Sixteen years ago, and just as young, I packed my backpack with my homework, grabbed a sack lunch from our refrigerator, and I left for the walk to school. I crossed Lee Road at Fernway, normally a busy intersection, and noticed it was quiet. I looked to the South and saw some Police tape – a traffic crash I assumed. I continued my walk, not thinking about the incident. I don’t remember too many details about high school, but I remember my first period class of that semester. As I sat in history class, I wondered why Fred was not present – he was usually punctual and his jokes often punctuated the otherwise monotony of class. I didn’t find out why he was missing until third period.
“Did you hear?” I heard in the hall… “yeah, she was shot in the head on the way to school. Right in front of Fred.”
Later I would learn that Fred was walking with his girlfriend to school, as he did every day, when her jealous ex-boyfriend came up behind them, shot her point blank before turning the gun on himself.
I don’t remember her name, may she rest in peace. At 16, that was the first time I realized that violence doesn’t just happen “over there,” it doesn’t just happen in a mass shooting that make the news but it can happen right here, two blocks from my home where I played outside, where I felt safe.
The year after that incident, the Columbine shooting changed the way the US thought about safety. Locks were put on school doors, programs began to discuss violence in school.
We found ourselves then, just as we find ourselves today confronted with two growing problems – isolated incidents of mass shootings by one or more individuals, and daily occurrences of people who end someone else’s life with a firearm.
When learn about what seems like yet-another tragic mass shootings we gather in prayer, we mark anniversaries, we remember the names of the fallen, and the shooters. Names and places, such as Columbine, Aurora, Arapahoe, and Sandyhook enter our vocabularies not as cities but as crimescenes, as places to mourn. It seems as though this list will never stop growing. While mass shootings remain in our psyche for months, years, and lifetimes, the actual number of lives claimed is fortunately very low compared to the real epidemic of gun violence in our society.
In 2010, according to the CDC, 11,078 people – mom’s, dad’s, uncles, aunts, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, grandchildren – were killed when someone else shot them. That’s about 1.5 people shot every hour who die from their wounds. 1.5 people an hour. 1 person has died from a gun-related homicide since we sat down to pray tonight.
Yet when we ask the question “how many people died because of a firearm related incident,” the number jumps to 31,672. Suicides and accidents account for the bulk of those 20,000 additional souls.
When we look at the realities of that number, we realize that gun violence knows no boundaries. While it disproportionately affects those who are poor, this epidemic has permeated every corner of society like a virus.
This virus that feeds off of our fear to create a society based upon peace that in Judaism we call the messianic era, envisioned by our prophet Isaiah. Isaiah preached during the time of the Second Temple when Kingdom of Israel was under siege and was going to fall. Among his many teachings, Isaiah famously prophesized that one day: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, lo yilmadu od milchama.
Would our Temple and kingdom still be standing if, instead of thinking only of themselves and giving into fear, our ancient ancestors had headed Isaiah’s call for peace; peace by taking care of the poor, the orphan, the widow, to clothe the naked and give food to the hungry? Where would be today? Why, generation after generation do we transgress the commandment and stand idly by the blood of our brothers?
God commands us to speak up in the face of injustice and we must speak up and take action reduce the number of firearms in our society whose sole purpose is to end life. I believe that we are called to achieve this through many means education, non-violence programs and, yes, legislative action on a local, state, and national level to reduce the number of firearms on our streets. Yet I know that there are those, probably even sitting here this evening who don’t agree. I understand why one should be allowed to own a shotgun for hunting or a vintage firearm from the civil war. But I do not understand why it should be OK for anyone to have access to incredible killing machines such as AK-47s and guns whose magazines can hold dozens of rounds of ammunition just waiting to pierce flesh and end life.
The first time I stood at the barrel of a machine gun is an experience I will never forget. In the summer after I experienced my first close-encounter with gun violence, at the age of 16. It took me several days of seeing guns everywhere until I could calmly walk past one, not fearing it would go off. I also remember the first time I held one of those guns in my hand, an M-16. Standing at the top of Ben Yehuda Street, it was heavy, and the metal was cold even on a warm, sunny day in Jerusalem. Unloaded, I was allowed to hold it at the trigger, safety on, and feel the power course through my veins. Later that trip, while I hiked through the north, some of my friends would have the experience of firing an m-16. They described the re-coil and loud noise as they shot a few rounds wildly off target. Apparently it takes practice to shoot a gun.
