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:


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