Mass Shootings, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Tisha B’Av

Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s ill-timed tweet proved again that not everything that is thought should be said, and not everything that is said should be published/tweeted. Tyson thought he was being helpful when he pointed out that the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton had only claimed the lives of 34 people over two days, while in an average 48 hour period in the US, 500 die because of medical errors; 300 deaths could be attributed to the flu; 250 to suicide; 200 to car accidents; and 40 to homicide via handgun. Did it make sense that the reaction to the shootings should be so severe, while we accept with equanimity a far greater number of deaths that go unnoticed? His words were met with an outpouring of contempt.

As the famous astrophysicist and promoter of science to the general public put it in his apology “some information…can be true but unhelpful, especially at a time when many people are either still in shock or trying to heal.” Tyson seems to have underestimated the extent of the emotional component in people’s reactions to mass tragedy. (Perhaps he has found no evidence of emotions anywhere in the universe, similar to his conclusions about the existence of G-d. Despite all claims by major religions that G-d is good, Tyson in 2010 explained that, “When I look at the universe and all the ways the universe wants to kill us, I find it hard to reconcile that with statements of beneficence.”)[1] With a tad more respect for the Bible, he might have thought of Eyov/ Job’s companions, and how their well-intended words entirely missed their mark. Had he been Jewish, he might have remembered the custom to avoid trying to console mourners during the first days after death, when the raw pain of loss does not allow mere logic to penetrate.

Now, however, some days have passed, and we are all healthy enough to sit back and watch the ferocity of Democrats and Republicans going at each other, assigning blame and pointing fingers with more conviction than a used car salesman trying to unload a clunker. Tyson’s remarks deserve some consideration. Emotions aside, does it make sense that we attach so much more upset to these horrible, senseless deaths in public places, and much less to others? What, exactly, is the difference?

People who voiced their disdain for Tyson threw in their take on the difference. We don’t expect to get killed in malls, claimed some, while we know that there are risks attending to getting on the road, or walking into a hospital. (So if people are educated about the problems of mass disaffection and isolation, they’ll come to accept these shootings?) Others argued that we need cars and doctors, but we don’t need assault weapons. That makes incidents like El Paso and Dayton preventable. (And if we tried harder – and were willing to pay the price – could we not make roads, cars, and drivers safer, or decrease the number of medical errors?) Doesn’t Tyson have a valid point about changing the odds, if we really wanted to?

Reasonable people, I suppose, can disagree about that. Except for Torah Jews. To them, it should be barur ke-chamah / crystal clear that Tyson is correct – albeit not for reasons he would accept.

Chazal tell of a woman who lived near Rabban Gamliel. She tragically lost her young son, and used to cry into the night. Rabban Gamliel, hearing her weeping, would remember the destruction of the Temple and cried with her, until his eyelashes fell out.

Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l[2] explained that there need not be any tragedies. There will be none in the perfected world that will come into existence as part of the Divine plan, when mankind is united in its recognition of and devotion to G-d. The woman cried because of her terrible personal loss. Rabban Gamliel was reminded of the source of her sorrow. The world had not yet arrived at its zenith – the complete tikkun/spiritual perfection of earthly existence. A necessary harbinger of that tikkun is the rebuilding of the Temple. Rabban Gamliel was reminded that we had not even gotten to square one in getting to where we ought to be.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch provided a much fuller and powerful elaboration on this:[3]

Fools! Does Israel alone scan the future for a sorely needed deliverance? Does only the Jewish salvation depend on the revival of Zion? Ask the states … how much consolation they are able to bring to their hovels, how much joy to their poor, how much comfort to their down-cast, how much sorrow and misery, how much crime and vice they can banish from their cottages and their palaces, how much strength they can bring to their weak, how much love to their strong, how much humility to their proud, how much self-respect to their lowly, how much curse they can scare away from this earth which God has meant to be blessed? Ask them if they know for certain the very first letters of a political system which will unite justice with love and sanctifications with joy on earth…

Has the formula been discovered for transforming the manufactured bread of man into the Divinely blessed shew-bread, so that each one should be at peace with himself and at the same time harbor brotherly feelings towards his neighbor and forthwith obtain his share of the incense of contentment and of cheerfulness? Has the formula been discovered which could impose on the discordant members of the body politic a higher power outside of themselves, inviolable and superior to them, able to inspire and justify them all alike and link them all together, so as. at last to bring to human society the true olive leaf of freedom and of bliss even here below?

