When school shootings hit home, pain runs deep

Kristi Gilroy hugs a young woman at a police checkpoint near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 15.   Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

BY RABBI SETH D. GORDON

Like you, I learned about the school shooting in Florida from the news. But unlike you, I heard the news from Israel, where I am studying. And probably unlike you, I had a very personal connection: My nephew Zachary and my niece Zoe were in that school.

I heard about them well after the shooting ended. What I understand is that Zachary was able to run out quickly; Zoe was barricaded in a classroom and was one of the last to emerge. She was near the shooting, and several of her friends were killed.

Using Cain’s killing of Abel as a springboard, a midrash amid a Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:8) teaches: “One who destroys a single life, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world.” With Abel’s death, half a world was lost. The rabbinic phrasing is once again vividly, though sadly, on point.

Innocent people, including many precious teens and a teacher and coach, were killed. The grief of parents and loved ones may dissipate over time, but the pain will never totally end, and it will be refreshed on birthdays, the anniversary of the date of death, and at other events and experiences. The children they would have had will never be born. Some, perhaps many or most of those who were there, will suffer emotionally. What lifelong impact will it have? Cumulatively, we as a nation suffer.

But even as this has happened too often, it has apparently not happened enough — not enough to do enough.

Although eliminating guns is a noble dream, it is fraught with problems. Criminals and the mentally unstable can often find a way to get guns, as they have obtained forbidden substances for who knows how long: drugs, alcohol, etc. (when banned or restricted). And law enforcement is not capable of preventing many crimes, in part because we will not devote the resources, and in part because law enforcement by its nature lags behind lawbreakers. Moreover, in addition to constitutional questions, because of limitations on police, some citizens feel that their best protection is their own weapon.

So we debate the issue as we should, but each side should be respectful enough and wise enough to recognize the good intent and reasonable reasons that they disagree. Unfortunately, that debate has not yet led to solutions and prevention of mass murder.

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But even as this has happened too often, it has apparently not happened enough — not enough to do enough.


 There is a partial solution, albeit an imperfect one, but it is one that will require a national adjustment to our thinking. Our Rabbinic Sages ruled that, “When it comes to saving lives, even the laws of Shabbat are set aside.”  

To understand the power of this statement it is important to know that the laws of Shabbat are themselves sacred, and violations, on the books if not in practice, are severe. My purpose is not to teach Shabbat law, but to provide context to “setting Shabbat laws aside to save life.” It was and is in context a powerful statement. 

But I deliberately omitted something. The rule is even more sweeping: Shabbat law is set aside not merely to save a life, but even if there is doubt, that is, when there is a reasonable question that perhaps a life is threatened, the same “setting aside” takes place.

Americans value their privacy, especially from government, but also from one another. But when lives are in jeopardy, even when there is a reasonable doubt, we ought to set it aside to protect those lives.

Two generations ago, when a person misbehaved, particularly a younger person, a responsible adult would likely say something. Today, “It’s none of my business.”  

The killer, who in my nonprofessional judgment based on what he did and his behavior afterward (he walked into a fast-food store to eat), is a psychopath. But he had left many clues by his public expressions and by his previous pattern of behavior.

This does not mean that all who express sentiments about guns will, God forbid, strike. But this mass murderer was expelled from school for repeated anti-social behavior and crimes, e.g., repeatedly setting off fire alarms at school. Did safeguarding privacy by authorities and private citizens take precedence? Is this the price we pay for misguided privacy?

Privacy proponents have a point, but only up to a point. Some quote Benjamin Franklin:

 “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”  

If this quote is accurate, we cannot ignore the words “essential” and “temporary” if we are to understand and transmit his message accurately. Ideologues sacrifice wisdom and good judgment. Sanctifying privacy is foolish. We always trade some freedom for some security: In this generation alone we have traded privacy in airline travel by installing security guards and systems and by having to implement and remember dozens of passwords. We get it.

Someone who expresses violent intent should not be shielded by privacy. Human lives, and an entire chain of irreplaceable dreams and unimaginable anguish, are at stake. The Rabbinic Sages did not only teach, “One who destroys a single life, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world,” they also taught, “One who saves a single life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”  

“An entire world,” not “the” entire world was destroyed. We have a world, indeed worlds, to save.

May God comfort the families and friends of those killed and injured. May they know that we share their grief.