The Sabbath is meant to be a day of rest, a day of peace. That is why in Hebrew we say Shabbat Shalom. Yet, following the terrible mass shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday that left twenty young children murdered in cold blood, this past Shabbat was emotionally draining for so many of us. Many asked, “Where is God?” This is a question that we often ask at times of tragedy, inexplicable moments of darkness.
The answer: God is here, with us. As we watch the news and wail, as our tears drip into puddles on the front page, God is also crying. God is right by our side, in horror, in shock, in disbelief, crying.
In Isaiah 22:4 God cries out: “Turn away from me and let me weep bitterly. Don’t try to comfort me, for the destruction of my people.” God cries. The Omnipotent does not try and intervene. Rather, after giving us, God’s children made in God’s image, the blessing of responsibility, God cries. The mournful book of Lamentations tells of the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the midrash, Lamentations Rabbah, God cries out. Trying to comprehend that violence and hate that destroyed a symbol of peace and unity, God bemoans: “Woe is Me for My house, My children – where are you? My priests, where are you? Those who love Me, where are you?” God cries with us. God feels helpless, just as we do.
As parents, some of us just wanted to curl up in a ball, hide the news from our children, and protect them from the darkness of this world. Our hearts broke upon hearing the name of each child, so young, so innocent, like our matriarch Sarah, who, according to tradition, died of a broken heart, after she thought that her one and only child was no longer living. Others among us refuse to accept this as reality, waiting to wake up from this nightmare.
In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, many parents suggested that we should simply go home, pray, and hug our children. This is what I did. This is what I always do at the end of the day. I squeeze my daughter tight and beg God to protect her. Then I ask, “what can I do to protect her?” That is when I remember that I cannot hug her all the time. I cannot permanently shield her from harm’s way. I must take responsibility to make this world a better place, a safer place, for her.
On Sunday evening at the Newtown Interfaith Memorial Service, President Barack Obama shared these words:
“We are all parents. They are all are children. This is our first task, caring for our children. if we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That is how as a society we will be judged. Are we prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage?”
Are we prepared to take responsibility? Are we prepared to take action and to prevent such acts from happening ever again? The Jewish Council on Public Affairs is currently circulating a petition online urging the President and Congress to directly confront gun violence. The Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism expressed the need for restrictions on gun ownership in a joint press release. In a week, close to one thousand Jewish teenagers will gather for the annual United Synagogue Youth (USY) International Convention. As part of this program, the teens will be having a Rally Against Gun Violence. All are examples of taking action.
We must not sit idly by and watch God’s children destroy each other. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leader in social justice, taught “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” There have been calls for increased awareness and assistance for those suffering from mental illness. This is necessary. However, so is stricter gun control. I am responsible. You are responsible. We are responsible. Some focus on the second amendment, the right to bear arms. This right is supposed to ensure our safety. Such a right has only caused more danger in our society. There have been fourteen mass shootings in this past year alone. Stricter laws as well as an increase in mental healthcare will help prevent lethal weapons from legally ending up in the hands of those who should not be carrying them. Our children’s right to a future full of opportunity takes precedent over our right to bear arms. We are responsible. We must wipe away our tears and make a change so that God too can stop crying. Rabbi Heschel also noted, reflecting on his march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, that “legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” Let us take action. Let us pray with our feet.
Until this moment of change takes place, I continue to pray to the Holy One, asking God to protect all of our children. Quoting the words of the Priestly Benediction, traditionally said by parents to their children on Sabbath eve: “May God bless you and protect you. May God’s face radiate upon you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face unto you and grant you peace.” And May we, made in the Divine image, help ensure such blessing, such protection, such grace, and such peace through our actions. We are God’s messengers. When we act, God acts. When we sit around in disbelief and refuse to do nothing, God cries.
May we mourn all those lives lost in Newtown and may their memories be for a blessing.
- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky