Rosh Hashanah 5774/2013

Happy New Year, LeShana Tova.   We’re here extra early this year – and we’re already preparing for Chanukah on Thanksgiving.  Seriously.  Thanksgivukah is coming, so sweet potato latkes here we come!

It’s been quite a year.  Our nation has had more than its share of natural disasters – we even had a severe hurricane right here in our own backyard – in addition to all the social and political upheaval here and around the world.  Each of us, too, have all, no doubt, had our ups and downs, our joys and sorrows.  And, I hope the strength of this community has helped you celebrate and bear the burdens.

There is so much going on in our world, and so many important issues to face.  But perhaps nothing this past year has been so brutal to our hearts as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct, in which a troubled 20-year-old shot his mother in her home and then shot 20 first graders in their classrooms, four teachers, the school psychologist, and the school’s principal.  Perhaps nothing has been so mind-numbing as the statistics thrust into the national spotlight of those killed each day, each month, and each year due to gun violence.  And perhaps nothing has been so frustrating as the continued inaction of our Congress to attempt to deal with this terrible scourge in our country.

Many of us were together that Friday night of the shooting, right here in this sanctuary.  We were here to celebrate Chanukah and Shabbat with our children.  Our precious children.  Our only children.  The ones that we love.  By Sunday at Religious School, they all knew what had happened.  I listened to them speak grade by grade, fear in their voices, their clear knowledge that this could happen to them.  I listened to the grim reality of their lives as they described the monthly lockdown drills in their classrooms.

Is this the world we want to give to our children?  Is the sacrifice of their psyches and even – God forbid – their very lives worth the price of some wrong-headed idea about the Second Amendment?  Pardon me for repeating this, because I know I’m not the first or only one to point out that the right to bear arms does not mean the right to bear any sort of weapon in every sort of circumstance – any more than the right to free speech includes the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre where this is no fire, or to deface property with racial or homophobic slurs.

I’m sure we can all agree that security is important.  But, are we ready to accept the lockdown of schools, community centers, theatres, and houses of worship as our preferred solution for public safety?  It is a false choice to pit liberty and safety against one another… because there are always alternative solutions.  There are always alternatives.  They may not be perfect, but neither are lockdowns, metal detectors, alarm systems, or other such measures.

In the United States, on average, we lose 33 lives a day to gun violence – a number unparalleled in other Western nations.  These are not lives that would be lost no matter what.  They are taken by guns – effective and efficient killing machines – not by knives or strangling’s.  The FBI reports that over the last five years an average of 116 children under twelve are killed yearly by gun violence.  This number, however, does not include children or teens whose deaths were ruled accidents or suicides… and yet, these young people are just as dead.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that since Newtown, there have been approximately 21,500 deaths from guns in the United States.  Why are all these figures approximations?  It turns out that the most recently confirmed statistics are from 2009 – four years ago! – partly because of the large percentage of underreported suicides by guns, but mostly because, even though gun deaths are in the news every day, it isn’t anyone’s job to create a real-time count of those deaths.  Wow!  So, then, how many?  No one knows for sure.  But of the actual, real-time deaths reported so far, 90% are adults, leaving teens and children killed by guns at 10%.  This means, if CDC estimates are accurate, that approximately 2,150 teens and children have been killed by guns since Newtown last December.  Isn’t that enough?

The Talmud says:  Do not sell any object that can damage the public to those who are likely to be harmful.  Our Torah says, “Do not stand idly by on the blood of your neighbor.”  Yet, this is exactly what we are doing by refusing to tackle this issue.  Licensed gun dealers are required to perform background checks on individuals who come in to purchase guns.  Last year, these background checks prevented 78,000 gun sales to known criminals or individuals with serious mental health issues.  But, nearly 80% of criminals acquire guns at gun shows where no background checks are required – what’s known as the “gun show loophole”.  Then, there is the question of assault weapons: semiautomatic weapons, some capable of firing 30 rounds of ammunition before reloading.  The Assault Weapons ban was allowed to expire in 2004.  And although many attempts have been made to reintroduce it, it has never even been brought to a vote.

