The First Anniversary of the Sandy Hook School Shootings – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk

This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is excerpted from the keynote address shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the Cleveland Commemoration of the Sandy Hook Shootings, sponsored by the Multi-Faith Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, held at the Church of the Covenant, Euclid Avenue, in Cleveland, Ohio. We encourage you to share this post, respond with comments below, and post on social media if you wish, so that we might engender a public dialogue on this vexing issue in society.

My rabbi once took a tour of a glassware plant. While on the tour, he witnessed an experiment in which a glass bottle was used to knock a large nail through a thick board of wood. A few seconds later the same bottle was put on a table and a little metal pellet was dropped, ever so carefully into the bottle. However, when the small metal pellet hit the bottom of the bottle the entire thing shattered into thousands of little fragments of glass. Why did that occur? Well, it was explained that the outside of the bottle had cooled slowly and surely when the bottle was manufactured and as a result it had a hard resilience that could stand up to a great deal of wear and tear. On the other hand, the inside of the bottle had been cooled too quickly and as a result had become too brittle to even be able to withstand the impact of even a tiny metal aggressor.

The parable of the bottle is a symbol of a problem we face in holding ourselves together at this moment in time. We look back on the last year since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We remember the thousands who’ve died by gunfire since, and we realize how so many our waking hours we spent building an outer resilience. We thickened our skin and strengthened our grit, always projecting an exterior resolve, pledging to do something while our national leaders for the most part did nothing, or nothing useful, and we accepted it. We acquiesced to their path of meaningless talk without meaningful walk.

Before the attack in Newtown, CT, the President wasn’t going to do anything either, though he saw the same stories we did about the toll of gun violence in the cities of this nation. Neither he nor we could’ve read the fine details, read carefully through each of the stories bearing witness to all that could’ve and would’ve and should’ve prevented the name Sandy Hook from ever entering the national vocabulary of anguished American cities. It’s just too hard to face, we’ve complained. It’s too painful to listen and hold on to the ugly details.

So before the story is even finished, knowing only that our Senator or our Representative would vote down any bill that changed the status quo- we typed a few fighting words about the gun debate into the social media ether to express our outrage. This was a step that could be easily quelled by a blaring song ringing from the highest mountaintops in our nation, telling us that the gun lobby is right. They have the high moral ground, after all – since they are waving a copy of constitution in their hands.

  • Besides:  Aurora happened there…in Colorado, at a theatre late at night. I don’t even go out after dark.
  • Oak Creek happened in a Sikh Temple. But that must’ve been about a hate monger with a grudge against the Sikhs.
  • And yes, gun violence riddled that abortion doctor in his Kansas church. But that was him. I’m not even political.

It wasn’t in my synagogue or my community center or my workplace. So what am I worried about? It happened then. It happened there.  It’s not me. It won’t be me. If you repeat this over and again with surety, it’s not that different than the sound of a bottle meaninglessly hammering a nail into a board.

As a religious leader, I fear we have come to focus too much on building that outer shell around us for a strictly political debate. We have hidden within our shells- complacent and complaining about our movement’s apparent impotence in the face of the bullies on the other side with better funding and louder speakers.  As people of faith we would do well to not try and outflank these thugs who currently own congress. For ours is a movement not just to strengthen gun laws, but a movement to fight back against a culture of vengeance and brutality that too often decays our well-being and our faith.

This is a fight that won’t be waged only on the Senate floor, but inside of us, that place of determination inside us. It is that same place Congresswoman Giffords and her husband Commander Kelly had to access when she was gunned down in front of that Arizona grocery store at a Congressional Meet & Greet. If there is one thing that Gabby Giffords taught us since she literally rose up from the dead, it is to look deep inside of us for our depth, for our determination and for our faith in a better day to rise.

No, the debate about background checks, the one about assault weapons and easy access to cop-killing ammunition is not a debate to simply wage once and walk away. Rather we must wage this campaign again and again. We must raise our voice and fight our fight with determination. As a Jewish proponent of stronger gun laws, this means listening to fellow members of my faith community call me a Nazi, stating that Hitler’s first step was to disarm his citizens- as though my voice against gun violence was one pledging allegiance to tyranny and state-imposed genocide. What a bunch of nonsense! Yet given these accusations, I’ll need patience,  moral clarity and determination to look beyond this congress to raise ideals up in a new generation who will feel themselves called upon to run and serve in congress untethered to the gun lobby’s hush money.

Sadly I have seen incidents of severe and constant gun violence touch every community I’ve served. And this has changed the way I teach, since I am watching a demoralizing trend.  When I study the Genesis story of the binding of Isaac with my students just coming of age, they tell me they find it hard to believe that God stopped Abraham from harming his son on Mount Moriah. It’s not that they deny God’s existence. It’s that my students are so exposed to violence that they find it implausible that God could and would stop the violence, even if he wanted to. For young people growing up today, gun violence and domestic violence are common threads of the same stories they hear. And frankly, it makes them think that brutality and lethal force are the rule in our culture and not the exception.

As their rabbi, I hope and pray my students will go to our leaders to demand a change in gun laws to protect them in their schools and in our public buildings. I want them to join me in demanding the enforcement of our existing gun laws… and on this one-year anniversary, I never want them to forget what it looked like to see the faces of twenty slaughtered six and seven and six courageous educators across their TV and computer screens, martyred before they could even grow into young men and women.

