Today is December 22 and despite predictions from the Mayan calendar to the contrary, the world did not come to an end yesterday. But it seemed a week ago last Friday that the world was on its way with the horrors of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton Conn. There is a verse in this week’s Torah reading (Gen. 45:3) that shouts out to us as we try to deal with the enormity of what has happened. Joseph asks his brothers, Ha-od avi chai, “Is my Father Alive?”
How many parents, how many relatives, how many neighbors called or ran to that school to ask the same question, “Is my little boy or little girl alive,” “Is my wife, my sister, my cousin still alive?” So many of us have gotten calls from family with loved ones who we knew were on the decline and with each call we wondered, “Is this the call? Are they still alive”?
There really are no words to describe the unbelievable horror of all this. Every shooting rampage is senseless but this struck a nerve. It was an attack on the most innocent and most vulnerable—20 children only 6 and 7 years old in a 1st grade class plus 4 teachers, a psychologist and a principle. When you drop off your kid at school it’s supposed to be a safe place!
We grieve for the children, for the teachers, for their parents, for a community and for our nation. Of all the things that have been said about this school massacre, the most damning and the most challenging were the words: “Oh no, not again!” Bad enough that this happened, but even worse is the fact that is wasn’t the 1st or 2nd time. I did some research and found that there were 16 mass murders this year in America—at a Michigan Sikh temple, in a Colorado movie theater, on an army base in the heartland of America and 4 of the rest were school related!
When you see a pattern like this develop all across the nation, when our reaction has become “Oh no, not again!” then we are forced to confront the reality that the problem is not with a few isolated individuals, but within society itself. How are we ever going to be able to go from “Oh no, not again!” to “Never again!”? It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to require a lot of introspection in the hearts of the American people. If we have not yet found a solution to the violence unfolding in our schools, that can only mean that we are part of the problem.
The Torah (Lev. 19:14) teaches, Lifney iveyr lo titeyn michshol, “Thou shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person.” The Sages of the Midrash were puzzled by this verse. Does the Torah really have to tell us not to trip up the blind? Who would do such a thing? From the perspective of our Sages, there are all kinds of blindness, and there are all kinds of ways of tripping people. Our Sages tell us this verse means that you cannot give someone misleading advise, because it might cause them to stumble and make a mistake in their decision. You cannot then offer a drink, therefore, to someone who has a drinking problem.
But there are 2 other interpretations that speak most forcefully to us in light of what unfolded in Conn. In the Talmud (Avoda Zara), our Sages tell us that this verse comes to teach us that one should never hit their teenage child, because it might lead that child to stumble into sin by striking back at the parent. That’s an amazing interpretation, containing within it a keen psychological insight into the mind and heart of a teenager. Our Sages understood that a teenager is sometimes like a loose cannon. Their psyche is very fragile. And so it becomes our responsibility to not place a stumbling block in front of them that would cause them to trip over and strike back with uncontrolled rage.
Maimonides looks at this verse and teaches: It is forbidden to sell a heathen weapons of war and we neither sharpen their spears nor sell them knives, manacles, iron chains, bears, lions or anything which is a public danger. We may only sell them shields which are for defense purposes. Do you understand what Maimonides is telling us? He’s saying that if we make weapons available to people that are apt to misuse them, we are placing a stumbling block in front of a blind person!
Adam Lanza, the shooter, was a sick kid. As I understand it, he 1st shot his parents—1st his father in NJ and then his mother in Conn. before shooting up the school. That parents can miss the signs of sickness, I can understand. That kids can express their frustrations violently, I can understand. What I don’t understand is why our society violates the Biblical command of Lifney Iveyr and allows a 20-year-old to get his hands on an assault weapon similar to weapons used by our troops in Afghanistan? Yes he took it from his mother’s collection, but what was she doing with an assault weapon in her home?
The question is, will gun control make us safe? The answer is yes and no. No, because anyone intent on violence will find a way to be violent. And the flip side of this is that you can make a good case that allowing guns in sensitive areas carried by responsible people will certainly make us safer as it does for Israelis in Israel. Israel probably has as many guns per capita as we do in America. But Israeli youth are taught to handle guns with responsibility. If the Newton principle or a security guard had a gun, perhaps fewer children might have died.
And yes, it may make us safer to get a grip on the problem of assault weapons. I don’t know much about guns and the technology of modern weaponry, but it seems to me that we need to be able to control the easy availability of assault weapons. Could someone please explain why we permit military style weapons equipped with armor piercing bullets on our streets? We cannot board a plane if we are carrying a shampoo bottle that is too big, but somehow a young man can obtain a weapon that can murder 20 people in 2 minutes???
I know that I’m speaking in Georgia and that people are very sensitive about their right to have guns. After Columbine we asked, “Why should an 18-year-old who is not old enough to have the responsibility of drinking be old enough to buy an assault rifle?” It’s still a good question.
The whole idea of having such weaponry is alien to Judaism. Do you know that according to Jewish law, when we recite the grace after meals, we’re supposed to remove the knives from the table? Why? Because a knife can be a weapon. Did you know that according to Jewish law, on Shabbos you’re not allowed to wear a stick pin or a tie clip that is in the shape of a knife or sword? In so many ways, Judaism meant to inculcate within us an abhorrence to all things violent and destructive.
Ours is a society that sometimes celebrates violence and glorifies cruelty, as we see in the movies and on television every day. I’m not suggesting censorship. I’m only suggesting that those who manage the media must understand that they have a major responsibility. Unfortunately, our young people learn more from television, the movies and their music than they learn from the synagogue, the church or school. And therefore, those who manufacture these products...those who fill the airwaves and the screens…and those making the video games celebrating violence and glorifying killings, need to take a long hard look at the products they produce, and at the harm that it may be doing to vulnerable young souls. We must not be blind to the stumbling blocks and pitfalls that our society places in front of our children.
This was a sad week for America as we watched one funeral after the other for these little kids. We are bewildered, stunned and sick at heart. Let us hope to live to see the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isiah: “Violence shall no longer be heard in thy land or desolation or destruction within thy border. For in the place of thy defensive walls will be the salvation of the Lrd and in the place of thy protective gates shall be the praise of Almighty Gd.”
Please rise as I read the names of the victims of the Newton massacre:
Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Madeleine Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison N. Wyatt, 6
Rachel Davino, 29 Teacher
Dawn Hochsprung, 47 School principal
Anne Marie Murphy, 52 Teacher
Lauren Rousseau, 30 Teacher
Mary Sherlach, 56 School psychologist
Victoria Soto, 27 Teacher
May their memory be for a blessing. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis