By Rabbi Levi Greenberg
In 1913, a Russian Jew named Mendel Beilis was accused of ritual murder in Kiev in the Russian Empire, in a notorious trial known as the “Beilis affair.” Despite lacking any incriminating evidence, the local anti-semitic government indicted him nonetheless. But he was ultimately acquitted.
Legend has it that during the trial the defense introduced several letters to the court providing undeniable evidence to support his innocence. The prosecutor pointed out that the stamp on one of the envelopes had been glued upside-down, which meant that the image of the czar was placed upside-down. To the amusement of the assembled he argued that the evidence should be disqualified because of this unforgivable act of treason.
Two years ago, on Aug. 3, the mass shooting epidemic reached El Paso. The carnage of that day was shocking and the tragedy of the lives lost and the physical and mental wounds that are still healing can never be truly measured. Naturally, our immediate response as a community was to focus on the wellbeing of the injured survivors, the grieving loved ones and to properly memorialize the dead, but stopping these events from happening again is an important question we must still grapple with.
Following the attack, a prominent legislator shared with me his frustration that so many think crime and hatred can be legislated away or policed. Often these efforts are “upside-down-stamp” approaches that do not deal with the crux of the issue. Instead of stopping bad people from doing bad things or from hating others, we need to stop them from becoming bad in the first place.
I’m not suggesting an overhaul of the education system or introducing new curricula, but I’d like to point out the great potential a daily ritual already observed in Texas schools really has in stopping future tragedies.
In response to the record-setting crime rates of the late 1970s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, enthusiastically encouraged the federal government to mandate a “moment of silent reflection” in all public schools throughout the nation. Instead of focusing on policing and punishment, it is critical to educate our young to not become criminals in the first place, the Rebbe said.
As parents and educators, we cannot simply equip our children with the tools to embark on successful careers, we must teach them how to choose right over wrong and good over evil. To be mindful of an “Eye that sees and an Ear that hears” that cannot be outsmarted or manipulated, making all of us accountable for our actions. To live lives of service and higher purpose.
When school children reflect silently at the beginning of the school day on the purpose of education, it has an indelible impact on their moral and ethical perspective in life, with far reaching results. When implemented meaningfully, this moment of silence can have a transformative effect on our youth and change the course of history.
Although there is no need for special legislation in El Paso since a “moment of silence” is mandated in Texas, perhaps this minute in classrooms can become more meaningful. When educators are more mindful of the potential for this minute — when used wisely — to positively shape their students’ futures, they will encourage them to have meaningful conversations with their parents about what to contemplate during that minute. Parents should take this task seriously and have conversations with their children about higher purpose, responsibility and meaningfulness.
As we mark the second anniversary of Aug. 3 and thousands of El Paso children return to school this week, let us utilize the tools we already have to stop such horrors from ever happening again. I am certain tolerance and peace between all people is achievable in our time, and this is one step in bringing us closer to that beautiful reality.
Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso.
Cover photo: A girl stands at a large makeshift memorial outside the Walmart in El Paso that was the site of a mass shooting Aug. 3, 2019. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)