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Sandy Hook: A Jewish Antidote

December 27, 2012 | by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

How the Torah instills moral sensitivity and self-discipline.

What more is there to say about the Newtown massacre? Questions, answers, and accusing fingers punctuate the air. Can a human being do such a thing? Is this an aberration, an exception, or is this a reflection of something deeply implanted within American society? How is it that other countries have not experienced such wholesale bloodletting?

On a physical and transcendental level, the questions haunt us. The enormity of the evil strikes us dumb – though there is the concurrent inherent goodness of the teachers who protected the children with their own bodies.

The proposed remedies are familiar: more gun control, since America has more than 280 million civilian firearms now in circulation, with a murder rate more than fifteen times that of other developed countries; curbing television, movie, and video violence; teaching self-control and anger management to our young people. All good, all well-meaning – and all only stop-gap measures that do not address a fundamental issue: the nature of man.

Left to his own devices, a person will remain a rapacious, self-centered infant.

There are, of course, no quick fixes, but Judaism offers some useful insights. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) records an incisive tradition in which God says: “I have created the inclination to do evil, but I have also created an antidote, which is the Torah.” Thus, man is not born a warm and fuzzy creature. He is born grasping and selfish, fists tightly closed, concerned exclusively with his immediate needs. Says God in Genesis 8:21: “The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his very inception.” Left to his own devices, not taught the ways of civilized behavior, so will he remain throughout life: a rapacious, self-centered infant masquerading as an adult whose fists will not open until he departs this earth.

There is an antidote, the Torah, whose teachings enable us to construct and maintain self-discipline and self-control, and ultimately to metamorphose into a mensch. For one of the underlying purposes of Torah is to tame the savage beast within us and to transform us into responsible human beings with a conscience that enables us to differentiate right from wrong.

Take, for example, the fundamental, basic need for food. Animals eat, humans eat. Is there to be no difference? The Torah wants there to be a difference, so at the very beginning of history, the first commandment given to the newly minted Adam and Eve concerns food: You may eat from all the trees in the Garden except one, from which you may not eat.

The hidden message is that even for basic human appetites and desires, there are guard-rails and boundary lines and restraints. This food discipline surfaces later as the laws of Kashrut. Certain creatures, beast and fowl, are permissible; other species are always forbidden. Even permissible foods are to be eaten in a disciplined way: slaughtered and prepared in a certain way, with a blessing to God required before and after eating. There are restraints as to where we eat even permissible foods (during Sukkot we eat only in the sukkah); what we eat (Passover restricts even that which is normally permitted); and even if we eat (on Yom Kippur all food is off limits). And year-round there is a further discipline concerning the mixing of meat and dairy.

The very basic human desire for food becomes a subject for rigorous personal self-control. “I want to eat!” cries out the creature. “I, too, want you to eat,” replies God. “But I want you to rise above the beasts and remain a human being while engaging in this most fundamental act of survival.”

Discipline Power

Look at another basic human drive: sexuality. Here, too, the Torah considers it an intrinsic part of human life, but endeavors to bring it within certain boundary lines. It is noteworthy that the Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon — the holiest of days — deals with impermissible sexual activity. Certain sexual activities are always off limits and certain other activities are permitted only in certain circumstances. The Torah takes the overpowering sex drive and endeavors to channel it and direct it, so that our engaging in it – once again – is not that of an animal but of a human being.

In every facet of human life, the Torah injects into our souls a shot of self-discipline.

So it is throughout Torah, whether it be human speech (“watch what comes out of your mouth” – Deut. 23:24); acquisitiveness and self-centeredness (tzedakah); the tendency to violence (the story of Cain and Abel and “Do not kill”); the desire to take what is not mine (“Do not steal”); the instinct to lie (“Keep far from falsehood” – Exodus 23:7); the temptation to gossip and slander (“Do not be a gossiper – Leviticus 19:16); the impulse to mistreat animals (copious laws of cruelty to animals, in which for example, the master must feed his animal before he feeds himself); and respecting the property rights of others.

In every facet of human life, the Torah injects into our souls a shot of self-discipline. Not everything is mine; not everything is permissible, not everything I want to utter may I utter, not everything I want to take may I take. This world is not a plaything created solely for our pleasure.

Divine Cameras

One overarching idea transcends all else, and gives this discipline its own power and force: This self-control is not simply a directive from a neuresthenic teacher or guardian, but emanates from the loving God in Whose image we are made. Such consciousness infiltrates the human soul, especially when Jewish tradition contains statements like: “An eye sees, an ear hears, and all that you do is recorded in a Book…” (Avot 2:1) If, when driving a car, for example, the awareness of hidden cameras at certain junctions is enough to make us more careful drivers, how much more so can the classic Jewish concept of hidden “Divine” cameras transform us into more careful human beings.

With such teachings embedded in the soul, the very thought of violence is removed from the realm of possibility.

When such teachings become part and parcel of life and enter the human soul, one lives with sensitivity and concern for the feelings and the property of others. One becomes a more noble human being. So embedded do such teachings become in the soul, so intrinsic a part of daily behavior, that the very thought of hurting or doing violence to someone is removed from the realm of possibility.

Is it not curious that in Israel – where thousands of reservists in civilian life store their army-issued weapons at home – we do not find such wanton destruction of human lives as we do in the U.S.? Could it be that through the centuries, the divine discipline of Torah has seeped into the very bones of the Jewish people – so that the contemporary Jew could not possibly engage in such random violence? This is worth pondering.

Mass killings are complex and subtle matters. But transcending all the proposed remedies, perhaps we should give some consideration to bringing spiritual matters like God and His teachings back into the forefront of civic life. Not just perfunctory benedictions at the beginning of athletic contests or of grand openings, but as a daily, living component. It is time to stop being embarrassed by religion.

A recent cartoon shows one person asking another, “Why didn’t God stop the shooting in that school?” The other answers, “How could He? He’s not allowed into the schools.” It captures the question a Hassid once asked his Rebbe: “Where is God?’ The Rebbe answered: “Wherever He is allowed to enter.”

Simplification, granted. But well worth pondering.

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