I know we have heard so much about this. We have before. And so I ask myself, how can I not address the issue of gun violence and mass shootings around us?
This week’s shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland has severely impacted our community. We have many kids and adults who either are students now or have been students or educators at the school. We are all shaken; mourning, frightened and confused.
At the synagogue, we have contributed to the many early responses giving counsel and comfort or simply allowing people to be together, to cry and yell and process their grief and anger. We have notified our families of the places where counseling is available. There are also prayer services, religious response services, and vigils, both here and around the community. All of this is important.
Of course we are grateful for the first responders and the medical professionals, and certainly the educators and staff, and heroic kids in and around the school. I know that our humanity and our religious inclination tell us that we must honor those who died, we must comfort the bereaved. Today I witnessed the service for one of the murdered Jewish children. It was beyond a description of tragedy.
We have heard from political leaders that now is the time to mourn and gather together, and not politicize. But they are wrong.
When Moses was leading the people out of Egypt they began to rebel and Moses began to pray. God responded “stop praying” and do what you have to do as a leader.
This is the time for a call to action. We can do so, and at the same time show the reverence that is necessary. We have to look at the many root causes. And there are many.
I am angry that this country, supposedly an advanced civilized place, has not been able to pass proper legislation for sane and reasonable gun control. 79% of our citizens oppose the sale of automatic weapons like the one used on Wednesday, and yet our legislators have failed to act. WE ALL KNOW WHY. To a large degree, it is because of the power of the NRA’s Congressional lobby. This must be called out again and again. Please check out the amount of money given to our political “leaders” by the National Rifle Association. One of our senators, Marco Rubio, has received over 3.3 million dollars in campaign gifts from the NRA. How will he vote on different aspects of gun legislation? We see his history. Is it a surprise? Emphatically, NO.
We can respect the Second Amendment only if we understand its purpose and history. We can say with assurance it was not to allow a disgruntled, disturbed 18 year old to have an automatic weapon! It was not meant for psychologically troubled people to have guns. It was not to allow the transaction of military-style weapons at gun shows without background checks! Are we insane? We need to have every gun registered. We need to place proper limitations. We need so-called “smart guns” and all the technology available to keep guns out of the places where innocent people gather. One of our guards here told me about the physical and rigorous psychological and social testing he went through before he received his license to carry. And, he was glad for that. And the average person should be no different.
I do not believe most decent people want to take guns away from decent law abiding citizens. That’s not the purpose for more gun control.
As of this writing, there have been 25 acts of gun violence in the last 72 hours. There have been 18 mass shootings in the last 45 days. There have been 291 school shootings since 2013; that amounts to one school shooting per week. Since 2009 there have been 80 mass shootings! AND 25% HAVE BEEN PERPETRATED AGAINST CHILDREN!
Look at our reality. It is tragic… our children are under fire! Our children are not safe because of improper gun control and a failure of gun legislation. Our children are not safe because guns are in the hands of dangerous people. If our society cannot protect the most vulnerable and the weakest amongst us, then what are we? Who are we?
I am a strong believer that our religious conversations must be centered around values. And they must end with the actions that reflect our values. One of the primary purposes of our government is to keep our citizens safe. And we know that we and our children are less safe because of guns than because of borders or immigrants. I’m angry about the hypocrisy in government. Because I love our children and we are responsible to keep them safe. As an adult, this may be the most important decision we make when time comes to vote.
To engage the many that fear gun legislation, we need a large conversation about our values. Where does safety and protection fit in? What is the meaning of our freedom and the rights of individuals? What do we do when the individual right for x, y, or z conflicts with the needs or rights of a community? No one has absolute truth in this conversation. Listening to conversations on the radio today, I sensed that there are truly fearful people that think their guns will be taken away. That‘s not the case. And that’s not what people looking for sane legislation are looking to do. But the politicizing of today’s conversations are led by extremists who want people to become polarized and feel as if their rights will be taken away.
A fact: The largest number of children killed accidentally by guns are the children of gun owners. What does that say? It doesn’t imply that guns should be taken away, it does imply that gun safety needs to be more carefully determined.
The perpetrator in Parkland was known to be disturbed. He had posted himself on social media with weapons. He had shown his desire to murder. He was expelled from school. When his mother was alive, she repeatedly called the police to report his dangerous behaviors. He had not been allowed to carry a backpack on the campus of his school. People knew about him! People knew he was dangerous. Now we learn he trained with a white supremacist group. Like the Newtown shooter before him and so many others, they were disturbed people and the system knew about them. And they had access to guns. And they were not treated by mental health experts. They were allowed to operate freely. We need adequate mental health assessments and interventions. We need proper mental health work being done in our schools. We need to be following up on people who have shown violent tendencies and reveal themselves on social media. We need trained professionals reaching out to these people before situations become dire. We need to teach our kids and our neighbors that there can be interventions with people who show signs of violent behavior. And I think our mental health, for all of us, needs human support systems. We have to watch those in our schools who are alienated and alone. We need responsible communities.
And it’s hypocritical that our president speaks about treating mental illness at the same time that he is cutting the budgets that support mental health in our schools and our communities. Enough!
Add to this we have watched a culture of violence grow before our eyes. We have leaders that live through threatening language. There is simply too much violence glorified in the media, too much violence on television and the movies, too many violent video games. Violence begets violence. It’s that simple. And we need a large national conversation about this too.
When we vote we have to begin to keep our values in the forefront of our decisions.
There are a few teachings from our Torah that are calling to me. We are forbidden to stand idly by when there is wrongdoing, we do not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. The Talmud goes on to discuss the extent of this obligation–explaining that this Biblical command requires Jews to expend up to all of their resources, financial and physical, to save human life. This is where we are at…
And finally, there are two questions that are asked in the very beginning of Genesis. One is asked after Cain killed Abel, the first two brothers. God asks him, where is your brother? And Cain responds: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the response is not given. But it is clear, we know it. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Like that first murder, when the blood of Abel cried out to God, today there is the blood of children crying out to us.
We now enter Shabbat. We will reflect. We will honor memory. And we must commit ourselves to respond soon; letters and phone calls are a beginning. On Monday night at 5:30 in Delray Beach there is a communal response to gun violence at the Court House on Atlantic Ave. I will be there.
See you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt