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Five Lessons from the Newtown Shooting

Five Lessons from the Newtown Shooting


When faced with horrors like the murder of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, Connecticut, it’s so easy to despair. Such violence is sickening, all the more so because it is so meaningless.

Like people all over the world, when I read about the shooting in Newtown I felt utterly overwhelmed: how could I respond to such tragedy? After some serious soul-searching, here are some concrete ways I thought about to help me respond to catastrophe.

1. Refuse to become used to calamity

The horrific shooting in Newtown was only the worst of a long line of public rampages in America. Only three days before, a gunman opened fire in a shopping mall in Oregon. And the previous year saw mass shootings at a college in California, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a theater in Colorado, and too many other venues. Sadly, the high level of violence in America has almost become the new norm; we are all almost used to tragedies occurring periodically.

(In fact, when I heard about the horror of Newtown, I realized just how removed from caring about others I’d become. I’d read about the Oregon shooting a few days earlier, and viewed it as just another news item. What relevance did it have in my life? I didn’t even ask myself that question: it all seemed so far away.)

The especially horrifying nature of this latest shooting—the high numbers involved, and the fact that the targets were little children—makes Newtown unusual. But really any tragedy should elicit a similar level of outrage and grief. The Torah charges us to view each person as infinitely holy, infinitely precious. “Let every person’s honor be as dear to you as your own,” declares the Mishnah (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:10).

Each time we become a little more inured to the pain of others, G‑d forbid, each time we allow it to become mere background noise, each time we feel little resonance from it in our own lives, each time we get a little more used to others’ tears, is a time we lose a piece of our own humanity as well.

For my own part, after this horrific event, I’m trying very hard not to go back to my previous mindset of detachment, of caring about others only when events directly impacted me, or else when the circumstances were so startling that I couldn’t help but be shocked. Every act of violence is shocking, every death or piece of suffering is terrible: I hope to not soon forget this.

2. Remember: We’re all in this together

“It should not have happened in Newtown”—not with the town’s verdant lawns and spacious houses—was the verdict of some commentators. A few media reports noted that some Newtown residents had even moved to the tidy town, 65 miles from New York, to escape the crime and danger of New York.

But the fact that calamity came to a beautiful town like Newtown reminds us that we’re all vulnerable. It might be tempting for outsiders to look at residents in a pretty town and somehow think they’ve removed themselves from the cares that afflict the rest of us, but of course that’s not the case. Each one of us is vulnerable, each one of us faces difficult times; all of us unfortunately are susceptible to tragedy and sorrow.

Newtown reminds us of this. Each of us will have times in our life when we need other people to prop us up, to give us support and carry us. At a time like this, we see how connected we all are. After Newtown, I’m going to try not to be jealous of people who have the good fortune to enjoy a prettier house than mine, or a more attractive neighborhood. I’ll try to remember that these are, unfortunately, no barriers to misfortune.

3. Put yourself in the other’s situation

Like many others the world over, I spent the days following the shooting tearing up each time I looked at my children. I couldn’t stop imagining them—G‑d forbid—in lockdown in the Newtown school, huddled in closets and under desks. I kept replaying the scene, described in the media, of the parents being informed what had happened. Few who read or heard about this tragedy will soon forget its terrible details.

The Torah challenges us to rise to a level where we feel this way each time others are in pain: to refine ourselves so that we truly feel for our fellow men and women always. We must work to maintain this ability to feel others’ pain in other situations and in other times as well. The next time I hear of a tragedy, I’ll try to make the same effort to imagine the situation. Newtown shocked all of us; for my own part, I’m going to try to hang on to the level of empathy I felt for the victims there, and apply it to other situations as well.

4. Help practically

When tragedy strikes, it can seem so overwhelming that it’s hard to think of ways one person can help. Yet we each have the capacity to ease another’s pain. Whether it’s offering material aid to people in need, proffering emotional support, standing in solidarity with others, or working on their behalf, there is always a way to use our talents and abilities to help others.

