Reflections on Umpqua

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 2, 2015 /19 Tishri 5776

Our Feelings

Once again, we are shocked and saddened as a nation. Once again, our halls of education, meant to be a sanctuary from the worst of the world, are bloodied. Once again, we hear expressions of outrage and calls for new legislation aimed at preventing or reducing the periodic and murderous violence that erupts in our schools and colleges.

Many system-wide failures must occur to bring a young man to turn to senseless violence and to kill and injure fellow classmates. We mourn with all the families of the slain victims at Umqua Community College, who are surely part of our extended community, and within our circle of concern. We stand in solidarity with our Christian neighbors, who according to early reports, were especially singled out in this most recent attack.

The Impact

In this age where the worst of the world comes to us on our cellphones, even young children often learn of events from which we might otherwise choose to shelter them. Feelings of fear and trauma, the aftershocks of student on student violence, can extend for months for some individuals. We all recognize that sometimes children, teens and even college students may not feel comfortable expressing their fears among their peers or even in the school setting. If yesterday’s events have disturbed your child or grandchild, please know that our clergy team is available to sit down and talk with them or you. We are also blessed to live in a community that possesses many mental health resources and human services. Please avail yourself of them. Much research indicates that addressing trauma early effectively prevents or diminishes the force of lingering issues. 

The Limits of the Law

It seems to me that legislation normally lags behind and responds to a change in societal consciousness, and is most effective when it is accompanied by or preceded by a similar change in values. While there are many lenses by which we can seek to understand this most recent school shooting, I don’t think it is a stretch to note that our society is highly polarized. There is a tendency to label those who think differently than we do, or who view the same events from a different perspective, as wrong, morally obtuse, or worse. We blame, we castigate, we belittle, all while we claim the moral high ground for ourselves. As a consequence, we find it hard to work together, and little gets done to correct our long-standing societal problems.

As Jews, we hold that all people are created with a spark of the divine, and are taught to respect every human being. We are instructed to give others the benefit of the doubt and to step into their shoes. While treating others with such dignity will not prevent all such tragedies from occurring, we never know the full impact that a kind word can have on the life of another. Very often, our small acts of care and kindness can indeed tip the scales.

What Can We Do: An Initiative

How do we take these somewhat abstract concepts (dignity, respect, being created in the divine image, giving others the benefit of the doubt) and make them real? How do we create a society of love and caring? How do we restore trust? How do we accomplish this so that our legislation can follow who we have become? The first step is within ourselves, our own family and our own kehillah kedoshah, our own community.

Dialogue is a technique by which we learn how to understand others.

Debate is a technique by which we try to win.

The building blocks are mastering the arts of civility and dialogue . We need to learn how to listen to others, to hear and acknowledge the values behind their statements. We must be able to notice when our passions and emotions have taken control of our thinking. Even as we remain committed to our own values and causes, we must achieve sufficient humility to acknowledge that we are not the sole possessors of truth. Zealotry is the belief that we possess the truth, and are therefore entitled to take otherwise socially unacceptable action. In the Torah, Pinchas is our most famous zealot. Convinced of the rightness of his ideas, he murders two people. Ever since, our tradition has recognized its dangers and tried to limit the role of zealotry.

Over this new year, I propose that we embark on ongoing dialogue training. In small groups and large, we need to practice the skills that will enable us to make our abstract values into tangible expressions of concern. Learning how to engage in dialogue instead of debate is very difficult. But it is learnable. Please stay tuned in the coming months.

What Might Be the Fruit of Such an Initiative?

If we embrace dialogue training in a serious way as a community, if we practice the difficult skills (over and over), I believe we can create a community of love and understanding. We can create trust. We can create a safe space so that people with different ideas on a range of important social issues can have a voice. Dialogue training also means that we will learn and come to respect those who think differently than we do. It is the way in which we come to truly understand that we are all created in the divine image.

And if we can do that for ourselves, here at Neveh Shalom–no small task mind you–then imagine how our actions can ripple out into the larger Portland community. We have the power to be the change we would like to see. If we want it. If we want it.

Together we pray that the Holy One of Blessing provides avenues of comfort to all those impacted by yesterday’s attacks. We pray that together we will have the wisdom to build God’s sukkat shalom, God’s shelter of peace.

With sadness and hope,

Rav D

Click this link to some teachings about Sukkot from USCJ’s Torah Sparks.