Thursday, April 18, 2013

How Long Will We Stand By?© Words of Torah About Gun Violence

I gave this dvar torah to my congregation after I returned from a trip to D.C. with 80 clergy from different faith groups from around our great country.  This sermon was published in the book, Peace in Our Cities:  Rabbis Against  Gun Violence.  It has been a couple of months since that moving trip, and now, we sit in a different place.  I felt I had to post this again because our voices must be heard, despite what happened yesterday in the Senate.  This is what I just posted on Facebook:  

As I sat in my office yesterday, and the update came on my phone about the defeat of the bi-partisan bill to expand background checks, my heart sank. I know that some of my Facebook friends might disagree with me on these issues, but I cannot remain silent. Why I must speak has nothing to do with politics - this is much beyond politics for me. In this week's parashah, we read the Holiness Code in the book of Leviticus; a code that attempts to lift up our people and humanity up to be better and to choose life. Leviticus 19:16 states, "Lo ta’amod al dam re’eicha" – "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." This is not about politics, it is about life. I cannot be silent.

Also, please read the Rabbinical Assembly's statement on yesterday's Senate vote.  

My heart is heavy, but this is not the end.  

How Long Will We Stand By?©
Rabbi David Baum
Parashat Yitro 2013/5773

I recently asked my congregants to raise their hands if they have been directly affected by gun violence.  In a room of close to one hundred people, less than ten people raised their hands. 

On January 28th 2013, I was one of nine rabbis from various movements who was invited as part of a group of around eighty faith leaders from all religions and denominations organized by PICO Lifelines to Healing, a group that organizes faith leaders around various issues that impact faith communities, to travel to Washington, D.C to discuss the issue of gun violence with each other, White House and Congressional leaders.  I went because I was moved by the tragedy at Sandyhook Elementary, the faces of those children, the story of Noah Posner.  However, it was not just this incident that moved me and affected the Jewish community: the 1999 attack at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, California, that injured five, including three little boys, and killed one person, and the perpetrator, a white supremacist with a history of mental illness, used a semi-automatic weapon spraying the room with seventy bullets. U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who identifies as a Jew, was shot in Tucson, Arizona, along with many others resulting in six deaths, including a child.  The shooter was mentally ill 22-year-old man with a handgun with high capacity magazine.  Jews are just as susceptible to suicide as other populations, and over half of suicides among males, who represent 79% of all suicides, are by firearm.[1]  In Judaism, we don't view the overwhelming majority of suicides as a weakness, but a result of a disease, depression and mental illness.  Gun violence does affect the Jewish community, but I will be honest, watching the funerals and hearing those eulogies, hearing the stories of the affected families, and seeing the faces of those parents in Newtown, moved me more than before, just as it has moved this entire country.

I traveled to Washington D.C. on January 28th to stand with my brothers and sisters from the faith community to give our perspective on gun violence and to make sure that this issue will still be on the forefronts of our nation’s leaders.  The conference room was filled with religious leaders from all different backgrounds and faiths, but the majority were African-American pastors.  We had a great time together, talking about our lives as religious leaders in this country, getting to know each other in our short time together, but it was not all fun and games.

At one point, they asked us to write down our own personal stories of gun violence.  Here was the problem - few rabbis had direct stories, but the pastors sitting at our tables did.  Pastor Michael McBride, the director of the Lifelines to Healing campaign and pastor of The Way Christian Center in West Berkley, told us this story:  "Two years ago, I presided over the funeral of Larry, a teen from my congregation who was shot and killed in the Bay Area.  More than 500 grief-stricken teenagers filled the pews that day, and I asked how many of them had been to more than one funeral. Far too many hands went up. I kept counting. Three funerals?  Four?  I got as high as ten, and more than half of the young people in the church wept as their hands remained lifted in the air."

I looked at the African American pastors sitting at my table and they told me how many young people they bury due to gun violence.  To bury three teens in a week, or to bury a mother killed in a drive by shooting because they were on the street at night was not out of the ordinary.  During one of our sessions, a pastor told us he had just received a text message:  one of his eleven year-old congregants, a little girl, was just shot in the face.  A rabbi sitting at our table, Gary Creditor, told me a truly tragic story.  He had converted an African-American woman, a registered nurse, and her husband who then joined their community.  This woman’s son was killed in a drive by shooting and she visited his grave everyday on her way to work at the hospital.  One day, after visiting her son’s grave and on her way to work, she too was killed during a drive by shooting, and Rabbi Creditor officiated at her funeral.  The story he told me, with tears in his eyes, broke my heart.  There are a multitude of similar stories:  the story of the woman who lost all four of her children to gun violence, and the story of 15 year old Hadiya Pendleton who performed at the President Barak Obama’s inauguration and a week later was shot in the back and died in Chicago.  The pastors continued on, telling me about the fear that their congregants live through just walking in their neighborhoods, mothers kissing their children goodbye in the morning, wondering if their precious gifts will return.

