I retired from the pulpit five months ago feeling depleted emotionally, spiritually and physically from the prolonged vigilance of guiding a spiritual community through years of unrest in our country and our world. I needed a break from teaching, activism and speaking out in the face of injustice and tragedy. I didn’t, and still don't, think this is a permanent break from my work but I clearly needed a rest. So, I began to read for leisure, exercise, seek out fun, participate in some good old fashioned binge watching and started some writing projects that I have put on the back burner for years.
One of these projects is sorting through fifteen plus years of my writing. I wrote regularly in response to tragedy, both natural and man-made, throughout my career because that is what rabbis do. We try and make sense of the senseless and try to find ways to channel our pain into compassion and action. Sermons following mass shootings are sadly part of my rabbinic canon and while the scenarios may be different, the heartbreak, helplessness, rage and resolve are a common theme in all these writings of mine.
Today, is the day after the latest mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and even though my psyche is still not fully ready to engage, I find I cannot stay silent. My own mental health concerns are nothing compared to the incomprehensible suffering and agony of the families that lost a child, the families that lost a wife or mother and the community that is changed forever from this hideous, senseless tragedy.
Our rabbinic sages taught that the reason God created only one individual, Adam, from whom all humanity is descended, was to teach us that if you destroy one life, it is as if you destroyed the whole world, and that if you save one life, it is as if you saved the entire world. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a). Yesterday, twenty-one worlds were destroyed. Twenty-one lives each of which was a world unto itself. These were worlds of love, of family, of potential and promise, and of futures that will never be realized.
Our children now cannot remember a time they didn’t know about school shootings. Following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, the New York Times dubbed these children the “Mass Shooting Generation,” as they grew up participating in active shooter drills and huddling through lockdowns. Parents tragically now must talk to their kids about threats and vigilance and contingency plans just in case something should happen at their school. They are now a generation who live in a world where every day they go to school but don’t know if they will come home. We can’t turn away from this plague of gun violence directed at innocents because our children deserve better. I certainly agree that responding with prayers and sympathy is not enough. We must have the radical empathy to stand in their shoes and sit with them in their classrooms to experience what they face every day. We must demand change so our kids know they can go to school in the morning and come home alive in the afternoon.
There are people smarter than I (read Stanford Law’s John Donohue’s interview) outlining the steps we must take as a society to reduce gun violence in this country. As an individual, I can only embrace the one weapon I have in my arsenal to bring about change and that is my vote. I am not naïve enough to think that gun reform legislation will suddenly occur when it has failed time and time again but I will not stop voting for candidates that support that kind of legislation. And I will continue to financially support organizations that work for reform such as Every-town for Gun Safety, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and the Sandy Hook Promise.
I pray that one day my rabbinic portfolio will not include multiple sermons responding to the mass murdering of innocents and children. I pray that the children I have had the privilege to teach will grow up in a world where they do not fear for their lives while sitting in their school rooms. I pray that my sister, a middle school teacher, is safe at work. And I pray to God for guidance and help that as a society we remain alert, oriented toward action instead of becoming complacent to what is happening all around us.
The Israelites stood at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, trapped between the water closing in and the Egyptian army bearing down, and Moses stood on a rock above the water and called out in prayer, seeking God’s intervention to save the people. God responds to Moses by saying, “Mah titzak elai”, “Why are you crying out to ME?” Why aren’t you doing what is right and acting out of your highest values? That, in the end, is what will save you. Go! Advance! Do the right thing!” (Exodus 14:15)