It has been a bloody summer here in America. The violent shooting and murder of twelve people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado was shortly followed by an attack on a Sikh gurdwara (a house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which resulted in six deaths. Suburban Denver and suburban Milwaukee are places where senseless, violent attacks on innocent people enjoying themselves at the movies or joining together in prayer “just don’t happen.” That is, until this summer.
It is easy to point a finger at the perpetrators of these horrific acts of violence and baseless hatred, to blame them for being unbalanced or evil, and leave it there. We seek to understand and explain the motivations behind the perpetrators’ senseless killings, perhaps to make ourselves feel safer. James Holmes is in police custody after his attack at the Colorado movie theater. Evidence suggests that he has serious mental health issues. Wade Michael Page, the perpetrator of the murders at the Sikh gurdwara, died at the scene of his attack. We’ve later learned that he was a white supremacist. Perhaps we dismiss his crimes as those of someone who is filled with bigotry, hatred - not someone like us.
But it’s not enough for us to explain away these acts of violence as being distant from us. It’s not enough to call for punishment for the perpetrators, or write them off as mentally deranged and removed from ourselves. We must look deeply in the mirror at the underlying social issues that made such horrific attacks possible.
Last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, addresses the issue of communal responsibility when faced with an individual’s violent crime. In our parasha, a person is found slain in a field. There are no witnesses, and the person responsible for the murder is unknown. What is the proper response? Who takes responsibility for this loss of life? In the Torah, the closest town or village must seek forgiveness for the crime, even though they are not accused of committing the murder. The town elders offer a sacrifice, ritually wash their hands, and declare, “our hands did not shed this blood, nor our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel” (Deuteronomy 21:7-8). Through this act, the guilt lifts and they are absolved.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson teaches that the ritual described above implies that the town and its leadership are somehow tainted by or implicated in the crime. If they were truly innocent, what guilt is upon them that requires forgiveness and absolution? In the words of Albert Einstein, “the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” The elders of the town may not have been guilty of committing the crime, but perhaps they were responsible for creating an environment that made violent acts possible or even likely.
We may not be guilty of the crimes committed this summer in Aurora, Colorado or in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. But, like the elders in the Torah portion, we too are tainted by and implicated in the senseless violence when we allow incivility and fear mongering to rule the airways. We are tainted and implicated when we glorify violence in the media and in video games. We are tainted and implicated when we enable bigotry, hatred, homophobia, anti-Semitisim, and mistrust for those of different religions and cultures to flourish. We are tainted and implicated when we allow guns to proliferate on the market with little oversight. We are tainted and implicated by the growing gap between the haves and have nots which leads to anger and mistrust.
Like the elders in the Torah portion, we are responsible for building a society in which evil and violence do not have the opportunity to flourish. It is incumbent upon us to organize a just and righteous society, and to work as God’s hands in the world.
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Rabbi Sarah Freidson-King is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth El in Rochester, NY and a 2012-2013 Brickner Fellow.