When will we be able to bensch gomel for gun violence?

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Tzav and the March for Our Lives. Cross-posted to the This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

This week’s Torah portion continues our conversation about the zevach sh’lamim, the offering of well-being. Parashat Tzav separates this offering into three categories: n’davah, a voluntary offering; neder, a votive offering; and todah, a thanksgiving offering. Each offering is sacrificed at a time when one wants to acknowledge God as the source of one’s good fortune.

What makes the todah offering different from the other sh’lamim offerings is that this offering is made when a person or family has survived a treacherous situation, such as a long journey or a life-threatening illness.

While we no longer offer such sacrifices–or any sacrifices, for that matter–the rabbis transformed the practice of the todah offering into a prayer some Jews know as bensching gomel. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah and Rav tell us: “Four must offer thanks to God with a thanks-offering [by this time, “offering” probably meant giving to charity] and a special blessing. They are: Seafarers, those who walk in the desert, and one who was ill and recovered, and one who was incarcerated in prison and went out” (Berachot 54b). They add that this should be done in front of a minyan, a community of at least ten adult Jews, who, like the neighbors with whom one shared the todah offering, bore witness to the miracle and shared in the survivor’s joy.

While we don’t do it too often in our congregation, nowadays it is customary for a person or family who has survived an ordeal—an illness, an injury, an accident, or a long journey—to come up to the bimah and recite these words: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, sheg’malanu kol tov. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has bestowed every goodness upon us. The congregation then responds Amen, adding, Mi sheg’malchem kol tov, Hu yigmolchem kol tov. Selah. May the One who has bestowed goodness upon us continue to bestow every goodness upon us forever! This blessing appears in our liturgy right after Mi Shebeirach, a reminder that, just as we plead for help when we are in distress, so should we give thanks we have come through a dark time.

The custom of bensching gomel may help us to process any guilt we might feel, for surviving when others did not. It might be a space in which we can express both our profound relief, and our lingering fear. For the community, hearing this prayer reminds us that life is fragile, and that everything can change in an instant. Thus, we must be grateful for every moment we are not bensching gomel.

I thought of this prayer this week, when reading about yet another school shooting, this time in Great Mills High School in Maryland. When someone told me that another school had been attacked, I braced myself for the worst. But nothing could have prepared me for what I felt when I read that the gunman had been taken down by the school resource officer, and that only two students had been shot. At that time, there had not been any fatalities aside from that of the shooter, though this morning, I learned that one of the victims has now died.

But in that moment, all I could think was: Thank God. I felt relieved. I was relieved that it hadn’t been worse. I was relieved that it hadn’t happened here, or to anyone I know. This feeling of relief is yet another indication that such incidents have become far too common.

Our rabbis taught us to give thanks for surviving illness, incarceration, and dangerous journeys. How long before we are bensching gomel for surviving a week at school?

Over the course of my adult life, I have watched the occasional tragedy turn into an epidemic. I graduated from high school less than two months after the Columbine High School massacre, in which twelve students and one teacher were killed, in addition to the gunmen. This shooting was the first of its kind, and sent us into a tailspin over gun violence, bullying, mental health, heavy metal music, goth culture, and violent video games. Measures were taken to reduce bullying and ensure school safety—someone I knew was banned from attending prom for making a joke about selling guns in school. But there was not a single student protest in 1999 that I can remember.

Recently, a contemporary of mine asked why we did not take to the streets, as high school students are preparing to do right now, all over the country. Some said it was because we didn’t have access to social media at that time, and it would have been difficult to coordinate action both within and between schools.

But I had a different realization: we didn’t take to the streets because we had every reason to believe that this massacre was an isolated incident. We had no reason to believe that something like this—something that had never really happened before—was likely to happen again, or often. We certainly didn’t have any reason to believe that it would happen 17 times in three months, as it has this year. And we didn’t have any reason to believe that the adults in our lives, including our nation’s leaders, would not do anything to protect us from harm.

But less than 20 years later, I find myself sighing with relief, giving thanks to God, that at least only two people were shot this time. At least one of them survived. At least the school resource officer did his job. At least this shooter only had a handgun. School shootings and mass shootings have become commonplace. But we must never allow them to become acceptable.

The North American Federation of Temple Youth, or NFTY, has for many years run a campaign on Gun Violence Prevention. Now, the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School have emerged as leaders in the national conversation on school safety and gun violence prevention. It is no wonder that our children are taking to the streets. We have failed them.

These students are not protesting because their classmates were killed. They are not protesting because they do not feel safe at school. These students are protesting because there are simple and concrete ways that we, as a society, could stop this from happening, and we have refused to do so.

Samantha Haviland, a survivor of the Columbine shootings who is now a school counselor, expressed a similar sentiment: “Nineteen years ago when Columbine happened, we didn’t understand it. We were shocked by it. We didn’t think this was a thing. We thought we were outliers…We adults, myself and my generation, have failed these students where we have learned this is a thing and we still haven’t done anything.”

After the nation-wide school walk-out on March 14th, some students in our high school program mentioned that their teachers told them that instead of “walking out,” they should “walk up” to students who look lonely or isolated, as many school shooters were reported to have been. Encouraging students to be kind and welcoming and compassionate is never a bad thing. But telling them that kindness will serve in place of common sense gun laws is ridiculous. Similarly, encouraging teachers to carry guns in place of providing real school security measures and mental health resources is unconscionable.

I mention these proposed solutions in the same breath because they are two sides of the same coin. Both suggestions place the burden of preventing school shootings on the shoulders of the victims. Don’t our students, and our teachers, already have enough to worry about? Isn’t hard enough to be a teenager without having to prevent gun violence on your own? Isn’t it hard enough to teach teenagers, without also having to be prepared to take on a gunman? Both proposals are attempts to shift the responsibility from where it belongs: it belongs on us.

At some point, we have to think long and hard about what we owe to our children. We have to decide whether we truly believe that we, as a nation, are responsible for their safety. We have to decide whether we, as parents, educators, and concerned citizens, would really do anything to protect our children from harm. Because if that is what we believe, then we are failing them every time we do nothing.

If we believe that our children deserve to be safe at school, then we need to advocate for increased funding for our schools in general, and for mental health and security in particular. We need to fight for common sense gun laws that ban assault rifles and high capacity magazines. We need to close loopholes that allow purchasers to sidestep background checks and restraining orders. We need to promote research on gun violence as a public health crisis. And in order to do this, we need to hold our local, state, and national leaders accountable for prioritizing donations from the NRA over the lives of our children.

I won’t be joining the March for Our Lives tomorrow—except in spirit—because I’ll be celebrating a bar mitzvah. We are welcoming one of our children into the covenant of Jewish adulthood, and in the process leading up to this moment he’s learned a lot about being responsible and caring for others in our community. As we celebrate with him, I ask us to consider: Are we modeling responsibility and concern for our community for him and his peers? And are we doing everything we can to ensure that they will grow up in a safer world than we have currently put in front of them? Or are we turning our faces away?

Tonight, we are going to sing one of my favorite healing songs tonight, “Don’t Hide Your Face from Me.” The words come from a psalm asking God to be present with us, and answer us in our time of distress. This is, in essence, what our young people are doing. They cannot offer praise to God for their survival, because every day we are still putting their lives at risk. They are asking us, from a place of deep pain and trauma, to stand with them, to care for them, and to help them to emerge from this dark place to a future free from violence and fear.

How will we answer?

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