Avenging Leiby Kletzky
Silence and Words
At an open grave one does not console. The sheer pain is too intense, the open wound too fragile. Thus, I could not bring myself to pontificate and write about last week’s horrific murder of Leiby Kletzky a”h.
But now as we conclude the seven-day shiva period, perhaps some words are in order – despite the fact that the tragedy and its aftershocks have not abated.
Indeed, just like there is a time to be silent there is also a time to speak. Because we Jews have learned that we don’t ask “why;” we ask “what.” When it comes to “why” – why terrible things happen – we are silent; but when it comes to “what” – what can we do – then we have much to say.
We may never know why a little innocent boy had to make the wrong turn and meet the wrong man – if one can call him that – only to be torn away from his family in such a brutal manner, forever. But as much as we do not know why, we do know with absolute certainty that we can and must do something about it.
So just as silence is necessary in acknowledging the total mystery and shock of the tragedy, words are equally necessary to address, explore and discuss what we ought to do.
As Maimonides writes, “when a calamity strikes the public we must see it as a result of our evil actions. We must cry out, examine our lives and correct our ways. To say that the calamity is merely a natural phenomenon and a chance occurrence is insensitive and cruel” (Laws of Fasting 1:2-3).
Maimonides’ words do not mean that we should be pointing fingers and looking to blame someone (besides the perpetrator) for the calamity, but that we should be looking into our own hearts and souls and seeing how we can correct our ways. [Go here for a longer article on this topic]. In Leiby’s case — a child from a very loving family — it means that our society as a whole has to undergo a deep soul searching to understand what we are doing wrong that would allow such horror, and what we can do to remedy the roots of the problem.
Grief alone is not enough. As the prophet states about these sad days that punctuate the Three Weeks: These days will be transformed into joy and gladness and holidays (Zechariah 8:19. Maimonides end of Laws of Fasting). Eliminating these tragic days will not do. They must be transformed to good.
You see, grief is a very powerful force, releasing enormous amounts of energy, perhaps even greater than that which is released through joy. As such, if we allow our grief to take control then evil will have prevailed. We therefore are compelled to channel the vast power of grief into positive action – that is as intense as the very anguish itself. As such the pain becomes a catalyst, propelling us to something enormously powerful. Think of the pain and tears as water that nourishes and nurtures the seeds for growth.
Should the heartache ultimately outshine and overshadow the growth, evil would have won. And we cannot allow that.
Therefore, this calamity must drive us to change the world for the good. And in an even more dramatic fashion than Levi Aron’s monstrous act changed the world for the bad. Nothing less will do.
Turning Grief Into Action
How can we possibly transform Leiby’s gruesome death into a positive force?
By taking all our rage, our bloodcurdling cries, and mobilizing them towards driving a revolution.
What type of revolution?
A revolution that is a direct outgrowth of this particular tragedy. A parallel positive to counter the horrible negative. Jews redeem the negative – not by running away from it or dwelling on it, but by returning to the same spot where the damage took place- yet this time repairing the damage. Maimonides writes (Laws of Teshuvah 2:1) that true teshuvah (return) occurs when “a person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his teshuvah alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength.”
When you are faced with the same conditions in which you transgressed, and this time you do what is right – that is true healing.
Where did the unspeakable damage take place in Leiby’s case? In the unforgivable snuffing out of a pure and innocent child’s life. The healing and redemption must therefore come through its diametric opposite: saving our children.
The State of our Children
I once asked a sociologist friend what criteria he uses to determine the value of a particular society. His answer: standard of living, per capita income, health care, respect of human rights. By these standards our society today is ranked highest in all of history.
By contrast, the Torah has one criterion that determines the level of a society: the welfare of our children. The Torah’s central focus in virtually every mitzvah, Shabbat and holidays, orbits around our children: Teach your children; When your child will ask, Answer. Children – our future, our legacy – are our single most valuable commodity. By that standard – the welfare of our children – our society may be one of the lowest in the ratings. Certainly not in the top tiers.
Our children today are under attack. They are neglected, ignored, left to fend for themselves, without healthy role models and mentors. Television and media – with its fantasies and superstars – have become the babysitters and paragons for our children.
Just look around: many children grow up in broken and dysfunctional families. The level of social anxiety and misery is at unprecedented heights. Witness the amounts of money and time spent on therapy and other interventions to heal our fractured psyches. How much of that can be traced back to our fractured childhoods?
Some of you may feel that I am exaggerating and the situation is not as ominous as I am describing. You are entitled, but ask yourselves: Are children happy today? All newborns are born happy, but is that true about, say, ten year olds? 15 year olds? And besides, when it comes to our most precious commodity, our future, isn’t it better to err on the side of caution, to cherish and protect our children more than necessary, instead of the other way around?
There is no doubt that our highly materialistic and me-centered society is taking its toll on our most vulnerable: Our children. When people are consumed with their own needs, with power, money, acquisition, self-indulgence, the first to suffer are their children. Self-focus deprives our children from receiving their single most vital source of sustenance: Attention and love.
And what happens to a child deprived of nurturing? The same thing that happens to a flower deprived of water. It withers. It gets desperate – it gasps for breath, desperate to find some nourishment, some love, healthy or not, to feed its parched soul…
We don’t have to wait for outright abuse and molestation to see the damaging effects of neglected children. Remember the rule: All unhealthy behavior is rooted in much subtler forms of abandonment before it blows up into overt abuse. When children are not cared for, a vacuum is created. And we know nature’s attitude to vacuums. Nature abhors a vacuum. All predators thrive in vacuums.
