Want a Jewish Response to San Bernardino Mass Shooting? Scream Bloody Murder.
This time, it was at a social services center for the disabled, in San Bernadino, California. Two people went on a shooting spree. They killed at least 14 people, and they wounded 17 others, before they were killed as well.
Earlier the same day, there had been a shooting in Houston. Not to mention a shooting in Savannah.
And, of course, these incidents come directly on the heels of the shooting at the Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs.
In the past 336 days, there have been 355 mass shootings in this country. This is already higher than the 2014 numbers, which surpassed 2013’s numbers. Of the 355 mass shootings in 2015, 52 of them were at schools, leaving 30 people dead and 53 others injured.
This means, from this rabbi’s narrow liturgical point of view, that there has rarely been a Shabbat over the last few years when there haven’t been names of gun victims for us, as an extended community and as an extended family, to mourn.
So many of us were raised to believe in American exceptionalism — that America is different, blessed. That sense is but a mirror image of how the Jews think of themselves — as different, as blessed, as exceptional.
But this is not the kind of exceptionalism that our founders had in mind. There is simply no other country in the world like this one. There is no other country in the world that has this record of mass shootings.
And here is the worst thing about it. It is so bad that I am almost embarrassed to tell you. I am starting not to care. I am starting not to notice. I am starting to feel numb.
The Jewish tradition has a lot to say about the role of numbness in the face of tragedy. We learn that in the first stage of mourning, aninut, the mourner confronts his or her dead, as they lie freshly stricken. In this first stage of mourning, between the death and the burial, the mourner, the onen, is released from all religious responsibilities. The mourner is in shock, numb.
Could it be, I wonder, that the constant assault of gun violence and gun deaths, the rarity of a week without shootings, has left us all in a state of advanced aninut, always sitting before our dead, always in a state of existential numbness?
But I come from a tradition in which people scream, in which they wail and moan and cry out.
In the Torah portion two weeks ago, Esau howled when he realized that Jacob had stolen his blessing.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob handles the multi-colored coat that he had given his beloved son, Joseph — a coat now covered with blood. What does Jacob do? He wails. He cries. He screams.
And when the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt? They scream. They cry out loud to God. And God hears their cries and their moaning.
Fast forward to the Psalmist. The author of the Psalms is not one to let his emotions go unvoiced. He cries. He screams. He moans — even as he wonders aloud whether there is anyone there to hear him. The book of Lamentations is one long palpable moan of horror and almost unimaginable loss.
So, this is why I am tired of hearing politicians speaking of prayer, and of sending good thoughts and condolences to the grieving families. Prayer and good thoughts are too easy. They are cheap.
I want to hear screaming. I want to hear crying. I want to hear moaning.
And yet — as pessimistic as this must sound — I fear that we are not going to hear that crying or that moaning, now or ever.
Because we have not heard it yet. What we have heard are the dim hopes that somehow things will change. And things will not change.
There was a time when I asked myself: “Who will have to get killed in order for this nation to come to its senses? Whose loved one will have to die?” In the story of the Exodus, Pharaoh’s own firstborn had to die in order for him to wise up, and to free the Israelites from their slavery. Who will have to die this time? The firstborn of the head of the NRA? Will that work?
No, it will not work. Because we simply don’t care anymore. Because we are numb.
In medical cases, numbness is often accompanied by tingling. We might have once thought that there would have been a mass tingling of the conscience of this country. But no. Just numbness.
When the Zohar speaks of spiritual numbness, it also speaks of an antidote. It speaks of the metaphor of a wooden beam that catches fire, but only after it has been broken into small pieces. The Zohar was speaking of the human soul, beset by numbness.
But it could just as easily be speaking about the soul of America. We are left to wonder aloud: how much longer will it take for the soul of this nation to be broken apart like a wooden beam? And how much longer will it take for our consciences to catch on fire?
The writer Elie Wiesel tells this story: “A righteous man came to Sodom and pleaded with the people to change their ways. No one listened.
“Finally, he sat in the middle of the city and simply screamed.
“Someone asked him, ‘Do you think that will change anyone?’
‘No,’ said the righteous man. ‘But at least, they will not change me.’”
And so, until the bloodshed ends, fight the numbness. Scream.
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is a noted author and teacher, and the senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, FL. He blogs at jeffreysalkin.religionnews.com