One of the most difficult things about being a Jewish educator is that students expect you to have answers to their questions. In general, we do. Ask me why we light Shabbat candles and I can give you an answer. Ask me how we celebrate Purim, and I can give you an answer. Ask me about a specific pasuk (verse) in the Torah and I can give you not only my answer, but the answer of many others as well. But when tragedy hits, I do not have an answer.
I too, like so many others, am dealing with the aftermath of the Parkland shooting last week. My own young adult children are having a hard time. As one of them said to me, “seeing the street where I grew up on TV, knowing it is closed off as a crime scene, is so hard…” Realizing that many of those interviewed on national and international TV are your friends, colleagues, people you bump into at the grocery store, is a reminder of how close to you this all is. And I am one of the lucky ones whose children were not there. I cannot even begin to imagine what 4,000 people (among students, faculty and staff) went through. I cannot fathom how they will fare in the next few days, months, years.
So this week, when my students asked me — why? — I had no answer. I ask the same question.
In the past week, I have seen both the worst and the best in people. I have seen those eager for their fifteen minutes of fame jumping in front of TV cameras, and I have seen those working behind the scenes with little or no sleep. I have heard of people working behind closed doors strategizing with those in power how to never allow tragedies like this to happen again. My children and I brought cookies to the police station Saturday night and were met by a police officer who could barely hold back his tears. I have heard from rabbis how difficult it has been to praise G-d at this time. But maybe most important, I have seen teenagers, as young as 14, suffering losses that even we adults could not understand. No teenager should have to attend five or more funerals in three days. No teenager should have to face this extent of evil. But life presented them with this, and they did not have a choice.
They do, however, have a choice of what to do next. Besides seeing therapists that can help work through the trauma, talking to rabbis or other clergy to help them not lose faith, comforting each other at vigils, hugging friends and teachers, telling their parents how much they are loved, these children have resolved to do something about it. In ways never seen before, they are organizing rallies, marches, protests. They want to see change, change that we adults have failed to implement.
And yet, they are still young children, who will be faced with the reality of how difficult and slow change is. They are still naïve and believe this is a simple solution – let’s ban guns. If that would solve all the problems… We need to work on gun control, there is no question. But we also need to address funding for mental health care, and changes in the privacy laws that many times protect one individual, leaving other lives unprotected. We need to address the general lack of values in our society, the fact that many children (and their parents) are more concerned about doing whatever it takes to get into a good college, than about caring for and reaching out to the student sitting alone in the cafeteria, day in and day out.
So to these children I can say — I do not have answers. But I can share Jewish teachings with you, with the hopes that the wisdom of the generations before us will guide us in our journey through life. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:14, we read about Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the first century before the Common Era:
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי
He used to say: If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?
Yes, children of Parkland – you need to advocate for yourselves, for teenagers all around Florida, for students all around the world. No one will do it, if not you. You will be the agents of change that we have failed to be.
But in the process, remember to bring others close, not push them away. Please do not repeat the adult behaviors you have seen around you. Many of those who do not see eye to eye with you are not your enemies, and they are not ignorant. They just have different ideas. Listen to them and try to bridge the differences. Together you will achieve even more. This is about all of you, all of us.
And maybe the most important you have already figured out: the time is now. As I watch your resolve to make the Parkland tragedy the last of its kind, as I see you learning to be citizens to the broadest extent of the word, I am proud of you. I believe you will lead us in change and I pray that in spite of the frustrations that come along with fighting for a cause, you will never lose hope or faith.