This past weekend, my family and I attended a wedding in Los Angeles. It was a beautiful affair. Two wonderful families were joined with lots of love, fanfare, and celebration. There were many events that brought us all together. As we awoke this morning and got ready to attend a farewell brunch before flying home, our joy was diminished by the news of a violent act of murderous terror that filled the airways and social media—the horrific massacre in Highland Park, IL. This time, however, it was personal.
Highland Park is a Chicago suburb with a substantial Jewish population that is very close to my hometown of Evanston, IL. When I was in high school and college, I taught and led services at several congregations there. I have many close friends and family who live in or near the area where the shooting took place. The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band—dear friends and musical collaborators—were performing on a float in that very parade. So far, I have not heard that any of the people I know personally were harmed, but as of this writing, seven souls were snuffed out and more than two dozen others were wounded by a lone gunman armed with easily-obtained, high-powered weaponry, and multiple rounds of ammunition.
It is hard to write about the plague of gun violence that has infected our society without wading into murky waters. The politicians, lobbyists, and pundits on every side of the political spectrum will do all that they can to spin this horrific event—and the hundreds of others like —to underscore their specific agendas. Accusations will be thrown about. Somber and angry speeches will be delivered. Tears will be shed. Funerals will be held, lives upended, and nothing will change—the daily deluge of violence will continue unabated.
Many of you know my views on firearms. I have written and spoken extensively on how gun violence is not merely a social or political problem. It also screams out to the world that we are in the midst of a spiritual crisis: that of idol worship. Simply put, idolatry can be defined as the worshipping of physical objects and imbuing them with powers, qualities, and cosmic significance that supersedes logic and undermines the foundations of our nation. Our society’s obsession with the ownership and deification of weapons of mass destruction—fed and exacerbated by gun manufacturers and the lobbying organizations on their payrolls—has taken a horrific toll on the social fabric and spiritual capital of our citizens. It is nothing less than idolatry. Highland Park now joins the ranks of Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Parkland, Pittsburgh, Colleyville, Uvalde, and too many others to mention. We have seemingly lost the capacity to be shocked anymore. The question we are asking is not: “How can this happen in a civil society,” but “When will the next tragedy occur—and will it impact those whom we know and love?”
In the Torah portion we will read this Shabbat, Parashat Chukat, we learn how Moses, instead of speaking to a rock and commanding it to yield water for the thirsty Israelites, strikes it three times and is punished by God and told that he will not enter the promised land. The Rabbis are puzzled by the severity of this decree. Why was Moses treated so unfairly? What did he do to receive such a cruel sentence? There are many possible answers, but one recurring theme is that Moses’s actions were both violent and defiant. He appeared to show the Israelites that he, himself, was the source of life-giving water, not God. In other words, Moses places himself in the role of provider and creator. The violent act of hitting the rock appears to be an attempt to make it look like the staff itself, wielded by Moses, is imbued with the power to sustain and protect the people, thereby diminishing God’s authority and deliverance.
For those for whom the Right to Bear Arms is sacrosanct, any attempts to place sane limits on the ownership and use of weapons of mass destruction is nothing short of blasphemy. For those of us who see the consequences of these weapons in the blood flowing in our streets, schools, and public spaces, the fact that so many lives have been snuffed out so meaninglessly is, in and of itself, a Chilul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name.
If we cannot acknowledge the spiritual, psychological and societal toll that the proliferation of firearms on our streets and in our homes continues to exact, then we, like Moses, are rebelling against the godliness implanted within us by our Creator.
I do not have answers to this tragic situation. But I do know that unless and until we move away from political slogans and lines drawn in the sand, we will continue to see grieving parents and children mourning the loss of their loved ones following senseless acts of violence. We need to learn to look at the facts on the ground and find sane measures to reduce the carnage.
May we never fail to be horrified by tragedy, and may our horror move us to look within ourselves and our souls and strive to make a change.
Rabbi Joseph R. Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. He serves as a Chaplain in the Colorado House of Representatives and is past President of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council. He has had several poems and articles published in leading national literary and academic journals and is a frequent contributor to anthologies and collections of Jewish writing.