We held an assembly on Monday, to mourn and reflect on the killings this past Shabbat
We held an assembly on Monday, to mourn and reflect on the killings this past Shabbat at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. For about 15 minutes, Cantor Barbara and I led our 5th, 6th and 7th grade students in prayer. Then I opened the room for students speak.
I was worried about what the students would say. But the first to speak, Ethan in 6th grade, filled me with an upswell of gratitude. Ethan understood something that our father Abraham had modeled for us three millennium ago, in this week’s parshah, Chaye Sarah.
At the close of last week’s parshah, VaYerah, Abraham received a cruel demand from God. For the rest of their lives, he and Isaac would be processing the emotional trauma of that attempted sacrifice, but at least no one was physically harmed. Filled with relief that God had spared his child, at the beginning of this week’s parshah Abraham returns home, to be confronted by the full capriciousness of God’s world. Sarah, Abraham’s soul mate, who had followed him through all the crazy changes in his life, who had stood by his side preaching their shared ideals, had dropped dead of shock when she learned what he had done to their son.
This part of the story draws out the type of emotions that I was expecting from our students on Monday: vulnerability to the randomness of death, the fear that comes from living in an uncertain world. But 6th grade Ethan reflected something else. He channeled what comes next in the story. (Not that we discussed the Abraham story on Monday. Ethan was drawing on Abraham’s archetype without realizing it.)
Abraham sets aside time to cry for Sarah. At the end of that time, he pulls himself away from his sorrow, and directs his attention to helping others. First, Sarah herself: he negotiates for a burial plot at the cave of Machpelah. He refuses to accept it as a gift, because he is staking a land claim for Sarah’s descendants. Next, he turns his care to Isaac, sending a trusted servant to find him a bride. Abraham knew his son well. The text tells us that Isaac brings Rebecca to Sarah’s tent, and only then is he comforted for the loss of his mother.
Back to our assembly: Ethan expressed some of the helplessness that many of us are feeling. But his attention was focused on people living in much more tenuous situations. How terrible it is, he said, that so many people in the world live with the threat of death every day. He directed our attention away from our own fears, and turned us instead to look at the suffering of others.
Later, when students expressed fears for their own safety, I concretized Ethan’s message. The likelihood of a shooting at any given location is so small, it falls into the category of irrational fears. Our kids are far more likely to be killed in a car accident on their way to synagogue, than to be killed at the synagogue itself – or at school, or any other place where public shootings have happened. To take 2016 as the most recent example for which full statistics are available: 37,471 people died in car accidents in the US, as compared to 73 who died in public mass shootings. (In 2017, it was 85 deaths, and in 2018 it’s been 56.)
The random opening of fire on strangers that grabs our attention and threatens our own sense of safety is quite rare – though, as one student pointed out, each episode is horrible and should not happen at all. But far more significantly, gun violence is not rare at all. It’s as common as traffic accidents. 38,658 Americans died of firearms injuries in 2016. Most strikingly, 85% of victims were male, and though African-Americans compose less than 15% of the US population, they were over 25% of firearms victims.
Think about that. Americans are as likely to die from a gunshot as from a car crash. But gun deaths are NOT spread evenly across the population. Some of us are in real danger, others not so much. We should be outraged, but not because of threats to our own lives. Because of the threat to so many others.
And yet, when we see coverage of a shooting at a synagogue, when we read articles about anti-Semitism on the rise, it’s hard not to feel that this is becoming real and personal. Though the numbers of actual incidents are small, it is hard not to extrapolate, and to imagine that things are about to blow-up and we could be the next victims.
That’s when we need to pull back, and remember Ethan’s message. Remember what Abraham did right in his story. Time to mourn is important, but then we must open our hearts outward. We must look to help those whose hurts and needs are so much greater than our own.