Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A lesson from the Virginia Tech Massacre by Pesach Sommer

Dear Friends,

I am pasting below an e-mail that I sent to many former talmidim based on what I said this morning in shiur about what occurred at Virginia Tech. I do not claim to have written anything profound, nor do I think that this the only thing that we can teach our talmidim about what happened, but if you feel that anything that I have written is worthwhile, please feel free to use it, or share your thoughts.

I hope you are all well.


Over 30 people have been murdered. Numerous others are in the hospital. What are we to make of such a terrible tragedy? While there are many answers to this question, I would like to make one suggestion.

What struck me as the news of this tragedy unfolded was the difficulty the media had in coming up with information about the gunmen. I would have expected all sorts of quotes from roommates and friends, but there were none. Then the reason came out. Nobody on campus really knew him. Yeah sure, they were able to talk about their fear of him, but that's it, he had NO friends.

There is a story that is told, I do not know if it is true, about a boy getting off a school bus carrying all of his school books. He was struggling to carry them, when another boy offered to help carry them. Years later the boy with the book revealed that the reason that he had been carrying all of his books was because he was planning on killing himself when he got home. He had not wanted to add to his parent's burden by making them retrieve his books from school. He had wanted to kill himself because day after day he was ignored. NOT picked on, but ignored. He sensed that no one cared. When this boy helped carry his books, this was enough to change his mind, as he realized that at least one person did care.

I do not know if any of you who are reading this can relate to the feeling of being alone. Thank G-d I can not. But I have developed my soul enough that I can picture what it is like to feel like no one cares. I well remember the relief I felt as a boy, when my classmates ruthlessly picked on a boy day after day. Sometimes I joined in, other times I silently watched, only once did I have the guts to defend him. I am ashamed of that to this day. Surely you must be aware that there are kids in school, both High School and University who have few if any friends, sitting by themselves every day, as various clicks sit around them enjoying themselves, ignoring him. I have seen this in every school I have worked. I have even heard Rabbis refer to these kids as nerds. But they are not nerds, they are people, a lot more like you than you care to admit, kids who just want to feel like they matter.

There is a custom at this time to exhibit acts of mourning as a reminder of the fact that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students who died during this time. The Gemara explains that they died because they failed to exhibit proper respect for one another. These Talmudic giants, who reached levels of Torah scholarship beyond what we can imagine, were not allowed to pass on their Torah. Why was so much Torah lost? I have heard a chilling answer to this question. If they had not developed the concept of TRULY loving their fellow like themselves, then all the Torah they learned was flawed. Our goal in studying Torah is not to collect knowledge, but to become holier and more sensitive people. Look around the class and the cafeteria tomorrow. Take notice of those kids who you have ignored in the past. Then have the guts to start to change.

As with everything that I write, if you find this message to be a worthwhile one, please feel free to pass it on.

Rabbi Sommer


  1. As a psychologist, I know the mentally ill. They can be VERY difficult to "make friends with". They shun being social, they are not "looking for friends", and if they are, their bizarre comments make people avoid them. The solution isn't making them feel loved. The solution is not providing them with easy access to guns, as in most civilized countries. This country is INSANE with its gun industry lobby!!!! This type of killings will continue to happen until getting guns becomes very difficult, and extensive screening for gun permits becomes the LAW.

  2. My point was NOT that this act of violence could have been prevented by being nice to him, my point was that this one of the things that we could learn from the tragedy that happened.


  3. I'm not sure at what point in the news coverage your points were made, but it was very clear that the loneliness which was felt was NOT due to peoples lack of reaching out. His roomates reached out, his teachers reached out, and his family reached out; early and often. This was a boy who was clearly disturbed psychologically from a very early age. While the point of loneliness and responsibility of hesed is well taken, this seemed to be a more apropos example of the lesson that hesed and hishtadlus of non professionals can't always solve the loneliness by itself.