When We Have Nothing Left to Say to One Another
By Rabbi Doug Sagal
Last year, my synagogue hosted a forum on gun violence prevention. The forum was presented by a local advocacy group that had been founded in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Amongst the speakers were former Governor Jim Florio, who had worked to strengthen gun safety legislation, a dad whose son was killed at Virginia Tech, and several members of the clergy. Also in attendance was a large group from the “New Jersey Second Amendment Society,” an organization of gun advocates who travel to meetings to show their opposition to any further gun safety legislation. Because there had been some unpleasantness at a previous meeting in the community, there were several local and county police officers in attendance to ensure a peaceful meeting.
The dad of the Virginia Tech victim was particularly moving. He was an ordinary “Jersey Guy” who was eating lunch in an “Applebees” when he saw a news broadcast of the shooting. He got into his car and drove non-stop to West Virginia, only to discover that his son was among the dead. He told of how he has tried, in vain, to persuade our local congressman to support even modest gun legislation. I watched the “Second Amendment” folks carefully during his presentation. They sat stony-faced and unmoving, their arms crossed, their expressions blank.
When it was my turn, I rose and spoke of the familiar story of Cain and Abel. I shared that in the Hebrew text, we are taught that the Hebrew reads “And Cain said to Abel…” but no speech is recorded. I repeated a teaching I learned from Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger that the reason the text is silent is because Cain is indeed silent. He said nothing to his brother Abel, he spoke no words, he simply slew him in his anger. Rabbi Neuberger, I explained, taught me that when people have nothing more to say to one another, tragedy results. Is it possible, I asked, that those who enjoy gun ownership and the shooting sports and those who want to enhance gun safety have nothing left to say to one another? Can we not engage in dialogue and discussion? I concluded by reminding everyone that indeed, we are our brother’s keeper.
As the meeting broke up, I spotted the leader of the second amendment group. He was wearing a ball cap and a t-shirt emblazoned with guns. I approached him with my hand outstretched. He looked at me for a long moment, and then turned away. “Wait a minute,” I said, “Don’t do this—there has to be some way we can speak to each other.” He turned to face me, and for the first time in my life I witnessed someone literally shake in anger. “It’s your fault,” he hissed, “All those dead kids-your fault. You and the other sheep in this room going to the slaughter by taking away our guns, leaving us all defenseless, just like those kids. But be warned-we are going to defeat you all”. With that, he walked away.
For the first time, I realized that it might be possible that we have nothing left to say to one another, that there is no common ground upon which we can all walk. As my teacher Rabbi Neuberger taught me years ago-when we no longer have anything to say to one another, then tragedy results.
Rabbi Doug Sagal and Temple Emanu-El, Westfield NJ, along with nearly 1,000 places of worship and many Reform synagogues, participated in the 2014 Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend two weeks ago. This is a reflection on gun violence prevention by Rabbi Sagal. You can read his sermon here.