Never before has a simple road sign on the side of a sleepy highway so violently punched me in my emotional stomach. Truth be told, I had passed this road sign exactly a year before, but it meant nothing to me. This year, like a cookie nibbled upon by a French novelist, it brought me back to a visceral, emotional time, and once again I found myself deep in mourning.
The sign read: Newtown, Connecticut.
We are approaching the one-year commemoration of the unthinkable massacre at Newtown, where 20 school children and seven adults were heartlessly and inconceivably murdered by a lone gunman. Those who live in America likely remember precisely where they were when they first heard the news. I was sitting in a parking lot outside of Baltimore on the chilly Friday morning when the news first broke; and it was the next day at the breakfast table, poring over the newspaper report when my tears began to flow.
I cannot recall the last time I shed tears over a newspaper article. But as my own young children ran around the table, oblivious to the horrors that occurred just hours north, I thought of the parents. I thought of the parents who dropped their adorable children off at Sandy Hook Elementary that morning, as every morning, to a safe place of love and learning. How their lives now were irreparably changed by the unspeakable loss of a child, and by the unfathomable visions of their children being murdered at the hands of a madman.
I also thought of the teachers, who had dedicated their lives to the world's most universal precept - and of course, Judaism’s most important precept, "And you shall teach them diligently to your children." (Deuteronomy 6:7) Those who simply went to work that morning, but left with visions of horror and tragedy that will never be erased from their minds. Those who lost their lives, and yes, those who gave their lives in valiant attempts to save their precious students.
Driving along that highway last month, being emotionally transported back to that dark day, I was left with one aching question: What have we learned?
I immediately recalled U.S. President Barack Obama's words at the memorial service where he said:
"Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose -- much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time."
And then the president, with firmness and conviction, shared the following unequivocal statement:
"We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change."
Have we? Did we not feel united in purpose? Did we not feel that sensible gun-control measures, ones that differentiated a citizen's right to bear arms with their right to own military-grade assault rifles with large-capacity magazines, would now be achievable? Did we not think that the memories of these children and these teachers would drive us to change as a society?
But the National Rifle Association simply waited it out. They shared their platitudinous comments of remorse and regret and quietly worked behind the scenes to lobby, threaten, and crush any sensible gun-control measures that might have been produced.
Driving down that lonely stretch of highway last month, accosted by a stationary road-sign, I realized with profound depression that indeed nothing has changed.
Resh Lakish says in the name of Rabbi Yehudah: "The world only exists for the sake of the breath of innocent school children." (B. Talmud Shabbat 119b)
On that day, December 14, 2012, worlds were destroyed. Will we let them be destroyed again?
Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish summer camp experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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