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I Was Not There – Reflections on the Aurora Movie Theater Tragedy

Each year on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av (Tisha B’Av) – sometime between late July and mid-August the Jewish tradition pushes us to look directly into the face of tragedy, destruction, pain and loss. Tisha B’Av is not a very widely observed Jewish ritual … perhaps Jews get enough opportunities to relive and remember the tragic and painful moments in Jewish history throughout the course of the year. Perhaps the destruction of the First and Second Temples are no more than intellectual abstractions to human beings living twenty to twenty five centuries after these historical moments. This year in spite of the lack of regard that most of us have for Tisha B’Av, its spirit intrigues and challenges me …

This year on Tisha B’Av (it was the 29th of July) – we Jews of Colorado found ourselves looking directly into the face of tragedy, destruction, pain and loss … as all of Colorado reacts and strives to come together after the tragic violence at the Aurora movie theater on July 20, 2012. Many of us Jews may not have even been aware of the observance, yet less actually observing the rituals of Tisha B’Av – reciting from the book of Lamentations or fasting. And yet, we all have been spending the days before (will spend the many of the days following) Tisha B’Av engaged in the tribulation of confronting the occurrence of and the nature of tragedy in our midst.

Using the lens of Tisha B’Av is helpful to me as I try and face the horrific consequences of these violent and reprehensible acts. Like most fellow Denverites and Coloradans, I was not there in the theater that night. I do not know anyone who was there, was injured or killed. I do not even begin to approach an understanding of the physical and emotional trauma, pain and suffering of those who were in theater or the loved ones of those who were in the theater. Still, I am absorbed by a morbid curiosity of what happened and how it happened that night; I am filled with (and ask with others) essential and profound questions about fate, human nature, evil, suffering; I am confronted by feelings of fear, doubt, anger and anxiety. I was not there – I am not traumatized because I was present or mourning a death of someone who was murdered or figuring out how to support those who survived, but I feel on some level that it happened to me, to all of us. Why do I have that perception and what do I do with it?

The template of the Tisha B’Av observance guides me in responding to these questions. Tisha B’Av acknowledges the way that tragic events touch, impact and potentially change the entire collective in which these events occur. The tradition does not have us act as if we were there – to in some way artificially or selfishly take upon ourselves the raw terror of experiencing that pain, loss and trauma. It does not blur the line between victim/survivor and concerned bystander/fellow community member. It allows, encourages, those of us who were not there – to question and to feel the raw realities that such tragedies force us to confront. Our tradition allows us the sacred, yet burdensome task of examining our human condition and the society that it has created. Our tradition nudges us to sit face to face with our stark limitations and our profound possibilities – and the consequences of realizing or not realizing each.

Why does Jewish tradition allow us and force us to feel and consider such things? From the appropriate emotional and historical distance, the important and difficult process of engaging with these moments grounds us to our deepest values and clarifies our broadest visions. This process pushes and prods us to intensely pursue justice and peace; to actively choose life; to be fully present in each loving encounter.

While we continue to support and nurture those whose lives were so violently changed in that movie theater that night, let us – with the appropriate distance – fully engage in this sacred and burdensome task. Let us feel those emotions – fear for our safety, angst in the realization of the actual randomness of life in the context of illusory order; impotence in our stark realization that we are so limited in being able to protect our children, our partners, our loved ones and even ourselves. Let us ask our questions on sin and forgiveness; on the ethics and morality of gun control and capital punishment; on the essence of human nature; on the nature and presence of evil; on the pain and suffering of the innocent and the righteous. May the experience of such emotions and our response to such questions help us comfort the bereaved, care for the injured and push and inspire us to create a just, loving and peaceful place in our world.

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