Why Was This Shabbat (and March) Different From All Others?

March 24 March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington, DC; photo via Shutterstock

By Rabbi Marc Israel

This past Shabbat, I traveled with families from the Lower Merion Area Hebrew High (LMAHH) to Washington, D.C., to take part in the March for Our Lives. I have participated in many marches, including the Soviet Jewry March (1989), the Million Mom March (2000), rallies against the Iran nuclear deal, etc., but I had never participated in a march on Shabbat. However, the urgency of this moment made a compelling case. So, we reserved hotel rooms within walking distance of the protest and arranged to attend Shabbat services and have Shabbat meals at nearby synagogues, and set off for an experience like no other.

This Friday night, we will gather at our Seder tables and ask the classic four-part question – mah nishtanah halailah hazeh – why is this night different from all other nights? Using this framework, let me explain why this past Shabbat and this march was different from all others.

On all other Shabbatot, we expect an inspirational message to come from the rabbi; on this Shabbat it came from the children. The oldest speaker at the march was 18 years old; the youngest (Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter) was 9. Each speaker was passionate and well-spoken. Each shared a personal experience of losing a brother, sister or friend through gun violence.

Keeping the speakers to the firsthand experience of youth, and not politicians and activists, amplified their message. We can have differences of opinion; we can dispute facts. No one can rightly deny individuals sharing their own experiences. The teens spoke with equal measures of pain and courage. Their message was clear: No one should ever experience what they have. They called out the failure of the adult community and our nation’s leaders for not taking action sooner, and in a way that no one else could.

On all other Shabbatot, we each sit in our own shul, within our own segment of our community; on this past Shabbat and at this march, the distinctions that usually separate us disappeared. From the podium and among the crowd, the diversity spoke to the universality of this scourge. As Marjory Stoneman Douglas junior Alex Wind noted, “Bullets do not discriminate, so why should we?”

The youth spoke out against gun violence in the schools and on our streets. Some speakers were survivors of mass shootings in the suburban schools that make the headlines; others, siblings of people killed by stray bullets in urban areas that never make the news. From my small vantage point, I stood with Jews of all backgrounds, a Catholic priest, a woman in a hijab, senior citizens and young children, rich and poor, urban and suburban. Bullets do not discriminate – we must all stand together to stop the violence.

On all other Shabbatot, we sit in comfortable seats in climate-controlled synagogues; on this past Shabbat, we stood for hours on hard pavement, uncomfortably close together. I have never experienced a rally where I literally could not move because it was so crowded. This density also added to the intensity. As we stood in place for nearly three hours, I did not hear complaints and saw little pushing or shoving.

We knew that whatever discomfort we might feel paled in comparison to the excruciating pain of our speakers. In fact, when senior Sam Fuentes, who was injured in the Parkland, Fla., attack, vomited in the midst of her remarks, the crowd waited patiently and had one of the few laughing moments as she quickly returned to the podium and proclaimed: “I just threw up on international television, and it feels great!” Sometimes we need to get out of our artificial comfort zone to understand the very real discomfort of the world in which we live.

On all other Shabbatot, our prayers come from formulas set nearly 2,000 years ago in our siddur; on this past Shabbat and at this march, our prayers came from the hope and the vision of these teenagers, who believe that we can do better. They reject the belief that no gun laws can change because the National Rifle Association controls Congress. Like the biblical prophets, they called out the sins of our nation in allowing this culture of gun violence to persist. But like those same prophets, they also created a vision, a prayer, for how the world can change.

The march took place on Shabbat Hagadol, whose Haftarah (Malachi 3) begins with God calling out the Jewish people, saying, “I will step forward to contend against you and I will act as a relentless accuser” against those who fail to live up to their responsibilities. It concludes with God’s promise to send the prophet Elijah, so that “the hearts of parents will turn to their children and the hearts of children will turn to their parents.” On this past Shabbat and at this march, this is exactly what we experienced.

Still, it is not what was different that matters, but what difference the march will make. The Seder’s call for us to see ourselves as if we personally experience slavery has an explicit message in the Torah: We should not oppress the stranger in our midst. Similarly, it is not enough to march or even to listen to our youth’s voices; we must make the changes necessary to ensure our schools, our shuls and our streets will be safe for all our children.

Rabbi Marc Israel is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.