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Walking with God after Uvalde

The Bible warns against a world where hearts are closed and cool, numbing us to the kind of grotesque, chaotic evil that takes the lives of children
People mourn outside of the SSGT Willie de Leon Civic Center following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AFP)
People mourn outside of the SSGT Willie de Leon Civic Center following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AFP)

Like so many other clergy in America this past week, I struggled with what to say to my congregation after yet another mass shooting in a school. What can be said? And in the same breath, how can we not speak out, cry out, when nineteen innocent children and their schoolteachers are murdered in a classroom?

The Torah portion we read this past Shabbat is entitled Bechukotai, from the opening words of the portion: “If you walk in My ways.” The parsha presents two visions side-by-side: One vision of a blessed society: prosperous, peaceful, secure. The second, a cursed society: chaotic, violent, deadly. 

While the Torah was given to our ancestors three millennia ago and therefore was not speaking of America today, the parsha’s ideas are profoundly important for us to learn from in this week of yet another senseless, mind-boggling massacre of children. As the Torah clearly demonstrates, the societal blessings and curses aren’t random. No, they are each a path we can freely choose, each direction stemming from choices we make and actions we take or fail to take. The message to us is clear: society as a collective can walk towards its own destruction–and its own redemption. 

Within the long series of curses in this parsha, there is a term that appears seven times, a significant number. It’s a word that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Torah, and thus it would seem to be a key to understanding the Torah’s message in this section. The word is keri, and it seems to be the key to understanding what went wrong between the Jewish people and God. The Torah says in Leviticus 26:23-24 v’halachtem imi keri, v’halachti af ani imachem b’keri, if you walk with Me with keri, then I will walk with you with keri.

According to Rashi, keri indicates a state of hardness of heart: When we harden our hearts to God and to one another, we demonstrate keri. And, tit for tat, God says that when we do so, God will behave toward us with a same hardness of heart.

Other interpretations note the relationship of keri with the word kar, or cold. When we allow ourselves to become cold, indifferent to the world and its needs, that’s when we demonstrate keri. The Malbim interprets in this fashion: Keri is when we live as though the world just proceeds of its own accord, that there is nothing we can do. Whatever evil or suffering happening in the world is just the way things go, simply the laws of nature, and we can’t really do much about it.

Or HaChayim adds that because of this, teshuva, repentance and change, become impossible: why bother? If our actions have no effect on the chaotic world, then there’s no reason to try and make things better.

When we put all these interpretations of keri together, a picture emerges of a terrible way of walking through the world and with God. It’s a cold outlook in which we close our hearts and see the world as a meaningless, chaotic jumble of badness, with no real path of teshuva, return.

In such a world, our goals become simple. We expect bad things to happen, and we accept it when they do. So we focus on protecting and insulating ourselves. We allow ourselves to become numb as a defense mechanism. After all, the world is a horrible place and there’s nothing to be done – so the best I can do is try to protect myself and hope for the best.

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the school shooting in Columbine? I do. I have a visceral memory of it. It was so shocking. It ripped apart my world. It seemed to defy everything I thought I knew about how the world works. 

Remember Newtown? It felt the same way: unimaginable, unreal.

And now, this past week, how many of us weren’t shocked? Horrified, angry, upset, yes. But not shocked.

I am worried that we’re approaching a dangerous state of keri in America. We are becoming numb to grotesque, chaotic evil that takes the lives of children, whether it’s in Texas or on the south side of Chicago, or in Skokie where I live, and where a 9-year-old child was murdered last week. 

The drumbeat of these events leads to a kind of acceptance. And that leads to a state of keri: “this is what happens.”

We have routines for these kinds of tragedies now: We hold vigils. We post on social media. Politicians repeat their talking points. Nothing happens. And then we go back to normal.

But the whole point of the Torah is to remind us that this isn’t normal.

One of the terrifying aspects of the curses in Parshat Bechukotai is that they accelerate. They go through seven cycles, and they get worse and worse–because we don’t listen and we don’t change.

Consider this: Since 2017, mass shootings in the United States–described as shooting incidents in which at least four people are injured or killed–have nearly doubled year over year. Already, there have been 212 mass shooting incidents in 2022 — a 50% increase from 141 shootings in May 2017.

Think about that: As horrific as these school shootings and school shootings are, they’re actually just a drop in the bucket statistically.

And here’s perhaps the most devastating statistic of them all: In 2021, the leading cause of death for children in America was firearms. More than car accidents. More than sickness. More than drugs. Guns have become the leading killer of children in our country.

This is not normal. Something is wrong.

I am not a politician. I’m not a social scientist, and I’m not necessarily anti-gun. I know why people buy guns. I’m a public person, a rabbi in the community, and, terrifyingly, my family and I have been threatened by people who want to do us harm. So I learned how to handle a firearm, and I’m licensed to own and carry one.

Which is to say: I get it. I’m a Jew. I know what’s going on out there. I believe there’s an important place for responsible gun ownership.

I know enough about guns to know a lot of these issues are complicated. I know that a pistol can be just as deadly as an AR-15. I know that there is no legislative solution that will cease all mass shootings. 

But as a rabbi, as a parent, as a citizen, I refuse to walk in the world b’keri – I refuse to accept that these firearms deaths, these massacres, these lives of children cut down, is just “how it is.” I refuse. 

