Dear Rodeph Sholom Family,
Massacre. Nineteen children and two adults slain. Families and community shattered by horror and carnage. When we have 9-year-old children gunned down in our halls of learning, we face such an abomination of our communal and national ideals I struggle to find a more soul-shattering illustration of the crumbling of our social fabric. But the past 10 days have offered plenty of others – the racially-driven shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, the ethnically-driven shooting at a church in Laguna Woods, CA, the seemingly-indiscriminate shooting in the New York City subway.
So far this year, we have witnessed 27 school shootings and 200 mass shootings in America. Just weeks ago we read the line in our holiness code, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16).
In the immediate moments after hearing of horror, our psyche begins to reel and spin. And so begins the centripetal force moving responsibility outward onto the world around us. Before the screams have stopped echoing, before funerals have taken place, before our collective hearts have fully broken open, the soapboxes are placed and the clarion calls for change fill our screens and airwaves. Gun control. Mental health support. Violent video games. Social media. We rage at politicians, at classmates or teachers who should have seen the signs, at parents, at psychologists. We fill our conversations with the rhetoric of what others should have done to prevent this, and what others need to do to stop it from ever happening again.
And then it happens again. And the same words are offered. The same messages delivered. The same conversations started and concluded. Again. And again. And again. And even as we grow weary, even as we despair, we play our part in the same cycle of moving out responsibility onto the shoulders of others, and embrace the insanity of doing the same thing and expecting different results. The blood of children and educators cries out to us this week. And for many of us, all we do is amplify the rage and further shred the fabric that binds us together.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once asked the question, “What does a person expect to attain when entering a synagogue? In the pursuit of learning one goes to a library; for aesthetic enrichment one goes to the art museum; for pure music to the concert hall. What then is the purpose of going to the synagogue?” Heschel’s response is that in a synagogue we should cultivate a sense of humanity. It is here that we teach compassion; it is here that we cultivate conscience. It is here that we elevate being a mentsch as our most prestigious aspiration. But most important of all, in Heschel’s words: “To attain a degree of spiritual security one cannot rely upon one’s own resources. One needs an atmosphere, where the concern for the spirit is shared by a community.” A community in which each person is needed, where collective concern is definitional. A community in which we cultivate a sense of society.
Thoughts and prayers are not enough. But nor is rage. It is time we reverse our direction of energy, not the centripetal force that casts responsibility away, but a movement of feeling our sacred role in knitting this world together. It is in this space we begin by forcing ourselves to sit in horror and heartbreak. To bear witness to the families who now bury their children. To raise energy and awareness of connection, of standing in solidarity in this society. To live an ethic of community.
This Shabbat at Rodeph Sholom, we will center on mental health. Next week begins National Gun Violence Awareness Month. There will be paths of action ahead. But if we enter these paths seeking destruction, if we tread the worn path that cycles in rage, we lose the essential value needed most right now: how do we cultivate a collective belief that we, all of us, are our brother’s keeper?
We send our deepest condolences to the family and communities of Uvalde, Texas. May the tragedies that define these days move our hearts towards our highest sense of humanity, and challenge us to see community as our necessary vital response. Join us this Shabbat as we will gather in grief and stand in solidarity, raising connection together.
Rabbi Ben Spratt