When it comes to gun violence, it’s personal. I was raised with a visceral opposition to overly-excessive gun ownership and a strong political upbringing to oppose the possession of assault weapons.
This is because in 1939, on a spring day in Milwaukee, a man walked into my late grandfather’s workplace, demanded his job back after a medical and mental health leave, and when he was denied, he murdered my grandfather and then took his own life. My mother was six years old. And in the midst of the Depression, her single mother raised two daughters with incredible fortitude, faith and hope.As a rabbi I have always felt it my duty to speak out against unbridled gun ownership. We Jews are people of the Law and the Talmud certainly supports an inherent human right to self-defense. But gun advocacy organizations like the NRA and a number of civic advocacy groups err, I believe, in their defense of the 2nd Amendment and to our detriment as a nation, block meaningful legislation to protect human lives.
It is not as if elected officials, their constituents and advocates don’t try to pass reasonable laws. Like a parade of failure, however, mass murders in this country are always followed by declarations of moral outrage, prayers for innocent victims and their families, rallies and spirited demands for sane gun laws. Columbine; Aurora; Virginia Tech; Sandy Hook; Charleston; Parkland; Las Vegas; Orlando; Pittsburgh. The list goes on and on. And yet, legislation remains stalled. The NRA, by nearly every measure, has a stranglehold on politicians unwilling to pass a law as basic as requiring a driver’s license, an auto emissions test, or even seat belts.
Among reasonable gun-control advocates, no one argues the right to self-defense. But the devotion to semi-automatic weapons, designed only for the purposes of mass killing, is an irrational beast that has inhabited American politics.
Of course, this dreadful situation is only exacerbated by the heightened levels of division, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia and a number of other hatreds that have been unleashed in our national discourse in recent years. It would be a mistake to think these two ideas—unbridled access to weapons and extreme hate—don’t go hand in hand. They often do. In the killers’ manifestos, we read their words with alarm and do what we can to respond with reasonableness, love, strength and determination to build bridges, not tear them down; to build alliances, not destroy them; to exemplify hope and love and life, not despair, hatred and death.
What a model of moral strength and courage we witnessed coming from New Zealand this week. Fewer than six days after the horrifying murder of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, the nation banned semi-automatic and automatic weapons, along with their overly excessive magazines. “It’s about all of us, it’s in the national interest, and it’s about safety,” New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told her people. So they acted. “Fooled twice, shame on me,” they say. It only took this one mass shooting for the Prime Minister to act, a stunning and humbling reminder to Americans of what is actually possible.
After all, the hate-fueled bloodlust in New Zealand is no different in its aim than the murder of Jews in Pittsburgh or African American Christians in Charleston, or countless other places. And so we return again to our vigils, in homes and schools and houses of worship, offering love and hope and reminding one another that our differences are an inherent part of the beauty and majesty of life. There is, really, truly, more that unites us than divides us.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we read about the laws related to a variety of offerings required of the priests for their own expiation from sin as well as the sins of the greater community. “And this is the law of the guilt offering; it is most holy. וזאת תורת האשם קדש קדשים הוא”The phrase, “most holy” immediately catches our eye. In Hebrew, it can be translated as “holy of holies,” evocative of the innermost sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem where sacrifices were made and where, Tradition teaches, the Divine Presence dwells. I thought of all those in our own country and in our Congress who robe themselves in the priestly mantle of their religiosity and defend gun rights to absurd lengths; who bastardize their language by cloaking their defense of the 2nd Amendment as a “God-given” right while often remaining silent when hate, prejudice and bigotry are used to charge the very weapons that take innocent lives. And I thought of what a guilt offering might look like from those modern-day elected officials who continually block legislation that can both protect the right to bear arms while simultaneously ensuring the safety of innocents. Surely this is possible. We sent a man to the moon, didn’t we?
We have more learning to do as a nation to find our way to that innermost place, that holy of holies of understanding, tolerance, love and peace. The rabbinic sage Rava said, “One who occupies oneself with words of Torah about the guilt offering is considered as if he or she brought the guilt offering.” This was classical Judaism’s way of demonstrating an evolution of thought—that while we no longer sacrifice, we keep the words of Torah intact by continually studying these words, even when they appear to be no longer relevant.
But they are! They are!
For when we look deeper into the Torah text, we see that the priest is supposed to wear a special linen garment for carrying out the offerings. He is meant to be ritually clean and the rabbinic tradition, generations past the destruction of the Temple, understands this commandment to be about ensuring not only external but internal garments as well. Put another way, how we look on the outside—what garments we wear—is only one manifestation of our “appearance.” There is our inner robe, as it were, our holy of holies, which the Gaon of Vilna suggested was evocative of the first garments of the original human beings, Adam and Eve. “On the outside it is skin,” he wrote, “But on the inside it is the light of the Divine who animated man and woman into being.” What is most real about us—no matter our position in life—is our innermost selves, our capacity for, and expression of, what all faiths regard as paths of goodness and truth.
Our true selves, the way we really look, is seen in our actions, our expressions of the Divine attributes like kindness, goodness, compassion and love. We all have two sides, the sages say; and our task in life is to always be turning evil into good. Thus, “a learned person is one who is particular about turning his robe to the right side, to the side of light,” wrote Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler.
Guy Pearce was the name of the man who killed my grandfather, Norman Mueller, in 1939. The story in The Milwaukee Journal recounted what witnesses said was the brief conversation that took place before the killing occurred. “Mueller: ‘How are you Guy?’ Pearce: ‘Well, pretty good, but still not so hot.’ Mueller: ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’”
I love that those were my grandfather’s last words. “Is there anything I can do for you?” They echo down through the generations to today, 80 years later, and animate my fingers on the keyboard of this laptop where this Dvar Torah is being composed.“
Is there anything I can do for you?”
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Be kind to the stranger because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.
Pick up the phone and call your elected officials and tell them how you feel about gun violence.Subscribe to organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and get involved.
And allow the prophet Micah’s words to ring loudly in your ears: “It has been told to you O mortal, what it is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Let’s get to work.