A Massacre in Las Vegas: Tragedy and the Insecurity of Freedom

October 2, 2017| 12 Tishrei 5778

After the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 which left 20 children and 6 staff members murdered, Rabbi Naomi Levy wrote a prayer which contained these words:

Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries innocent children and brave teachers.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair.
Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened
Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.
Let their cries give way once more to laughter…..

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.

Now, 5 years later, another mass shooting in Las Vegas more than doubles the number killed in New Town with more than 500 wounded.  The scene is now embedded in our minds: a madman shooting from a hotel in Las Vegas, thousands of concert-goers running for cover, screams and the sickening sound of an automatic weapon firing round after round at the innocent.  The inspired words of Rabbi Levy speak to us anew:

Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair

Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter

This should and must be our prayer on a day when America mourns.

However, we should also be cognizant of the fact that while Yom Kippur ended on Saturday night, the period of judgment continues until Shmini Atzeret according to our tradition.  The same introspection that marked Yom Kippur as well as the call for Teshuvah apply during these days.  It is my firm belief that if Americans want to honor the victims of this horrid act, then we must look past the psychological profile of the shooter and inside of ourselves for answers as to how a person can be allowed to acquire so much weaponry.  It is estimated that Stephen Paddock brought more than 30 weapons into his hotel room, including military grade rifles.  The fact that he was able to purchase all of these weapons legally and pass the FBI weapons check begs another question: Are there no limits on the types of weapons that an American citizen should be able to own in a country already awash in guns and ammunition?  Try and explain to a person mourning a son or daughter or father or mother today that it is our constitutional right to own an AR 15, a rifle which was commissioned by the United States Army not to hunt animals or for self-defense but to kill as many of the enemy as possible.  During these days of judgment, we would do well to remind ourselves that from the Jewish perspective, freedom without limits is chaos!

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a book many years ago entitled The Insecurity of Freedom where he writes:

We all share a supreme devotion to the hard-won freedoms of the American people. Yet to be worthy of retaining our freedoms we must not lose our understanding of the essential nature of freedom. Freedom means more than mere emancipation. It is primarily freedom of conscience, bound up with inner allegiance. The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist in the fact that “I can act as I desire.” This definition not only overlooks the compulsions which often lie behind our desires; it reveals the tragic truth that freedom may develop within itself the seed of its own destruction.

As the flag flies at half-mast today, may Americans take a moment to pray for the souls of the dead and the comfort of the living.  Let us also take time for introspection about the limits that are necessary to ensure our American freedoms and the safety of every person who makes this country their home.