A Bar Mitzvah In A Time Of Tragedy

I had planned to write about my eldest son’s bar mitzvah this weekend. I had planned to reflect upon some of the challenging tensions of being both a rabbi and a parent; of wanting to challenge him to learn more and work harder than he ever had, yet also conveying a sense that a bar mitzvah is not a culmination/endurance contest but a point of entry into adult Judaism. I wanted to talk about memory and family and the lingering sadness I feel that my late father won’t have a chance to see his grandson become a bar mitzvah. And then #OrlandoShooting happened.

The devastation wrought by Omar Mateen’s murderous rampage, in which at least 49 people were killed and scores of others injured, exceeds the limits of our words.  The depth of tragedy, pain, and horror left in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history leave so many of us stunned and hollow inside. There are, to be sure, many ways to respond. We can and should comfort the victims’ loved ones, the LGBT community of Orlando, and local LGBT communities who have to live under the constant specter of violence and bigotry.  We can and should attend vigils and other opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds and faiths to come together in solidarity, showing that perpetrators of hate and bigotry will not be victorious, no matter how heinous their actions. We can and should speak out against the lunacy of allowing military-style assault rifles to be lawfully purchased by civilians, joining groups such as Rabbis Against Gun Violence (full disclosure: I am a member) to push for legislative action. My colleague, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, offers several more ways we can respond in her thoughtful post. All of these are important.  We may in fact be biologically wired to need to respond in some way, as a byproduct of our need to understand how someone could do something so horrible. But here’s the thing lurking in my mind: Do I really want my son to become an adult in a world capable of such unspeakable evil and hatred? How can I protect him, and others I love, from such savagery, brutality, and inhumanity?

I don’t have the answers.  But the one thing I will start with, in talking with him about the Orlando massacre, is the absolute imperative Judaism places on promoting life and respecting human dignity. If we take God seriously, and we take Torah seriously, we must affirm, again and again, that every person — regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation — has a spark of divinity within them. And it is this divinity which makes each person, to paraphrase Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5, infinitely precious.  We can and often do disagree with people of different perspectives.  But what we cannot and must not tolerate is transforming disagreement over ideas with demonizing, denigrating, and dehumanizing the purveyor of those ideas.  Whether it be those choosing to attend a nightclub in Orlando or those choosing to support a certain political candidate for president, we must, at all times, respect those with whom we disagree. We cannot and must not allow our fears, our anger, or even our outrage to blind us to the truth of our common humanity. That is the message I intend to share with my son this weekend. That, and a giant hug.

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