Tuesday, May 22, 2022, is yet another day of infamy in the life of our nation. This time the place is Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, 80 miles or so west of San Antonio. You know the toll: 19 fourth-graders, ages 9-11, and two teachers shot to death by a deeply disturbed 18-year-old carrying a legally purchased AR-15-style rifle.
On the Saturday following the slaughter, the New York Times devoted its usual lead editorial space to a poem by Amanda Gorman, the young woman who transfixed us with her inaugural poem back on Jan. 17, 2021, the day Joe Biden became our 46th president. The first of the five stanzas in “Hymn for the Hurting” reads as follows:
“Everything hurts,/Our hearts shattered and strange,/Minds made muddy and mute./We carry tragedy, terrifying and true./And yet none of it is new;/
We knew it as home,/As horror,/As heritage./Even our children/Cannot be children/Cannot be.”
These very same words could have been written almost 10 years ago, in response to the massacre of 20 first-graders, ages 6 and 7, along with six adults, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut.
The voices of the blood of our nation’s murdered schoolchildren cry out to us; since 1999, 169 children have been shot to death in our schools. And yet … and yet the voices of Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, and so many other American schools, continue to grow fainter with the passage of time, as if from our long history of sorrow and pain we have learned nothing.
On the very same page on which Gorman’s poem appears, Michelle Goldberg penned a column with the ominous title, “America May Be Broken Beyond Repair.”
To highlight the threatening undertow of the incivility to which our political discourse has sunk, Goldberg cites a tweet that Randy Fine, a Republican state representative from Florida, issued the day after the Uvalde murders: “I have news for the embarrassment that claims to be our president – try to take our guns and you’ll learn why the Second Amendment was written in the first place.”
The embarrassment, of course, is not President Biden, but Randy Fine, who dared to issue such a hate-filled threat on a day when not a single murdered child in Uvalde had yet been laid to rest. Shame on you, Randy Fine – and shame on us for continuing to put people like you into elective office.
Goldberg concludes her column with the worry that broken America “is, perhaps, beyond repair”: “The real nightmare is not that the repetition of nihilist terrorism brings American politics to an inflection point, but that it doesn’t. The nightmare is that we simply stumble on, helpless as things keep getting worse.”
It seems to me that while many of us can sympathize with Goldberg’s darkness, her despair, her fear that our country may be broken beyond repair, we dare not remain in such darkness lest we condemn ourselves to self-fulfilling doomsday prophecies; our state of despair can never rebuild the state of our union.
And so I turn back to Gorman’s poem, which refuses to despair, but rather urges us to give, to act, to bring about the changes we so sorely need:
“May we not just grieve, but give:/May we not just ache, but act …/May we choose our children over chaos ….
“Maybe everything hurts,/Our hearts shadowed &strange./But only when everything hurts/May everything change.”
Because everything hurts, now is the time for change. Now is the time for Americans to come together in pursuit of a more perfect union. As Rabbi Hillel put the question more than 2,000 years ago, “Im lo achshav, ay’matai??” – “If not now, when??”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.