The persecuted, despised, misrepresented Jewish people is not the most unfortunate on earth, the one most in need of deliverance on earth. The whole earth is thirsting for deliverance. …It is not the Jewish salvation alone which depends on the resurrection of Zion… Once before the world had thirsted for deliverance; it … The heathen world was falling into decay. The gods heard their death-knell, sadness dwelt in the hearts of men. Innocence and human worth were laughed at; bestial indulgence and shameless lust took the prize, folly and weakness ascended the throne. Tyrants and slaves enjoyed themselves on earth—but men groaned and starved. …

If only Zion had stood then, … and if then already “the peoples had gone to the house of Jacob and had said, Come, let us walk with you in your light!” But, alas, it was not so.

Zion fell.

We are used to treating Tisha B’Av as the national day of mourning for all the mass tragedies that befell us in this long exile – the expulsions, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the ghettos, the Holocaust. We don’t always stop to think that the ravages of our galus include a world that is left imperfect, with all the attendant sorrow and misery.

We are used to thinking of Tisha B’Av in terms of a loss of the spiritual connection we could feel on demand in the beis ha-mikdosh/Temple. Or the loss of our autonomy as a nation in its own land – something that to some degree we have regained, thank G-d, since 1948. We don’t stop to think of the consequences this has had on everyone else in the human family.

So many young Jews in Orthodox circles want to feel that they are part of the general struggle for social justice, for creating a better world. So many people are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of suffering that they become aware of because of instant communication. The urge to help comes from a good place.

As so many of our sefarim point out,[4] the process of rebuilding the beis ha-mikdosh begins with a fuller awareness of the consequences of its loss. The more we are conscious of the enormity of the loss, the more potent our mourning can be this Sunday.

For us, reading the news, stopping to consider the vast amount of pain and unhappiness that exist around us, can be more than keeping up with current events. It can and should make us aware of how different that current state of affairs is from what Hashem promises us, and promises all of Mankind. It can help our avelus, which we know is the necessary precondition for seeing the consolation of Zion and Jerusalem.

  1. It should be added that, to his credit, Tyson refuses to be characterized as an atheist, preferring “agnostic” instead.
  2. Cited in Shiras Devorah to Eichah, pg 369
  3. Collected Writings, vol. 1
  4. See, for example, Nesivos Shalom, Bamidbar, 190-192

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8 Responses

  1. Shmuel Gorenstein says:

    I had serious reservations before I started reading. “𝘞𝘩𝘺 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘸𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘢𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦 𝘴𝘤𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘵 𝘣𝘺 𝘢𝘧𝘧𝘪𝘳𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘩𝘢𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘴𝘢𝘺??” I am glad that I read it. It turned out a very thoughtful essay. And not about DeJasmin at all.

    • Yehoshua Duker says:

      I am not sure why you are making the (on the surface) racist assumption that a black man can be an astro-physicist only due to affirmative action.

      • mycroft says:

        It certainly is a racist incorrect statement. To even understand what Prof Tyson can talk about requires a lot of brains. FWIW both of his parents were relatively successful , mother gerontologist, father Commissioner of a major department in NYC.
        BTW there is a congresswoman, who probably all readers disagree with her on many issues-but certainly is not dumb -She came in second in the Microbiology category of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair….the MIT Lincoln Laboratory named a small asteroid after her.

  2. DF says:

    “So many young Jews in Orthodox circles want to feel that they are part of the general struggle for social justice, for creating a better world.” – I’m not sure this is true. Or perhaps better, it may actually be true, but the orthodox conception of “social justice” is so vastly different from the way those words are usually used, and in fact directly contrary to the way they are usually used, that it makes the sentence effectively untrue.

  3. dr. bill says:

    I agree, despite R. Akiva being comforted while others mourned, that everything must select a time and a place to be expressed more effectively.

