Elegy for Newtown

December 26, 2012Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch

What does the murder of 20 of our most precious and most vulnerable creations and six of their teachers who loved them tell us about ourselves? What does it tell us about our society that we cannot even protect our children?

What does it say about an America that can be so good; so concerned with the rights and dignity of the individual and so compassionate and charitable, but at the same time is so obsessed with guns and violence and somehow considers possession of an assault rifle to be a fundamental constitutional right?

We know that so many of the arguments promoting assault rifles defy reason and common sense. We know that the framers of our Constitution could not imagine, and did not intend, for the right to bear arms to include assault rifles and machine guns openly brought into schools, cinemas, malls, banks, post offices or any other public place. What does it say about us that we so cavalierly go on with our lives in willful or benign blindness to the devastation we tolerate?

We know that the slogan: "guns don't kill, people do," is absurd. Cars don't kill, people do, but we still take dangerous drivers off the road. Airplanes don't kill, pilots do, but do we not prevent unsafe pilots from flying a plane? Guns make it possible to kill people, and the more lethal is the gun, the more people will be killed. That is what assault rifles are for: to kill as many people as possible in the shortest time.

And does this gun epidemic not limit our freedom, when we cannot even go to the movies, or shopping, or to school without worrying that someone who legally owns an assault rifle will commit atrocities? They say they are about freedom, but what are they talking about? We are creating an America that is less free, where danger lurks behind every corner.

With every massacre, we die a little. A little enjoyment, a little pleasure and a little freedom are removed from the American soul and from the soil of this blessed land.

With every massacre those unique American freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are degraded. And what is their solution? More guns: arm the teachers; arm the civilians; arm everyone in sight.

What does the massacre of 20 children and six teachers who loved them say about our political representatives, who cower behind the fear of political retribution, abandoning their most basic responsibility to protect us and to shield our children from harm? What does it say about them that they are more concerned about their personal future than the future of our children?

What does the murder of 20 children and six teachers who loved them tell us about our religious leaders, who assure us that such massacres occur because we have banished prayer from the public schools and that we have sinned because of our tolerance of gay marriage, abortion and commitment to science?

There is darkness in the human soul. We are creatures that kill our young. We cause so much suffering to each other.

Our faith teaches us two responses: First, work ceaselessly to create a better society; a more just, tolerant, kind, generous and compassionate society where weapons of war are converted into instruments of peace and productivity. "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks."

We do this through policies: laws, regulations and justice. It is why we cannot avoid politics; politics is the way we make policies. No religion worth its weight in salt can claim to be apolitical. Such a claim is unworthy and unacceptable. We should be non-partisan, but we cannot be unconcerned about local and national policies. Religion has an important role in the American marketplace of ideas.

Religion is about values and justice, goodness and compassion, and when we see elements of our society that are unjust; and not good and not compassionate, we must respond. If we do not, we forfeit our claim to respect and relevance. And worse, we would then leave politics exclusively to politicians and to interest groups whose purpose may differ fundamentally from our own.

Religion teaches a second response: bring light to darkness.

When we look at a 6-year-old child, we can see the best of us reflected in them. We see ourselves in them before the shadows darkened our hearts. We are reminded of what is inside of us: goodness, compassion, dependency on others; joy and a certain lightness of being. We are reminded of the miracle of life.

When we learned of the teachers in Newtown, we were reminded of that which we so often take for granted: There is heroism in us. There is courage in us. There is love in us, not only of self, and not only of our own children, but of other people's children.

What we have learned about Connecticut teachers is true of most teachers: They love their schoolchildren as their own. They value them; they respect them; they worry about them. They protect them like their own. We forget: for most teachers, it is not just a job; it is a calling, a labor of love, a commitment to the best of human qualities, a desire to educate the next generation so that they will be better than our generation. These teachers are heroes.

There is goodness in us. Religion is emphatic: bring that goodness to others. And when we see a good deed; some kindness, some act of generosity, we sense the presence of God. This is how we bring heaven to earth. It is when we bring healing, that we affirm the healing God. It is when we practice compassion, that we invoke the compassionate God. It is when we offer mercy that we summon the merciful God.

The biblical Job cried out upon the death of his children: "That which I feared has come upon me." To you, loving parents, friends and colleagues, that which you feared has come upon you.

Know that your loved ones did not live in vain, nor did they die in vain. Summer sang in them if only for a brief season. They brought joy and comfort to so many. They taught you - and the rest of us - how to live. You are better for having them in your lives, and the world is a better place for their being part of our lives.

We have been inspired by them. They have reminded us to affirm life, and never to cease affirming life. We will remember them, and act because of them. To be remembered for good, and to be inspired, is our means of vanquishing death. It is our way of bearing witness for those whose physical presence is no longer with us.

Your loved ones have brought light into the dark corners of our world. For you, today, it is dark in the sunshine and difficult to see. But know that there will come a day that summer will beckon again for you, and its soothing warmth will free you from the bracing winds and the bitter cold.

One day, the sun will rise again for you. As we read in the Bible: "Righteousness will shine on you like the rising sun, and bring healing in its wings" (Malachi 3:20).

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