Here is my D’var Torah from this past Shabbat:
It was sometime in the Fall of 1986. I was on my second visit to Jackson, MS; and particularly to Beth Israel Congregation, where I would become the Rabbi in July of 1987. Laura and I were staying with an incredibly gracious elderly couple from the congregation. (They would go on to become dear friends, virtually surrogate parents and grandparents during the five years we would spend in Jackson.) It was just about bedtime and the husband, I’ll call him Joe, called me over so he could show me something. For the next ten minutes he walked me around their large and beautiful home, showing me all the spots in which he had guns, of different shapes calibers and sizes. I was polite, but I was aghast. Later in the same visit I was casually informed that several of the men had been talking and they could not wait to take me hunting. Naive New Yorker that I was I said, “Jews don’t hunt.” “Rabbi, we do hunt. And we can’t wait take you.” To myself (I hope) I muttered, “This Jewboy doesn’t hunt.”
It’s now over 28 years later. I have not been hunting. In fact, I’m not sure I can even remember holding a gun. It’s not on my bucket list. However, as I said in my remarks during the Holy Days, I understand that people can hold differing views about gun ownership and how the accessibility to and ownership of guns should be regulated. I believe that. I also believe that the bell is ringing louder and louder, as gunshot after gunshot rings out, taking one after another innocent life.
Following my remarks on Yom Kippur a member of our community noted that he appreciated the sermon. He also offered that surely I must know that the problem is not gun control and regulation. It’s that we are not adequately addressing mental health issues. It’s now only a handful of weeks since that exchange. In these weeks there have been several more incidents, shootings and threats of violence – on different campuses in different states.
I agree, the matter of how we should approach the discussion and resolution of gun ownership and regulation is a matter of mental health. But I do not mean it in same manner as those who push back against any attempt to hold a debate, let alone pass laws which might reduce gun violence in our nation. There are valid points to be made about restricting access to guns to those with mental health issues and histories. I see the mental health angle from a different perspective. In my eyes the most pressing mental health angle of the gun debate is the sheer insanity of believing that more guns are the answer. It’s the lunacy of believing that we must maintain status quo on the gun control debate, allowing our elected officials and nation, to be held hostage to the powerful gun lobby led by the NRA and backed by the manufacturers of the weapons. To believe that doing nothing to responsibly control access to guns and, expecting the number of deaths to decrease of its own accord is insane. Friends, mental health is an issue in this debate – but not in the ways the NRA and the gun manufacturers suggest. This morning we awoke to news of another shooting at Northern Arizona State University.
On Yom Kippur I cited Bob Dylan’s iconic words, “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died? Since I spoke those words, one candidate for President has declared that the tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon a part of “stuff that happens.” Another posted on his Facebook page, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” These are not responsible responses from leaders seeking credibility and votes for the highest office in our land. I do not intend my comments as partisan commentary on the Presidential race. I would like to see our candidates, on both sides step up and hold a mature, responsible and hopeful productive debate which would move our nation out of the cycle of shootings, recriminations, and intensification of positions.
We all know that this Shabbat we begin the book of Bereishit/Genesis from the beginning. As we often do, we focus on the Torah’s creation narratives, and the role of humanity in God’s world. This Shabbat, this season, I believe we must pay attention to another well-known story from this week’s portion. In Genesis 4 we read the story of the world’s first siblings, Cain and Abel. We read: “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord.” She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.” (Gen. 4:1-5)
A few verses later we read, “Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” The words that follow cry out to me – Notice me! Learn from me! Pay attention to me! In verses 9 and 10 God asks Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ God responds: “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” The blood, the bloods of those whose lives have been taken by gunfire are crying out to us!
On a visit back in Jackson we made early in our years here in Newton, we visited Joe and his wife. During our visit, Joe sheepishly told me, “One day, my grand-daughter found one of my guns. I’ve gotten rid of all but two and they are locked up.”
Friends, the bloods of those gunned down across our nation cry out to us! When will we respond with sanity and responsibility?