One of the most perplexing commandments in the Torah deals with our treatment of Amalek, the nation that attacked Israel's weakest elements on their journey out of Egypt. "Remember what Amalek did to you...You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" At once, we are commanded to remember Amalek and to blot out their memory.
A few days ago, humanity was once again faced with an act of Amalek. On Friday, December 14, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered 26 people, after already having killed his mother. The dead included school children, as young as six years, old and their teachers. In the aftermath of this horrible act, people around the world are merely left to ask difficult questions, like, "What would lead a person to commit such a heinous crime?" and "What can we do to prevent it from happening again?"
Here, the Biblical injunctions both to remember and to blot out a name are useful. We at once must remember every single victim of this terrible event while also remembering the act itself. While we remember the act, we are best to think about the circumstances that caused the act — how did this act come to be, and what can society do so that it does not happen again?
Since the tragedy, two major topics have dominated the discourse around the shooting — the treatment of mental illness in the United States and gun control. Neither topic provides easy answers, but both are necessary conversations to have. Judaism has more to say on mental health than it does on gun control, but it gives helpful guidance on both topics.
Relating to mental illness, Judaism is clear in its view that all people deserve mental, emotional, and physical healing. The traditional prayer for healing calls on God to grant healing “of the soul and of the body,” referring to all types of illnesses. People that struggle emotionally, according to Judaism, are just as much deserving of treatment as people suffering from physical illnesses. And while, like all societies, many Jewish societies have a way to go in terms of tolerance and inclusion, Jewish tradition and liturgy make clear that society has a responsibility to care for those suffering from emotional illnesses.
One aspect of the discourse, however, has gone against Jewish tradition. While the desire to increase the discourse on mental illness is admirable, many people have fallen into the trap of lumping all people with different needs in one group. This of course is not the case. People struggle with different issues, and people struggling with same problems struggle with them in different ways. Judaism warns us against such generalizations, and the Book of Proverbs teaches us to treat each person as an individual, and to educate “according to one’s path.”
Indeed, we do not know what led Adam Lanza to commit this heinous act and take his own life, and we should think twice before assuming that other people who also suffer from mental illness will behave in the same way. But we should learn that every person deserves individual attention and treatment. Ideally, if society understands the needs of every individual better, there will be fewer tragedies like that of Sandy Hook.
The other conversation that needs to take place relates to gun control. Even before researching Jewish sources, many people, including non-Jews, have looked to Israel to understand the topic better. Some argue that even with the military, Israel has strong gun control, which explains the low rate of murder here; others believe that guns and ammunition are readily available in Israel, but that the culture prevents such killings. I, for one, have been trained to use an M-16, and I cannot understand why any civilian would ever need or want to own one.
Moreover, Judaism does take a clear stance regarding the sanctity of life, and as the Conservative Movement leadership mentioned in a recent statement, the Mishnah teaches that people should not carry weapons. There is, unquestionably, a need to recognize that - whether an assault rifle or handgun - firearms can so easily destroy a life. And just as we heavily regulate cars and their drivers, because cars have the potential to kill even though they are designed with another purpose in mind, so too must the government regulate firearms as a means of sanctifying life.
It will take the United States a long time to heal from the devastation at Sandy Hook, and many lives have been changed for worse. Nevertheless, we cannot allow the difficult conversations to be swept under the rug, as we have a commandment to remember the horrible deed that was done. In doing so, we will be honoring the memories of the victims, and if we make positive change in our society, we may yet succeed in blotting out these acts so that they do not happen again.
Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM, the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.
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