As a rabbi, you are often expected to have the right words to share at the most painful and delicate times. In times of death, sickness, and suffering, our communities look to us for words of depth, consolation, and understanding. In the wake of the Sandy Hook killings, the internet was replete with editorials, sermons, prayers, and other words to express remorse, outrage, and deeply held beliefs. No small number of those pieces were authored and shared by clergy and people of faith, seeking to bring clarity and comfort to a situation that defied our basic senses of decency and morality. However, it was a moment where I chose to stay silent. In a world where we are expected to be in touch at every moment, I felt the need before this Shabbat to explain why I did not respond immediately to this tragedy, and what I seek to convey through my initial silence.
As the news came in about this terrible event, and the reactions began to roll in rapidly over email and facebook, I thought immediately of the story of Job. This story came to mind not only because it was an example of senseless suffering, but also because of its role in the creation of Jewish mourning rituals. The friends of Job provide examples of praiseworthy and troubling behavior in the face of tragedy. One of the most beautiful and wise Jewish mourning rituals is that we do not speak to a mourner until they have chosen to speak to us. The friends of Job sat in silence for seven days with Job after his loss, which our sages deem the only appropriate, helpful, and tasteful response in the face of suffering. His friends make the tragic mistake later in the story when they begin to theorize and provide theological reasons for why Job suffers. Even if it was their desire to comfort, in fact, they only brought greater misery to a man who truly did nothing wrong.
Most, if not all of us, have an urge to provide explanations for why bad things happen. Some of those explanations have more merit than others. However, in my experience, “doing theology” in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy is rarely therapeutic or helpful. Rather, listening, sitting with those in pain, and allowing ourselves to feel the large complex of emotions that wash over us are better first steps. This tragedy was caused by a wide range of factors, and it left in its wake overwhelming destruction and confusion. In our 24 hour news cycle world, many of us feel compelled to analyze every bit of information right away, no matter how incomplete our understanding or how numerous and varied its consequences. However, I think we are better served by following the first steps of Job’s fellows, sitting for a while in silence. Silence is not always an expression of cowardice or confusion – it often communicates the most profound senses of understanding, humility, and compassion.
Additionally, Beth Israel is a congregation that is profoundly ideologically diverse. Our community has members that fall on all points on the political spectrum by circumstance and by design. As a rabbi, I am deeply proud of the fact that people from so many different backgrounds come together to learn, pray, and celebrate. It is one of my primary goals as a rabbi to ensure that no one feels as though there is a political line or litmus test to be a member at Beth Israel. We are a rural congregation, and as a result, we have many more members who are gun owners than at your average urban or suburban synagogue. I do not believe that there is one ethical or uniquely Jewish approach to public policy when it comes to gun ownership. As with most topics in Jewish literature and law, we can find a wide variety of conflicting opinions and values within our tradition that can be applied in a multiplicity of ways to contemporary political issues. My hope and intention as a rabbi is that our congregants examine these issues through the lenses of Jewish texts and values, and use the ethical and intellectual tools of our tradition to come to well-reasoned and moral conclusions.
Yes, tragedies can bring certain issues to the foreground that need to be discussed more thoroughly and thoughtfully. Yes, dark moments remind us to hug our kids a little tighter and be more vigilant about their safety. However, it is my hope and prayer that as a faith community we are not moved primarily by acts of egregious aggression, violence, and selfishness, but through mitzvot, learning, and love. When we allow the acts of murderous and narcissistic individuals to set the agenda, we are partially fulfilling their deepest desires. Let us set our own agenda, and speak and sing out when we are inspired by the growth, joy, curiosity, and commitment of our holy community.
May the memories of the righteous souls that were lost serve as eternal blessings, and may all who mourn them find comfort. Zichronam L’vracha.