Pondering Parkland on Purim
It’s the new normal. It can’t be the new normal.
The shooting in Parkland two weeks ago continues to pain so many — and has forever impacted the lives of the families of those killed or wounded as well as all who survived the ordeal. On the one hand, we have seen this story before. There have already been 36 mass shooting incidents in 2018 — 6 since Parkland. On the other hand, the murder of students and teachers — or anyone — must shake each of us to the core. How can we become “accustomed” to these horrific acts of violence? How can we not feel the pain? Yet, the cycle continues.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the responses are similar. There is an outpouring of love, thoughts, and prayers. And there is criticism for “only” sending thoughts and prayers without actually DOING something about this crisis. (As a religious person, I’m a big of fan of both love and prayers.) There are calls to pass gun control laws – ban assault weapons and bump stocks, raise the minimum age to purchase guns, introduce stricter background checks, and be more proactive to assist those who are mentally ill and ensure they don’t get guns. There are the competing calls that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” and that the second amendment is sacrosanct, so the solution to this problem lays elsewhere.
I cannot imagine a genuine solution that doesn’t involve stricter gun laws, selling fewer guns to private citizens that have less destructive power, and being more careful who gets hold of weapons that can kill. Fewer guns means fewer people will be killed. I realize that, considering the political climate today, that’s not likely so quickly. (Although I did think Bret Stephens’ radical approach to taking on this issue – repealing the second amendment and starting from scratch – would be an interesting way to reframe the conversation.)
If we’re not going to change the gun situation, what can we change? Let’s examine and the society in which we live.
President Trump made one comment in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting that caught my attention and resonated.
“Create a culture in our country that embraces the dignity of life.”
It would seem to be an obvious and self-evident value in society that all would embrace. It seems, however, to be under assault. Our society is far more fragile than it used to be with some fundamental values under assault.
There has been a familial and cultural revolution. Children are being raised differently – often with less supervision, guidance, or positive role models than they used to be. There has been a technological revolution with the internet playing an outsize role in shaping our lives. From social media to violent or vacuuos video games to an information overload that fills our heads with all sorts of unnecessary thoughts, our influences are no longer as wholesome or positive as they were – even a few years ago.
In addition, people are far less connected than they used to be. In Bowling Alone, the sociologist Robert Putnam argued that even affluent areas have seen decreased social interaction in recent decades. By combing through a ton of data, Putnam found that Americans had joined fewer civic organizations, socialized with friends less frequently, and signed fewer petitions. Putnam concluded that the United States was bleeding social capital, and therefore democratic values.
Our society lacks a sense of connection. In Judaism, responsibility is a core value. As the Midrash states, we’re all in the same boat so no one person can drill a hole under his/her own seat without sinking everyone. Especially in the aftermath of Parkland, our core problem is relational. David Brooks summarizes our ills quite well: “the decline of social trust, the breakdown of family life, the polarization of national life, the spread of tribal mentalities, the rise of narcissism, the decline of social capital, the rising alienation from institutions or the decline of citizenship and neighborliness.”
Feeling more connected can make a big difference. Besides it being wonderful to have good neighbors (right, Mr. Rogers?), having strong social ties may produce more resilient neighborhoods and even help reduce gun violence.
In the aftermath of Parkland, many voices proclaimed that America should learn from Israel to eliminate such massacres. Haviv Rettig Gur convincingly challenges this view. He says gun control laws in Israel have a lot less to do with preventing school shootings than does the fact that “Israeli Jews maintain a deep and abiding faith in their shared fate and communal solidarity.”
This makes a lot of sense – especially on Purim. Shared faith and communal solidarity is very much part of the holiday.
When Esther agrees to Mordechai’s plea that she intercede with Achashveirosh and save the Jews, she asks him first to: Leich k’nos et kol ha-yehudim – Go and gather the Jews to come together and pray. Solidarity was a precondition for salvation.
In the aftermath of the “happy ending” and salvation of the Jewish people, a holiday is declared. The celebration cannot just be about mishteh – a festive meal and joyous spirit. The festival includes mishloach manot – sharing gifts with friends. We can never just celebrate by ourselves; we celebrate when we strengthen our connection with our friends and neighbors.
A real national holiday cannot only be celebrated with those whom we know. Purim includes matanot la’evyonim – gifts for the poor. In this way, the holiday encourages us to build social capital. We’re not happy unless we’re trying to make everyone happy.
Purim has many lessons. This year, the holiday provides a roadmap forward to build a society in which people care more about others, in which each person must be engaged to feel part of the social order, and in which each of us reaches out just a little bit further to create a sense of shared fate and communal solidarity.
Leich k’nos – Let’s bring people together.
Mishloach manot ish l’ray-ayhoo – Let’s share with each other.
Matanot la’evyonim – Let’s support those whom we don’t know and make them feel part of the collective.
As we ponder Parkland, Purim provides a path towards a culture and a society with a little more orah, v’simcha, v’sassone, vi’yekar – light, joy, enthusiasm, and value.