Vigilance about Violence

by rabbilimmer

Ten human beings killed.  Fifty five wounded.  On a holiday weekend celebrating our nation’s independence from tyranny.  Among the dead was Amari Brown, all of seven years old.  This half-year of 2015 alone, over 1,300 people have been shot in our city of Chicago.

Chicago is not the only city ravaged by the plague of gun violence.  We know, too well, about the murderous church shootings in Charleston, SC, that victimized a sacred community engaged in the holy act of bible study.  The list of towns—from Aurora through Sandy Hook—rehearses a litany of tears.

Our prophet Isaiah dreamed of the day when Violence and Destruction shall no longer be heard in your land; neither despoliation nor destruction within your borders.  How we cling to that vision of Isaiah today, and how starkly remote it appears.

The question remains: what do we do about it?

How do we respond to this plague of gun violence in addition to our anger, our outrage and our sadness?  There are no easy answers.  Our federal government seems remarkably disinclined to do anything to control gun violence; our city seems to be short on solutions as well.  Creative campaigns, like the IAF’s Do Not Stand Idly By effort, are working with manufacturers to make guns (and gun distribution) safer for all.  But there is a very big mountain to climb in overcoming this towering problem.

In addition to campaigns and advocacy, simple awareness of any societal ill is always important.  Here at Chicago Sinai Congregation, before I joined the community as its Senior Rabbi, we began the practice of recalling the names of those killed by guns in Chicago before our Shabbat recitation of our Mourner’s Qaddish prayer.  I was proud that our community made awareness of this matter a regular part of our practice; I also was aware—and a little wary—that the liturgy of our prayer service, and a precious moment for personal memories, was being brought into the realm of the political.

I was proud when a member of our Confirmation class marched into the offices of Senator Mark Kirk and asked the Senator to take action on meaningful gun control.  In explaining why the issue mattered so much to her, she shared with the Senator’s staff how important it was to have the weekly reminder of how many lives were ended, and how many families are shattered, due to gun violence.

I was sympathetic when members of our community shared that while they thought awareness of the problem was important, the Mourner’s Qaddish was a time for personal reminiscences, and not ideally suited for an awareness-raising campaign about an issue for our body politic.

I was torn about maintaining our commitment to the issue of gun violence and its particular placement in our worship.  I could not summon the wisdom of Solomon to balance these competing claims.

But I wasn’t unsure at all what to do on the Friday night after the church killings in Charleston: in solidarity and sadness, we read the names of the nine victims.  It seemed appropriate beforehand, and absolutely right afterwards.  The tragedy was of the moment, and in all of our minds.  The Qaddish wasn’t about a political issue or any awareness-raising: we read the names of the victims because all of us in the sanctuary actively mourned their passing.

That was when I knew it was time for our practice to change.  Every Shabbat at Sinai, we will continue to bear witness to those killed in our city by gun violence, and we will continue to raise awareness of this societal plague.  However, rather than reciting their names before our communal Qaddish prayer, we will recall every week—in our Shabbat bulletin—the names and ages of those who have died in the past week.  I do not know if this is a wise decision; it does feel remarkably right to me.

We will preserve our congregation commitment to work for an end to gun violence, and we will maintain the time of our Qaddish prayer as an expression of the mourning our community brings into our sanctuary.  Of course, through our Social Action Committee and our partnership with United Power, we will continue our action, advocacy and partnership on the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign.  We will work towards the day when Isaiah’s vision becomes ever more true, and violence and destruction are no longer heard within our borders.