Some time back, a ten or eleven year old boy told me that he had experienced a stomach ache in shul. He told me he was wondering whether his stomach ache might have averted some disaster elsewhere. If it did, he said, he would gladly accept more such pains in order to save people from catastrophe.
This conversation really bothered me.
Certainly, we do believe within traditional Judaism that when part of the community suffers, that can atone for communal sin, and avert a different communal tragedy. [Yes, this is the idea that becomes skewed into vicarious atonement in Christianity.]
It’s also good for a child to develop sympathy for others, and to be willing to endure hardship for the sake of helping others. This is a major parenting goal; you don’t need me to do yet another re-hash of Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s perennial pedagogy for his son.
Among my questions, though:
1. Who would teach this concept to an unsophisticated ten year old boy?
2. How does this child now view suffering – his own and that of others?
3. Is it healthy for a ten year old boy to think this way?
4. What sort of behavior toward himself and others might this trigger in the child, before he is mature enough to gain a better understanding of suffering?
I don’t know. I’m very uncomfortable with this.