Sitting with an extraordinary group of people this past Sunday night, I had the honor of participating in our Sinai Religious School’s Staff orientation. While the majority of the evening was overflowing with laughter and excitement, there was also a needed conversation about safety. After showing us how to bolt the doors closed in case there’s an active shooter on the property, our wonderful Director of Education, Bethany Leinweber, shared with us a nuance I understand and agree with, but had never thought of before. The policy she described, is the rule for both our Religious School and our preschool. In case of emergency, she instructed that all teachers are to lock the doors immediately and not open them for any reason or any person until given the all-clear. Sounds simple enough, but that means if a child was in the bathroom, or grabbing a drink of water, and they come back and knock on your door, you as a teacher must ignore the little one trying to get to safety, in order to protect all the kids already inside the locked classroom. They may be a beloved child- standing there frightened or crying, and the teacher has to ignore them. And pray that our director gets them to safety – before they meet the barrel of a gun.
For some reason, I can’t stop thinking about that hypothetical child. I understand and agree with the policy, and the need to protect the children in the classroom. But I don’t know how to give up on a single child. Every life is precious in Judaism. Our tradition teaches: that he who takes one life, it is as though he has destroyed the entire universe, and he who saves one life, it is as though he has saved the entire universe (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). My thoughts have not paused since Sunday – I keep replaying the conversation back in my head, believing there must be a way to save that child too – there must be a way for our practical policy to see the value of that single life as well. I know this policy is what law enforcement recommends, but I’ve been trying to figure out what, as the rabbi, I can do to save every child, every life. It took days of replaying the situation over and over again before I realized the hard truth – the moment that child is outside a locked door crying for safety, the time to save that student has already passed.
When the alarm sounds and we move quickly to save all those we can, the time for stoping this has already passed.
When someone intent on killing others is armed with semi-automatic weapons or high capacity ammunition clips and enters a school, congregation, or public space, the opportunity to save our children has already passed.
If the moment arrives, it’s already too late.
There is nothing we can do to stop the intruder with the firearms. Even giving our own life may not be enough to save that student.
And after weekends like last, when the murders are fresh, we long to do something, to help those who have been affected by the latest attacks – but there is nothing we can do to bring back those who have already perished among the more than 30,000 Americans killed by firearms each year. The time to save them has passed. But what about the more than 30,000 that will most likely die next year? And the year after that? Will they be our congregants? Our neighbors? Our children? Whoever they are – those souls – we can save. Our time is limited though, for every day another 30 Americans, on average, are murdered. Every day. The time to save them is now. The time to stop this is now. The time to protect our children is now. Rabbi Joseph Maszler teaches the following as a summary of the Jewish perspective on weapons.
To paraphrase the Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a), you have the right to self-defense and to take someone’s life in order to save your life or someone else’s. But the Talmud also makes clear (Avodah Zara 15b) that there are some people to whom you may not sell a weapon, nor even give them equipment that goes with the weapon. In addition, if you choose to have a weapon in your home, you must do so responsibly. The Talmud continues (Bava Kamma 46a) that the command to “not bring blood upon your house” (Deuteronomy 22:8) applies to many dangerous things. And finally, the Rabbis teach that weapons are not “cool.” They are not ornaments and toys. The Rabbis believed that weapons at best are necessary evils, and we look forward to the time when people “shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4, Shabbat 63a).1
Honestly, I do look forward to a time when all weapons are laid down. I know, that’s hard to hear for some and not something we will all agree on. I know there are those among us who cherish your weapons, who believe deeply in our right to bear arms, and truthfully I hear all you have to say and believe. I understand the value of making sure the government isn’t the only one with weapons. I understand and respect the value of making sure citizens can protect themselves. I do believe deeply that you should have the right to lawfully and carefully carry some kind of weapon, should you so choose.
However, I believe my right to life is greater than your right to high capacity ammunition clips.
And the bottom line is, these two rights currently stand in opposition with one another. So if we have to choose which is greater, I choose the right to not be gunned down – the right to live in safety. Rabbi David Saperstein declared, “Our gun-flooded, violence-prone society has turned weapons into idols. And the appropriate religious response to idolatry is sustained moral outrage.” I believe sustained moral outrage would be a good start, but this requires even more. It is time to do something, to change the reality we are living in, to stop accepting these tragedies as an inevitable part of life. Let’s be clear – we do not need to live this way. Other countries have just as much hate as we do, they have the same amount of individuals struggling with homicidal thoughts as we do, many have just as much violence on the streets as we do. Yet no other nation faces the extreme amount of gun violence that we do. There is an article (by writer Chas Gillespie) that’s been circulating social media this week, written from the perspective of God, about all the ways our nation could take action to change our reality. This is some of what it says:
Once there was a nation suffering the plague of gun violence.
“Help us,” the nation prayed, “save us from the violence.”
And God said, “You shall be provided with the legislative tools to ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and other wartime instruments of death.”
And lo, the nation said, “I’d rather not.” And so nothing came to pass.
“Help us,” the nation prayed a year or so later, “save us from the violence.”
And God said, “You shall be provided with the best universities and research institutions in the world, so that you may study the topic of gun violence and arrive at solutions to this public health crisis yourselves.”
And lo, the nation said, “Let’s make funding studies of gun violence illegal.”
And so nothing came to pass.
“Help us,” the nation prayed a few months later, “save us from the violence.”
And God said, “You shall be provided with the best mental health resources in the world, and you shall be provided with wealth beyond compare so that all who are struggling with homicidal or suicidal thoughts will have access to care.”
And lo, the nation said, “No . Let’s make health care harder to access, not easier.
And so nothing came to pass.
The article continued on and on like this until eventually, God said:
What is wrong with you? I have given you people a raft. I have given you people a boat. I have given you a helicopter on top of a cruise ship. And still, you are drowning??? 2
Now I know this imagined conversation is blunt and the writer’s perspective may even come across as harsh. However, this fictional parable recaps our situation in a way nothing else I’ve read does. The article reminds us of how many options we have at our disposal for making a difference. It highlights that we have many opportunities and options to change the reality we are living in, and the time to do it is now. Reasonable people should be able to come up with reasonable solutions – that should not be controversial. It is time for our leaders to find a way to protect our constitutional rights while upholding the importance of protecting our health, safety, and welfare. This Shabbat, I challenge you to think about those future victims – and do something in the coming week to help save them. I know the problem is big and it can feel daunting, but let us focus on smaller steps.
At the very least, we must work toward having a complex and rigorous method of background checks that actually work.
At the very least, if we really want to stop mass shootings, we need to take assault weapons and semi-automatic weapons off our streets.
At the very least, we must demand a ban on high capacity ammunition clips.
Whether or not you are a gun owner and proud member of the NRA, at the very least – all three of these should be necessary steps we can agree on. Let’s make it happen. All of us. Together. Get involved. Speak to your friends. Write and call your representatives. Give money to organizations working hard to change the reality of carnage in our country.
The time is now.
If we want to save that child, standing outside a locked door, spending her last moments overcome with horrific fear, if we want her to have a chance to see another day – the time to protect her is now.