It is incomprehensible. Within the space of about ten days, America has undergone two horrific mass murders. On Saturday, May 14, a white supremacist gunned down ten Black people in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. Then, on Tuesday, May 24, a crazed 18-year-old Hispanic kills 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
These horrors are unspeakable. Yet, after any one of these shocking killings, we hear the politically safe chorus of calls for greater gun control laws. I remember that was the reaction when Senator Bobby Kennedy was shot to death in June 1968.
Now, if it were up to me, I would ban all guns in any form except for the military, police, and rifles for hunters. There is no reason for anyone to own a handgun or an automatic weapon if not for the purpose of killing another human being. But there is this little thing called the Second Amendment, and alas it is not up to me.
I am aware that, for the meantime, we need a different solution. Gun control may be very important, but it is not the answer. It cannot answer why states like New York and Illinois, which have some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, have among the highest murder rates by guns. It cannot answer President Biden’s question in his address to the nation following the Texas massacre: Why is this happening mainly in this country? In fact, someone sent me a chart that shows the number of school shootings (admittedly I do not know how they define shootings) that took place in different countries between 2008 and 2018. The most any country had was eight. The USA had 288!
So, what is it that inspires Americans to commit these heinous crimes? Is it guns? I don’t think so. Guns are the tools they use, but it is not the cause. Look at Israel. Between soldiers on furlough at home and those citizens licensed to carry handguns, it probably has the highest rate of weapons per person in the world. Yet what was the total number of school shootings in Israel during those ten years? Naturally, it was zero!
When I mention this to people who blame it all on gun control, they say, “Well, of course, Israel has a different culture.” Exactly! It’s the culture, not the guns.
This past Shabbos, I mentioned – as I have done before – that until we as a country are able to change our culture, which glorifies murder and violence in the entertainment industry, nothing will change. We will be clamoring for gun control for the next 50 years. Hollywood, the politicians, and the media are all culpable in not addressing the issue of culture.
After davening, someone came to me and said, “Rabbi, I agree with you: The issue is culture, but how do we change the culture?” In truth, I was stumped. He’s right. It’s great to talk about changing culture, but isn’t that next to impossible?
Later, on Shabbos afternoon, I thought the matter through. We did go through a cultural change in the last year-and-a-half in America. It’s called Wokeness. It’s called Cancel Culture.
Our entire way of thinking of racism, gender relations, and crime and punishment underwent a radical change in a matter of months, thanks to Black Lives Matter. Those whom we considered heroes were now villains. Statues of some of the nation’s most noted people in history were uprooted and tossed to the trash heap. The Cleveland Indians, an iconic baseball team, had to change its name to the vapid “Guardians.” What was considered humorous a year ago could get you fired today.
The force of BLM drew the attention of the nation on the Left, supported by the media, and a sea change in our culture was affected.
In Pirkei Avos (5:3) last week, we learned that there were ten generations between Adam and Noach that angered Hashem. Finally, He had enough, and the Flood ensued. Then came ten generations between Noach and Avraham who also angered Hashem, until Avraham was able to reap the reward of all those before him and life went on.
Why is it that Noach’s generation was destroyed in the Flood and Avraham’s generation suffered no calamity?
I believe that although Noach was undoubtedly a great tzadik (righteous person), as the Torah says, he could not influence the society to change. So, Noach and family alone were saved.
On the other hand, Avraham and Sarah had a profound effect on those about them (See Rashi, B’reishis 12:5). Avraham was able to make that sea change in the culture. The world was spared disaster because of that.
I can’t say that I have the answer to how to save America and how to change its culture. But it can be done. And Black Lives Matter proved it.
One small but significant way to begin the change is to commemorate Memorial Day as a day of solemnly pausing to reflect upon those soldiers who died for our country. Not with barbecues. Not with car races. Not with ballgames. Not with beach parties. We should not have to hear news anchors wishing each other a “Happy Memorial Day.” Can you imagine, in Israel, people wishing each other a happy Yom HaZikaron?
Americans must learn to take death seriously – not to party. Then maybe they will begin to take life seriously, as well. Maybe then we will understand that All Lives Matter.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.