I have been invited to speak at a local Sandy Hook memorial program tomorrow on the anniversary of that horrible event. It looks like rain tomorrow is certain so I do not know if anyone will be there to hear me at this outdoor event, but I am planning for it anyway. Some of you who follow my blog may find my comments of interest. It includes a Christmas message so I wish all of us, Christian or not, a Merry Christmas because that holiday, especially stripped of its commercialism, has something good for all of us.
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A few weeks ago I watched a documentary of Orson Wells’ famous “War of The Worlds” broadcast. I knew that my father was one of the millions taken in, thinking that the invasion from Mars was real. How were so many people taken in? This documentary told of a nation whose people were afraid. They had been suffering almost a decade of the Depression and it looked like war in Europe was imminent. We were still suffering from the Dust Bowl phenomenon and radical politics on both the left and the right were more powerful than ever. FDR had warned in 1933 against giving in to fear, but many Americans were afraid.
I say this now because I think that much of our response to the massacre at Sandy Hook has been based on fear. Our economy has suffered its worst crisis since the Great Depression and many Americans consider us under a terrorist threat. Nancy Lanza, the mother of the shooter, was a survivalist who was not only buying guns but stocking up on food and other essentials against what she felt was the imminent collapse of American society. She was hardly alone in having such fears. Our system of government seems to be failing. Predictions of apocalyptic doom are common in many of our media. We need to be reminded of the dangers of living in fear and that it is fear itself that we need to fear.
A lot of people say in response to Sandy Hook something has to be done about gun control or care for the mentally ill. I agree with that, but I also think that what caused Sandy Hook was the larger reality of fear. Our news media, political organizations, and popular culture seem to me to be actively promoting fear – fear of economic collapse, fear of Muslim terrorists, fear of a tyrannical takeover of our government, fear of…well, actually there’s a very long list. The reason for “If it bleeds, it leads” is that stories of violence are fascinating because they feed into our fears.
The Jewish people has been suffering 9-11s and worse for millennia. Yesterday was the tenth day of Tevet when we remember the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians 26 centuries ago. That siege led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the forced exile of most of our people, including all of its leadership. Most nations who suffered such destruction and exile (and this was standard imperial procedure in those days) simply disappeared from history. How did the Jewish people and tradition survive? We know that there are two ways to respond to disasters. One is to give in to fear and turn to aggression and anger. The other is to mourn but to build for the future and make what changes seem necessary. We Jews have had to do this over and over, even in the wake of the Holocaust.
About 200 years ago a young Hasidic master, Nahman of Breslov, said, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be at all afraid.” (SING Kol Ha-olam Kulo gesher tzar me’od. V’ha-ikar lo l’faheyd k’lal)
In the days when Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth, Romans ruled over Judea and they were oppressive colonialists. Those in power among Jews in Judea who colluded with the Romans, the Sadducees, were afraid of any challenge to Roman rule. Their main opponents were the Pharisees who sought to reform Jewish law and remake Jewish tradition so that it could thrive outside of the homeland. Some of them believed in an imminent apocalypse. Then there were the Zealots, a revolutionary movement that started in the Galilee. They promoted the idea of driving the Romans out. Finally there were the Essenes who believed the end was soon and they separated themselves from society to prepare for it. Historians debate on which of these parties Jesus represented, if any. He seems to me to have been one of those Pharisees who believed the end was at hand and he proposed keeping the law (not one jot nor tittle shall pass away) but in an ethical and moral system of love, nonviolence, and the pursuit of peace. It is this vision of a world where such a life is possible is what Christmas is all about – something we all still hope for.
When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE the Pharisaic movement became the first rabbis and they reinvented Judaism so that it could survive any catastrophe. (The Dalai Lama studies Judaism and Jewish history to see how we did it because he knows that the Tibetan culture and tradition may need to achieve lasting survival outside of Tibet.) The Saducees disappeared as did the Essenes. The Zealots continued but were defeated finally at Masada and then again at Betar in 135 which ended Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel until 1948. During the 18 intervening centuries the Jewish people have suffered massacres, expulsions, and all kinds of oppression. How are we still here?
In 1492 Jews were expelled from Spain after more than a millennium of history there. This was a huge traumatic shock to the Jewish people as a whole. One of the exiles, Solomon Ibn Verga, wrote a book called Shevet Yehudah (The Rod of Judah) about how we endured. Here is a famous story from that book.
I heard from the mouths of one of the elders who went out of Spain that in one ship they declared an epidemic of plague, and its captain threw the passengers onto the beach in an unpopulated area, where the majority of them died of hunger. Some decided to go on foot to find a settlement. One of those Jews, his wife, and their children decided to go; his wife, not accustomed to walking, grew weak and perished. The man and his two sons that he had with him also passed out from hunger and, when he regained consciousness, found his two sons dead….
“Master of the Universe, You do much to induce me to abandon my faith but know well that, notwithstanding the contrary designs of the Heavenly Host, I am a Jew and shall remain a Jew and nothing you have done or will do to me can prove otherwise.”
He gathered some earth and some grass and covered his sons and went off in search of human settlement.
So how should we remember and memorialize those killed a year ago today? First of all it is important for us to remember. What happened once can happen again and this has happened may more times than once. I do think Sandy Hook is a warning to us to change the way we deal with mental health issues. It is also a warning that we need to find a way to deal with the reality of availability of firearms to people who should not have them. We need to find a way for our people to be less governed by fear. Most of all we need to learn to respond to destruction and violence in a constructive way. I find a hint of how to do this in a Yiddish theater song written in 1940 when we Jews faced great fear. An English version of this song became very popular in the 60s. I think we need to sing it now.
On a wagon bound for market
there`s a calf with a mournful eye.
High above him there`s a swallow,
winging swiftly through the sky.
How the winds are laughing,
they laugh with all their might.
Laugh and laugh the whole day through,
and half the summer`s night.
Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna; Donna, Donna, Donna, Don.
Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna; Donna, Donna, Donna, Don.
“Stop complaining!“ said the farmer,
Who told you a calf to be ?
Why don`t you have wings to fly with,
like the swallow so proud and free?“ + Chorus
Calves are easily bound and slaughtered,
never knowing the reason why.
But who ever treasures freedom,
like the swallow has learned to fly. + Chorus