Sept. 16, 2013Police personnel near the Navy Yard.Matt McClain / The Washington Post
Doesn’t it feel like we’ve been here before? Another mass shooting, this time at the Navy Yard. More profiles of kind neighbors, loving siblings, gentle friends lives cut short.
It has been nine months since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and yet, despite the pleas of devastated parents and fierce political wrangling, not only has Congress failed to reinstate an assault weapons ban, but it also neglected to require background checks that would have denied easy gun access to terrorists, domestic abusers and those struggling with mental illness. In fact, rather than Newtown being the watershed moment many believed it would be, there has been no meaningful progress on gun laws over the past year.
Against all reason, the gun lobby has prevailed once again. And we the most empowered people on earth have resigned ourselves to utter disempowerment in the face of their inexhaustible coffers and distorted logic, recklessly dissociating access to guns and gun violence. And meanwhile, including this week’s tragedy at the Navy Yard, there have been 17 mass shootings in the U.S. since Newtown, not to mention thousands of barely reported homicides in urban neighborhoods across the country. Every year, hundreds of children shoot themselves or someone else when they got their hands on loaded weapons. Like the 3-year-old in Tacoma, Wash., who, when his mom’s boyfriend stepped out of the car to pump gas, unbuckled his seatbelt, reached for the gun and unwittingly shot himself in the head. Thousands of women live in utter terror that their husband’s or boyfriend’s rage will turn from scary to deadly when he owns a gun. And so many of us have lost dear friends and loved ones who, in a moment of despair, took their own lives with guns. Thousands of lives wasted and families shattered each year.
This is an epidemic, and it may well be the great shame of our generation. Our children and grandchildren will wonder how we could abide such reckless abandonment of common sense and the common good.
Who will live and who will die? The Jewish calendar calls us to stop everything this time of year and recite these terrifying words, and many of us do so as if our fate is out of our hands. Of course there will always be unforeseen and unavoidable tragedies, but to hide behind the mantle of inevitability is a gross abdication of human responsibility. We can’t stop gun deaths, but we can surely minimize them, like they did in the U.K. and in Australia after mass shootings in the 90’s led grieving nations to demand strict controls on the manufacture of guns and their availability. Now, 20 years later, gun deaths in both countries have dropped significantly.
What is going on here? The heart of the challenge beyond even the age-old disagreement over interpretation of the 2
nd Amendment is a shameful lack of political will, the result of a shortage of empathic alignment with victims of gun violence. It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that we don’t fundamentally believe that it’s our problem. Instead, our response is to cry a little, install better alarm systems, build higher walls and pray to God it doesn’t come any closer to home. If we really felt that Sandy Hook or the Navy Yard was our shared tragedy, if we felt that the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans from guns each year was our problem, we wouldn’t sleep as long as guns are easier to purchase than Sudafed in this country.
When God confronts Cain to ask the whereabouts of his younger brother Abel, Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God does not respond, leaving that question to subsequent generations to answer. Tragically, shamefully, throughout Genesis we see the failure to answer Cain’s question in the affirmative. Ishmael and Isaac can’t live together; Jacob deceives Esau; Jacob’s sons oscillate between wanting to kill Joseph or sell him into slavery. It’s as if history answers Cain’s unanswered question with: No. Your brother is not your business. Every man for himself.
But just as Genesis winds down, Jacob’s sons go to Egypt and beg for food. Long-lost brother Joseph, dressed as Pharoah’s viceroy, plants a stolen goblet in his youngest brother Benjamin’s sack and insists that all the other brothers return home, but Benjamin stay as his slave. This is a defining moment in Torah. These brothers inheritors of a legacy of flagrant disregard of fraternal responsibility break script. How can there be peace for me, says brave Judah, if there is no peace for my brother? If Benjamin stays, I too will stay. We’re all in this together.
After many generations and too much pain, we have finally learned how to answer the underlying question of Genesis and the great question of human existence: Am I my brother’s keeper? And the answer is an undeniable affirmation of the essential connectedness between one person and another. In an instant, the script shifts from one of alienation and radical aloneness to one of love and shared responsibility. That is our story, cries out the book of Genesis. Like it or not, comfortable or not, convenient or not your pain IS my problem, your destiny is my sacred responsibility.
How long will it take for us to learn this same lesson? Gun violence in this country is more than a political problem; it’s a spiritual problem an empathy gap. Shame on us that we have left the heavy lifting to the bereaved families who now, in addition to grieving the loss of loved ones, must also drive the advocacy for reasonable and responsible policy change.
Let this latest mass shooting remind us of the inescapable truth of human connectedness. Let it awaken within us the sacred responsibility we hold toward one another, the empathic attunement that drives social change. As long as one parent fears sending her child to school, as long as one person worries if his wife will make it home from work alive, as long as one teen fears that he’ll be shot on the way home from 7-11 with Skittles and an iced tea, as long as one teacher wonders which kids will show up alive when school resumes after summer break, none of us is safe. Not one. I am your keeper and you are mine. That is the sacred calling between human beings, and the only way out of this mess.
Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding Rabbi at
, a Los Angeles based progressive, egalitarian Jewish community.