by Rabbi Benjamin Blech
America needs a national day of introspection, reflection – and yes, repentance.
Will the barbaric bloodbath murders in the United States never end?
Nine people were killed and 27 were injured Sunday morning in a shooting in Dayton, Ohio, the latest such incident in a grim week of mass shootings across the nation. The attack came less than 24 hours after a man with an assault-style weapon killed 20 people in El Paso at a Walmart and a week after a gunman fired on a garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., killing three people, including a 6-year-old boy, and wounding 12.
The El Paso murders and the Dayton killings are but the latest instances of deadly mass shootings in 2019, bringing the total number of such incidents up to at least 17. In the past two years we’ve been witness to a stunning number of horrific massacres, each one destroying the lives of scores of victims as well as countless families and friends – the Virginia Beach government offices, the plant in Aurora Illinois, the country music bar in Thousand Oaks California, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the capital Gazette newspaper offices in Annapolis Maryland, the Santa Fe high school in Texas, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland Florida, the church in Sutherland Springs Texas, and the outdoor music festival on the Las Vegas strip.
All these tragedies in the United States of America, land of the free and the home of the brave. All these committed by angry people, people who in their own minds were able to justify the slaying of innocents, the murder of women and children, be they at prayer in their houses of worship, in schools studying to prepare for their future, in malls doing nothing more than browsing and shopping or in social gatherings with friends seeking relief from the stresses of life.
Surely there must be something we can do. Surely there has to be a way to put a stop to this national carnage. And it has gone much too far for us to feel our only response can be to endlessly repeat “our hearts are broken and our prayers go out to you.”
Politicians will try to use the headlines of the moment to bolster their own concerns. We will hear the loud arguments on both sides of the guns agenda. Proponents of the “more funds for mental health” will make their pitch. Amateur psychologists and sociologists will offer their pat slogans. These have all been the same responses till now.
But perhaps there needs to be another approach that has not yet been tried in contemporary America – but one that has been the Jewish people’s response for millennia as a way to cope with indescribable tragedy.
Jews were keenly aware this past weekend that the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton coincided with the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av. Jews around the world began an annual period of mourning for nine days, commemorating the events that led to Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the month on which both of the Temples were destroyed.
It is instructive to note how Jews chose to remember the loss of the two temples which offered us the greatest connection to God. For more than 2000 years we choose these tragedies to motivate us to identify our own possible moral failings that might have been responsible. Tisha b’Av does not revolve around either the Romans or the Babylonians, the mighty nations directly responsible for putting the torch to the magnificent edifices we built to honor our Creator. Instead it is a national day of repentance, recognizing that our greatest obligation is to acknowledge the transgressions which could’ve made possible such immense tragedies.
Indeed, the Sages did not shy away from acknowledging the collective sin they saw as true cause of Tisha b’Av: the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, because of needless and unwarranted hatred.
What a profound echo of America’s failing today. The bloodbaths of mass murder are rooted in a veritable plague of hatred – hatred of other views, hatred of people who differ with us in any discernible way, hatred of anyone to whom we can attach a name or label that can be used to justify our loathing. The very word civilized, implying civil discussions with respect for others who do not share our opinions, can no longer be used to describe a society in which disagreement is met not by tolerance but by total rejection and excommunication.
Look at the social media – at Twitter and Facebook and all the others – and you will see the most vile, abhorrent and unfiltered mudslinging cast into mediums where anonymity allows the cruelest expressions of hatred free reign, unhampered by social etiquette or the demands of respectful dialogue. Sinat chinam – baseless hatred – begins with words; it ends with the events of this past weekend.
So I offer my humble suggestion. America needs a national day of mourning like Tisha b’Av. We need to set aside a day to mourn for what was and is no more; for the goodness and the vision that made America so great and the envy of the world; for civility, for respect, for graciousness, for tolerance and for love of others. And we need a day in which we can collectively, seriously and unflinchingly, search our hearts and our souls to determine our own measure of guilt in having allowed our greatness to be diminished by our pettiness and our unequaled success threatened by our moral failing.
Judaism teaches that Messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av. America needs to be reborn. America needs a national day of introspection, reflection – and yes, repentance.