Today—and always—I need to ask myself what more I can do. The Torah teaches that G‑d never asks anything of us that is beyond our capacity. Remember that in times of great need, we each are capable of rising to greater heights to aid others.

Even in “ordinary” times, we are each charged with reaching out to others. At this time of national sorrow, all attention is focused on Newtown; we all want to help. But we shouldn’t forget that there are many people—including in our own communities—who are undergoing tragedies of their own, too.

Newtown’s sorrow can remind us to take a look at the difficulties of people near to us, as well. It can channel our desire to help others. Today, ask yourself what you can do for people who are in need locally, too.

5. Make their memories be for blessings

It is traditional in Judaism to introduce extra goodness into the world in the name of those who have died. Doing good deeds, donating charity, praying, and learning Torah all elevate the souls of those who have departed. It helps extend their legacies: in addition to the rich lives people who have passed away leave behind, each of us has the power to enrich their bequests to the world even more by doing beautiful things in their memory. When we learn Torah in someone’s merit, part of the spiritual growth we experience is also theirs. When we dedicate funds in another’s name, they partake of the honor and the good that our donations have bought. When we pray on someone’s behalf, our dialogue with G‑d helps elevate those for whom we pray. In the aftermath of the murders in Newtown, people all over the world pledged to learn Torah and say Psalms in the victims’ memory.

For my own part, in addition to these actions, I also found that I had so much energy and desire to help others that I channeled it closer to home, calling up a friend who is going through a difficult time and inviting her for a visit. It might be a small gesture, but it was one way of channeling my desire to help and do good in the memory of Newtown’s many victims.

Today, let us each decide today to do something in memory of one of the victims. Undertake to read a Jewish book because of this tragedy. Pledge an amount to a meaningful charity in their name. Remember them when you pray, or even say a special prayer in their honor. Help to make the world a better place because they were in it.

Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D., is a mother and adjunct professor of political science living in Chicago. She is the author of Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat (Continuum, 2011).
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WM M F באר שבע December 24, 2012

Refused to become used There are several different planes of 'getting used to calamity' and they ask different things of us. Do we, as neighbors, accept this and ignore this? "No!" Do we as members of a community of possible aid givers given in to our survival instincts? "No! We accept that what has happened and then ought to proceed to aide as we can. We also must not let panic overtake our need to keep the community functional or the 'perp-s' will have succeeded." As when there is a death, there are different levels of bereavement. Children versus grandchildren and parents and spouse & siblings & other family and close friends - etc. Reply

Anonymous Guatemala December 19, 2012

-And help prevent the next one-, I agree! I agree with the comment of editor Jp NYC Reply

Anonymous FL December 18, 2012

Thank you very much, editor Jp, and of course, Yvette Miller. Reply

editorJp NYC December 18, 2012

And help prevent the next one Get trained, & get a carry permit. Talmud tells us if an evil man is coming to kill us, we have an obligation to kill him first.

If 1 of those teachers had been armed & trained, many if not all of the casualties could have been avoided.

The Oregon shooting you mention above was ended with (H"vs) "only" 2 innocents killed, when the shooter saw he had been spotted & was being tracked by a civilian with a gun. The shooter, like most of these cowards, killed himself rather than face the violence or the justice they so deserve.

& do not sit quietly when Leftists come screaming "we need to ban all guns! We need to ban this kind of gun, that kind of gun!"

Criminals & psychos do not care about gun bans, & the first thing that Hitler did when he came to power was to ban civilian gun ownership.


Bernie December 18, 2012

Mass murder If G-d forbid this happened every week for the next 6 months, nothing could be done to stop it. Only the people with these types of horrible weapons can stop it by keeping them out the hands of mentally ill people. There are already several hundred thousand of them owned my Americans. They became legal ot own in 2004. That is the horrible truth, Reply

Leah Cleveland, OH December 18, 2012

thank you. thank you for posting this. Reply

Elizabeth Miller Las Vegas NM December 18, 2012

mental illness When is our Government going to address the Mental illness is our country we all have rights why do the mentaly ill, have to be incarcerated in jail to get help ! Reply