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Shabbat for the Earth #727

05/20/2022 05:07:47 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman


Uvalde Tragedy: What Do We Do?

I am a rabbi, and I am out of prayers.

I am tired of moments of silence. I am tired of speaking at solidarity rallies, or being asking to provide prayers of consolation and healing.

I’m even a bit angry at myself. Because when news first broke of the mass killing at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, I did not feel a dagger of empathy in my belly.

I just sat there stunned as the headlines flashed across the screen.

A colleague referred to the phenomenon shared by many of us that as feeling “pickled.” We are numb.

At a pre-game press conference - as details of the Texas massacre began to unfold - Golden State Warriors basketball coach Steve Kerr begged us to consider how we can talk about something as trivial as basketball playoffs, when children, senior citizens and worshippers are being gunned down?

There are those who will say that rabbis have no business commenting on issues of guns, background checks and the freedom to own firearms.

But when I am asked by an 85-year-old congregant if she can bring a gun to high holidays services - when every time our Hebrew school convenes, I walk by an armed guard inside our doors - when I must be reminded where our panic buttons are located throughout the synagogue, it becomes my business.

Indeed, life and death are core Jewish values.

We speak of mental health issues, constitutional amendments and freedoms. But, as Jews, how can we sit by when in 2020 (the most recent year with complete data available), 45,222 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S.? That is far more than all western countries combined.

I have no prayers left. And perhaps there is a Jewish reason for this.

We are doers. The Torah tells us that when God offered the Torah to the Israelites in the desert, we accepted it with the words “Na’seh V’nishmah” - We will do, and we will hear.

So, what are we doing?

Just a few weeks ago, we sat at the Seder table speaking words of freedom.

We reminded ourselves about what we were being freed from. However, the question remains: What are we being freed to?

There is a major Jewish holiday approaching – perhaps the least observed of any holy day. In ancient times, it comprised the third of a triplet of pilgrimage festivals where Jews would travel to Jerusalem and provide offerings.

Known as Shavuot – the festival of first fruits - it commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Passover has matzah, Succoth has booths. But what about Shavuot? It is the holiday - within modern times - without a marketing hook.

So here is the hook: As we reread the Ten Commandments, Shavuot defines who we are as Jews. It is our destination.

We are now engaged in a 49-day spiritual walk that began on the second night of Passover and culminates with the holiday of Shavuot. On this walk, we ask ourselves not only who we are as people, but also who we are as Jews. We call it “counting the Omer.”

During this journey, as Jews we consider: Are we just about matzah, Chanukah candles and Purim costumes, or are we about a system of justice, fairness and the pursuit of a better world?

Most importantly in the weeks following Pesach, we ask, “Where is our freedom leading us to?”

We must also consider - as we come to grips with the tragedies in Buffalo and Uvalde – that there have been more than 215 mass shootings so far this year in the U.S. - and it’s only May.

Where are we going?

This is not about politics. This is about “Pikuach Nefesh” - the saving of human life.

Can we at least agree that the answer to the problem is not more guns, but rather discussing who has access to them? 

We must also acknowledge mental health issues in this country, particularly among the younger generation, many of whom spend their entire waking hours isolated within an online fantasy world.

At minimum, we must ban weapons so brutal that many countries prohibit them even on the battlefield.

We must ask, “Who are these weapons defending us against?” 

We must focus on safety over sales.

The Prophet, Isaiah, taught that we - as a culture - must serve as a light for others.

Israel is an example of how guns can be carried conscientiously - and with that freedom comes responsibility.

Why is it that, in Israel, where Uzi-toting soldiers are everywhere and private gun ownership is legal, there are no mass shootings in schools, shopping malls or synagogues?

As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, let us find renewed meaning in a holiday that reminds us that, as Jews, we are the keepers of Torah, and that we are stewards of not only freedom, but also of justice.

Let us stand up by voicing our concern over assault rifles. For children, seniors, shoppers and worshippers are not the enemy.

As Jews, we understand that ultimate peace shall not be achieved through - as the Talmud implies - “dueling truths,” but rather through compromise “in the name of heaven.”

Our tradition teaches that there exists a spark of God within each of us. For our sake, for God’s sake, we must express our outrage to those we trust to lead us.

For when we express that, we become doers.

Sometimes when we feel powerless we turn to prayer. Understood. But as is the case in many Biblical stories and through the history of Jewish people, God is often waiting for us to act - for us to do something.

With Shavuot approaching - as the memory of Uvalde threatens to fade into yesterday’s news, we need to remind ourselves that we are a nation of doers.

As the Israelites were pinned on the shores of the Sea of Reads, God asked Moses: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (Exodus 14:15)

Make a call. Write a letter. Consider your leadership choices - as we contemplate, “Where is our freedom leading us to.”

There is a time for prayer, but there is also a time for doing.

This is that time.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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