What I'm lamenting this Tisha B'Av is the gun violence in our country. I just got back from my summer break, sadly sitting down to post about Tisha B'Av (Saturday night-Sunday's fast for the destruction of the ancient Temples and a variety of other sad events). On this full fast day we read from the book of Lamentations in the Bible. The scroll's resonance with current events is pronounced: violence, mistreatment of refugees, hatred and division in society.
Looking at my blog, I was shocked to notice that my last post this spring was about synagogue shootings and the insecurity that we are feeling as Jews with the rise of antisemitism. This week brought two more terrible mass shootings just a day apart in El Paso and Dayton, one directed against Mexican Americans by a white supremacist, and another at random strangers (and his own sister) by a hateful misogynist with a history of violent threats. But the one thing they had in common was the easy means to carry out their evil plans: "The gunman, who was wearing body armor and a mask, opened fire with an assault-style rifle fitted with a high-capacity ammunition drum that could hold 100 rounds, police said," enabling him to kill 9 people in 30 seconds (NY Times, on the Dayton killer).
People used to ask whether it was safe to visit Israel due to terrorism. Now mothers are dying protecting their babies in American cities. We are suffering from a plague of domestic terror in the form of mass shootings that have set the country on edge. It doesn't matter if those mass shootings are (as one misguided scientist tweeted), not the most statistically likely way to die. It matters that they have created completely unnecessary tragedies for scores of citizens, and left everyone else feeling vulnerable for themselves and their loved ones in public gathering spaces, schools, and houses of worship.
As a rabbi I know that all problems are complex. I know that we also have to confront the deadly ideologies and address the mental health issues and the websites that glorify violence. But we can't ignore that our great nation is exceptional in our tolerance of gun violence. We have 5% of the world population, and arguably about 42% of the world's guns. As a result, we suffer from far greater deadly gun violence than other wealthy and developed nations.
Every time I voice my concern about the proliferation of weapons in our country, I get emails from people who chide me about the right to bear arms. So let me address that up front. Leaving aside what our founders meant when they spoke of a "well-regulated militia" back in the age of muskets, I know that guns have long been part of American culture, particularly in the West. We kept guns at our Texas ranch growing up and I learned to fire one. My youngest sister even won a shooting prize at summer camp. I know that they are part of a way of life, and a necessity for many in rural areas. I know there are arguments pro and con about the scope of gun control, and I'm not trying to take away yours. But who could dream of a day when citizens would be allowed to own military-style weapons with high-capacity magazines that allow them to slaughter their fellow citizens within seconds, whether from racism or antisemitism or simply from being deranged and hateful? When children and teenagers would be murdered in schools and our elected leaders offer nothing much more than sympathy?
As a rabbi, I do believe in "thoughts and prayers," as long as they actually make you think and get motivated to make the world better.
The tide should have turned on this issue long ago. Judaism is a religion of idealism and also of persistent, cumulative action to help repair the world. We have to keep going with organizations and protests and citizen actions. But we are also allowed times to grieve and to almost indulge in despair ... before we pick up and start working again on the never-ending quest of Tikkun Olam, repairing our world. That's what Tisha B'Av was meant to do. To wallow in the sadness once a year, and then pull up our bootstraps (or tefillin straps!) and keep going. We have seen worse in our long history, and we know that change and progress can happen.
This Tisha B'Av, I lament the destruction of two temples in Jerusalem ... and I lament two precious human temples in the form of young parents Jordan and Andre Anchondo of El Paso, who died shielding their baby and one another, leaving behind two other children. I lament the exile of the Jewish people from our land by the Romans ... and I lament the children and teens, the Jews and Christians and Muslims, the people of all races who have been targeted and killed in mass shootings. I lament our powerlessness over the centuries ... and I lament our current lack of courageous leadership and communal resolve to address the issues of gun violence and hatred in our society.
For now, I mourn. I lament.
And then, as a Jew, I will get back to work.
"It is not up to you to finish the work. But neither are you free to desist from it."