In one of his best known poems, “El Male Rachamim,” the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai enters into a dispute with God by subverting the words of perhaps the most moving of all funeral prayers.
The poem begins as the prayer does — “God-Full-of-Mercy” — then takes a sharp turn: “If God was not full of mercy/ Mercy would have been in the world/ Not just in Him.” The Holy One, Amichai suggests, has hoarded the attributes of compassion, leaving humankind to its own devices. If anyone doubts this, the poet declares, “I, who brought corpses from the hills/ Can tell you that the world is empty of mercy.”
The world rarely felt as empty as it did last Friday when news began to break about the deaths of 20 children and six adults, slaughtered in their classrooms by a 20-year-old gunman. We’ve all become familiar with the pageant of grief, argumentation, outrage, and voyeurism that follows such shootings, but the massacre in Newtown, Conn., felt different. Each of us was called on to imagine the unimaginable, to try and blot out the unbearable image of first-graders being cut down like targets in a shooting gallery. Parents put themselves in the place of those with children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and doubted they could personally bear the burdens of uncertainty, or of grief, or of guilt that falls on survivors and their families.
The helplessness we confront after obscene incidents like these leads to immediate calls for “meaningful action,” the resonant but vague phrase President Obama used in his moving remarks following the shootings. But feelings of common cause aroused by tragedy quickly disappear when we begin to talk tachlis. Gun control advocates — supported by law enforcement, the families of past victims, politicians who confront the daily toll of gun violence, and individuals who are baffled by the need and desire to acquire and collect weapons developed for the military — call for new limits on firearms.
Gun-rights advocates, meanwhile, invoke the Second Amendment and cling to the “slippery slope” argument that a ban on any type of firearm is the first step in banning all firearms. They turn for guidance to the National Rifle Association, a onetime proponent of firearms safety that has morphed into a defender of gun-rights absolutism.
But the merciless shootings in Newtown seemed to have transformed the debate. Activists on both sides recognize that they can’t fall back on old arguments. Most realistic gun control activists have come to respect that owning a gun is a constitutional right, and that the majority of gun owners are law-abiding and responsible. They want only to keep the deadliest weaponry out of the hands of those who have little interest in hunting, self-defense, or sport. They would like to see bans on high-capacity magazines that allow killers to fire as quickly and as often as they can press the trigger. They’d like to close the gun-show “loophole” that allows guns to be sold without federal background checks. And they support measures that would make it harder for those who have mental illness to possess firearms.
And gun-rights activists are acknowledging that the absolutists are tainting the cause of gun ownership. In the wake of Newtown, more and more seem willing to discuss ways to improve mental health care and strengthen federal firearm laws as they relate to those with mental illness. In a video that went viral, conservative commentator Joe Scarborough announced his change of heart on gun control. “Our Bill of Rights does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-styled high-caliber semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high capacity magazines to whoever the hell they want,” said the former Republican member of Congress. “It is time for Congress to put children before deadly dogmas.”
In truth, even the strictest gun laws may not stop the next massacre, not in a country already awash in guns. But there is an opportunity here, but not for a national “conversation” on gun control. We’ve been having that conversation for decades, and still, in a culture coarsened by a love affair with weaponry and violence, deranged individuals mow down innocent people with sickening regularity. What we need is meaningful compromise. If both sides are honest about the possibilities of change and the drawbacks of intransigence, perhaps we can shift the culture in a way that would avert the next massacre, or make it less deadly. Perhaps we can restore a sense of mercy to a culture that would rather talk about rights.
In perhaps the most moving moment of Sunday’s memorial service for the Sandy Hook victims, Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown chanted the traditional “El Male Rachamim.” He had spent the weekend comforting the mother of six-year-old Noah Pozner, the youngest of the victims. Now he comforted the nation with the promise that “the Master of mercy will care for him under the protection of His wings for all time/ And bind his soul in the bond of everlasting life.” In the days following tragedies like these, clergy like Praver, first responders, trained counselors, and loving friends and relatives help restore a measure of solace to a world that feels empty of mercy.
That can be the only response to Amichai’s bleak view of God’s creation: That when the world seems most cruel, the acts of good people will bring back a sense of meaning.