After Newtown…

A sermon from Friday, December 21, 2012

Genesis 46:28 Now Judah, he had sent on ahead of him, to Joseph, to give directions ahead of him to Goshen. When they came to the region of Goshen,
29 Joseph had his chariot harnessed and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen. When he caught sight of him he flung himself upon his neck and wept upon his neck continually.
30 Israel said to Joseph: Now I can die, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive!

In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Joseph and his father Jacob, who we also call Israel, accomplish an amazing thing – a reunion between parent and child when the parent had thought his son dead for many years.

Would that we could only guarantee this for everyone.

Jewish tradition embraces and discusses almost every difficulty, and yet the difficulty of losing a child – whether because infant mortality was so common, and therefore not requiring a story to respond to it, or some other reason – seems to be something our rabbis and scholars and writers avoid.

We cannot avoid it.

We cannot stop thinking about it, crying about it, and longing to fix it.

There is no easy fix.

Guns are not the problem by themselves – although impassioned pleas like this one may make us think so…

Here is an observation from Rabbi Shoshana Hantman:
My husband, Rich Weill, spends a lot of time on a website called Banjo Hangout, especially when there’s not much happening at work.  these banjo players (insert joke here) discuss all sorts of things not related to bluegrass music; and many of them seem to be right-wing fundamentalist Second-Amendment types.  Not Rich’s natural cadre.
He wrote this today on the website:
When people get “pleasure, gratification, or relief” from the act of starting a fire, and are “fascinated with fire, its consequences and related activities,” we call that “pyromania.”  (DSM IV-TR, Diagnostic criteria for 312.33 Prymonania.)  But, for some reason, when people get “pleasure, gratification, or relief” from the act of starting an explosion inside a metal cartridge containing a lethal projectile, and are fascinated by the consequences and activities related to that potentially deadly explosion, we’re supposed to consider that “being an American.”
Guns are about one thing and one thing only: destruction.  Whether it’s a paper target or a tin can or a clay disk or an animal or a human being, guns exist only to destroy whatever they’re aimed at.  How unlike a banjo.
I’m also getting a little tired of hearing people excuse the often-scary American obsession with the destructive power of guns as a deeply embedded part of our culture, particularly in certain regions of the country. Slavery was also once a deeply embedded part of the culture of a region of the country, which even called it its “peculiar institution.” Domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace were once deeply embedded parts of our culture, tolerated by most women without question.  A lot of things are deeply imbedded in the culture somewhere — until they aren’t anymore.
Guns are necessary tools for those who defend our country and our communities, or for those who must hunt for food. They shouldn’t be implements of pleasure. Pick up a paintbrush or a musical instrument or some woodworking tools instead. Do something that creates for pleasure, not something that destroys.

Better mental health maintenance and attention is not the only answer, and still we have to work on it.

This is from a piece by Liel Liebovitz, on
“I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” she wrote. “I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”
Amen to that. In Israel, still a somewhat socialist country, mental health services are ready available, for free, to anyone. And because so many young Israelis undergo traumatic experiences in the course of their military service, a whole host of nonprofit organizations are on hand to provide counseling and treatment. We must do the same. Rather than pretend that it was the objects in their hands rather than the afflictions in their minds that led Lanza and Holmes and Cho and the others to perpetrate their monstrosities, we should offer help to those young men and their families. We have no more compassionate route, and no greater hope for peace.

And still, there must be more to it.

There is something wrong with us, something rotting away at the heart of America. We are a frontier people with no frontier anymore except within ourselves. We are conquerors and builders with no conquest left, and no unifying project to devote ourselves to. We must confront that most frightening of places, the parts within us that need attention because we have no “west” left to go for our young men. Star Trek may have gotten it wrong – the Final Frontier is not out there in space, but in here, in our hearts and minds, in the seats of our humanity. We must evolve from within, as we can no longer rely on external resources to help us advance.

The peace we long for we must create together, as a community of people from different backgrounds and with different opinions.

We American Jews must take our role as part of the leaders in this. More than any other people in the world we have learned to live with others and collaborate. We must bring our wisdom to bear on these issues. The world needs America to improve and evolve, and our children need us to improve and evolve so that they may live.

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a third-century Jewish sage, once taught: Great is peace … if the Holy One had not given peace to the world, sword and beast would devour up the whole world. Let us all hope that through our discourse we silence the “swords and beasts” of our day, bringing about a world one step closer to peace.