The Time is Now – Response to the Murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School

The Time is Now

Temple B’nai Or, Morristown, NJ

December 21, 2012

To everything there is a season,
a time for every experience under heaven..
A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to uproot;
a time to kill and a time to heal …
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance …
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to lose and a time to seek;
a time to tear and a time to sew;
a time to keep silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.

These verses from Ecclesiastes, there is a time for this and a time for that, are not talking about set times or preordained times or things that are meant to be. They are not about bashert or kismet or karma. They are about experiences that just are. These are things that happen, sometimes explicably and sometimes not, and too often, without purpose or meaning.

My proof for that is that last week, 26 people were murdered in Sandy HookElementary School.  I cannot stand here and say that there was ultimate meaning or purpose to what happened. This was NOT their time to die. It was their time to learn and to teach and to play and to grow; it was not their time to die. But they did.

And because they did, for their families and friends and communities , it became a time to lose, a time to weep, to mourn, to embrace, a time to stand silent, to speak out. For Noah Pozner’s family, it was a time to tear. For all it was a time for love and for many, a time for hate. There will be a time to heal, but not soon and never completely.

It was a time which traumatized these families, a school, a town and a nation; for they were all our children.

There were many factors contributing to last Friday’s unspeakable act of violence, some of which may become known and some forever unknowable. It is undeniable that one important factor which enabled these murders – and so many others across the nation – was the availability of guns, especially assault rifles and multiple round magazines. It’s true what they say: guns don’t kill people. People kill people. But people with these kinds of guns kill a significantly larger number of people than those without. In the hands of criminals, the mentally ill, and the impulsive, such weapons effectively facilitate multiple murders such as those witnessed last week. [i]

But this is not just about those 26 who were killed last week. It also has to be about the estimated 590 Americans whose lives were taken by guns in the week since Sandy Hook, either by murder or suicide or accident.  These were boys and girls, women and men, no less alive, no less precious, no less b’tzelem ehlohim, the image of God, than those 1st graders and teachers.

All this week, I have not been able to get out of my head Bob Dylan’s lyric: “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died.” The answer, I believe, is not blowing in the wind. The answer is right before our eyes and should have been in each of the 62 multiple shootings since 1989.[ii]

Is the answer to protecting our children in school armed security in every school in the nation as was suggested by the NRA this morning? It may be an answer. We should put it on the table for rational consideration. Let’s explore how that might work and what it might mean.  It might not be as easy and clean a solution as is suggested. Educators and elected officials from both parties have described this “solution” as simplistic, ineffectual and potentially more dangers, and rightly so.

But even if this were an answer, it does not preclude other answers, other necessary answers that allow us to protect ourselves, not with guns, but from guns. And that means seriously enforcing the laws already on the books, and enacting new laws, common sense laws which keep in the hands of licensed hunters collectors, and sportsmen and women the firearms and ammunition appropriate for those legitimate ends.

Now there may be some out there who say, I didn’t come here to hear that. I came for the beauty of Sabbath peace, not to have the ugliness of the world shoved in my face. I understand that. There is a time for silence. But now is not that time. Now is a time to speak, to implore, to rage. To make this a time for silence would be a betrayal both of my sacred calling as a rabbi as well as the history and mission of our Temple.

You know, you probably can’t guess what Jewish law says must be in any place where Jews gather to pray. A ner tamid? No. An ark and a Torah? No.  Comfortable seats? Not even that. What are required of any Jewish praying place are windows. Windows. And it’s not just to let light in, but to make sure that there is no separation between the world inside the shul and the outside world. A sanctuary is not a place to escape to. It is a place to understand the gap between outside world as it is and the outside world Torah calls us to build. Torah is about choosing life and pursing the most life affirming society we can build.

Does Torah say anything explicit about restrictions on gun ownership. Actually, it does. The Talmud (Avodah Zara 16a) prohibits the distribution of weapons which might fall into the wrong hands. For the Rabbis, that explicitly referred to criminals who had no respect for the law, and idolaters, who had no respect for the image of God in their fellow human beings..

From the Torah through to rabbinic law, there are slew of regulations which prioritize public safety over personal interest.

And of course, there are the visions of a world of safety and tranquility in which each will be able to sit under vine and fig, in front of blackboard and in cloakroom,  and not be afraid. And speaking specifically about weapons the world of which God dreams will have tools of destruction repurposed to tools of production, swords beaten into plowshares and spears to pruning hooks.

The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the country would be in favor neither of taking all the guns of any types away from civilians, nor unrestricted access to weapons of any type. Very few are suggesting that hunters should shoot deer and bear with cameras not guns – although it is not such a bad idea, but that’s just me. And no one is demanding the right to carry bazookas or uzis or howitzers.  There is already a line, a demarcation separating what is legitimately available to licensed civilians from what, for the purpose of public safety is not. The only question is where to draw that line. When asked about their feelings on gun control, most Americans say they are against it. But ask specific questions about particular weapons, like semi-automatic assault rifles, and the story is different.

Are we happy that in 33 states, criminals can buy guns at gun shows without background checks?  Are we and our children more or less safe with 40% of gun sales nationwide taking place without any checks at all? Do we think that a permit to carry a concealed weapon from one state should be respected in the other 49 states? Are we OK with each state being able to decide for itself if it will send names of criminals or the mentally ill to national registries ?

If you are unhappy with any of these things, then it is your time to speak and a time to write, a time to sign petitions and a time to advocate. This is the nation’s time for leadership. Because if twenty 6 and 7 seven year olds being shot multiple times without having to reload does not change the direction of this nation, my God, what will?

This is our time for war against weapons and munitions which no individual civilian needs. This is our time to uproot the gun shows, uproot the fortress mentality that says the answer to too many guns is more guns. This is the time to act and enact sensible, common sense restrictions on guns and ammunition magazines.

We can no longer stand idly by the blood of our neighbors, especially not our children’s.

I understand that even the most comprehensive laws will not stop all gun violence in our land. Still, we know in our hearts the truth taught by our Rabbis:  “Save a life and you save a whole world.”[iii]

Twenty-six worlds were destroyed at the Sandy HookElementary School and the world they left behind is forever diminished through the loss of their future good works which will ever remain undone. Let their memoires spur us to action and their young lives cut short inspire us to make the world a better and safer place, as it is written “a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

The time is now.

[iii] Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a), Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer ch. 47, Tanna debe Eliyahu Rabbah 11, Yalkut Shimoni on Exodus 166, and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 12:3.

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