It was easy to condemn Donald Trump’s self-congratulatory response to the Orlando massacre: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism…” Trump’s response was transgressive and jaw-droppingly narcissistic, a violation against the victims, their families, and their friends.
It wasn’t hard to be appalled by the letter written by Brock Turner’s father, Dan. The Stanford student had been convicted of rape, but was given a sentence of a mere six months in prison with probation. His father wrote to the judge that his son’s life had been ruined, and that “that is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” The actual victim was erased. Again.
Either example is now notorious. But there are many, many more subtle ways to forget a cardinal rule I learned as a teacher, a spiritual director, and as a rabbi: It’s not about us.
At the side of a distressed individual, an anxious congregant, a hospital patient, victims of emotional, physical, and sexual violence we are told to remember: It is about them — their voice, their feelings, and their experience. Listen, acknowledge and honor that fact.
It is natural for any of us to respond to tragedies and horrors from our frame of reference. That’s how we make sense of things – for ourselves. As onlookers we experience sadness, grief, and rage. We use the tools we know and love, the tools that give us strength. These include our rituals, our texts, our liturgies. That’s what they are there for.
In the past week, Jewish communities and their leaders have noted the concurrence of the Orlando massacre with the arrival of Shavuot, matching numbers of those murdered with the days of the omer and juxtaposing the hope for joyous arrival at Sinai with the terror that unfolded at Pulse. This is an understandable response for Jews – our frame of reference helps us comprehend the world.
But our frame of reference is not that of the victims. The victims were members and supporters of the LGBTQ+ community. They were targeted and terrorized. Most were Latino. There were many issues at play for the killer, it seems, from extremist terrorist ideologies to condemnation of the LGBTQ+ community, and even the possibility of sexual confusion and self-hatred. But Omar Mateen certainly did not choose to kill because of associations with Jewish liturgy, Jewish ritual, or Jewish holidays.
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice texted his mother Mina from Pulse:
Mommy I love you
In club they shooting
Trapp in bathroom
Im gonna die
Eddie did die.
Is the counting of the omer or the arrival of Shavuot relevant for Mina Justice, for Eddie’s friends and family? Is it relevant to the LGBTQ+ community and mostly Latin victims?
Again: What we do privately in our homes to understand this horror in terms of our own tradition and experience is perfectly reasonable. How we describe this horror in public – even among our own constituents – will say something about our capacity to remember that cardinal rule: It’s not about us.
It is important that we create space for the victims, their families, and their friends, to speak in their own voices. It is important that when we speak in public we focus entirely on acknowledging and honoring their frame of reference.
The victims were members of a hunted and despised community. LGBTQ+ individuals in this country do not have the privilege of taking their safety for granted. To give them that safety requires that we avoid overlaying their voices with other voices – of any kind. With the best of intentions, when we do such things we run the risk of silencing the victims, their family, their friends, and the community that has survived.
It’s about them.