January 19, 2020

From Yom Kippur to Las Vegas: Finding Hope in the Valley of Death!

In the Yom Kippur liturgy, we just asked “Who shall live and who shall die” in the coming year, we didn’t think our nation would need to revisit this haunting question so quickly. Mere hours after intoning the last call for forgiveness for the sin present in the world, the streets of Las Vegas were paralyzed by barrage after barrage of gunfire. Innocent people were wantonly targeted, their lives held at bay by the deeds of a truly malevolent individual. As a man of faith, I was deeply shaken at the calls of “Stay down!” and “Take cover!” I painfully watching the spray of bullets tear into flesh and people fleeing for their lives. I was pained seeing the unfathomable carnage left behind where there should have been only dancing and laughing.

I felt paralyzed because I thought there was nothing I could do.

Yet, early on Monday morning, mere hours after the gunshots stopped and the first reports from the scene were being disseminated by the media, I knew that there was only one course of action for me. I immediately bought a plane ticket and flew to Nevada to comfort the victims and their families. I knew that as a rabbi and a religious Jew, I couldn’t play armchair consoler when those who are most vulnerable are in dire need of support. I knew that writing vague platitudes on social media—lamentably, an action that has seemingly become routine—would be lost in the digital ether, I couldn’t handle the news and not be there to do what I was trained to do. In whatever way I could, I wanted to be with these people. I remembered the clarion call from Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, who would say the place where there is the most hurt is the true center of the world. I had to stop everything to make it to the center. I had to dry my tears and get to work.

When I landed in Las Vegas that morning, I didn’t know what to expect. How does one reconcile with the fact that the ground you’re standing on is where, just hours earlier, more than fifty people died and another five hundred were wounded? I looked up and could see with startling clarity the shot-out window at the thirty-second floor of Mandalay Bay hotel. I starred in horror. A man had been in there, destroying innocent lives by the dozens for motives unknown. I shivered with disgust and heartbreak.

But as I spent more time walking the famed Las Vegas Strip, rather than finding overwhelming despair, I found something else entirely. I saw people of conscience lining up to be the vanguards of hope. I met young Christian men offering free counseling and prayers. I found valiant police officers keeping calm and maintaining order for the benefit of their community. When I visited the Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center, I found doctors, nurses, and medical staff working overtime to handle all of the traumatized and injured victims; they were traumatized themselves, yet they carried on with their sacred tasks. And among the victims, I found warmth and solidarity. I looked into their eyes and without saying a word, I knew that their inner resilience was a force that I could never comprehend.

As I walked around the ICU, consoling the victims and hearing their stories, I felt sadness and a modicum of anxiety. Why did I need to be here in the first place? This is a crucial time to rebuild America, to refashion this nation to be one of love and respect rather than one of too easily-accepted violence. The fact that within the last decade we have witnessed the worst outbreak of mass shootings seems to mean nothing to certain contingents of the political establishment. To them, this was an aberration and one that will lead to nothing. As former congressman Steve Israel wrote in the New York Times late on Monday: “More moderation means less market share.” This truth angered me more than anything I witnessed during my time in Nevada. People are dying and the will to stop the deaths seems to be an insurmountable hill in the fetid recesses of Congress. Even in this turbulent political climate where enacting sensible gun laws should be a fait accompli, we all tragically know that this type of legislation is a nonstarter. And when even the President, who called this shooting “an act of pure evil” removes even modest barriers to those who shouldn’t have firearms in the first place, then what more is there to politically strive for?

What we need at the present moment is the ability to reach out to one another to begin a spiritual revolution of empathy and mercy. We need to go beyond who we are and reach out to others. We need to encourage true progress on issues of great import, but this will only emerge from the ground up. We have to seek this change to see its actualization. While many think of Las Vegas as only a city obsessed with entertainment and gambling, what I witnessed was the epicenter of a new way of thinking. That beyond the ostentation and glamour is the beating heart of a vibrant community, where the loudest voices were those of compassion and service.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.