I realized that I could somewhat empathize with them, and some of the rabbis at my table could also because many of us lived in Israel during the Second Intifada (2000-2005).  I came to Israel to study just weeks after the bombing at the Frank Sinatra cafeteria where Jewish American students were murdered.  Living in Israel during that time was not easy.  I remember the feeling I had riding buses the few times I rode them, or the feeling of even walking by a bus, or of walking into a coffee shop or supermarket after being frisked by a security officer.  Going to the shuk (open air market) on Friday afternoon, a joyful and exciting pastime became a time of looking over my shoulder in terror and fear.  I felt what Bnai Israel felt as they were being oppressed in Egypt so many years ago, a kotzer ruach a crushed spirit (Exodus 6:9).  Rashi, the famous medieval commentator (1040 – 1105), writes that the kotzer ruach is whenever “someone is under stress, his wind and his breath are short, and he cannot take a deep breath.”  My heart would literally race as I walked through the streets of Jerusalem, and there were times when I felt I could not breathe.  I remembered sitting at minyan (daily morning prayer) saying tehillim/Psalms for the five, ten, fifteen or twenty Israelis who were killed in a suicide bombing the previous day, or even one time hearing a bombing in the morning, waiting for sirens, and saying tehillim/Psalms because we assumed the worst.  I was lucky, and so was Israel.  In time, after certain measures, the bombings stopped, but for my brother and sister pastors in the inner cities of our country, the feeling of a crushed spirit, the kotzer ruach, of living in terror continues day after day.

Pastor Michael McBride told us, “Sandyhook was a tragedy beyond belief, but Sandyhook, the killing of kids at the hands of a gunmen, happens everyday in our neighborhoods.”  The pastors, people of God, are frustrated.  They are frustrated because the tragedy of children dying has been happening for years unabated.  In their words, we Americans might mourn for a white child and a black child differently, but God loves them all the same.  Perhaps we should open our eyes, to see what is literally within.  The Talmud writes that there are three instances when a Jew cannot defend his or her life, and one of those cases is when someone asks you to kill someone else lest you be killed.  As the Rabbis said, “Is my blood redder than his?”  Our children may live in different neighborhoods, they may dress differently, they may have different color skin, but the blood is always the same color.   

The first Shabbat I returned to my synagogue after this gathering was parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1 – 20:22) which includes the famous Ten Commandments.  There is a custom in synagogues during the recitation of the Ten Commandments where the congregation rises to our feet, as if our rabbis were ordering us to honor these words and take them to heart.  The first five contain lengthy explanations, but commandments six, seven, eight, and nine, are very brief and read in quick succession. Interestingly enough, these last four commandments do not need much explanation:  Lo Tirtzach, you shall not murder, Lo Tinaf, you shall not commit adultery, Lo Tignov, you shall not steal.  You shall not murder seems almost commonsense, but one word can make a big difference.  It doesn't say Lo Taharog, do not kill, rather it states, do not murder.  Thinking about this term, murder, takes me back to Genesis, to the story of Cain and Abel, when one brother spills the blood of another.  Back then, there were no laws against murder.  In a split second, Cain, out of frustration and jealousy, spills his brother's blood.  “And Cain said to his brother Abel.  And it was while they were in the field, and Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him (literally, V’Yhargehu) (Genesis 4:8).  I always wondered why the Torah does not use the word Retzach, murder in this case.  My interpretation:  God never told humanity that taking another’s life was not allowed, perhaps God assumed it, and yet, the first instance of death in the entire Bible comes not from the hands of God, but by the hands of man.  God was shocked that this happened, saying to Cain, “What have you done?  Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)  The Hebrew does not say dam (blood), it uses the word, damim, (literally:  bloods in plural), to which the JPS commentary says that not only did Cain kill Abel, but all of his potential offspring are now doomed never to be born, as stated in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, “Whoever takes a single life destroys thereby an entire world.”  

Since creation, God has constantly tried to bring order to chaos, and He kept on failing.  Once the world became too corrupt, he destroyed the world, and started over with Noah, but the chaos overtook order.  The Egyptians oppressed a people and literally killed their little boys, drowning them in the Nile River.  God sent plague after plague to the oppressors in Egypt, and one would think that the whole world would listen when the mighty Pharaoh was defeated, but right after liberation from oppression came Amalek who in our weakest moments, when we were tired, and hungry, killed those who were physically weak who lagged behind.  As the JPS commentary states, “people whom anyone with elementary decency would avoid attacking!”[2]  These very well could have been children!  So how would God bring justice to the world, how would God bring order to chaos?  God knew that it would have to come through Torah, a divine law imposed upon humanity.  And finally the tide turned and order began to overtake chaos. 