It is of no surprise to me that there was not a public service of remembrance in Newtown this weekend. For the greatest memorial we could ever give those children and their teachers is to deny brutal force the place of reverence it currently holds in our society. We must destroy the idolatry around guns and ammunition- for moral resolve and adult responsibility are not owned by those who demand vengeance and retribution on a biblical scale. No, the wars and threats and strict judgments issued in the Bible, the Torah or the Quran…are ultimately trumped in those very same texts by the power of compassion found in nearly all our faith scriptures.

How do all these faith values play out in our day-to-day lives? Well, there is one thing we know: conflicts like what happened in Sandy Hook last year will again arise. And it is fairly predictable how the news of the disaster will take over the airwaves. “It was a lone gunman,” the newswoman will try to reassure us. But who was he?  What was his race, his religion, his nationality? What was his motive? These questions will flow out rapid fire. Where did he get all that ammunition? Did he tell his brother or his sister or his roommate he was planning it?

As the settings of such violence get more varied and less predictable- the questions will break through to us in our homes and workplaces and tear away at our spirits. Why would he try to shoot people at a Holocaust Museum? Is he a terrorist?. How did he have clearance to get into the Navy Yard? Did his parents know he was enraged? Did his daughters know that he had a gun in his car, in case his wife said she was leaving, and unwilling to take his beatings and assaults any longer? The questions can be so dizzying you hardly realize the attack you are describing happened right nearby your home or school.

It is imperative that at those moments when we are struck by gun violence – that we look back on the promises we made the last time, the time back at Columbine, the time back in Chardon. For if we can be honest, truly honest that we can realize we broke our promises to act to end gun violence. We were  like the bottle in the experiment at the glassware plant. At the moment of violent impact we went to pieces.

Friends, there is nothing wrong with falling apart in and of itself. Frailty, fear, pain, darkness, chaos they are the story of the beginnings of the Universe. For God to begin creating, God must first interact with tohu va’vovohu, the chaotic matter that precedes light in Genesis. When God is speaking to the first human beings, God asks Ayekah? Where are you? But it is not because God doesn’t know. God asks Ayekah, where are you, to God’s children in order to allow them to speak up and share where they are in terms of fear, confusion and pain. But our answer to God’s question is not in words- it is in partnering with God and with one another to heal the world!

So just as fragile and human as we are to go to pieces when gun violence strikes, we are obliged at those same moments not to stay locked in our fits of despair and brokenness. We must not, we cannot do that.  This is rather a moment to remember that if our faiths can teach us one thing- it is to use what we have in our minds, in our bodies and in our souls to forge a path of blessing, to thwart or at the very least to curb the gunfire that corrodes our society.

We can do it, friends. We are not subject forever to the misjudgments of our leaders in this Congress. And as much terrain as the gun lobby has secured, we must not and dare not cede to them a moral high ground on these matters. For on this 1st anniversary of December 14, 2012, it must be said: Our society’s obsession with guns and gun rights, our unfettered access and unchecked backgrounds when it comes to guns and ammunition, is nothing but pure idolatry. And if we are to block this idolatry from finding its way into our kids classrooms and the streets they walk home from school, from our workplaces and our public buildings and our houses of worship, we must sustain our moral outrage!

This leads me to a story, with which I will conclude. It seems there were two waves out in the midst of the ocean, a big wave and a little wave, only the little wave noticed that the big wave was crying. “What are you doing?” she asked the big wave. And he replied. “I’m crying…because I can see over your shoulders that all of our brother and sister waves are dying as they crash into the shore.”

“You don’t have to cry about that,” the little wave responded. “I don’t?” he asked. “No.” “You are going to tell me, it will all be alright,” said the big wave. “No, I wouldn’t say that,” said the little wave. “That wouldn’t help. But I can help you. I can change your thoughts, and I can help you in just six words. At which point he assented to hear the little wave’s words. So she looked at him and said: “You are not a wave, you are water.”

“You are not a wave you are water.”

All that we need to turn a moment of fear and helplessness to a moment of renewal and strength is to look inside us and decide what we are made of. And the same is true now- the same thing is true today. So all I ask you today is “Are you ready?” Are you ready to renew your promise, to fulfill your hopes for a better and stronger and more secure and civil and safe society for you and your  children? Are you ready to remember that you are not a wave that arose only to crash and die. Rather you are part of an ocean’s worth of water that can erode even the most stubborn of rocks on the shore.

Water we are- that can force even the bravest of foes to flee into a barricade when we rise to hurricane force.  We are not a wave that arose last winter only to crash and die on the Senate Floor in April! We are not a wave that can afford to stand heartbroken. Friends, we are water. We can surround the damn island ahead of us and move past it, and if we are willing to stand at each other’s side, if we will do so unified with mutual respect and shared faith, if we do so with a belief in what is possible and the courage to ignore those who say the world can never be healed. If we do all that, a new day will rise, a messianic age of peace and tranquility, a time of fulfillment and of compassion. Keyn Y’hi Ratzon, So may it be. May this age of brutality soon cease, so that an ocean’s worth of love can flood our world. Amen.