    I also see the Messianic era in universal terms; ve’hayah haShem ehad u’Shemo ehad addresses all of mankind.

    That all said, Tisha b’av is fundamentally an internally focused day where Jews mourn what has befallen us collectively during more than 3000 years of our history, epitomized by the destruction of our central point of worship. Our kriah and piyyutim that day do not focus on the evils that have befallen others as much as those events deserve attention. I estimate that much less than 10% of the day is forward-looking and thus perhaps and partly universally focused. Particularly given current events only 75 years after the Shoah, a day /period focused on our history alone seems more than appropriate. We can leave disagreements of how much we have achieved halakhically and religiously for another day and concentrate on what we have lost in our collective lives.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    Maybe as Rambam writes in Shemoneh Perakim we need to treat Cholei Hanefesh at the root cause of their ailments, rather than prescribing a pain killer Take a look at this article for some keen observations

  5. Nachum says:

    The notion of galut being the source of, and geulah the panacea to, all problems is certainly a popular one.

    (Indeed, it extends, unhealthily, to non-problems and even deserved problems. In one of his books, Rabbi Wein describes an encounter with a chassidish kid in a Monsey supermarket, who explains that the reason he couldn’t get the five cents back on a bottle that had no deposit was “galus.” Of course, that indicates a whole other unhealthy complex, that of believing that the rules don’t apply to unzerer and when “we’re” in charge we’ll be able to get away with that. But that’s for another day.)

    However, the rationalist- and Zionist- in me feels compelled to point out that this idea, which is strongly influenced by kabbalah, is not the position of Tanach, Chazal, or (most?) Rishonim. (This is not surprising, considering that kabbalah really only burst onto the scene after these eras.) In those sources, the geulah is a physical geulah, a return of Jews to their Land, Jewish sovereignity, a righteous king, a religious people, and of course a rebuilt Mikdash. “Ein bein yemot hamashiach ela shibud malchiot bilvad” means nothing supernatural. (Of course, all the above, as I once heard R’ Schiller point out, is hardly a small thing.) The navi makes clear that Mashiach himself will die one day, as will his son and successor. In the popular imagination, techiyat hameitim is linked to Mashiach, but that’s not necessarily the case. (And even those resurrected may, according to some, eventually die themselves.) As the Rambam famously points out, R’ Akiva didn’t ask Bar Kochba to do any miracles. (Claims that he should have done them sound like post-facto explanations for his failure.)

    I once read a quote attributed to Ben Gurion that the belief in the geulah in some ways may have delayed what eventually began to happen in the 1800’s- when your expectations are so great, you risk losing hope or at least becoming passive. It may not be a coincidence that many Zionists (although obviously not all) were secular. (Of course, without the belief, there may not have been a Jewish people to eventually act, and the belief of course can be said to have played a role in the actual action.) And once it *did* happen, the theories of what would eventually happen, which the Rambam has good reason for warning against making, not having matched the relatively prosaic reality of the new State, probably had a hand in keeping many from realizing the nature of what happened, and what is happening to this day.

    [Editor’s (YA) Comment]:
    “not the position of Tanach, Chazal, or (most?) Rishonim.” Debatable. Sotah 48b From the day the bais hamikdosh was destroyed,the shamir and nofes tzufim were lost. There is not day without a curse…Dew does not descend as a bracha…the flavor of produce has ceased…Rava says,”The curse of each day is worse than of the one that preceded it.” A lot more going on there than the important items you mentioned. Maharal (Netzach Yisrael, ch 22) explains that without the bais hamikdosh, all of existence is out of kilter, and one failure begets another. There is no question that Maharal saw himself as conveying pshat in Chazal, rather than using them as a springboard for his own creative mind. While kabbalah was of considerable influence on him (although to the best of my knowledge we have not convincingly determined whose system of kabbalah), it is only one of several important influences

    • Nachum says:

      Well, the one thing we know is that the Maharal did not use his kabbalah, or anything else, to make a golem. 🙂

      As the old joke goes, he *did* make the Tosfot Yom Tov, which is a lot more impressive. 🙂

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