This letter, written for the congregation I serve part-time in Colorado, says just about everything I have to say right now about last Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Over the weekend, still raw with anger and sadness at recent events, surrounded by the children of our congregation who had come to celebrate Shabbat and Hanukkah with us, we acknowledged briefly, and in general terms, our own pain and confusion. We said prayers for the healing of those families so senselessly made victims in the all-too-human disaster that unfolded Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. We expressed our hopes that the light of the Hanukkah candles, so incongruous with the mood of the day, might inspire us to act, to build a world worthy of the joy they represent.
On Sunday we devoted our weekly adult chat to the question we must all ask at times like this, “where was God?” It was an hour full of emotion. Still the confusion. So many questions, so many different faces of God, hiding from and seeking us; so few real answers.
Now a few days have passed. I have returned home, had the opportunity to fold my own children into my arms with gratitude and relief (relief that once again, this time, by chance, my family had literally dodged the bullets). So many colleagues, friends, and strangers have helped me, in the interim, to process my grief and outrage at this latest national tragedy. Through eloquent prayer, activism, Torah, personal narratives (I was particularly moved by this and this), and professional opinions, I have slowly begun to piece together my own response, my own answer to the question of where is God, and a sense of what I believe we all must do next.
Through all of this my thoughts were heavily informed by the words of Rabbi Jonathan Blake of Westchester Reform Temple , who has characterized the Newtown massacre as “this most recent image of a world desperately in need of hope and healing.”
I carry Rabbi Blake’s phrase with me everywhere, now.
It lingers in the back of my mind as I read the opinions of those who would direct their anger primarily at Friday’s gunman. A former classmate, whom I love and respect, invokes Jewish custom to support his belief that Adam Lanza, in the company of “Haman, Hitler, and the like,” should “rot namelessly and unlamented.” I cannot agree.
I do understand the problem with potential copycat murderers witnessing the excessive, obsessive news coverage that in their minds glorifies the perpetrator, and thus the impulse to quiet some of the noise now flooding our global communications networks. I would argue, however, that the young man wielding the guns on Friday was no Haman, no Hitler, no powerful despot with a heart full of calculated hatred and a carefully constructed plan.
He was, rather, a deeply troubled, lonely, misfit child, making desperate and chaotic choices; moreover, a child of God. Without dismissing the notion of personal responsibility, which with the death of the gunman became a moot point in this case, I think it is possible, and perhaps even desirable, to see Adam Lanza as himself a product of “a world desperately in need of hope and healing,” as Rabbi Blake has given it to us. To dismiss this aspect of the truth is to dismiss our hopes of learning from the travesty of life and humanity we have witnessed. If we cannot see that it is the world that needs healing, the way things work in the world, the way we, as a society, have structured our world, I fear there will be no healing.
On Sunday morning one of you asked whether I thought the events at Sandy Hook were evil. I didn’t have a good answer then. I saw there the results of evil, yes, but what was its source? We live in a country where it is easier to acquire military-grade weapons and ammunition—legally!—than it is to adopt a stray dog, or get a driver license. We live in a country that has shuttered its psychiatric hospitals, slashed funding for public mental health care, and left parents and other caregivers without resources to help those children and adults who struggle with diagnosed or undiagnosed pathological brain chemistry. As a result, the population of mentally ill prison inmates has skyrocketed in recent years, and prisons have become the largest providers of mental health care—such as it is—in this country. This, my friends, is the source of the evil we witnessed on Friday, an evil to which we are all party.
Sensible gun control, adequate mental health care, these are things we can change, and only when we do change these things, will our world receive some of the hope and healing it so desperately needs. In the meantime, I for one do not wish the personal wounds we feel at the carnage we’ve witnessed to heal up too soon. Forgive me if this seems callous, but the pain we feel now pales in the face of 26 bereaved Connecticut families’ pain. It pales in the face of the pain we will feel when this happens again, the pain we will feel if, God-forbid, it happens again but in our town; in our school or shopping mall or movie theater; in our family. There will be time enough for us to heal from the pain we feel now after we have allowed it to goad us into doing something to promote the healing of our world.
Hope, on the other hand, we’ve got in spades: the hope symbolized by the Hanukkah lights, a light which we must in turn bring into the world; the hope that our democratic institutions may function the way they are intended to if enough of us become unhappy enough about these wounds, our wounds, to speak up and make our voices heard where it will make a difference. The hope that we can, as President Obama said on Sunday night, do better. My friends, hold onto this hope. And let us act together to make this hope real.
And where was God on Friday morning? God was in the teachers and administrators who gave their lives to protect their schoolchildren. God was in the activists who have for years fought to heal the ills that allow our society to suffer such mass killings so regularly. And God was in the heart of every survivor in Newtown, and in every one of us, who looked on, weeping. God was weeping for what we have not yet done, and God is in us now, spurring us to do everything we can do to heal our world.
This is a conversation we will continue as a community. In the meantime, here’s what you can do:
- Sign the Sandy Hook Elementary School National Sympathy Card
- Sign this petition for people of faith calling for an assault weapons ban and background checks
- Call or write to President Obama
- Call or write to your federal and state representatives
- Visit the National Alliancefor Mental Illness to learn more about how to advocate for better public mental health care
Please let me know what I've left out.
Together, we can make the world better. As Rabbi Tarfon said, It is not up to us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.
With prayers for strength and the light of dedication (hanukkah) to sacred causes,
Rabbi Debra Kassoff