One Year After Aurora - Shabbat Nachamu
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Let me tell you about my day today. It started early in the morning with the interment of a woman who had no family, no friends, no one to mourn her. Her name was Charmion Berkeley. The only people present at the grave were me, two funeral directors, and 4 cemetery employees. Normally, in a situation like this, we have time to call people together to say kaddish. For a number of reasons, in this case it was not possible. And so, I found myself in the position of laying an unknown woman to rest. As I read her name, I realized that it was very possible that this would be the last time her name was ever said publicly.
Later on in the day I participated in a Rally of Remembrance, commemorating the 1 year anniversary of the Aurora Shootings. At this Rally, in addition to hearing testimony from victims of violence, we also heard from family members of some of those who lost their lives in Aurora, at Sandy Hook and Columbine. This was followed by two prayers - one offered by me (http://rabbijoeblack.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-prayer-for-one-year-anniversary-of.html )and the other by the Rev. Del Phillips. Following these prayers, the names of all those men, women and children who were killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook massacre on December 14, 2012 were read aloud in a vigil that was scheduled to continue until 12:38 AM the following morning – the exact time that the first shot was fired at the Aurora theater.
As I thought about the juxtaposition of those two events –
i. one – saying farewell to a woman who died completely alone,
ii. and the other: remembering the names of those who were victims of gun violence – saying their names out loud…making them public -
I realized that both events shared some common themes –
· The fact that it is important that we remember the names of those who have died, and
· the fact that too much that happens in our society is ignored – or pushed aside –in particular, the facts of gun violence that plague our nation.
Here are some statistics:
iii. In the 7 months since Sandy Hook, 7167 men, women and children were killed by gun violence
iv. 183 have died since last Friday
v. 21 yesterday
vi. 5 today (as of 3:00) – I’m sure the number has risen since then
I’m sure all of us remember the horror of the events that took place in Aurora one year ago. We remember how shocked we were – as a community, as a nation. We remember our anger – our fear – our despair. We wanted to do something, ANYTHING to stop another tragedy from occurring.
And yet, slowly, for most of us who were not directly affected by the tragedy, our anger dissipated, and our focus shifted. We saw Sandy Hook and Boston, we saw Trayvon Martin killed and his killer exhonerated – we dealt with our initial shock and anger - and then we went on with our lives.
You see, that’s the trouble with tragedy – it drains us – we can’t be focused on it for too long – it’s too hard – and so, unless wse were directly affected, after the initial pain wears off, we continue with our lives.
But there are moments when we have no choice but to confront the pain, the injustice, the horror of what we try to forget. Today is such a day.
Today, at the rally of remembrance, I met 4 people who were directly affected by tragedy.
b. Jane Dougherty, whose sister Mary Sherlach, a psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was killed in the Newtown shooting,
c. Carlee Soto, whose sister Victoria, died protecting her 1st grade students from the gunman,
d. Tom Sullivan, father of 27-year-old Alex who was killed in the Aurora shooting,
e. Stephen Barton, survivor of the Aurora theater shooting
Each of them told their stories – shared their pain and made the tragedy – the obscenity – of gun violence real in our nation.
Each of them have made it a point to dedicate their lives – and the memories of their loved ones – to ridding our nation of the scourge of gun violence by passing laws that restrict the sale of firearms to those who should not be able to possess them.
There was another aspect of the Rally this afternoon. There was a counter-protest that took place – sponsored by a group calling itself the Rocky mountain gun owners association.
They had come to protest the laws passed by our legislature that mandate stricter background checks and the prohibition of the sale of high-capacity gun magazines in Colorado. They carried signs, waved flags, hoisted images of the constitution and made it clear that no restrictions whatsoever on their rights to bear arms would be tolerated.
I must say, as I saw their signs, and their anger – and I looked at the faces of these people whose lives had been inexorably changed by the tragedy of gun violence, I was disgusted.
And then, I heard the words of the Rev. Del Harris, an African Pastor in Aurora, who gave a powerful prayer after I spoke. He said that it was inconceivable to him that we, in our nation, are debating the need for gun control. He said that while our Constitution affirms the right to bear arms, and that this right was sacrosanct, the fact that we are arguing about passing laws to prevent dangerous individuals to be able to possess weapons of mass destruction and limiting the kill power of such weapons just makes common sense. How is it possible that rational people could not agree on this?
He then began his prayer. “I’m not going to pray for the victims,” he said. “Rabbi Black already did that.” “And I’m not going to pray for their families, the injured, the first responders either….Rabbi Black prayed for them as well….I’m going to ask all of you to pray with me. Pray for those people who cannot see in their hearts that arguing over access to guns is sick. It is counter-productive., It is wrong. Pray for those who are angry – who are scared – who think that their civil liberties are more important than preventing children from being gunned down in the streets. Pray that they may look deep into their own hearts and see the error of their ways.”
Such a powerful prayer!
Tonight is called Shabbat NAchamu. It is the first Shabbat following the fast day of Tisha B’av – the 9th day of Av. The word, “Nachamu” means “Take Comfort.” The words of the prophet Isaiah speak of finding comfort in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple on the 9th day of Av.
We need to find comfort in one another. We need to be able to see the humanity of every human being – to find ways to break through the barriers that divide us – to look at violence as a curse – not a cure. Even though we might disagree with the politics or the methodolgies of those with whom we disagree, we cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of the holiness implanted within every human being – even if they cannot acknowledge our essential holiness.
Tonight we remember the names of those who have died –who were murdered one year ago – and every day since. We also remember the name of Charmion Berkeley – who died alone. Tonight we hold fast to a vision of a better world. Tonight we remember that every human life is sacred. As we remember, we pray that the day may come when vigils of remembrance are a thing of the past. AMEN