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Moral Conscience and a Bleeding World: When Will the Carnage Stop?

12/27/2012 10:50 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2013

I will never forget the profound feelings of sadness and the deep sense of outrage when I first heard the news. I thought that maybe this massacre would finally lead to change. The news trickled in small fragments, speculations of what was happening, estimates of those injured and those killed. Everyone despaired about how this could happen. Then, a multitude of questions emerged: How could this happen in a school? Is nowhere safe? Why so much violence in our society? What was its cause? What's the impact of violence on television and video games? Did this happen because emotionally unstable people have few places to go for counseling? Did this happen because it is so easy to get a gun? Please note, I do not include or reflect what I consider the sensationalist and vapid questions about the motivation.

Indeed, I will never ever forget that day -- April 20, 1999. The day when two boys walked into Columbine High School and shot to death twelve students and a teacher. I believed that day would finally change our country's course and position on gun violence. We now know it did not.

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora and now the Sandy Hook Elementary School are the killing fields of our time. Again, in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, we have calls to do something about the carnage. Yet I am plagued with the sense that little will change and we will return to normal lives. Normal, that is, until the next tragedy. But I know that this cycle does not have to be the case. Will the killing of 20 innocent children finally be the catalyst for change? This is a time for moral outrage about the violence that permeates so much of our culture and yet it cannot stop at outrage -- it must lead to action.

Life is sanctified and the possibility of saving a life trumps any other obligation. That's a moral imperative of Judaism, of all religions as well as secularism, more important than any other commandment. This moral imperative requires us to act when we see a life or a community endangered. We are facing an epidemic of violence in our country. We cannot shy away. This is a time that calls for more than our expressions of sorrow and sympathy. This is a time that calls for more than institutional statements that condemn violence. This is a time to begin a national conversation that will lead to change. This issue is not political or partisan; it is an issue of human survival -- physical, moral and spiritual.

We need a serious, thoughtful, inclusive and honest conversation about the limits of gun ownership. Our national conversation needs to include those who believe strongly in the Second Amendment and those in favor of strong gun regulations. It needs to include people from all different political views, people of every race and religion. It needs to include anyone who says enough is enough, anyone who is willing to find a way forward, out of tragedy. Focused and intentional conversations can lead to actions that will stem this tide of horrific massacres. I cannot believe anyone wants to live with the current status quo of violence. I do not know the outcomes of the conversation. But I do know that without an inclusive conversation, national policy will not change and that is simply unacceptable.

We will pay best homage to the memory of those 20 beautiful and innocent first grade students at Sandy Hill and the six heroes who died trying to protect them when we start the conversation. We can begin today with acts of conscience that define and shape our own character and reflect the moral indignation we have about this tragedy:

· Begin the conversation with your friends and loved ones -- in a different way with a new resolve to address this plague that is killing so many people. Be part of groups like the Brady campaign that are actively seeking common sense solutions.
· Contact those who make games, television shows and movies that are all about violence and ask them to moderate their use of excessive violence.
· Join your congressional representatives and senators and their call to bring back the ban on assault weapons and to end the usage of weapons with high capacity/automatic clips.
· Ask our legislators to enforce our current laws and put a stop to all the loopholes that allow people to buy guns without background checks. We need sensible gun laws.
· Support measures that will make psychological help more available to all those in need. This is critical.

As I write this, both in tears and in fierce commitment, I know that there will be readers who will comment that I do not understand the complexities of this issue. I refuse to believe that anything is too complex to resolve. I seek a community of those of who believe we can change and are willing to do something about it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote that religion has become the taillight of society and it is supposed to be the headlight of society. It is only by shining a bright and focused light on our moral failings that we can illuminate them to see that there is a way to rectify them. I will never give up my belief that things can change, that ethical values can be the headlight of society, that kids can go to safe schools, that we can be safe in public places -- it is that belief that defines my Judaism and my humanity.

Let it be said about us that we were the ones to bring reason back to America and that we did something to give our children a safer world than the one we currently live in.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa, is a moderator at the Aspen Institute and is engaged in many humanitarian activities.