I was disappointed with myself last week. It took me several hours to even reflect and realize my own apathy. Flipping through channels last Thursday, I saw the news report of the latest mass shooting in our country, when gunman John Russel Houser opened fire last week at The Grand Movie Theater in Lafayette, during a screening of Trainwreck. Two victims were murdered. An additional nine victims were injured, and the gunman eventually took his own life. I watched reports of this terrible tragedy for a few moments and then changed the channel to see what else was on. Hours later I was so angry with myself — and with what society has become — that mass shootings have become so commonplace, have become the norm, that such an event is a nightly headline. I was so disappointed with myself that instead of this massacre leading to action, I just flipped the channel to watch something funny, lighthearted, and fiction instead.
The reality is that mass shootings are all too common in this country. It was less than two weeks ago that Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on a military base in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four U.S. Marines and himself. It was barely a month ago that Dylann Roof shot up Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with the racist intentions of murdering African-American parishioners. He murdered nine people, included the church’s senior pastor. And of course, these are only the mass shootings that we hear about, that are covered on television, in newspapers, and on blogs. According to Business Insider, Mass Shootings are so common in America that we don’t even hear about most of them.
I was angry at my own apathy because we cannot let apathy become our reality. We cannot let our minds, hearts, and souls become numb to our country’s gun violence epidemic. Gun violence in America is much worse than in other developed countries. We need to start doing a lot more, and simply praying is not the answer. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana called for prayers following an ‘awful night in Louisiana,’ referring to last week’s movie theater shooting in Lafayette. As a rabbi who prays three times daily, I strongly encourage prayer. I believe pray helps us connect to something greater than ourselves and balances us when life feels chaotic and we feel helpless. But prayer alone cannot be the answer.
Last Shabbat, the Shabbat prior to the mournful day of Tisha B’Av on the Jewish calendar, was referred to as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, named for the prophetic warnings found in the special Haftarah reading. While Tisha B’av is a day on the Jewish calendar that allows us to mourn the societal tragedies of history caused by humanity’s hateful actions, the Sabbath prior is meant to warn us of the tragedy on the horizon if we do not change our ways. In this Haftarah, taken from chapter one of the book of Isaiah, the prophet urges the Israelites to change their ways and finally, speaking for God, essentially says, “enough with the worship. It is time to act!”
We read in Isaiah 1:11-12 —
‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sated with burnet offerings of rams,
And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me –Who asked that of you?’
God is saying that there is no point in worship if people will not change their ways, if society is unwilling to change. Such sacrificial ritual, and such modern-day prayer, is almost offensive if the prayerful words are meaningless, if the promise to change is a false promise. God goes as far as to say in Isaiah 1:15 —
And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen.
Instead God wants us to seek justice and change our ways as a people and as society. Isaiah continues in 1:15-17 –
Your hands are stained with crime – Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.
It’s time for less prayer and more action. We must take Isaiah’s words – God’s words – to heart. I am sorry Governor Jindal, but I disagree with you. We cannot simply pray. We need to act. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I am tired of a country that cannot pass any true gun control legislation because the gun lobby has more control over our elected officials than we, the voters, residents, and citizens of this country, do. I am tired of a country where a true conversation about level-headed gun control gets shut down automatically and becomes partisan debate. I am tired of a country which understands every other part of the U.S. constitution to be up for interpretation except for our reading of the Second Amendment. And I am tired of a country that permits me to become apathetic, even for a moment, when hearing about bloodshed caused by a bullet.
Those who disagree with me challenge how I can guarantee that guns will be kept out of the hands of criminals. I cannot. Legislative changes cannot. However, I do know this: I know that it is easier to legally buy a gun than it is to register to vote. Furthermore, the restrictions on driving and receiving a driver’s license because of mental illness, medical conditions, or previous illegal driving activity make it far more difficult to legally drive a car than to legally buy a gun. I also know this: Muhammed Abdulazeez had a history of drug abuse and depression and was able to legally buy the gun that he used to murder four U.S. Marines. Dylann Roof had pending felony charge. Federal law prohibits people with pending felony charges from obtaining firearms. Yet, a legal loophole allowed Roof to obtain a gun, because South Carolina is one of many states that does not require background checks for private gun transactions. John Houser was mentally unstable and told by judges on two separate occasions that his cognitive well-being needed to be evaluated by a specialist. But because he was never involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, he was still able to legally buy a gun, which he did from a pawn shop in Alabama, before using it to shoot up a movie theater in Louisiana.
I know that we as a nation can do better. We must do better. We must pass commonsense gun control reform to prevent those who shouldn’t be able to, from legally obtaining a firearm. We will not be able to fully solve the gun violence epidemic in our country. However, doing nothing only allows it to continue, and as long as we do nothing, we are just as responsible for the bloodshed of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our loved ones. How many people need to be murdered by a firearm in a movie theater or house of worship, on a military base or in a hospital, in a shopping mall or school, before we finally come to our senses and pass commonsense gun control?
In Isaiah’s prophecy, God requires that we devote ourselves to justice. To fail to act and to allow our elected officials to not act is an injustice! We need to stop our calls for prayer and begin our calls for action. God requires that of us, and the fragility of life requires that of us as well.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky