On Sunday night my son Benjamin couldn’t sleep. It goes without saying then that I couldn’t sleep either. As I tried to comfort him, I watched the minutes and the hours tick by. Finding myself awake during the night, my mind always races, and as I held my son I kept thinking about the type of world in which I wish to raise my children. In that moment, I resolved that I don’t want my children to grow up in a place where gun violence is tolerated or accepted and that as a parent, I have an obligation, for my children, to take action.
“The voice of my brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” we read in Genesis, but I have remained silent in the face of this epidemic. This voice has been crying out in this great nation for far too long. In response to Fort Hood, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Charleston and San Bernardino I simply waited, we simply waited, for new names to be added to this list in the near future. And then in the early hours of Sunday morning, Orlando’s gay nightclub Pulse became the newest name, and with it 49 new victims of our inaction.
After the Charleston shooting at the African Methodist Episcopal Church, I tweeted that my thoughts and prayers were with the victims. In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting, as with all other shootings, there was a spike in the words “thoughts and prayers” across social media platforms. Our thoughts and prayers were with the victims, their families, friends, teachers, neighbors and first responders. So many thoughts and prayers that finally, Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut, who represents the people affected by the Newtown grade school shooting, tweeted to the world: “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again.” On the following day, the New York Daily News’ front page read quite simply: “God isn’t fixing this.”
They are right. God isn’t fixing this, and our “thoughts and prayers” to God are insufficient. Yes, Judaism is a religion of prayer, but our prayers are not requests for God to fix the situation. Rather, they are pleas for support from God as we transform our words into action. We are told in the Bible’s holiness code in Leviticus: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
Yet since Newtown, all we’ve done is buy more locks. In the synagogue where I work we have invested in a new security system and instituted a locked door policy. We’ve essentially built bigger and higher walls around ourselves and our community to ensure our safety. Today, children across America walk through metal detectors, or know that if a certain alarm sounds while they are at school, they need to go to the cupboard in the classroom and play “statue.” These are all unfortunate and necessary precautions that treat the symptoms. But we have done nothing to address the problem.
I realize now that “thoughts and prayers,” while important, are not enough. One mass shooting is one too many and 355 mass shootings in a single year is not only a tragedy, but also an embarrassment to this country, its citizens, its founding fathers and those who claim a mantle of faith.
And now we have witnessed what many are calling the deadliest mass public shooting in modern American history. This was an act of terror and an act of hate, but this must not hide the fact that this was also another unforgivable act of gun violence. Omar Mateen was able to legally purchase guns and an assault rifle, which he then used to murder 49 innocent people.
The second amendment gives people the right to bear arms, but it also specifies that this right must be well regulated. We need regulation. We must support the Brady Campaign, Everytown for Gun Safety and other organizations committed to preventing gun violence. And then we have a duty to pursue legislation that will support their work. We must lobby our politicians to support The Fix Gun Checks Act of 2015 that would expand background checks to all gun sales, improve reporting of prohibited purchasers and require gun owners to report their lost or stolen firearms within 48 hours. And we need to demand a renewal of the Assault-Weapons Ban that would take these dangerous firearms off our streets.
Once again, we have been presented with a choice. What type of country do we want our children to grow up in? To do nothing is to consent to the ongoing cycle of gun violence in this country. I will not give my consent. And as I comforted Benjamin in my arms, I resolved for my children, and for all of our children, to speak out and to act. I hope that you will join me.
Danny Burkeman is a rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY. He is a Rabbis Without Borders fellow and was part of the inaugural cohort of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders. He is married to Micol and the proud father of Gabriella and Benjamin.