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Bechukotai: The Curse of Mass Shootings

06/14/2022 09:49:36 AM

Jun14

Rabbi Ezray

Sometimes when I give a sermon, I look to bring in multiple points of view, as we explore a complicated issue together. Other times, I may choose to speak drawing on the prophetic tradition, meaning that I am going to tell you my truth based on an assessment of an urgent wrong, with a call to action. I'll speak more about the prophets later; I feel that the events of this week demanded that I find that voice. I hope that if you disagree with my assessments, we can talk about it in a respectful way.

Like so many of you, I am sitting in anguish as I reflect on the horrific shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. 19 precious children and two amazing teachers were murdered, and the pain sits in our hearts. There are not enough tears, especially as we hear the stories about the beautiful children and teachers and reflect on how this act ripples out in so many ways. This comes a mere week after the tragedy in Buffalo, New York, where a white supremacist killed people in the Black community in a racist act of violence. We are reeling. In the Forward, Rob Eshman writes: “The mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, makes me want to scream.”  In addition to crying, I want to scream, which is what I know the prophets would do at a moment like this.

Congressman Adam Schiff captured my sentiments: “As a parent, as a person of faith, and as a human, I'm sick. 110 people a day killed by gun violence.” There have been over 200 mass shootings and 27 school shootings since the beginning of calendar year 2022. Now the city of Uvalde is added to the list of places etched in our hearts where tragedy occurred. When our schools, which should be places of safety and learning become places of horror, the pain, sadness, confusion, and anger overwhelm. Honestly, every death by gun is a tragedy, not just the mass shootings. Life is precious and too many lives are being lost.

We need to act. That is the essence of the Torah’s teaching and the prophetic call. We need to open our hearts to those who are suffering, knowing there is no comfort at this moment. Let’s hold each other’s pain, listening to one another. Let’s listen to our children, who we pull a little closer and follow their cues.  

When we turn to this morning’s portion, we find God angry at how our actions have devastated the world. In the portion, God dreams of a society in which justice and decency prevail, a society of blessing. Yet over and over God’s dreams are thwarted by us. We repeatedly revert to idolatry. We close our eyes and harden our hearts as wrongdoing persists. In a portion where reward is promised for obedience and terrible suffering for disobedience, we read the curses as that which describes our experiences, emotional upheaval and trauma, overwhelming fear. It is important to note that the curses which pile up are always in the plural. The blessings and curses are not about us as individuals, but about societal causality. When we, as a society, care for one another there is blessing. But when we refuse to care for our Earth or one another, allowing suffering to persist, we indeed experience curse after curse. The curses of Bechukotai remind us to confront the societal failures that we are causing.  

          As we reckon with society’s wrong, we are called to find the courage to act and to walk along a different path. The key aspect of the portion is its assertion that we have the capacity to change, and that God will always accept us back with love.  Look at 26:40 (p. 752), “And they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers.” And God turned back to them. As we look at our world and squarely face its pain, its curses, we begin to imagine how to bring about change and act so that it comes about. It is also the message of the prophets. In today’s Haftarah, the prophet Jeremiah excoriates the people for wrongdoing and lays out the consequences of their actions, building on the Torah reading. We need to feel and express Jeremiah’s prophetic anger, which he persists in proclaiming year after year in the face of ongoing rejection.  

          Like today, Jeremiah faced that painful reality that too often, people and society don’t change. It is heart-breaking. Each day passes and more and more shootings occur. Like the Torah portion and the prophet, causality is laid out and people don’t listen. The same wrongs persist! Here is where faith gives hope and pushes us to continue to push for change. We still believe that reckoning and change can occur. The confession of wrongs we read about in 26:40 finally occurred! Jeremiah held on decade after decade, and his words continue to ring and motivate us. The rapidly escalating pattern of public shootings is the true curse of these times, and in the face of a curse that persists, we find the persistence and resilience to continue to cry out, scream, protest, and seek to stop this evil. 

People of good conscience can disagree as to what the proper actions should be.  The divides over this issue seem so deep and intractable, but I believe we can find a way forward:

  • Let’s talk about standards for school safety across the nation and find the funding to put every school on equal footing.

  • Let’s increase the age when one can buy such weapons to 21. Why should an 18-year-old, who cannot buy a drink, be able to buy a weapon? Did you know that certain states known for supporting the NRA, like Wyoming, require you to be 21 to purchase an assault weapon?

  • Let’s reinstate the bipartisan regulation of assault weapons that existed for so long, enacting sensible restrictions.

  • Let’s ban ghost guns.

  • Let’s demand background checks and precautions. We need a license to drive, why not require proper testing and training to use a firearm. Why can’t there be testing and training to ensure responsibility?

Every suggestion lends itself to bipartisan action. As we open our eyes to suffering, to the curses that exist, our call is to find the wisdom, courage, creativity, and resilience to respond. Did you know that Israel requires a note from your doctor assuring you are in sound physical and mental health to get a gun license? You can’t have a criminal record and must take a test about gun safety. About 40% of requests for gun ownership are rejected. Israel had two deaths per 100,000 residents in 2019 compared to 12 per 100,000 in the US. These comparisons are instructive as we seek the path forward.

Embrace the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah cried out in utter despair when he witnessed the injustice of our world. His cries channeled God’s pain at what we have wrought. Let that prophetic indignation guide you. He kept on challenging, pointing out wrongs and screaming, even when the people didn’t listen. He believed that if we continue to scream, maybe things can eventually change.

Channel Jeremiah’s prophetic fire. That fire can ignite change. I felt that spirit when Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors coach spoke on Tuesday before the basketball game. “Any basketball questions don’t matter,” he began, “Since we left practice, around 14 children (it was before we knew the number was 19) were killed 400 miles from here.” Then, he paused and stared at the table. “And a teacher,” he said swallowing heavily, almost choking on the word (it was before we knew it was two teachers). Salley Jenkins in the Washington Post reminds us Steve Kerr’s parents were teachers and his father, Malcolm Kerr was assassinated by terrorists in Lebanon in 1984 when Steve was 18. His parents taught him about inquisitiveness and self-mastering fears. He channels that pain into righteous indignation and calls for change: "We've had Asian churchgoers killed in Southern California and now we have children murdered at school. When are we going to do something? I'm so tired of getting up here and offering condolences to the devastated families. I'm tired of the moments of silence. Enough.” Steve Kerr, like Jeremiah reminds us we can't get numb to this. We can't sit here and just read about it and go, well, let's have a moment of silence. It is time to act.  I conclude with a prayer written by Rabbi Naomi Levy:

Turn our helplessness into action. 

Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy 

With a renewed faith  

in the goodness of our society. 

Shield us from indifference 

And from our tendency to forget. 

Open our hearts, open our hands. 

 

…Teach us perseverance and dedication. 

Let us rise up as one  

in a time of soul-searching and repair 

So that all children can go to school  

in peace, God, 

Let them be safe. 

Fri, September 30 2022 5 Tishrei 5783