Saturday, July 21, 2012

Reflection on the Aftermath of a Tragedy

Reflection on the Aftermath of a Tragedy

 On Friday night, July 20th, one day after the tragedy that occured in an Aurora Movie Theater, I delivered the following sermon:

Reflection on the Aftermath of a Tragedy
Shabbat Mattot-Massey
July 20, 2012
Rabbi Joseph Black – Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

Dear Friends,

On this Shabbat  we come together to find comfort.  We look for answers in the depths of this terrible tragedy. 
·         We ask ourselves and one another:  how could this happen?  How could something so horrific, so monstrous happen – especially here – in this community that only recently experienced a similar horror in Columbine?

·         We seek answers.  We ask:  How could God allow this to happen?”

·         The truth is – there are no answers – none that give us comfort.

·         The randomness of this act of violence makes the horror of what we have heard all the more intense.

·         AS a rabbi – there are times when I wish I could put things in perspective and tell you about the true reasons for pain, suffering and evil in this world – but I cannot.

·         That this tragedy occurred on this day – when, in the State of Israel the bodies of 4 men and a pregnant woman were buried as a result of an act of unspeakable terror in Bulgaria makes the realization of this horror all the more painful.

·         That this tragedy occurred on the 18th anniversary of the bombing of a Jewish Center in Buenos Aires – a fact not lost on the terrorists in Bulgaria – compounds our sense of fear and powerlessness

·         That this tragedy occurred at the same time that the International Olympic Committee has refused to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics only adds more outrage to our pain.

·         Tonight we also begin the Hebrew month of Av –the month when we, as a people, remember the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples – as well as many other tragedies that have befallen on our people throughout the ages.

This morning, after being awakened with the news of the shootings, I was contacted by a reporter from CNN who wanted to know what the “religious” perspective on this horrible event might be.  My first response was to tell the person on the other end of the line that there is NO religious response.  Religion had nothing to do with the killing of 12 innocents and the wounding of dozens more. 

But then, as I gathered my thoughts together, I realized that, yes, there was a religious answer – but it was not necessarily a Theological response.  My first instinct, once I heard about the shootings, was to find out who in our community was impacted by the events of last night.  Then I felt the need to reach out to the entire community and let them know that we all felt the same shock, horror and pain.

You see, the religious response to horror and terror is caring and community.  It is found when we come together – to grieve, to cry, ask questions, to get angry – to find comfort and to comfort one another. 

·         It is in Community that we find comfort. 

·         It is in Community that we find God.

·         It is in Community that we grieve and we allow ourselves to express our loss and fear.

But it is in Community that we also find strength.   The purpose of terror is to isolate us – from one another and from God.  We need to come together at times such as these and proclaim that we will not allow fear or violence or hatred to rip us apart.   And that is why we are here tonight and that is the answer to those who would use violence and hatred to destory the fabric of our lives.

In this week’s torah Portion, Mattot Masey, there is a terrible story.  God instructs Moses to wipe out the entire Midianite Population – to spare no one: Men women and children alike.  The Israelites attack the Midianite encampment and massacre all the men and the children – but they spare the women.  Moses is furious.  You see, last week’s parasha told the story of how the Midianites sent women to seduce the Israelites – and were almost successful.  By sparing the women – who, in Moses’ eyes were the cause of the debauchery of the Israelites, not only were his people disobeying orders, but they were displaying the very same weakness that almost destroyed them in the first place.

Each year that we approach this portion – I cringe.  There are so many problems that it poses:

·         What kind of God commands us to commit genocide?  

·         How can we read this in a post-Shoah world and not be sickened? 

The truth is, we cannot.  An essential aspect of Reform Judaism is the understanding that there are times when we must accept the fact that there are portions of Torah that are anathema to our vision of the world.  And it is permissible to reject them – or to try to find some redeeming aspect of their narrative – if we feel that the message does not fit with our understanding of the world in which we live.

Tonight, our rejection of the violence of this week’s parasha is all the more poignant and painful in light of the carnage of Aurora and Bulgaria.  As we remember the victims of our recent past:  in Buenos Aires and Munich – and so many others – we need to stand firm and resolute in our rejection of violence and our faith in the holiness implanted within each human being.

From another perspective, if we are to have a response to the events that took place in Aurora yesterday,  we might start by looking at why it is possible for any person to purchase an automatic weapon capable of carrying out this kind of carnage.  We might ask why gun lobby feels it necessary to flood our nation with weapons.  We might ask why any politician who questions the sanity of easy access to multiple weapons is targeted for defeat by the bottomless coffers of those who want to protect our right to bear arms…..

Would better gun laws have prevented this tragedy in Aurora from occurring?  Maybe – maybe not.  But I believe that it is in the best interest of our nation to find ways to reduce the culture of violence that has permeated every aspect of our lives.

We have been here before.  Unfortunately, we will probably be here again.   But that does not mean that we need to accept the status quo.

Tonight we grieve. Tonight we try to find comfort in our community.  We remember the victims and pray for the survivors.

If we can take anything away from the tragedy it is to remember that we cannot allow our fears and our hatred to control us.  They cannot become the driving force in our society.  We need to combat hatred and violence with love and peace – with caring and community.  Then, and only then, will we be able to put this terrible tragedy behind us.

May we find a way to build a world of peace.  AMEN.


  1. Thank you Rabbi, I appreciate your honesty and integrity with the text and your honesty and integrity with the context as well.

  2. Thank you, Rabbi Black. Sadly I am reminded of Rabbi Foster's sermon after Columbine. I hope, but I'm not optimistic that you won't have to say these words again...

  3. I received a link to your words via Rabbi Ben Newman at Congregation Har Shalom. I deeply appreciate your wisdom and honesty. Jean Martens

  4. Dear Rabbi Black,
    Thank you for your words of comfort, especially those focusing on how in community we find strength and love. Your knowledge of Torah and the relation of the parasha to this event is very keen. I find it helpful that you see we have the freedom to reject the strict interpretation, that our world is different from that of Moses.
    Jeff Kirsch