By Rabbi Levi Greenberg
There is no purpose for me to describe what happened in Uvalde last week, nor how I feel about it, because you know that already. We mourn the victims and feel solidarity with their loved ones. At the same time, I’d like to share some ideas I’ve been thinking about in the wake of this man-made tragedy that may be helpful to others.
Judaism teaches that we must personally grow from everything we see or hear. This is impossibly difficult to do when what you are seeing and hearing is 21 precious, innocent souls being gunned down in an elementary school. It may even feel callous.
But human nature is to process everything we see and hear, even, or especially, in the aftermath of such an event as horrific as Uvalde. We may be doing it subconsciously, but we attempt to make sense of what we’re seeing.
For me, part of my instinctive reaction upon hearing about a mass shooting is to profile the perpetrator. I tell myself this was a person with whom I have no affiliation whatsoever. I try to console my insulted and grieved humanity by declaring that someone who would do this must have been insane. Either that or the embodiment of evil, probably not even human. How can it be explained any other way?
Then I catch myself. I remind myself that insanity is a poor excuse for evil and the perpetrator was, in fact, most definitely human. So what went wrong? How is it possible for someone to do such horrible things?
Jewish tradition maintains that every person is born with two competing inner forces. One is the instinctive, survival force that motivates me to care for myself and succeed in life. The other force drives me to find meaning and purpose; to achieve goals greater than myself and make a positive impact on society and the world around me.
Although one force is selfish and the other is selfless, both occupy my psyche and are constantly clashing. Every moral dilemma I face is the manifestation of these two inner forces pulling me in two opposite directions. I alone must choose which inclination to follow. I cannot be blamed for my own inner struggles, but I am certainly responsible for my choices.
Most of the time the greatest difficulty is not discerning right from wrong, but actually making the right choices. More often than not the right choices are the harder ones and I need to choose selflessness over selfishness; divine awareness over self absorption.
In Genesis, we learn how humanity started from one single person. The Talmud explains that G-d created one human being in the beginning to illustrate the preciousness of one single life and how important every individual’s choices are.
The consequences of these choices are usually not earth shattering, but the possibility for these inner struggles to morph into serious crises with far reaching consequences is very real. The more I train myself to make the right choices in the small, routine types of struggles, the more prepared I am to make the right choices when life-shattering struggles hit hard.
A young man made a horribly selfish and evil choice last week, but I am neither judge nor jury. As a fellow human being I am left with the following questions: Am I making better choices in my personal struggles? Are my personal choices inspiring others to choose right over wrong and good over evil? Am I effectively educating my children to identify these struggles and to appreciate how relevant their choices are to G-d and society?
While public officials and policy makers must continue prosecuting those who commit crimes and urgently find better ways to stop crime in the first place, we must do the very real work around us. This means making the right choices in our own lives, and teaching this, by word and example, to our children and inspiring those around us.
It may feel small, but if each individual is an entire world, it can be the very thing that will ensure that something like Uvalde never takes place again.
Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso.