Why Do Children Die?

The recent death of a young boy in a brutal murder shocked the frum community. This is only one of several tragic, strange deaths of our community’s children during the past few years. In 2009, a nine-year-old boy never woke up on Shabbos morning. The cause of death has still not yet been determined. A ten-year-old boy in Williamsburg died when he tried to escape a stalled elevator and fell down the shaft. A five-year-old girl crossing the street for her school bus was killed by a speeding car that ignored the stop signs and flashing lights of the bus. At a bungalow colony upstate, a bear snatched a baby from her carriage.

Three children died in a house fire in New Jersey (which occurred even after firemen had been called to check out a smell of smoke). Three sleeping children, including a baby, were murdered in Itamar with their parents.

Why did these strange terrible tragedies happen? Why do innocent young children die?

The question, “Why do innocent young children die?” is only part of the larger question of why any tragedy happens, which in turn is part of the biggest question of all, “How can a loving merciful G-d bring so much misery upon the world?” Job tried to answer these questions three thousand years ago and could not.

Perhaps we should be grateful in the sense that nowadays the death of children is something rare and unusual. In prior centuries it was commonplace for children to die. One monarch had fourteen children who all died very young. A noted tzaddik from the Old Yishuv had nine of his eleven children die during his lifetime. Rabbi Meir and Bruriah of the Talmud lost their two sons, while Rabbi Preida showed mourners a bone from the burial of his tenth son (the Talmud is unclear on whether this means just his tenth son died or if ten of his sons died). Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal lost a young son to whooping cough in Russia. Jewish cemeteries have tiny headstones for infants. The Holocaust, which claimed six million Jewish lives, also killed one-and-a-half million Jewish children.

What do we do? Start off by hugging our healthy, wonderful children and thanking G-d for them every day.

Think seriously about the meaning of the blessing that a father says when his son is Bar Mitzvah, thanking G-d for “being released” from responsibility for his son. What does this release mean? Does a young child die for his parents’ sins, G-d forbid? G-d forbid! Then why would there be criminals and villains with with healthy, fine living children?

One explanation is that such children are Gilgulim, reincarnations, neshamos that only need to come to Earth for a very short time, in order to finish something important, and then return perfect and cleansed to Shamayim. That the parents are granted such precious neshamos as a brief loan of gems (see the story of Rabbi Meir and Bruriah above). The neshama finished his/her mission here in only ten years instead of seventy, and thereupon goes back to G-d.

I don’t know the answers to these unanswerable questions. One person said it as follows: “On Earth there are no answers. In Heaven there are no questions. Yet no one from here is rushing to get there.”

7 comments on “Why Do Children Die?

  1. Tanna DeBei Eliyahu Raba, Chapter 13, Paragraph 8:

    A man was once in the synagogue together with his young son. While the congregation was saying Amen and Halleluyah in response to the cantor’s reading, the boy was engaged in idle chatter, and his father said nothing to him.

    When people told the father to rebuke his son, he replied, “What can I do? He is only a child.”

    The boy disturbed the service all eight days of the festival of Succoth, while the father said nothing.

    It was not long before that man died, together with his wife and fifteen members of his household. Only two sons survived. One was crippled and blind; the other was foolish and wicked.

  2. Is there a reason to think all instances have the same set of causes? This may be an area where we should curb our urge to generalize.

    Every time some large weather event happens—hot, cold, you name it—global-warmologists, the modern chartumim, invoke their pet climate theory. I hope we’re a lot more realistic about the limitations of our knowledge.

  3. Rather than utilizing Aggadic or Midrashic texts as a means of rendering views which IMO can best be described as theodicy, it is important to bear in mind the Talmud’s very trenchant POV about who is in possession of Nevuah at the present time and RYK’s classic response to a speaker who inveighed against a certain perceived transgression as delaying Bias HaMoshiach. IMO, we cannot understand why tragic events happen, and it ill-behooves us to focus on certain perceived religious laxities that all too predictably are trotted out in response ( i.e. Tznius, Lashon Hara, Bitul Torah, etc) but we certainly learn from such events to prevent the same from happening in the future.

  4. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Batra, page 91A:

    Boaz fathered 30 sons and 30 daughters, and they all died during his lifetime because he did not invite Manoach [the future father of Samson] to their wedding feasts.

  5. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin, page 97A:

    [Rav Tovyomi said this story:] I once visited a town named Kushta (which means TRUTH in Aramaic) whose residents would never lie, and none of the people of that place ever died before their time.

    I married a woman from among them, and fathered two children from her.

    One day a neighbor asked about his wife’s welfare. Since she was washing her hair, for the sake of modesty he answered that she was not home.

    Immediately both his children died, and the residents of Kushta immediately begged him to leave their city, so death would not visit them again.

  6. “In prior centuries it was commonplace for children to die.”

    In researching genealogy records, it is mindboggling how many families in the old country (late 19th early 20th century) lost multiple children, many of them listed as being under two years old. In my own extended family, I was astounded to learn recently that one great grandfather was one of five surviving children, in a family with ten siblings. We also learned that another great-grandfather lost a child very young. It’s quite hard to look at these records sometimes.

  7. Rashi on Bamidbar, Parshat Korach, chapter 16, verse 27:

    Come and see how destructive disputes are, because earthly courts do not punish until adolescence, and the Heavenly Court does not punish until the age of 20 years, but here even nursing infants perished.

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