It takes so much practice, that in order to hunt with a gun in Colorado one must take a gun safety course. This makes total sense. I support those who go hunting for game, take it home, and eat it (especially if they offer their Rabbi some venison jerky). Yet no one goes hunting with pistols or machine guns, so why isn’t there a safety course required simply to own one those? So that, God-Forbid, if it’s owner feels compelled to use it only when their own life is threatened, they’ll hit the mark? Why is it easier to buy a gun than to vote?
We miss the mark so much in life that in Hebrew, our word cheit, translates directly into “missing the mark,” not sin as we often say. When we gather on Yom Kippur we repeat a phrase over and over – al cheit shechaltanu l’faneicha – for the times we have missed the – and then we ask for forgiveness. We acknowledge that we are not perfect and we seek the power to do right the next time. Tonight we ask God’s forgiveness for not doing everything in our power to help reduce the number of deaths from firearms. Al cheit shechaltanu l’fanecha, for the sin we have committed by standing idly by the blood of our neighbors, and not doing everything in our power to prevent their deaths.
As we look beyond legislative gun-control measures we find that there are many steps we can take here in our community and in our daily interactions with others that goes beyond a discussion of firearms. Often we hear that mental-health issues are a major source of the problem. We know that un-treated mental health issues exacerbate gun violence, and we have taken many actions here at Temple Emanuel to help people gain access to the treatment they need and seek. Yet at the root of the gun violence epidemic lies the notion that we can solve our problems with violence – whether inflicted upon other people or upon ourselves. Violence pervades every aspect of our society – we see it glorified on the news, in wars, in video games, in schools, in sports, in books, magazines – violence is hard to escape.
Overt violence comes in two major categories – physical and verbal. Physical violence includes fighting, pushing shoving, kicking, etc. It sounds like we’re making a list of things not to do in a kindergarten classroom; until we realize these behaviors are modeled by adults all the time as a way of solving problems. Verbal violence can be just as harmful – calling someone a bad name, bullying, and racist comments. No one is actually made of rubber and glue. Unfortunately verbal violence and bullying has reached new levels with social media.
Cyber bullying has become a horrible problem not only in middle and high schools but also amongst adults as well. With cowardice behind closed doors people log on to Facebook, twitter, Snapchat, texts and intimidate people and make them feel bad about themselves. More than once in the past year has cyberbullying ended in someone taking their own life. When we took our own confirmation class to New York City we participated in an interactive exhibit on cyber bullying. 90% of our 26 teenagers reported that they had been bullied at some point in their lives. We must find a way to reduce and eliminate bullying at all levels.
Bullying and other forms of violence keep members of Temple awake at night. After several months of listening to the issues of Temple Emanuel members, our HESED community organizing committee is working on behalf of Temple to reduce violence in our community. We are beginning to research different strategies, legislation, and initiatives in order to find a sustainable place where we can make change. If you also feel passionate about this issue we would welcome your stories, input, or membership on our committee. Please find one of our HESED volunteers at the Oneg. Through the power of community we can help reduce bullying, road rage, racism and, God willing, gun violence.
We must choose not to give into our fear but rather hope and take steps to reduce gun violence in our community. We must not stand idly by as more people are killed each week, each day, and each hour from gun violence. Tomorrow night we’ll join in the revelry of Purim, one of the most joyous of the Jewish holidays. We’ll dance, laugh, eat and drink to celebrate the courage of Esther to speak up in the face of violence and injustice.
We must learn from Esther that WE have the power and the obligation to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy. May we beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks. May our nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and may we forever teach peace.” May the memory of that young girl from my high school and the memories of all of those killed by guns be for an eternal blessing, and may this truly be a Shabbat Shalom – a Sabbath of Peace.