In the Hebrew Bible, God tells us, “Behold, I have set before you good and evil, life and death,” and adds, “therefore, choose life!” Within the past 10 days, our nation and the world have witnessed a cascade of horrific episodes in which evil and death seemed to have prevailed:
• The killing of six worshippers at a Sikh Temple outside Milwaukee. The gunman reportedly was involved with several neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.
• In Joplin, Mo., the Islamic Center was destroyed by fire in the third attack on the facility since 2008. The Anti-Defamation League of Missouri/Southern Illinois has expressed “horror” at the destruction, pointing out that the Islamic Center most recently had been struck in early July; investigation into that vandalism was ongoing when the “appalling destruction of the entire building” occurred last week.
Those horrendous incidents occurred in the immediate aftermath of the deranged shooting rampage by a gunman at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and a guilty plea by Jerrod Loughner, the gunman who shot and killed seven people and wounded several others, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at a political event in Tuscon, Ariz.
Can any “good” counteract the overwhelming evil of recent days? Is there a way for us to fulfill the mitzvah to “choose life” in the midst of all of this destruction and death?
While there is no way to erase the pain of those who lost loved ones in these incidents, or those who must live with the aftermath of grave wounds, the outpouring of community support, from people of all faiths and backgrounds, to these incidents does offer considerable comfort at this time of tragedy.
In Wisconsin, thousands of people of all faiths and backgrounds visited a high school near the Sikh Temple where the killings had occurred to pay their respects to those killed and their families. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and members of other faiths were among those who attended the service. In St. Louis, the small Sikh community welcomed members of other faiths for a prayer vigil last week, and a number of Jewish community members turned out to show their support.
In Milwaukee, Elana Kahn-Oren, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, told JTA that almost as soon as she heard the news about the shooting at the Sikh Temple, her phone started to ring with call after call from concerned area Jews asking what they could do to help.
The very day after the shooting, the Federation of Milwaukee was offering counseling services, had opened a mailbox to receive donations for assisting with the financial needs of the victims and their families, and was in talks with the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee to determine ways to bring together religious leaders from all faiths for an interfaith prayer service.
“Coming together after events like these reaffirms the values of the community,” Kahn-Oren said, adding that the violence “goes against our moral fiber.”
Nationally, the Jewish Federations of North America’s Secure Community Network is communicating with Sikh and Muslim communities to advise them on enhancing awareness while maintaining openness, according to Paul Goldenberg, who directs SCN, as quoted by JTA.
Meanwhile, regarding the burning of the Islamic Center in Joplin, ADL Director Karen Aroesty said she is in constant touch with federal, state and local law enforcement to share information on possible suspected perpetrators who might have committed one or more of the three attacks on the mosque. The Jewish community of St. Louis, including several synagogues and organizations, came to the assistance of the entire Joplin community in the aftermath of the deadly tornado last year. Other local Jewish groups and congregations are expressing outrage over the torching of the Joplin mosque and offering support and assistance to the Muslim community of that city.
Yes, as our prayer book says, we do live in a world that is often “torn by violence and pain.” But Judaism is a faith built on choosing life, of not standing idly by while our neighbor bleeds and of tikkun olam, of healing, of repairing that which is broken in our world. Along with like-minded people of good will among all faiths, the Jewish community will do all within its power to support any and all efforts to bring healing to the Muslim community of Joplin and the Sikh community of Milwaukee.
When confronted by destruction and death, we will choose rebuilding and life.