On Shabbat (May 23), a day in which we strive for peace and wholeness, our community was shattered by an unimaginable tragedy. As we mourn the loss of all those killed in the recent shooting in Isla Vista, we struggle to make sense of a senseless act. Santa Barbara, which is often seen as a picture-perfect oasis, has now been added to a list of cities that include Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Overland Park, and many others.
As a relatively new Assistant Rabbi working in Santa Barbara, I was glued to the T.V. and found myself watching all the YouTube videos I could find posted by Elliot Rodger in the days leading up to his rampage. While senseless acts of violence occur far too often in our country, when calamity strikes so close to home, I was reminded once again of the fragile nature of our society. Having walked many of the streets depicted in Rodger’s films, my first reaction was one of fear. Then my fear turned into sadness, sadness into anger, and my anger turned into sadness once again.
In the wake of such a tragic event, it is easy to assign blame. In fact, it may be our very deepest human instinct to assign fault because within hours of the event newscasters and expert witnesses were quick to blame a broken mental health system, failed gun-control laws, failed law enforcement agencies, irresponsible parents, unhealthy gender norms, white privilege, and the list goes on and on. The truth, of course, is that the motivation for such a crime is tragically complex.
But in this exact moment, what it is it that we, as a Jewish community can do to help one another grieve and comprehend what happened in our own backyard? And what is our responsibility to the larger community when tragedy strikes so close to home?
The answer to this question has become more complicated as time passes. But in the wake of the shooting, I created a healing service with the other clergy in my community and these are the words I offered at that time:
Hold them tight. Hold your children, your friends, your parents, your loved ones, your neighbors and even the strangers you encounter on your way—Hold them tight.
Hold on tight to the memories of those we mourn. Let not this mass tragedy obscure the fact that these students were individuals who have individual lives and stories to tell.
Hold on tight to your dreams and aspirations. Hold on tight to a vision of a world redeemed—a world in which our children no longer live in fear and isolation, anxiety and heartache.
Last but not least, our tradition teaches us to hold on tight to our tzitzit, the fringes of our garments. As it says in Numbers 15:38 and Deuteronomy 22:12, these fringes are to be placed specifically on the k’nafot– the corner of our garments. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 11) teaches us that a tallit that does not have tzitzit placed exactly in the corner of the garment is not fit for use. While one may argue that this decision was simply a product of legal minutiae, I would suggest that this halakhah is deeply symbolic.
Just as we are commanded to hold on tight to the fringes of our garment, we must hold on tight to the fringes of our society. While we are often quick to run away from that which we don’t understand, or that which appears too sharp or jagged, we are challenged to grab onto those narrow places, to examine the fringes before our eyes, and hold them close to our hearts.
In other words, we are commanded to gaze upon that which lies just out of sight by bringing the fringes of our garment (and society) to the front and center of our lives. As we recite this passage from the Shemah twice a day, we are reminded that what seems peripheral is actually central to our lives and the healing of our society.
With this in mind I will end with two diametrically opposed thoughts. As individual citizens, operating as independent advocates, it will be nearly impossible for us to have an impact on the public sphere. But if we join together in conversations and forums, and through real honest-to-goodness debate, we may have an opportunity to act as a unified Jewish community to influence the public policy in our county. As Rabbi Tarfon once taught: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).
On the other hand, it is far easier to make a spiritual impact than a political one in in the immediate days and weeks following such a tragedy. So I urge all of you to hold onto the fringes a bit tighter so that less people in our society fall prey to irreversible grief, isolation or alienation.
With heavy hearts and inconsolable grief, our tradition asks us to err on the side of hope and transformation. We yearn for a day when all of our children will be free from fear, isolation, loss, tragedy, and senseless acts of hatred. In doing so, we recommit ourselves to our ancient people’s call for ever-lasting peace.
Suzy Stone, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumna from Class 20, currently serves as Rabbi of Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara, CA. Suzy has a B.A. in History from Brandeis University and received her rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Previously she lived in Boston and Arizona, working in the non-profit sector as a community organizer, teacher and coach in various organizations. Suzy can be reached at email@example.com.