The wisest thing I ever heard a clergy person say was after the sudden death a 19-year-old girl. Amy had gone to high school with me and my younger brother, and most of our community crowded into St. Anastasia’s Catholic Church for the funeral mass. The priest stood up and said, simply, “I have no idea what it must be like to lose a child.”
In the wake of yet another mass school shooting, I can only repeat his words: I have no idea what it must be like to lose a child. I have no idea what it must be like to lose a child so suddenly, in such a senseless act of violence. And I have no idea what it must be like to be a parent right now, in the wake of this tragedy.
I have no idea what it must be like to hold a newborn, or a kindergartner, or even a squirming preteen, and have the thought: It is possible that one day I will send you to school, like any other day, and you won’t come back. It is possible that the smiling photograph I just took of you will be the last one I have, and that tomorrow, your face will be plastered all over the media. It is possible that for the rest of my life I will watch from the sidelines as your peers reach each milestone, wondering what you would be like at this age, had you lived.
I have no idea what that must be like. I can only imagine that it is one of the most painful feelings a human being can experience.
Our biblical ancestors knew this, and this is reflected in this week’s Torah portion, Behukotai, which enumerates the blessings and curses that we will face if we adhere, or don’t adhere, to the covenant God has laid out for us. The list of blessings is short: in exchange for following God’s law, we will be rewarded with fertility, satiety, and security in the Promised Land. The list of curses is longer, the descriptions more vivid. And the worst of these curses is the loss of a child.
“And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children…” furthermore, the famine will be so severe that “You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters” (Leviticus 26:22, 29).
This last gruesome image is meant to shake us to our core. Because there is nothing more precious to a parent than their child. There is nothing more important to a parent than keeping their child safe. A world in which a parent outlives a child is one in which something has gone terribly wrong. And a world in which a parent willfully harms their child is unthinkable.
And yet, we ask parents every day to subject their children to danger. We ask parents every day to send their children to school, knowing that they might not be safe. We ask parents every day accept that more could be done to protect their children from harm, but that we, as a society, have failed to do so.
The curses we read this week are theologically jarring to the modern ear. Even the rabbis argued about whether this passage should be read aloud in public. We don’t like to think that our ritual observance, or even our moral behavior, are tied to some divine carrot or stick.
But if we step back to look at the big picture, there is a message in these blessings and curses that still holds true: Actions have consequences. What happens to us—and to our children—is, at least in part, a consequence of the world we have created.
And we have created—or we have failed to prevent—a world in which it is easier to buy a gun than baby formula. In which an eighteen-year-old, who isn’t considered responsible enough to drink a beer or rent a car, can legally purchase a military-grade weapon to murder a classroom of elementary school children and their teachers.
We have created—or we have failed to prevent—a world in which this is commonplace. A world in which, practically every day, the unthinkable happens: a parent loses a child.
This is a curse of biblical proportions. And we, as a nation, have brought it on ourselves.
We learn in the Talmud that in times of crisis, the rabbis would engage in fasting and prayer, most often to make the rain fall in times of drought. The Talmud recounts many stories about different rabbis fasting and praying for rain, with varying results based on their own piety and power.
One of these stories is about Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who decrees a fast and prays for mercy, but to no avail. He remembers the efficacy of his predecessor’s prayers and laments, Oy lo l’dor she-ken nitkah! Oy lo l’mi she-alta b’yamav kach, “Woe to the generation that is stuck with this leadership; woe to the leader in whose days this has occurred.” It is this lament, not his prayers or fasting, that finally makes the rain fall (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 24a).
It is not Rabbi Yehudah’s thoughts and prayers that end the drought, but rather his recognition that he has failed as a leader. And so I say: Oy lo l’dor she-ken nitkah! Oy lo l’mi she-alta b’yamav kach!
Woe to the generation that is stuck with this leadership! Woe to the leaders in whose days this has occurred!
Woe to the generation for whom mass shootings have become commonplace.
Woe to the generation for whom active-shooter drills have become routine.
Woe to the generation whose leaders ignore their cries for help.
Woe to the leaders who claim to be “pro-life” and fail, again and again, to protect children from harm.
Woe to the leaders who serve the gun lobby instead of their constituents, who value campaign contributions over human lives.
Woe to the leaders who send out hollow prayers in the wake of tragedy instead of working together to pass common-sense gun legislation.
I want to offer words of comfort but they will be meaningless unless I first call for action. Please visit CeaseFirePA and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for more information on how you can be part of the generation of leaders that ends gun violence.
On the same page as the story about Rabbi Yehudah, there is another tale of a community praying for rain. Another prominent scholar named Rav decrees a fast during a drought. But no rain comes. Then the prayer leader—a considerably less prominent person than Rav—lifts their voice in prayer and causes the rain to fall. Surely, Rav thinks, this person must be a big macher, a mensch of the highest order. So he asks them, “What are your good deeds?” The person replies, “I am a teacher of children.” (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 24a).
Of the teachers and students we lost this week, we do not only pray, yehi zichronam livracha, may their memories be a blessing. We also pray yehi zichronam mahapecha. May their memories be a revolution. May their memories spur us to action. May their memories inspire us to turn the world upside down.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz