The settings for our nation’s now not uncommon mass shootings are varied in size and function. In size, they may be as broad as an outdoor music festival as in Las Vegas or as confined as a night club in Orlando. In function, they may be as secular as a business’ central headquarters or as spiritual as a church. If there were a hell, there would certainly be a special spot in it for those who would open fire in God’s holy precincts, second only to the most unconscionable of all settings, a school, as was the case in Newtown, CT and Parkland, Florida.
The Jewish community, ever sensitive to the senseless loss of God’s children, has always been shaken by these mass shootings, the latest of which took place at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on a Shabbat morning. Eleven members of the tribe lost their lives that day in a barrage of bullets triggered by a man full of hate. There is no setting “better” than any other when it comes to the loss of life, but the shooting in one of God’s holy sanctuaries does raise that age-old question with even greater poignancy: where was God? Where was ‘the Guardian of Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps”? (Psalm 121:4). Where was the Source of Life of whom the psalmist wrote:
The Lord will guard you from all harm;
He will guard your life.
The Lord will guard your going and coming
Now and forever. (Psalm 121:7-8)
Our good member, Sharon Aaronson, has raised this question, as I am sure so many of us have, because of all the places one might rest assured of God’s safety and security, a sanctuary would be top on the list. Apparently, it isn’t necessarily so. How do we reconcile the paradox of violence in God’s spaces of peace?
God has given us two tremendous gifts--one is the gift of Torah and the other is the gift of freedom. Torah teaches us how to live and freedom gives us the liberty to live as we choose, including ways that run counter to Torah. If we were so constituted as to be unable to violate law and tradition, that would be the greatest proof that humans are trapped--allowed to make certain choices but prevented from others. That's neither reality nor freedom. We can all choose to live in any number of ways--healthy and unhealthy, safely and dangerously, lovingly and hatefully. God teaches us which are the best choices, but does not make the choice for us.
When our kids first began to drive a car solo, it was a bit nerve-wracking, yes? The best way to keep them from an accident is to never have them drive or enter a car to begin with. But that would be a terrible decision. Our children need freedom; all people do. But with freedom comes a certain degree of risk as not all people make the choices that are godly. We are all free to abuse our freedom. If we were not free to do so, we would not be free.
As tempting as it is to question God when it comes to the senseless massacres of this world, we may just try thinking of God as asking us a few questions as well:
1. Why are you blaming Me for Pittsburgh? Did I give this man an assault rifle?
2. Why are you blaming Me for Pittsburgh? Did you not learn anything after Sandy Hook?
3. Why are you blaming Me for Pittsburgh? Did I teach you to hate your neighbor?
At a time like this, it is easy to question God, but it’s a dodge. The most damning aspect of all these shootings is that we have the power to, in the very least, minimize the casualties, and somehow society has managed to skirt the challenge.
Still, we may charge God with a degree of irresponsibility. If God is as omnipotent and as omniscient as the divine reputation goes, where is the divine intervention when needed. A couple of responses are warranted here, the first of which is this: how do we really know that there is no divine intervention? Only God knows how many other shootings have been foiled or averted, remaining unaccounted as they never materialized to begin with. But there is a stronger idea to contend with when it comes to God’s omnipotence and that is this: Is God really omnipotent? The idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God is actually a Greek idea, not a Jewish one. The Greeks were very much involved with ideas of perfection and in imagining the perfection of the gods. They, not the Jews, imagined gods that were omnipotent and all-knowing. A close reading of the Bible, written of course from a Jewish perspective, does not give us an idea of a perfect or omnipotent God. Our God is much more human—making decisions, regretting them, becoming angry, overcoming anger, listening to people and also commanding people who nonetheless defy divine orders.
The Jewish mystics (we call them the Kabbalists) had another way of thinking about this. In order to make room for humans, God had to give up some of His power and energy in order to grant us the freedom and power to act. God did not leave us without direction, however. God did give us the Guide book to life, otherwise known as the Torah. But it’s up to us, not God, to implement it. That makes human decisions, our decisions, exceedingly important.
Where was the Source of Life at the Tree of Life that Shabbat morning? I believe the Source of Life was in that sanctuary, calming those congregants who were hiding, strengthening those officers who were pursuing the assailant, and leading the martyred up toward the heavens above. Our God-given freedom is among the most precious gifts given to us, and also the most dangerous. We will have too take God’s injunction to preserve life more seriously, by enhancing security in our synagogues, and anywhere that people gather en masse. We will also have to vigorously pursue those social conditions that will hamper the designs of the wicked who seek to inflict damage on us and others. And we will continue to ask hard questions as there is some modicum of comfort in being able to ask and wonder. But in the end, as with so many other aspects of life, the real questions revolve not around what God can do for us, God having given us so much guidance already. The real question is what are we prepared to do for God in creating the peace that God intended us to enjoy.