So I turn to our tradition for encouragement. I turn to our God who hears the cries of blood crying from the ground–even when we have deafened ourselves to them. I turn to the Talmud, which offers wisdom on balancing the need for people to keep themselves safe versus the harms that they might do to others. 

I turn to the State of Israel, which has its fair share of guns–but where these kinds of horrific events don’t happen. And I believe it has a lot to do with Israel’s requiring rigorous background checks, emotional screens, age restrictions, mandatory firearm testing and training, weapons and ammunition limitations, and more. Israel has a lot to teach us.

I know Israel is a different society. And I know that there is no simple way to stop someone profoundly evil intent on doing harm when several hundred million guns exist in America today.

But if background checks, or some age limitations, or an emotional screening, or an ammunition limit would prevent one parent from having to wait for hours to find out if their child was murdered in school, or one grandmother from being shot while purchasing a birthday cake for her son at a grocery store, or one Nazi or white supremacist or black supremacist or Al Qaeda member from shooting up a Jewish community, or one child from confronting a lifetime of trauma after witnessing her friend murdered and and being covered in her friends classmates blood–I think it would be worth it.

We must refuse to accept that things must be this way. We must push back against the idea that we’re cursed to ever escalating, senseless gun violence. We cannot live b’keri. 

The issues, however, go deeper than firearms.

Firearms are gasoline on societal embers that are already burning.

We are living in an environment so saturated by fear, mistrust, and polarization that is playing to our worst human impulses. The resulting despair and nihilism are a form of walking bekeri that is plaguing our society, especially our young people. 

We need to make some changes. Yes, we need helpful, smart, and effective firearm policies. But if the Torah is correct, that our curses come from an existential attitude of keri, we need to respond with its opposite.

If keri is a closed, cool heart, we need hearts that are open and hearts that listen to the voices of all: children who are afraid in school, gun owners who are afraid of violence, hearts that can hear and hold those on the “other side” and see our common humanity. If walking bekeri is seeing the world as random, chaotic and meaningless, with no hope for teshuva, for collective repair and return. We need the opposite: walking through with the world with emunah, with faith in God, in one another, in our children. 

Not a passive faith, but an active emuna that acts, builds and trusts in the future.

We need to believe in the worlds of the Talmud, that the whole world exists because of the breath of schoolchildren, and then act accordingly. We need to show our that we will not stand by bekeri – we will not stand by like this is normal.

We must tell them:

We will fight for you.

We will fight for your education.

We will fight your safety.

We will fight for your future.

We will absolutely make mistakes and not get it right, but we will never give up on you. We have brought you into this world that is in so many ways broken, with evil, hatred and violence, but also filled with good, beauty and light. And our America’s children deserve to see it for way, way longer than 4th grade.

The curses in Bechukotai conclude with some really dark stuff. In truth, way darker than anything we’re experiencing now.

And then there is a final instance, the 7th time, the word keri appears: 

וְהִתְוַדּ֤וּ אֶת-עֲונָם֙ וְאֶת-עֲון אֲבֹתָ֔ם בְּמַעֲלָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר מָֽעֲלוּ־בִ֑י וְאַ֕ף אֲשֶׁר־הָֽלְכ֥וּ עִמִּ֖י בְּקֶֽרִי׃

and they shall confess their sins and the sins of their forebears, in that they trespassed against Me, and walked with me בקרי – And that I, God, in turn walked with them בקרי

Then, suddenly a shift:

וְאַף־גַּם־זֹאת בִּהְיוֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם לֹא־מְאַסְתִּים וְלֹא־גְעַלְתִּים לְכַלֹּתָם לְהָפֵר בְּרִיתִי אִתָּם כִּי אֲנִי ה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם׃ 

Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I ה am their God.

Ve-af gam zot

And even still, and even in this, there is hope.

Jonathan Sacks called this section “the birth of hope.” It’s the hope and the realized promise that after all the terror and horror, real horror that our people would experience, God still cares and loves us and will redeem us.

Ve-af gam zot

And even still, and even in this, there is hope.

Politicians need to do their politics – write effective laws that make all Americans safer from random, senseless gun violence. Security and police need to improve in how they train and respond to these threats.

And our job, in the face of the great dangers of both evil and indifference, is not to walk with keri, but to remember Ve-af gam zot, Even in all this there is hope, and to never let that hope go.

I’m not speaking about naivete or even “optimism.”

We need clear-eyed, sober hope, Ve-af gam zot hope, hope that can hold the ugliness of the world next to its promise and potential.

This is the kind of hope that fuels the changes in minds and hearts – that changes the world.

The Torah’s hope is the kind of hope that knows, trusts and believes that there are forces more powerful than any bullet, that there is love stronger than death, and that God will always be there. Waiting and ready, for us to walk together.

May the memories of Nevaeh Bravo, Jackie Cazares, Makenna Lee Elrod, Jose Flores, Eliana Garcia, Irma Garcia, Uziyah Garcia, Amerie Jo Garza, Xavier Lopez, Jayce Luevanos, Tess Marie Mata, Miranda Mathis, Eva Mireles, Alithia Ramirez, Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez, Maite Rodriguez, Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, Layla Salazar, Jailah Nicole Silguero, Eliahana Cruz Torres, and Rojelio Torres be for an eternal, powerful blessing.

May their souls be bound up in the bonds of life.

May their families grieving the unimaginable know healing and strength.

May our leaders know wisdom and courage.

And may we all hope for, fight for, and know peace.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Hart is the spiritual leader of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a modern orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.
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