This Shabbat marks the first yahrtzeit – the anniversary of the death – on the secular calendar of 26 individuals, 20 young children and 6 adults, who were murdered in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It is customary that mourners recite a specific prayer, the Mourner’s Kaddish, on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. After shooting these 26 innocent souls, the murderer turned the gun on himself and ended his own life. The gun was purchased legally by the shooter’s mother and licensed in her name; he killed her moments before opening fire on these schoolchildren.
The Newtown massacre was the second deadliest mass shooting in American history. Never before had our country experienced a school shooting in which the victims were so young, with so much of life still to live. The shooting ignited debates on gun control and mental health, while legislators proposed bills that would ban certain semi-automatic weapons as well as magazines with more than ten rounds of ammunition. Yet, as we remember the lives of those tragically taken from this world on that solemn day, we are left wondering a year later: “What have we done to make our children safer? What have we done to make this world safer?”
As I wrote in the compilation Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence, following the Newtown shooting:
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.
So as we mourn on this first yahrtzeit for the 26 beautiful souls who were taken from this world far too soon, who were murdered in cold blood, we continue to cry and mourn, and God continues to cry and mourn, because the world is not better nor safer than it was on that fateful day a year ago. God continues to cry and mourn as we have continued to live our lives in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre without making a change. We mourn the 26 souls murdered on December 14th, 2013, but we also mourn so many more. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 33,000 Americans have been killed by guns since the shooting in Newtown a year again. We mourn those losses as well. For God demands of us in Leviticus 19:16 that we shall not stand idly by when a neighbor’s life is threatened. So we take responsibility for both our action and inaction.
Our complacency has led to no new legislation regarding stricter background checks, no new legislation banning semi-automatic weapons, no new legislation requiring background checks for private sales or gun shows, and no new legislation providing essential mental healthcare for those who desperately need it. We have continued to allow lethal weapons to legally end up in the hands of those who should not be carrying them. Our refusal to act has led to tens of thousands of more deaths by bullet. Since the Newtown shootings, there have been 24 more school shootings. And God continues to cry.
This Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayehi, the final Torah portion of the Book of Genesis. In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob, on his deathbed, offers his blessings to his children and grandchildren. He offers his hopes and prayers to protect the next generation, long after they are gone. When blessing grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh, Jacob prays:
Hamalach HaGoel Oti Mikol-Rah, Yevarech et Ha’ne’arim
The Angel who has redeem me from all harm – bless these young men.
This is the prayer of all parents and grandparents. We pray that God keeps us safe, but even more so, that God redeems all future generations, our descendants, from all harm. This is our prayer for our children, but we cannot sit still and simply wait for this prayer to come true. We cannot wait for Divine intervention. We, God’s Angels on earth, God’s Messengers, must act, to ensure that we – and our children – are safe.
I encourage you to make your voices heard by participating in Faiths Calling and contacting your representatives from Congress to urge them to ensure that the prayers of Jacob, prayers of protection for our children, are heard.
When we conclude our Torah reading this Shabbat, we also conclude the Book of Genesis. Just as we do whenever we finish reading any book of the Torah, we declare as a community Hazak Hazak v’Nithazek, Be Strong, Be Strong, and Let Us Be Strengthened! Such a charge is no more appropriate than at this moment, at this crossroads in time. May we be strong enough to make our voices heard. May we be strong enough to fight for the safety of our children. May we be strong enough to take action. May we be strong enough to make this world a safer place, a place where our children’s biggest fears are about pop quizzes instead of stray bullets. Only then will we truly be strengthened.
May the memories of the 26 innocent souls murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School one year ago – as well as the over 33,000 who have died as a result of gun violence since then – be for a blessing.
Hazak Hazak v’Nithazek.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky