school shooting is just another example of that. But the March for our Lives and the movement that the students from Parkland, Florida launched was a sign that our children are now na’arim, that they are empowered, that they will bring about change. And just as God hears Ishmael’s cries and responds to Hagar, God will hear the voices of these na’arim, of these newly empowered young adults and their angelic work will protect us all. The brokenness of this world has turned each yeled into a na’ar, but I pray that, like Ishmael, they are empowered as a result. As Dr. Ellen Frankel said, their tears reach the heavens. May they reach all of us as well – and inspire us to do the necessary work to protect all of us who are wandering, lost in this wilderness.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky