I was at a meeting of the local Ministerial Association this week, and the 50+ clergy were talking about the Parkland school shooting. One person mentioned a “letter” to God from a student, which is being circulated on the internet. It asks why God let these things happen. God’s supposed reply? “Sorry, but I’m not allowed in the schools.”
This infuriated me. I told the group that this week was Purim, the holiday when Jews read the book of Esther, which never mentions God. It doesn’t mean that God wasn’t there. And just because there is no formal prayer in American public schools, it does not mean that God isn’t there.
Blaming school shootings on the prohibition against school prayer is ridiculous. Worse, it relieves the blamers from taking responsibility for addressing the real problem.
This kind of simplistic thinking is what led the Children of Israel to panic in this week’s Torah portion, and ask Aaron to make a golden calf for them to worship. They couldn’t see beyond the fact that Moses hadn’t returned from his communion with God on Mount Sinai. They jumped to the conclusion that he and God had abandoned them.
Just like my colleague who suggested mass murder as an excuse to reinstate school prayer, the Children of Israel thought that making an idol would solve the problem of their missing leader.
The Children of Israel had an excuse for childish thinking; in many ways, they were children, not yet ready to deal with complex situations in an adult manner. So they turned to the remaining leader within their midst and demanded a simplistic solution. And to his credit, Aaron didn’t try to dissuade them. Instead, he attempted to transform their intended idol worship into a festival to Adonai (see Exodus 32:4-6).
The lesson? When we oversimplify complex situations, we run the risk of devising “solutions” that are anything but. Mass shootings cannot be solved by simplistic, knee-jerk responses. Just look at what’s happened in our airports – remember why we have to take off our shoes? Because in 2001 a man tried to board a plane with explosives hidden in his shoes. No matter how many items we ban from airplanes, the underlying societal problems remain.
But there’s hope for us yet, and that too is demonstrated in this week’s Torah portion, when Moses asked to see God’s Presence. Moses had been interacting with God intimately for some time, and yet he wanted to know God on another level. He instinctively knew that he would be a better man, a better leader, if he had a deeper understanding of God.
God knew that Moses wasn’t asking for a superficial, physical vision of the Divine. God responded to Moses by revealing Godself as attributes: “…compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6-7, excerpted).
My prayer this week is that we too are blessed with the understanding that to solve our problems we must look deeply within, and thoughtfully and communally strive to be God’s agents in repairing that which is broken in our society.