I honestly thought I would not have to give this sermon.  After Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown, I thought that by now, at least, we’d have reinstated the laws – not fool-proof, but sensible laws – that we had on the books not so long ago.  The Assault Weapons ban.  Background checks without loopholes.  More than 90% of the American public and more than 80% of gun owners support these measures.  But, the gun lobby and a cow-towed and broken Congress didn’t even allow a vote on these measures.  The NRA and the gun manufacturers they represent have over the years also prevented limits on magazine rounds; they have prevented closing the gun-show loophole; they have prevented putting tracers in gun-powder so that explosives (such as the ones the Boston Marathon bombers used) could be forensically identified and traced to their source – they have even prevented the Department of Justice from blocking terrorists from purchasing guns.

This is the world we now live in.  A world in which you have to produce all kinds of ID to drink alcohol, to get on a plane, to get into an R-rated movie – or to vote, in some states.  But, you can be mentally ill, or even a terrorist, and go to a gun show and purchase a handgun or a semiautomatic weapon capable of firing 30 rounds before reloading with no background checks and no questions asked.  Is this the world we want for ourselves and our children?

After the shooting at Newtown, President Obama said of all those little kids:  “They are all our children.”  They are all our children:  the 20 children of Newtown, the twelve of Columbine, the three of the JCC in Granada Hills, CA, the one that was shot along with Congresswoman Gabi Giffords in Arizona – and all the countless children shot each day on the streets and playgrounds and stoops of Chicago, Newark, LA and NYC, and all the teens who take their own lives with guns found in their parents’ homes.  They are all our children.  Our only children.  The ones that we love.

Today is Rosh Hashanah.  And today and tomorrow we read the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac.  We read these so-called “texts of terror” in which Abraham casts out his son Ishmael and nearly sacrifices his son Isaac.  “Why do we read these stories on Rosh Hashanah?” I’m always asked.  These stories that make us cringe and recoil from our own tradition?  These are the stories we all love to hate…. Right?  We say:  How could Abraham do such a thing?  Why are we supposed to idolize our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah who were so cruel to Hagar and Ishmael?  What kind of God asks a man to sacrifice his own son?  Why are we reading these horrible stories?  And what kind of religion is this anyway?

Well, as I said last year, the Bible is not a history book, and these stories are just that:  stories.  Legends and lore there for us to uncover lessons and values.  To peel back new layers of meaning each year.  This is what we have been doing for over two thousand years.  So, this year, when God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only one, the one that you love, and sacrifice him on the mountain that I will show you” – perhaps we should reflect on how far we have come from this ancient text we all love to hate.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves how many more children we will allow to be sacrificed in our own time to gun violence?  And then, perhaps we should remember that while Abraham casts out Ishmael, while he does, in a sense, sacrifice Ishmael’s life, in the end, he does not sacrifice Isaac.  He changes his mind.  He opens his eyes and sees the ram, and sacrifices it instead.  This is the lesson of this ancient story.

Our Ancient Rabbis teach that this ram was one of the ten things created even before the Creation of the World.  Was this their way of saying that there’s always an alternative, if only we would open our eyes?  Abraham, in the end, opens his eyes and sees the ram and finds an alternative solution.  Abraham opens his eyes… and so can we.

Today is Rosh Hashanah and we are all here together in community and prayer – perhaps in hopes of change for ourselves and for our families and for the world.  And so, what will we do?  The Ancient Rabbis also taught that prayer and study, while meritorious centerpieces of Jewish life, must not be undertaken for their own sake, but rather for the sake of action.  They were aware that, in the words of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, “to know is not yet to act.  To feel is not yet to do.  To pray is not yet to perform.”  Prayer and study and are meant to strengthen our conscience, our resolve to build a world of true justice, mercy, and peace.

So, what will you do?  Here are a few suggestions.  In your Supplements, you’ll see a list of organizations working to prevent gun violence – and actions you can take to help.  Notice, too, the reference to mental health, a significant factor in the issue of gun violence.  Take a look.  Get involved.  It makes a difference.  What we do matters.

The High Holidays are a time of reflection and introspection.  We immerse ourselves in the work of teshuvah, the work of assessing who we are and who we wish to become.  But when the holidays conclude, when the final shofar blast is sounded on Yom Kippur eve, we must re-enter the world.  We must move from reflecting about justice to pursuing justice.  We must engage ourselves fully in building a world of justice and peace, of compassion and safety.

Let us all pray that the momentum of these Days of Awe leads us individually and collectively to meaningful teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah / introspection, prayer, and the pursuit of justice.  And may we, and all of our only children, the ones that we love, be blessed with rachamim and shalom/compassion and peace in the new year.  Le Shana Tova/Happy New Year.

Published in Rabbi Susan's Sermons on October 30, 2013