Lights Against the Darkness

Posted on Dec 20, 2012


The news about the school shootings in Connecticut reached me just before Shabbat, the seventh day of Hanukkah. Candle-lighting seemed more needed than usual that evening. It must have meant a lot to our ancestors, who lived in darkness so much more than we do, to have light in their homes eight nights in a row. If money was scarce, they might not have spent it on oil and wicks had they not been commanded to do so. We moderns feel the need for light keenly when a tragedy like the one at the Newtown school plunges our spirits into darkness. I think we are commanded in its wake to do the equivalent of lighting candles, even if the cost is great. We need to think together, as we grieve together, about what that means.

Rituals like Hanukkah are wonderfully simple in their directives. That’s the beauty of ritual. Say the prayers, light the candles, put them in the window, and you’re done. We treasure ritual in part because we have the chance to get it right—unlike life, which is so complex that we sometimes feel hopeless about the chance of getting anything right. Can we figure out how to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who cannot be trusted to use them properly? Can we get troubled minds and souls the care they need? Can we cure ourselves—especially, it seems, our young men—of the violent streak that, according to the Torah, is as old as humanity itself? Questions are many, and it’s difficult to sort through the answers proposed.

It’s clear to me that we can’t protect ourselves and our children from every danger and expect them to grow into independent adults. It is also clear, however, that we must do something—obligation is heavy in the face of murdered children—and are prohibited from throwing up our hands in the face of the task’s enormity. Moses, facing his own imminent death, tells the Israelites that he has set before them life and death, blessing and curse, good and evil—and commands them to choose life. I believe that Moses knew that such choices are often the very opposite of simple—and yet his Torah commands us to make them, and Jews have struggled to do so for many centuries.

Ours is a tradition that has always prized life, valued every single life, taught that if we save a single life it is as if we save the whole world. We need to figure out, as individuals and communities, how to do so in each individual circumstance. We will not find definitive answers to tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, much less to the profound questions of morality, social policy, and even theology (“where was God?!”) that it provokes. But we know too, as truly as we know anything, that saving one soul makes infinite difference.

I offer three suggestions—three imperatives for communal and social policy—that seem to me to emerge from the Torah.

First, let us redouble our efforts to perform the two actions at the very heart of our tradition: building strong face-to-face communities and filling them with Meaning to live by. Community has the ability to hold us tight in the face of suffering. It overcomes the isolation that is often one of the ingredients that leads to violence. Meaning with a capital M sustains us when heartache seems too great to bear. It has proven capacity to ward off despair. We should extend these gifts to one another without stint in coming weeks. There is no better way to heal broken souls than to gather them together in bonds of solidarity and reach out to them with ageless Truth and wisdom. Let’s offer testimony in word and deed that one choose good, choose blessing, choose life.

Second, let’s do the hard work on social policy that will allow us to figure out how to take guns—and especially assault weapons—from those who should not have them. I believe, along with President Obama and many individuals from across the country and the political spectrum,  that we as a society can find a way to respect the proper use and possession of firearms for hunting and defense and still make it harder for individuals with a history of violence or mental illness to get hold of them. Jewish tradition requires us to secure the conditions that allow for proper functioning of society, and the American Constitution too orders us to “provide for the common defence and promote the general Welfare.” Weapons laws should not remain a matter of right vs. left, urban vs. rural, Republican vs. Democrat. Honest national conversation on this matter at this time stands a good chance of leading to an outcome that saves lives.

Third, let’s provide treatment for those whose vulnerability in mind or soul makes them more prone to violence. I know that our understanding of mental illness is woefully incomplete. I recognize that our resources are too few to care for everyone who needs medical care for body, mind, or soul. I certainly do not mean to imply that every violent crime results from illness or neglect. Our sages teach that there is evil in the world that we need to punish and from which we need to protect ourselves. They also instruct us that the matter is not simple. That said, it does seem that in case after tragic case in America of late, signs of severe disturbance have been ignored and cries for help have been ignored.

I don’t think that the Torah has an answer to the question of “where God was” at that school that day in Connecticut. But it does suggest directions for human answers to such tragedies, and commands us to work at finding and implementing them the best we can. Action of this sort is its own comfort at moments like this one. We owe it to the kids who perished and to those who are back at school.