I—like probably all of you–was shocked and horrified to learn of the tragic murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was even more heartbroken to learn that such a terrible crime could occur in such a holy setting, in the midst of people studying the Bible and praying.
Authorities have described this as a hate crime, the work of one young white man to act out his racist ideology. While it is certainly that, it is also the result of a culture that both glorifies violence and makes the purchase of guns too easy for those who will not use them responsibility.
Jewish Tradition teaches “lo ta’amod al dam re’eyecha” (Lev. 19:16)—do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. It teaches that it is a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, not to be passive in the face of violence to others. It is a sacred obligation, not simply a choice, because Jewish Tradition recognizes that in order for us to live together harmoniously, we cannot stand idly by. We must not allow violence to do be done to our neighbors, just as our neighbors must not allow violence to be done to us.
But what can we do?
“Hocheach Tochiach et amitecha” is the very next verse in the Torah following the instruction not to stand idly by. “You shall surely rebuke your people,” it says. It instructs that it is our sacred obligation to be social critics when we see that society, individuals, or even our government is making terrible mistakes; we must rebuke them, “v’lo tisa alav cheyt,” but not incur any guilt upon ourselves in trying to bring about change. In other words, we must not commit violence in order to bring about an end to violence.
This latest shooting will not be the last, unless and until we say, loudly and clearly: our culture must change. We must stand up and say, loudly and clearly, that we do not want to live in or in any way support a culture that feeds and fuels a warped addiction to violence, by glorifying it in TV shows, video games, and movies. We must stand up and rebuke those members of our society who so jealously guard their right to bear arms that they block all attempts to pass sane legislation that will protect all of us—at a cost of approximately 6,000 innocent lives lost in this last year alone. Now, there are nine more.
[Yes and] how many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?
What will it take to dismantle this culture of violence? What it will take is for the masses of sane and level-headed people—you and me—to raise our voices and speak so loudly that we drown out the din of those who resist reasonable change in gun ownership laws, and we get the attention of those who are responsible for writing and passing legislation.
What it will take is creating a movement of concerned citizens who insist that we create an alternative reality, one that is not built on a culture of violence, but on a culture of peace and caring.
Is it naïve to think that we can? Margaret Mead once said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world. In fact, it is the only way it ever has.”
There is something very specific that you can do here, in Washington State. Contact your legislators in Olympia, and urge them to pass the Extreme Risk Protection Orders bill, a bill that was defeated this year, despite being the kind of bill that the gun lobby and their allies in the Washington Legislature said they could support. The bill was intended to keep guns out of the hands of those most at risk of perpetrating the next mass shooting–those experiencing a mental health crisis. It may not have saved the people who were killed in Charleston this week, but it undoubtedly will save others in the future. Go to http://wagunresponsibility.org to learn more.
I’d like to share one last teaching from Jewish Tradition. The Torah teaches that in the beginning, one human being was created to teach that if anyone causes a single soul to perish, it is as if that person had destroyed a whole world. Conversely, if any person saves a single soul, it is as if that person had saved a whole world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Pikuach Nefesh—saving a life—is a sacred obligation, one that is more important than almost any other mitzvah in the Torah. One can violate many of the other laws in order to save a life.
Friends, let us join together with strength and courage and determination to change our world. Let us not underestimate the power that we hold in our own hands. Especially if those hands are joined together–one to another, and another, and another.
Rabbi Zari M. Weiss