Last week it happened again. A young man, a high school teenager with a full future before him enters his high school looking to shoot someone. In this case it was the teacher of the high school debate team who had apparently kicked the boy off the team. When the student couldn’t find the target of his crime, he shot a 15 year old girl who is, as of the writing of this, struggling for her life.
“But why?” Everyone asks. Why would someone want to kill for something as seemingly minor as being kicked off the debate team? And once again, the voices ring out for stricter gun control, missing the forest for the trees.
The answer to the question has nothing to do with guns, and neither does the solution. Shouting for stricter gun laws masks the real reformation that needs to take place – one that will take a lot more work and that our country’s leadership seems afraid to even look at. Making stricter laws makes people feel like they are doing something to solve the problem, but it won’t because the gun is not the issue, it was only the tool. Many people have been killed without the use of guns. The important question to ask is what is it about American society that leads to reactions like this? Why do people commit public acts of violence?
The answer lies in understanding what it means to be a human being. When we open up the Torah, the first thing we see is that G-d created the world. He created the world as a place for people, the crown of His creation, the whole reason that the rest of creation exists. And when Adam couldn’t grasp what it meant to have a relationship with G-d, G-d separated him into two parts and gave him family and community in order to teach him what it means to have a relationship, to connect.
And so, mankind was created to connect. We spend our entire lives trying to connect – with our parents, with our friends, with our soul mate, and with G-d. But what happens when we don’t manage to connect? What happens when a person is constantly denied all the things that come from connection? Connection, also known as love, feeds our emotional being much the same way that food feeds our physical being. Without it, we experience emotional starvation.
A starving person will do almost anything they have to in order to eat. We certainly have all heard of people who steal food so that they can eat, but killing is also not out of the question. Even the Tanach makes mention of a time when food would be so scarce that people would resort to eating each other. (Eicha, Melachim Bet and other places).
Many people think that public violent crimes are about revenge, but nothing could be further from the truth. Public violent crimes are about connection, or the lack thereof. When a person experiences emotional starvation from a lack of love and connection, they are willing to accept any substitute that will quiet the hunger. Much like junk food will temporarily assuage physical hunger, and certain pursuits will temporarily assuage spiritual hunger (what I call spiritual junk food), there is also an emotional junk food. Something that feels a lot like love and connection, only its benefits are fleeting and the end result is emotional malnourishment. These counterfeits for love and connection are attention and significance. Both feel like love in the moment, but as soon as they are gone, they leave a gaping hole, a hunger that is even more painful than what was experienced beforehand.
It has been my experience, having been a student of human behavior for more than 2 decades now, that women tend to default to attention and men tend to default to significance. This is not a hard and fast rule, but rather, a trend or tendency, and it plays itself out in the fact that overwhelming majority of these public violent crimes are perpetrated by men. Why?
What could make you more significant than being plastered all over the media for having just bombed a marathon or shot up a high school? What could make you more significant than being placed, even if only momentarily, in the position of a god, being able to choose who lives and who dies. The problem is, and the reason why many perpetrators of such crimes end up committing suicide, is that as soon as the deed is done, and they realize that the hunger hasn’t been assuaged – now instead of just feeling emotionally empty they are also experiencing feelings of guilt, or a deeper more painful hunger, the only thing left to do is put oneself out of one’s own misery.
So, if it is true that the reason for these horrible events is not because guns or bomb-makings are too readily available, but because there is a much deeper problem, then making these things less accessible is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping hole. It may seem like we are doing something, but really it accomplishes nothing and ignores the real problem. This real problem stems from a society that values what one looks like more than who one is on the inside, that values entertainment more than education, that values status and financial standing more than building strong, healthy families.
As time and technology move us forward, appearing to make us more connected, the world appears to become a smaller place. But in reality what is happening is that while we may be becoming more connected to our virtual world and to information, we are increasingly becoming less and less connected to each other. This process began in the mid 1900’s as we became more connected by radio and then telephone and television, then it was cell phones and the internet, and today we are connected by a virtual umbilical cord to the internet. Now, technology in and of itself is neither bad nor good, it’s simply a tool, but it has contributed to the erosion of real connection in our society.
And this is one area where Judaism can be a light to the nations, if people will just open their eyes and look. Torah values teach us that one of the pillars of society is the family and the Jewish home is the center of spiritual life. We value connection, we build communities, and once a week we disconnect in order to connect – with our friends, our family and G-d. Judaism teaches us that each one of us is inherently valuable because we are created in the image of G-d, and if one knows that one is valuable, one does not need to be significant in order to feel a sense of love and connection.
The Torah provides both the answer to the question as well as the solution, we need only open it up and look inside.