My teenage class this week wanted, perhaps needed, to talk about the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school.
– People blamed pupils for tweeting and using WhatsApp while it was happening, but they must have been terrified.
– We’ve had lock-down practice at our school, but this – it’s beyond me. I can’t even begin to imagine it.
One student at the school had tweeted “Our school is having a shooting. I’m not even kidding I’m about to die.” Poor people. Thank God if pupils here in the UK can’t imagine such a thing.
But since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, many classes in the US have had ‘active-shooter drill’ practice, from Kindergarten age upwards. ‘Seeing a school shooting as an event to prepare for, rather than an awful aberration, seems to have fueled the students’ anger’, noted The Guardian newspaper.
I respect that anger. I admire the initiative shown taken by pupils from the Stoneman Douglas high school since. All strength to their #NeverAgain campaign with its slogan ‘Protect our lives not our guns’.
Yet more guns cannot be the main answer. What’s clearly needed, what has clearly and self-evidently been needed for years, are changes to US gun laws. (It’s easy to say that from the UK, but that makes it no less true.)
My role in my teenage class is to provide the Jewish content. Our rule is: they choose the topic and bring the You Tube video or online article; I bring a relevant Jewish text or idea in response. The deal is that I get at least two day’s notice.
But this discussion was unplanned. So what was I to bring?
I tried to draw the discussion round to the significance of human action. We exist to make a difference. Action in defense of what is just and right is not an option but an obligation, a categorical responsibility, the core responsibility which defines what it means to be human. (And what is more right that the right of pupils and staff in schools to survive their day, learn and help create a better tomorrow?)
That’s why I agree with The Economist:
It has been the response of the surviving students… that has kept the tragedy in the news a little longer than usual. The pupils… have poured their grief and rage into a new campaign for gun control. In television interviews, speeches and social-media posts they have excoriated politicians who take cash from the National Rifle Association…
I admire their activism.
This week brings the festival of Purim. The language of the key text of the festival, the Scroll of Esther, draws repeatedly on the Torah’s description of Joseph’s experiences in Egypt. Both describe the situation of the Jew in the court of the all-powerful non-Jew: Joseph and Moses before Pharaoh; Mordechai and Esther before Ahasuerus.
But the key actor in Exodus is absent in the world of Mordechai and Esther. In Exodus Moses calls upon God and God at once intervenes. But God isn’t mentioned, not even once in the Scroll of Esther. The world, and our fortunes within it, are entirely delivered over to human agency.
That is not the same as saying that God is absent. There are God-like, God-inspired and God-required courses of action. But that action is dependent upon us.
This is something the frightened and grieving pupils and teachers of Marjory Douglas Stoneman high school have understood and grasped. Their courage and determination bring hope to us all.