I will never forget the profound sadness and deep sense of outrage I felt when I first heard the news. It trickled down in small fragments, speculations about what was happening, estimates of those injured and those killed. Then, the questions: How could this happen in a school? Why is there so much violence in our society? Did this happen because it is so easy to get a gun?
Indeed, I will never forget that day — April 20, 1999. The day when two boys walked into Columbine High School and shot to death 12 students and a teacher.
I believed that day would finally change our country’s position on gun violence. We now know it did not.
Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora and now the Sandy Hook Elementary School are the killing fields of our time. Again, in the aftermath of last week’s school massacre, we have calls to do something about the carnage. I am plagued with the sense that little will change and we will return to normal lives. Normal, that is, until the next tragedy. But I know that this does not have to be the case. Will the killing of 20 innocent children finally be the catalyst for change?
Life is sanctified, and the possibility of saving a life trumps any other obligation. That’s a moral imperative of Judaism, more important than any other commandment. It requires us to act when we see a life or a community endangered. We are facing an epidemic of violence in our country. We cannot shy away.
This is a time that calls for more than our expressions of sorrow and sympathy. This is a time that calls for more than institutional statements that condemn violence. This is a time to begin a national conversation that will lead to change. This issue is not political or partisan; it is an issue of human survival — physical, moral and spiritual.
We need a serious, thoughtful, inclusive and honest conversation about the limits of gun ownership. Our national conversation needs to include those who believe strongly in the Second Amendment and those in favor of strong gun regulations. It needs to include people from all different political views, people of every race and religion. It needs to include anyone who says enough is enough, anyone who is willing to find a way forward, out of tragedy. Focused and intentional conversations can lead to actions that will stem this tide of horrific massacres.
I do not know the outcome. But I do know that without an inclusive conversation, national policy will not change, and that is simply unacceptable.
We will pay best homage to the memory of those beautiful and innocent first-grade students at Sandy Hook and the six heroes who died trying to protect them when we start the conversation. We can start today with acts of conscience that define and shape our own character and reflect our moral indignation at this tragedy:
• Begin the conversation with your friends and loved ones, with a new resolve to address this plague that is killing so many people. Be part of groups like the Brady campaign that are actively seeking solutions.
• Contact those who make games, television shows and movies and ask them to moderate their use of excessive violence.
• Join Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her call to bring back the federal ban on assault weapons.
• Ask our legislators to enforce our current laws and put a stop to all the loopholes that allow people to buy guns without background checks. We need sensible gun laws.
• Support measures that will make psychological help more available to all those in need.
As I write this, both in tears and in fierce commitment, I know that there will be readers who will say I do not understand the complexities of this issue. I refuse to believe that anything is too complex to resolve. I seek a community of those of who believe we can change and are willing to do something about it.
Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote that religion has become the taillight of society, and it is supposed to be the headlight of society. I will never give up my belief that things can change, that ethical values can be the headlight of society, that kids can go to safe schools, that we can be safe in public places — it is that belief that defines my Judaism and my humanity.
Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and a moderator at the Aspen Institute.