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Listen to their names

Let’s speak and listen to their names:

  • Clementa Pinckney
  • Cynthia Graham Hurd
  • Susie Jackson
  • Ethel Lee Lance
  • Depayne Middleton-Doctor
  • Tywanza Sanders
  • Daniel L. Simmons
  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
  • Myra Thompson
  • Heather Heyer
  • Joyce Fienberg
  • Richard Gottfried
  • Rose Mallinger
  • Jerry Rabinowitz
  • Cecil Rosenthal
  • David Rosenthal
  • Bernice Simon
  • Sylvan Simon
  • Daniel Stein
  • Melvin Wax
  • Irving Younger
  • Lori Gilbert Kaye
  • Jordan Anchondo
  • Andre Anchondo
  • Arturo Benavidez
  • Javier Rodriguez
  • Sara Esther Regalado Moriel
  • Adolfo Cerros Hernández
  • Gloria Irma Marquez
  • María Eugenia Legarreta Rothe
  • Ivan Manzano
  • Juan de Dios Velázquez Chairez
  • David Johnson
  • Leonardo Campos Jr.
  • Maribel Campos (Loya)
  • Angelina Silva Englisbee
  • Maria Flores
  • Raul Flores
  • Jorge Calvillo Garcia
  • Alexander Gerhard Hoffman
  • Luis Alfonzo Juarez
  • Elsa Mendoza de la Mora
  • Margie Reckard
  • Teresa Sanchez
  • Brian Sicknick
  • Jeffrey Smith
  • Howard S. Liebengood
  • Gunther Hashida
  • Howard DeFreytag
  • Roberta A. Drury
  • Margus D. Morrison
  • Andre Mackniel
  • Aaron Salter
  • Geraldine Talley
  • Celestine Chaney
  • Heyward Patterson
  • Katherine Massey
  • Pearl Young
  • Ruth Whitfield

From Charleston to Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to Poway to DC to El Paso to Buffalo, each of these people was a victim of racists emboldened by replacement conspiracy myths to commit mass murder. They were victims of a subculture of scapegoating, masterfully repurposed by supremacist politics, politicians and shock jocks seeking to retain their power over an inflamed base, at all costs. They were victims of our ancient, obstinate refusal to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
Jewish tradition teaches that a person who destroys one human life is like someone who has destroyed an entire world; a person who saves one human life is like someone who has created an entire world. The people whose names I read were victimized by violence, but they were far more than victims: they were entire worlds, richly variegated reflections of God mirrored back to us with the blinding intensity of the sun’s light. Once their physical presence has been obliterated, is there nothing we can do to keep them alive despite their aching absence? Drawing upon my Jewish faith for an answer in this time of national trauma, I look to Eil Maleh Raḥamim, the Jewish memorial prayer, for some measure of comfort and inspiration.

This prayer is recited at funerals, on the anniversary of a death, and at memorial services during the year. It is a plea to the All-Merciful God to shield the soul of the deceased person under the wings of God’s loving presence, and it imagines that person as having never actually died but as resting in a heavenly Garden of Eden. With rare liturgical exceptions, this prayer insists upon our explicitly identifying the deceased person when we chant it. We speak and listen to his or her name.

There is no way to know if each of the people whose names I read are resting in heaven; given how they died, such an assertion taken too literally risks degenerating into cruel mockery. Better that God should spend less time making the murdered comfortable in the afterlife and more time diverting the murderers toward acts of peace and justice in this life. Nonetheless, this act of naming possesses a spiritual potency that could fuel explosive political action. To forget those who were murdered is to hand a victory to the people and ideas that robbed them of life. They sought to reduce them to the subhuman status of nameless vermin bereft of any claim to justice. We are forbidden to reduce them to no more than abstract numbers defined by their collective victimization.

Whether in prayer or protest, speaking and listening to the names of those who died hopefully prevents their consignment to the entombed back rooms of national amnesia; those dark, forgetful places where we toss the ugly truths about America after we take our swigs of morning coffee and scroll down through the news items on our devices.

Each time the American body politic is traumatized by the blunt and bloody force of such violence, let’s briefly suspend all activity, to remember out loud each name, each precious person who lived. This will not bring any of them back. But it will force us to account for their lives in a way that motivates us to inch forward toward genuine justice and freedom.

Let’s speak and listen to their names. 

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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