Walk into any synagogue during services, whether on Shabbat or during a weekday, and you’ll notice that for a religious people, we certainly pray a lot. Between the preliminary praises, the standing prayer and various concluding verses, the average shul-goer can easily spend hours each week in some form of communication with the Almighty.
And yet, we’re not a people defined by prayer. As a matter of fact, when faced with a crisis, prayer has historically been an afterthought. None other than the story of Moses — facing a sea of water as the Egyptian army was in pursuit — provides the example of what the quintessential Jewish response to tragedy should be.
When he tries to pray, his entreaties are cut off. Now is the time for action, Moses is told; take your staff and split the sea. The Midrash relates that Nachshon ben Aminidav, ancestor of King David, didn’t even wait for the waters to part before he jumped in. (Some say that it was Nachshon’s jump and not Moses’ staff that caused the sea to split.)
It was this thought that stuck with me last week as headline after headline, tweet after tweet, and post after post related some well-meaning individual’s “thoughts and prayers” being sent the way of the Parkland, Fla. victims and their families. Never mind the fact that for the 17 lives cut short in gunman Nikolas Cruz’s attack on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, thoughts and prayers are pretty much worthless.
No amount of prayer or entreaty will bring these students and their teachers — five of the victims were Jewish — back to life. As for those recovering and in mourning, we believe that prayer will help, but traditionally Jews have turned to the concept of doing good deeds in the merit of others as a more effective means of seeding divine blessings.
That is why after other mass shootings, such as the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Jewish communities the world over have stressed mitzvahs over prayers, with tens of thousands of individuals pledging specific deeds — lighting Shabbat candles or increasing one’s charity, for instance — collectively designed to bring an added measure of light to a darkened world.
This was the message that Rabbi Avraham Friedman, co-director of Chabad of Coral Springs and a friend of one of the lost students’ family, had for CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during a live broadcast Feb. 19. Debates, when conducted with respect, are good, he said, but we must also make the world a better place by making it more receptive to lovingkindness.
The rabbi, who also advocated for a non-sectarian moment of silence in schools as a way for students to contemplate the concept of a greater good, makes a good point. No amount of gun control will keep us 100 percent safe when we fail to address through education and the inculcation of moral virtues the unfortunate human capacity to do horrible amounts of harm.
But I fear also that if we, as a people, fail to address that which has been staring us in the face for quite some time — the alarming ease with which you can obtain military-style semiautomatic assault rifles — then we will merely condemn our society to suffer the next attack from within. Past experience suggests the next one will not be far off.
What we need in addition to treating each other with respect, embracing the sanctity of human life and increasing our acts of goodness is to acknowledge the great danger that results from putting weapons like the AR-15 that Cruz used in the hands of anyone but soldiers. Over the 10 years the federal assault weapons ban was in place, the casualties from mass shootings fell 43 percent, and yet, in a state like Florida, it’s easier to buy an AR-15 than an automobile.
Say what you want about the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms, but know that none of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights is absolute. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to challenge your accuser in court, but we regulate it, especially when an accuser is a minor in a sexual assault case. So, too, the Supreme Court has said that in the face of a compelling government interest, the obtaining and possession of firearms may be regulated. In my humble opinion, the protection of schoolchildren certainly seems like a compelling interest.
In our push for action, let’s look for ways that we can balance our country’s unique relationship to firearms with the need to keep our society safe from weapons designed primarily with their ability to inflict mass casualties in mind. At least one AR-15 owner in Florida had a great idea when he stepped up: He took his legally purchased firearm to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and turned it in.
If we want a better world, it’s going to require all of us doing our part.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]