The last couple of days, I have been raising some questions and issues regarding control. One of the few things we can actively control is to create sacred space to mourn death. My friend and colleague, John Shuck, once told me that making space for ritual is how we make meaning out of meaninglessness.
So it makes perfect sense to me that churches would ring bells, that candles would be lit, and moments of silence would be observed. However, I have noticed that many of these ritual observances involve the number, 26. Obviously, this is intentional: there were 26 students and staff murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
But there were actually 28 people who died.
I remember watching a similar debate here in Blacksburg in the aftermath of that tragic shooting. Do you include the gunman when we mourn the dead?
Maybe our first instinct is to recoil at such a notion; surely, we do not want to equate the victims with the victimizer! And yet, I wonder, is not each life precious? Can we not mourn every person? We may not mourn for the same reasons, yet might there still be value in creating ritual space to recognize all the dead? Does this not explore the complexity of the problem and, therefore, emphasize the need for our committed and sustained response?
While at UVA, I studied a famous midrash, which is a later elaboration by rabbis on a biblical text. The term, midrash, comes from the verb, to seek, as in, “to seek meaning from the Bible.” When the Israelites were freed from Egypt, they were saved, in part, by God splitting the Red Sea, which allowed Moses to lead the people across on dry land. Once they were through, God let the Egyptians cross . . . but then closed up the sea on top of them, drowning them all. In response to this, the people burst spontaneously into song, celebrating this great victory by the hand of the Lord.
But were they celebrating the death of their enemies? I’m not so sure . . .
In fact, some of the ancient rabbis took this position. This midrash expands on that story and has God offer a sharp rebuke. “How dare you sing,” the Lord declares, “while My people are drowning?!?” Notice that “my people” is not exclusively limited to the Israelites. Yes, the Egyptians were the oppressor; as such, they did some horrible things and evil acts.
But they were also people. They were, each and every one, created betzelem elohim – in the image of God. They were each a human life of infinite value.
Of course, this does not mean that we allow evil to run amok. We are allowed to protect our children. And yet, I think the midrash teaches us that we should mourn all death, even those who hurt us and our loved ones. Maybe such a posture of grief and the humility it entails actually helps us to improve society; as the rabbis put it, to be partners with God in the healing of the world.
Or, as I recently read, holding onto to resentment is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.
Let’s ring 28 bells.