A just law, with its mate, morality, is stronger than any plague or any army.  I asked my grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust from Czechoslovakia, would his family had been saved if they had an arsenal of weapons in their home?  After all, weapons were commonplace in his family.  His father, my great grandfather Alexander Baum, was a high officer in the Czechoslovakian army and he had cousins who also served and were proficient in the use of weapons.  But he told me something very interesting, “No amount of guns would have saved us.  We would have been have saved had our neighbors not turned against us.”  During the Holocaust, Germany defeated the greatest armies in the Europe.  France and Poland were considered the greatest military powers of the time, and when they were defeated, many of their citizens and leaders gave up their Jewish neighbors almost besting the Nazis with their virulent anti-Semitism.  There were only two countries that did not give up any of her Jews:  Bulgaria and Denmark.  They were not known for their military might, but they showed their moral might by resisting the Nazis in this way.  They could not sit idly by to watch their neighbors taken to their deaths because they were born Jews. 

When God began to speak, and gave us His Torah, the morality continued, and continues to this day. 
Let us return to the sixth commandment, Lo Tirzach, do not murder.  The famous medieval commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089 – 1164) gives an interesting explanation and expands this commandment:  “One may murder with the hand or with the tongue, by tale bearing or by character assassination.  One may murder also be carelessness, by indifference, by the failure to save human life when it is in your power to do so.” 

During one of the press conferences, an Evangelical pastor stood up and told us about one of his favorite quotes told to him by Elie Wiesel.  Mr. Wiesel told this pastor, “The opposite of good is not evil; it is indifference.” 

Listening to those holy words, I was reminded of the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who famously ‘prayed with his legs’ on his march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma: 
“Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[3]

How long will we stand by and hear the blood of our fellow citizens, men, women, and children, cry up from the ground?   How long will military style weapons be in the hands of criminals and mentally ill?  How long will we allow deadly weapons to be sold to anyone without a proper background check?  How long will we hide our eyes and let chaos rule over order? 

Now is the time to turn indifference into making a difference.  Now is the time to stop the destruction of worlds by ensuring that our citizens, from Newtown to New Orleans, Chicago to Columbine, Oak Creek to Oakland, urban and suburban, of all faiths and colors, to live free from the terror of gun violence.  Now is the time to act because all of us are responsible.

[2] JPS Commentary for Deuteronomy by Jeffrey Tigay, Deuteronomy 25:18
[3] Heschel, Abraham J. "Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays [Paperback]."Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays: Abraham Joshua Heschel, Susannah Heschel:

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Brit Milah On Yom HaShoah U'Gevurah

Yom HaShoah U'Gevurah began last night and ends at sundown tonight.

I am sure that there was a debate amongst rabbis and leaders in Israel (and around the world), do we add the observance of the Shoah to Tisha B'Av among the other tragedies that have befallen our people?  The answer was no, it was given its own holiday, but given a new name, Yom HaShoah U'Gevurah - not just a day to remember those that were lost, but to remember the heroes of the resistance to the Nazis.  This day was instituted in 1953 by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion (

There are many ways that we observe the holiday.  In Israel, melancholy music is played on the radio, television programs are dedicated to the Holocaust, and people gather together to mourn at public Holocaust tekasim (programs).  In the U.S., the most common way has been to hear testimony from survivors at ceremonies.  On the eve of this Yom HaShoah U'Gevurah, I observed in a different way - I attended the brit milah of my nephew, Zalman Simcha ben Rafael Hersch BenZion v' Yaela Ruth (his English name:  Samuel Emery Baum).  I want to post a facebook status that one of the rabbis, Rabbi Efrem Reis from Temple Beth Israel of Sunrise (my parent's rabbi and a friend and colleague of mine) posted after he attended:

"May I always be fortunate enough to remember Yom HaShoah by going to a bris"

Why was this brit milah different than other britot?  Please read the beautiful words of my brother and sister in law, Richie and Julie Baum, upon the naming of their son.

First we would like to thank everyone for coming to Sammy's bris today.  Richie and I feel very fortunate to have such incredible family and friends to help us through this new cycle in our lives.  Specifically, we would like to thank our parents for helping us plan today and in particular, our mothers who have helped us take care of Sammy this week.

Samuel Emery Baum is first named for my grandfather, Stanley Chaney, who passed away 3 years ago.  Stanley was a really special part of my life.  He was   not only light hearted and good-natured, he was kind and had a great sense of humor.  He always knew how to look on the bright side of things (like when we played cards and the whole point was to have the lowest score, he would have the highest score and brag to everyone how he was the big winner).   He loved my grandmother and his family ferociously and made life long friends (some of whom are here today).  I hope that Sammy will emulate many of Stanley traits, most importantly the love for his family and friends.

