Many years ago, whenever a catastrophe threatened his community, the Chasidic Master known as the Ba’al Shem Tov would go into the woods and light a fire. He would say a special prayer and the catastrophe would be averted.
In the next generation the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich would follow the same practice. He went to the same place in the forest, where he told God that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer. And again, the catastrophe was averted.
Later, his disciple Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, went into the forest to save his people. “I do not know how to light the fire,” he pleaded with God, “and I have forgotten the prayer, but I can find the place and that must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient, and again, the catastrophe was averted.
And now we say: “God… we are unable to light the fire. We do not know the prayer, and cannot even find the place in the forest. All we can do is to tell the story. And that must be sufficient.”
How will we tell the story one day? Of Columbine, of Sandy Hook, of Charleston, and now of Orlando?
This Shabbat is one of mourning for the 49 people, each one created b’tzelem Elohim—in God’s image – senselessly murdered early last Sunday morning in the gay nightclub Pulse. We mourn too for the injured, and for the grief stricken loved ones left behind to bear unimaginable sorrow.
What was their crime? Being out for a night of dancing and drinking and fun with their partners and friends? Being where they were? No. They were killed for being who they were.
Now in all likelihood, we didn’t know them. We probably know people like them – people like Edward Sotomayor Jr. who managed an LGBT travel agency and worked to make travel everywhere safer for everyone. People like Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, a two-time cancer survivor who was out for the night with her son, and saved his life in her final moments. Or like Darryl Roman Burt II, a natural leader who was always willing to help others.
We didn’t know them, but we know. As Jews especially, we know what means to have a history of marginalization and oppression. We know what it feels like to believe that the worst stereotyping and injustices are behind us, only to find that there is still far too much work to be done in that regard.
Yesterday, in what turned out to be a beautiful antidote to all this, we took Jonah to the mikvah to make his Jewish status official among our people. Michael, reminiscing about his own mikvah seven years and four days before, told me that a friend of ours — also Jewish and part of the family that first drew Michael towards conversion — a friend known for his dry wit said: “Congratulations. Now a lot more people hate you for no reason.”
As Jews we also know what it means to cherish a tradition that tells us not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor, and reminds us that the destruction of a single life is like destroying a whole world, just as the saving of a life is amounts to saving an entire world. For this reason if for no other, we will fight our way back towards hope, in time. We will use our voices as our consciences dictate. Opportunities abound to contact our representatives and express our opinions, to sign petitions, to join the chorus of reason amidst the insanity. We will use our passion as Reform Jews to identify with our movement’s long held position on gun violence. Years before this era of mass shootings, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then the president of the Union of Reform Judaism wrote, “… We need to see the control of guns not only as a political problem but also as a solemn religious obligation. Our gun-flooded society has turned weapons into idols, and… the only appropriate response to idolatry is sustained moral outrage.”
All this – these actions, these commitments — will come in time. They are finding us already, thankfully.
But for one night – for this night, this Shabbat – we come together in community and we mourn. We weep for another round of tragic, violent loss of life. We wonder how it came to this, and we fear for our collective future.
And, dare I say it: we are TIRED. Grateful as I am, I am also tired of the messages flooding my inbox in the aftermath of these shootings with the heading “Resources for the Shabbat after Orlando… after Newtown, after Arizona and Oregon.” I am so tired of writing such headings on the first page of sermons. I’m tired of the seemingly endless cycle of shock, tears, outrage, vigils… and then a shaky return to normalcy, until.
We’re all tired. We are emotionally and spiritually worn out from hearing about the most recent one, agonizing over when and where the next one will take place. We are oversaturated by media, social and otherwise, yet unable to look away for fear of hiding our heads in the sand.
So for this one night, we mourn. We pause and sink into this sanctuary of comfort and peace with broken hearts and deep gratitude. We lean on each other, and we rest, just as Shabbat bids us to. The sacred duty to act, will be waiting for us when night falls tomorrow. And again the next day. And the next.
How will we tell this story?
I pray that one day it will only be that. I pray that the time is closer than it seems now when we will have to explain to our children from the beginning, the very concept of mass shootings of civilians with assault weapons. What they were, what they meant, what they stole from us and how they finally stopped. Because like apartheid, the Cold War, cassette tapes… they will have no idea.
May the day come indeed, speedily and soon, that with work and hope and love, we will join in the fight together with our brothers and sisters, and this catastrophe will be no more than a dim and terrible remembrance. We will tell the story, and that will be all.
And it will be sufficient.