As we process the horrific shootings in Virginia Tech I, cannot help but wonder about the Jewish approach to this kind of senseless loss of life. Why were these people killed? Was this their fate? Why does God allow these kinds of awfulness to occur?
An essential element of the human condition is the expectation that sense can be made of life’s experiences and order of the messy phenomena of being. We ask “why” with a cool confidence that belies the complexity of existence. Yet we search. Whether the path is science, history, psychology or philosophy, we are all on a dogged pursuit of “why.” Each of us is on our chosen path of inquiry, searching urgently for answers and meaning. Some of us have acquired responses that get us through the day and keep us from embracing a nihilistic despair.
From a religious perspective, we know some of the answers that address your issues. We are familiar with the idea of a benevolent knowing God who at once grants us freedom, yet with omniscience knows where we are headed, a God of whom ultimate justice is expected yet whose daily Divine workings remain a mystery, a God who gives free reign to nature but exacts integrity from the humans ensconced in that nature. This is enough to satisfy the basics, but I think the time has come to attempt an understanding not of God, but of humans.
Instead of your questions regarding God, what would it look like if we instead asked questions of humans? Not the stuff of why the security wasn’t better, why guns are so accessible, or why the warning signs were not heeded, but more of the “meta” kind of questions: what is it about humans, that we can’t seem to get beyond the killing fields?
Whether it is the story of wars, violent crimes or territorial disputes, we cannot seem to, yet we expect that in this 21st century, our problems can be solved in a mode not related to the shedding of blood.
I realize that I am running the risk of sounding Rodney King-esque here, but it is a puzzle to me. I, like you, dreamed that by now we would have reached the time of “no more war” promised by Isaiah. I, like you, had that youthful optimism that after World War I and then II, the Holocaust and Vietnam, that we would arrive at the age of peace, birthing our children into a different place.
That has yet to be. Each of us needs to ask ourselves this question: why is it that though we are able to send e-mails at the touch of a finger, hold 3,000 songs in our palm and all sorts of other great stuff — we still are sending our young people off to be butchered for reasons I am not sure are worth their precious lives, while at home we witness criminal brutality — the likes of which escalated unprecedentedly this month. There is something dreadfully wrong with this picture and I demand an answer not from God but from each of us.
I propose that the throwing up of our hands must come to an end. If all the good folks continue to say, “What can I do about it?” then continue on with carpool and grocery shopping, there is no hope for us humans. Each one of us must look at what happened in Virginia and not ask, “Why did God let this happen?” and instead ask “What am I going to do about it, today?” What concrete action can we take to repair the breach, the awful ugliness, the unacceptable randomness of evil?
Here are some suggestions to raise our awareness of the preciousness of human life and bring peace into our lives:
Life is precious. Embrace peace on the road. Be one of those that allow the other to pass. Be the driver that never curses or gesticulates loathsomely to other drivers. Allow pedestrians to cross with grace. Slow down when approaching schools and children’s play areas. If you have transgressed and received a moving violation, pay it with joy and gratitude that no one was injured while you chose to disregard the safety of others. Do not try to get off when you know you did something wrong. Paying the fine is part of the teshuva — repentance — process.
Treat those that serve with kindness — whether they are the checkout person, the food server, or the cleaners. Pause to say good morning before requesting the latte. When speaking with those that “do for you” speak with the same loveliness and honor that you would want in that situation. Greet all with a pleasant countenance.
Get to know people who are not your best friend, who you can’t seem to understand. Perhaps there is more to them than you think. Go out of your way to try to see things from their perspective. Find someone with whom you disagree with about politics, religion, feminism, family issues and schooling, someone who leads a life totally different from yours. Take him or her out for coffee and listen to why they have chosen the path that they have chosen.
Judge others favorably — make it a habit. Give the benefit of the doubt. You were not invited to the affair — perhaps they had a limited amount of spaces, perhaps they forgot, perhaps your invitation was lost. They didn’t send a gift or a thank you note? Perhaps they are less rude than they are busy. Someone did not greet you warmly, maybe they don’t feel well, or perhaps they had a bad day.
Don’t judge. The next time you hear an unpleasant word about someone, do your best to offset it. Take the high road, don’t jump in with glee to disparage another. Speak as though those of whom you are speaking are sitting together with you.
We all grow up hearing stories about great people, of heroes: The kind understanding sages, leaders that embrace peace, and everyday people of courage — it is time for each of us to be one of those. As Pirke Avot teaches, be of the students of Aaron. Love peace and pursue peace.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.