Samuel's middle name, Emery is named after my maternal grandmother, Eva and my paternal grandfather's brother, Emery.  My grandmother Eva helped raise my brother and me while my parents were working.  I remember my grandmother being one of the kindest people in the world.  She would pick us up from school everyday and would make Shabbat dinner from scratch.  She was kind, nurturing, and family oriented.  I cannot recall a time when she raised her voice in anger, which knowing my family must have been a momentous task.  I would like Sammy to follow in my grandmothers' footsteps by being positive at all times and good-natured.

I have never personally met Samuel’s other namesake Emery, but growing up, my grandfather told me stories about Emery's heroics in hungry during WWII as a partisan fighter and his genius as an engineer.  I want our son to not only be smart but also take action and stand up for what he believes in.

It seems appropriate to have Sammy's bris on Yom HaShoah because we realize all three of the people Sammy is named after are connected to the Holocaust in some way.  Stanley was in the Air Force and flew bombing missions over Germany during the war.  Eva was a 5-year survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp, and Emery fought in the resistance against the Nazi’s.  While we remember Yom hashish and the family members we have lost, we welcome our son, the next generation who will forever be connected to their legacies.

Here my brother gave three examples of the heroes of the Shoah:  those who toe the line between fighters and survivors.

Stanley and Emery are who we would typically call 'fighters'.  Stanley flew bombing missions over occupied Europe, and Emery fought as a partisan in occupied Europe.  One survived, and one did not.  Fighters are also survivors - they must dig down deep within the fight to fight again the next day, to never give up hope.  In this way, they fight to survive selflessly so others can live.

My grandmother Eva was a 'survivor' of five years of captivity in Auschwitz, literally hell on earth.  She worked in ammunition factories near Auschwitz, and was starved and beaten everyday of those five horrific years.  It would have been so easy for her to give up, to throw herself on the electrified wire.  I do not blame anyone who took that path, but because she did not, we are here today.  She was a survivor, but she fought to survive every single day of her captivity 

And so, on this Yom HaShoah U'Gevurah, we remember the fighters and survivors, because both instincts were needed to destroy the evil that was the Nazi ethos.  It is because of them that this ethos met its end (although there are still too many adherents).  They might have lost many battles, but they won the war.

There are many different ways to observe Yom HaShoah, and as a people, we haven't quite figured out the best way to do it.  I have often been frustrated by this, but perhaps it is the way it should be.  For me, growing up as a grandson of four Shoah survivors, I was reminded of the Shoah almost everyday of my life.  We heard stories of those who were lost and how our grandparents suffered during those years.  Growing up in my grandparents house, we saw the constant reminder tattooed on their arms (you can see the tattooed numbers on the pictures below).

(My grandfather Abe, my mother Rachel, and my grandmother Eva bathing me)

(from the left to the right - my grandmother Eva holding me, my mother Rachel, my grandmother Eta; top from left to right, my uncle Abe, my cousin Elliott being held our grandfather Frank).

I am fortunate enough to have a grandfather who is still with us and quite healthy.  I usually observe Yom HaShoah U'Gevurah with him, listening to his stories of survival through those years, to the stories of his brother Emery, his father Alexander and mother Rosalie, and of others who he lost; and stories of his brother Bundy and sister Magda who survived and created their own families.

(A picture of my grandfather and his brothers, including Emery, and sister taken shortly before they were separated in 1943)

A picture of my grandfather, Frank Baum, taken at the Brit Milah on Sunday

Although I could not attend our communal commemoration of Yom HaShoah U'Gevruah at Temple Beth Shalom, I was honored to have attended another type of Yom HaShoah U'Gevurah commemoration - the brit milah of my nephew, named for fighters and surivivors, and new hope for our people.

I would like to end with the blessing that I gave to my nephew Zalman Simcha.

To my dear nephew, Zalman Simcha:
Zalman is Yiddish for Shlmo, a name you and I share.  King Soloman was known for his wisdom.  Soloman was a builder who built the Beit HaMikdash bringing our people together for one purpose, to worship and rejoice before God, and they did this through, Simcha, which means happiness.  You have already fulfilled the promise of part of your name - you have made our entire family so happy and we know you will continue to do so for your whole life.
Zalman Simcha, may you fight for our people as your namesakes have done before you, may you bring your people together in happiness where ever you go, may you carry on the legacy of our family and our people, may your voice be a new voice in Israel of peace and happiness.  May you take your last name seriously, Baum which means tree.  May you take hold of the living tree that is our Torah, and may it surround you in everything you do.

My parents, my brother and sister, my children, and now my brother's child are here because of the survival and heroism of those whom we honor today.  May we remember all those lost, and may we never forget their lives, no matter how short they were and how horribly they were taken.  May we in turn give life anew to the next generation so that they will live on forever.  Amen.

"And so I will give them within My house and My walls a place and a name -- יד ושם, Yad Vashem -- better even than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that will never be cut off."

Isaiah 56:5