The pictures on Facebook alternate between kids I know and kids I will never meet. The pictures of graduations and sports banquets and getting ready for camp. And the pictures of nineteen kids along with two teachers, also smiling, wearing dressy or silly clothes. The latter are dead.
The very repetitive nature of the horror and response when human beings are murdered in a spray of bullets is now just as much the story. The scenes from a grocery store or church or softball game or school. The outrage from the dais, the wailing from the heartbroken. The cool and calculated condolence and the passionate cries.
Something is very wrong when calls for prayers are expected from public servants and calls for legislation come from the clergy. Our roles seem to be reversed. Except this was precisely the role that the prophets would play. The prayer, or in that case sacrifice, would continue in excellent form but the prophet would thunder in G*d’s name: “Enough with the fatted cows and libations! If you do not return from what is wicked, what use are these empty rituals?”
Only a few are prophets, most of us are not. Neither are most of us politicians or office holders. Many of us are parents and all of us know people who are. All of us have loved ones who we know go to school to learn or teach or work with the kids and while there is no reason to think there is any more danger today than yesterday there is also no way to think of them without feeling fear. For us, there may be comfort in the words of our faith and the teaching of resilience.
And, yes, prayers.
Prayers may help us see a world in which there is kindness first and foremost and an imperative to save a life and to protect the well-being of others. The words from our sacred books can remind us that we are not automatons programmed to only see what is in front of our eyes. We can be reminded of the infinite Divine imprint in each human being and the necessity to treat each individual as irreplaceable and the world as capable of being mended.
Yet prayer does not absolve us from seeing the world as broken and recognizing that human beings are indeed capable of terrible acts. That we are easily influenced by toxicity and recruitment to terror. That the only way to follow through on the call to preserve and cherish life is to take action and responsibility.
Our tradition teaches that one must not leave a stumbling block before someone who cannot see it. How can we remove from the path of those blinded by hatred and ideology what not only makes them stumble but enables them to inflict the no longer unthinkable on the targets of their malice?
There is no magic – not even in the law. Difficult work, vulnerable and honest, must be undertaken to even begin to stem the relentless waves of brutality that leave behind scenes of slaughter with the regularity of shells that wash onto the shores. We have been here before and to imagine we won’t be here again is too much for hope. Too much for prayers.
Today twenty one more of our children and precious teachers are gone. They are now only memories. They are now only prayers.
May the bereft be comforted and the hurting find healing. May we find the resolve for action. And prayers that inspire kindness and commitment to each other’s well-being.
Michael Bernstein, a Rabbi, has served since 2009 as Rabbi of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, a vibrant and dynamic Synagogue community in north Atlanta where each person’s story is embraced and Judaism is personal. He was ordained as a conservative Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1999. He and his wife Tracie have three children, Ayelet, Yaron and Liana.