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Rabbi Avi Weiss Headshot

Newtown Massacre: Assuming Responsibility

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"The sky is crying and the flags are at half-mast. It is a sad, sad day. And it is also your day, Noah, my little man."

So eulogized Veronique Pozner, mother of Noah Pozner, who was viciously murdered in the Sandy Hook Massacre.

Sadly, this is hardly the first such massacre in America. Just a few days ago, someone opened fire in a mall in Oregon; a few months earlier, the setting was a movie theatre in Colorado, and a few weeks later, a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. At Virginia Tech, five and a half years ago, 33 people were killed, and the infamous Columbine High School Massacre of 1999 left 13 dead. The news reports of shootings and their aftermath have become frighteningly familiar to us Americans, escalating what was once an anomaly into a real and pressing national crisis. This is a crisis that we must take ownership of, acknowledging that it is not someone else's problem, but ours.

In this week's portion, Judah rises to the defense of his brother Benjamin who had been imprisoned in Egypt. Standing before Joseph he declares, Ki avdekha arav et ha-na'ar, "your servant has guaranteed the safety of the lad" (Genesis 44:32). Judah is referring to his own assumption of responsibility, which is critical in times of crisis. When faced with challenges the choice is clear: We can shirk responsibility, or we can take ownership of it and commit ourselves to making a difference.

Later in another classic biblical passage addressing this theme, a situation is described in which the elders of a town gather around the body of a stranger who is found slain in their midst. These leaders call out, Yadeinu lo shafkhu et hadam hazeh, ve-eineinu lo ra'u -- "Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it" (Deuteronomy 21:7).

The passage is perplexing. Would one have suspected these elders -- sage leaders -- of shedding blood?! Actually, the Jerusalem Talmud argues, the elders are claiming that they are, in no way, through action or lack of action, accountable.

Specifically, concerning the victim they say, lo ba al yadeinu u'fat'renuhu, "we did not let the victim go without an escort." Concerning the perpetrator they say, lo ba al yadeinu ... ve'hi'nach'nuhu, "no one came within our jurisdiction whom ... we neglected to bring to justice" (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 9:6).

If this is the response to the murder of an individual, certainly in the aftermath of mass murders as occurred in Newtown, it is critical to look deeply within ourselves and ask whether we are, on some level, accountable. It is important to recognize that our country, for all of its greatness, is the only place in the world where these types of massacres have so often occurred. With these horrors repeating themselves, each of us -- not only the government -- each of us should feel impelled to assume responsibility.

We can do so by taking several concrete steps: First by speaking truth to power and rising up to our elected leaders and insisting that the Second Amendment does not cover the right to acquire assault weapons, weapons that should be reserved for the battlefield.

Consider this contrast: Israel has a standing army. There are probably more guns per capita in Israel than in America. Notwithstanding this fact, massacres of the type that occurred in Newtown have not happened in Israel. This is because the gun control laws in Israel are much more strict. Indeed, the weapons used by the murderer in Newtown could never have been purchased in Israel.

Moreover, there is no theatre, no synagogue, no hospital, no public venue in Israel that lacks security. America must do the same by beefing up its own security measures.

Second, by dealing with America's culture of violence: Americans are a good people, a kind people. We have witnessed the compassion and courage of our fellow citizens each time tragedy strikes -- in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti and following the 9/11 tragedy. Viktor Frankl, the logotherapist, talks about the human search for meaning. The American spirit has proven that the greatest meaning comes from giving -- our people know how to do for others.

But in the same breath there is a darker, violent side to America. This side permeates so much, too much, of our everyday lives. Popular culture is saturated with violence and hateful messages -- on the Internet, in video games, movies and sporting events -- too often people are looking for fights and screaming for blood. While America is not about creating a Puritan society, it is important for all of us, with one voice, to stand up against this culture of violence.

Here it is vital not to stereotype or scapegoat those suffering from social-emotional disorders and learn to distinguish these disorders from true mental illness. At a vigil our bayit organized this past Sunday, one of the kindest and sweetest young men I have met in my rabbinate, a man who has Asperger's, broke down on my shoulder, crying, "Will everybody now think that I, too, am violent?"

While what happened in Newtown should reinforce our commitment to do more for those with mental illness, it is the culture of violence that inspires those facing these challenges to act out in this manner.

And third, by immersing ourselves in acts of kindness: It is a sacred mission for all of humanity to respond to ugliness and horror with kindness and good deeds. The only response to darkness is an equal or greater degree of light. In the face of incomprehensible evil and loss we ought to reach inward and give expression to the infinite godliness that we all possess. While hatred defies the rule, sinah mekalkelet ha'shurah, the Midrash notes, it can be overpowered by its opposite, ahava mekalkelet ha'shurah, love defies the rule" (Genesis Rabbah).

This is important not only in the aftermath of the killings, but also for the long haul to open our hearts, do more for the other, give charity and be present for those in need.

The murder of 6- and 7-year-old children is not only murder, it is the murder of the world. It undercuts the basic moral fabric of what humankind aspires to be. It's for this reason that so many of us want to personally reach out to those who are bereaved. I pray that those who are so mercilessly suffering recognize that they are not alone. They are individually being hugged by collective America.

But praying is not enough; we must assume responsibility for what has happened in order to ensure that such things never happen again. We must remember, as Edmund Burke famously said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing."

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There we were in Newtown. On different street corners were memorials often filled with little teddy bears. Ribbons were tied around trees. There was a sculpture of a heart cracked in the middle. What touched me most was a makeshift picket fence with the name of each victim written vertically on separate slats. My heart wandered to the little children, now angels soaring in heaven. It was the eve of the Sabbath. We began singing Shalom Aleichem Malachei HaSharet, peace be to you angels of the Lord -- come in peace, go in peace.