Nearly a century ago, on 1 September 1923, a violent earthquake struck Japan, devastating Tokyo, Yokohama, and the surrounding cities. 100,000 people lost their lives, and many had their lives turned upside down.
The news reached as far as the town of Radin, Poland, where the venerable sage Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan’s talmudic seminary resided. When the 85-year-old leader of European Jewry heard the news, his students watched him turn pale with horror.
The young men were confused. Why was their rabbi so distraught over the death of strangers on the other side of the globe?
The rabbi cited the words of the sages, that whenever suffering comes to the world, we are obligated to look at ourselves and ask how we are responsible, how we might have contributed to the catastrophe.
All the more so when tragedy strikes close to home. Those of us who were in synagogue this past Saturday morning can’t help but think, “It could have been us.”
It could have been. But that’s not the point.
It’s easy to blame anti-Semitism — and rightly so. It’s easy to blame the toxic political climate that vilifies ideological opponents and incites violence against them — and rightly so. It’s easy to blame the breakdown of fundamental values, morals, boundaries, and civility — and rightly so.
But where does that get us? We shed a tear, we heave a sigh, we hold our heads in our hands. We light a candle and decry the violence. Then we go back to living our lives, as we must. Has anything changed?
It’s not enough. And it won’t be enough until you ask yourself: How am I responsible? What did I do to contribute to catastrophe?
And what can I do to help prevent it from happening again?
Speak out against hate and violence, but speak softly and civilly: as Solomon says, A gentle reply turns away wrath.
Defend yourself against violence, but never initiate violence. There are times for war, but they are few and far between.
Extend the hand of friendship, even to people with whom you passionately disagree. If all you have in common is your passion, at least that’s a place to start.
Acknowledge the problems of the world, but don’t allow them to blind you to all that is good.
See the world as a reflection of yourself, and make sure that others see the best version of themselves when they look at you.