By Leslie Y. Gutterman
My senior year at the University of Michigan began on a tragic note. Every college student of that time remembers where he was when President John Kennedy was shot, on Nov. 22, 1963.
John Kennedy had visited the campus three years before. My friend Richard Wishnetsky and I joined hundreds who had stayed up until 2 a.m., when Kennedy’s election-campaign motorcade finally arrived at the Michigan Union. Moved by the outpouring of support, the future president delivered spontaneous remarks before entering the building to spend the night. Kennedy challenged us to dedicate ourselves to global peace by living and working in developing nations. That proposal was the beginning of what would come to be known as the Peace Corps. It was a thrilling night. Richard and I had approached Kennedy’s car and shook his hand.
During the months leading to our graduation, in 1964, the two of us would occasionally have lunch. I knew no one more charming or brighter. Richard was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship.
All his friends would be shocked to learn that this young man so filled with promise would become severely mentally ill. On Feb. 12, 1966, on Lincoln’s birthday, Wishnetsky drove to the Detroit synagogue where he had worshipped and interrupted the service. Grabbing a microphone, he condemned hypocrisy. Turning to Rabbi Morris Adler, he removed a .32 caliber Colt revolver from his pocket and fired twice at the rabbi. Then he shot himself in the head.
Had he had an assault rifle in hand, the young assassin could have threatened 700 shocked worshippers, including his parents and sister. Richard Wishnetsky died four days later. The rabbi clung to life for three weeks before he died.
The theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel told a story of youngsters studying the biblical episode of Abraham taking his son to Mount Moriah preparing to sacrifice him. Miraculously, according to Scripture, an angel would appear to stay Abraham’s hand.
One child began weeping.
“Why are you crying?” asked the teacher. “Didn’t the angel come and wasn’t Isaac saved?” “Yes,” sobbed the youngster. “But what if the angel had been too late?”
Angels are never late, unlike human beings who often fail to speak the words that reassure and comfort. A few years ago, I visited a woman who told me she was dying. I remember what she said about her children, “You know, there were times when my son and daughter strayed from the path I would have chosen for them. They gave me more than a little pain. But I never gave up believing in them. I had faith that somehow they would come through and they have. I am very pleased with them.”
I asked, “Have you told them what you just told me?”
And she replied, “Well, not in so many words.”
I told her, “Tonight when they come to see you, let them know. You can’t imagine what a blessing you have the power to bestow.”
Angels are never too late, unlike human beings who often refuse to perform the deeds that can save lives. We mortals will someday lessen the toll of 2,800 children and teenagers killed by guns every year. It will be too late to save those small Newtown innocents.
We may eventually reverse the trend of cutting millions from states’ mental-health budgets. We may be able to help more despairing young men such as Richard Wishnetsky by restoring the number of the psychiatric beds that have been eliminated. It will be too late to save the more than the 10,000 killed by guns in the past year. Because we have not put into place the same reasonable restrictions on firearms that we do on cars, food and medicines, every two months more Americans die by gun violence than those who perished on 9/11.
But is never too late to put limits on some so that all can be safer. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded the nation, “It is always the right time to do the right thing.”
— Leslie Y. Gutterman is senior rabbi of Temple Beth-el in Providence, R.I.