A vacuum, on its own, seems quite innocuous. And in its early stages it waits quietly, dormant, seeming not to bother anyone. But it creates fertile ground for the most dangerous of forces. First a child is neglected. Then a defenseless child is abandoned. And then we wonder how that child got hurt.
Save Our Children
The opposite end of the spectrum of a child being hurt is a child being helped; a child being saved.
Leiby’s death was the epitome of betrayal – a defenseless child left to the wolves. And the horrific manner of his death, only amplifies the betrayal.
Just to be clear: Leiby was not betrayed by his parents. They are the most wonderful, loving parents any child could dream of. Just listen to the words of Leiby’s brokenhearted father at the funeral…
He was betrayed by society. By an environment in which children can be hurt. By a world that allows predators to thrive.
This tragic story is not about blaming any one individual; it’s about shedding light on the larger picture; on the general status of our children today. We ought to be looking for the bigger lessons, the deeper messages. As cited earlier from Maimonides: a tragedy behooves us to look into ourselves and our own lives.
The only thing that can counter the horror of children being hurt, is an even greater effort to save our children.
So here is what we can do:
We must once and for all declare war against any form of child abuse, child neglect, child molestation.
But this is not just a war “against”. This is a war “for”.
For loving our children. For cherishing our children. For hugging and kissing them a million times a day. For making sure that wherever they go – to school, to camp, for a walk on the street – they are absolutely safe and cared for, protected against any predator, abuser or molester.
Loving our children with such vigilance helps prevent vacuums from emerging. With every vacuum eliminated, there is less fertile ground for predators to feed off.
World War III
We have fought many battles and waged many wars throughout history. The 20th century was home to the two bloodiest wars in all of time.
Now, at the dawn of the 21st century let us wage one final war. Call it World War III. But unlike all its predecessors, this war is an offensive one – a war for our children’s pure souls.
Our battle today is with complacency borne out of comfort and prosperity. Our freedoms and luxuries (which are a true blessing) allow us to become apathetic and take our blessings, beginning with our greatest blessing – our children – for granted. Our war today is to generate a sense of urgency from within, a laser-focused effort to put our children on center stage where they belong.
Leiby’s death should wake us up that enough is enough. Enough of adults indulging in their own needs, leaving children vulnerable, victims in their wake, undefended and unprotected.
Enough minimizing and pushing our children’s hurt under the rug.
Enough sitting by as schools and camps become environments where children can be harmed.
Enough of broken and dysfunctional homes, battlefields where children are left to be slaughtered.
Enough is enough.
Let us reclaim their innocent souls. Let us make sure that our children always know how much they are cared for and cherished.
Before putting your children to bed, and upon their awakening, make an extra effort to hug and embrace your child. During your busy day, find some way to reach out to your child, spontaneously. These are but two simple suggestions. When we apply ourselves, we will surely find many more ways to nurture our children, our flowers, our gardens.
Friends, please share you ideas and suggestions by commenting on this article. We will be happy to post your suggestions for the benefit of others.
This is a war that each of us can and should wage and be a part of. No need for training and special techniques.
And wage the war for our children with passion – with at least as much, if not even more intensity than the grief of Leiby’s abduction and brutal murder.
Keep your eyes open. Should you even suspect that a child is being compromised or hurt, say something, do something.
Every school and camp, every day care center and playgroup, every place where children congregate, should appoint a discreet marshal who is trained and experienced to detect any form of abuse and predatory behavior, and nip it in the bud before it conflagrates. [Go here for more on this].
Let us declare war against any predator or potential predator, by declaring loudly and unequivocally, for all to know, that we accept nothing less than a new zero tolerance policy. Predators beware: Your life – not your victim’s – will be destroyed should you ever touch a child. Potential predators of the world be on guard: Know that we are watching – all eyes are trained and focused on you.
Predators thrive in darkness. As soon as you shine the light, many will think twice before acting.
Like a burglar alarm, awareness and shining the light is not a guarantee, but a powerful deterrent. Should you ever touch a child inappropriately, your life will be seriously affected. You will be ostracized. You will be exposed. Your family, your wife, your friends and community will be made aware of who you are. The shidduchim of your children will be at risk.
Obviously, this needs to be done responsibly (see Exposing Abuse). But we’ve had enough cover-ups and denial. It’s time to move the fear and shame to the perpetrators and away from the victims. Instead of the victims cowering, let the predators cower.
We must declare full-fledged war and publicly announce that if one has a problem around children, if one cannot control his inclinations – then he must seek professional help. Wives of predators must cease being silent enablers and accomplices.
Sexual abuse of children is not a “game” or child’s play; it destroys lives. It affects a person’s entire futures, haunting him or her forever. It complicates and distorts – and often ruins – future relationships.
Touching a child inappropriately changes the child’s life forever…
Our Parting Words to Leiby
Let us be able to look into the eyes of Leiby’s soul and tell him: Your death will be avenged. Your death was not in vain. Your death was the final nail in the coffin of child neglect and child abuse.
Your death has mobilized us all in a war – the final war – against anyone and anything that will ever hurt a child again.
Your death was the beginning of a new era that will, at long last, finally abolish from this earth even one hurting child!
Yes it has come to this: A declaration of war.
Total and absolute war.
Nothing less will do. Nothing else will suffice.
G-d, our Father in Heaven, we are ready to do our part. We beseech you, please do Yours. Comfort us all among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. And above all, help us eradicate all form of hurt and abuse from the face of this earth.
Here is a series of groundbreaking articles on the related topic of child abuse: