I Will Bereave You

Two weeks ago I gave an impassioned sermon about the right to be who we want to be, to love who we want to love, and to have autonomy over our bodies. I felt sad afterward. These aren’t the sermons I want to give. I want to stand on the bima and tell you it will be OK. I want to teach about the beauty of Judaism to enrich our lives and fill us up with meaning and purpose. I want to remind you that you are doing a great job. You are loved. You are not alone.

Those things are true – you are doing a great job, you are loved, you are not alone. And of course our world is so broken and I feel compelled as your rabbi to provide a Jewish frame through which we can see our world. Through which we can work to repair the brokenness. Judaism tells us “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor.[1]” So here is my message tonight: You are doing a great job, you are loved, you are not alone, and we will not stand by while our children bleed.

Our Torah portion this week states “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments… I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone.[2]” “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you… I will release wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children[3].

What have we forsaken that God has bereaved us of our children?

God commands us in the Torah to “keep My laws and My rules, and by doing so human beings shall live: I am יהוה.[4]” The sages of the Talmud add to this, “and not that one should die by them.[5]” Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes that this means “In all circumstances, one must take care not to die as a result of fulfilling the mitzvot[6].”

By the 16th century we codified not only the permission to break our most fundamental laws to save a life, but we codified the unwavering obligation to break laws to save a life:

“For someone who has a dangerous illness, it is a commandment to break Shabbat for them. One who hurries to do this is praised. One who asks about this is a murderer.[7]

Our Talmud further teaches that “to take a life is as if we have destroyed the entire world, and to save a life is as if we have saved an entire world.[8]

Individuals and institutions who are in a position to save lives and fail to do so are themselves murders. They allow for the destruction of the entire world. They bear the responsibility for each life. And yet we chose them. We empower them. When we elect leaders who pray instead of act, we bear the responsibility.

My friend Rabbi Mark Goodman reminds us this week in a viral tweet that “In Judaism, if you say a prayer over something, then fail to do the requisite action that follows, like blessing bread and not eating it, it’s a bracha levatala , ברכה לבטלה [literally an idle blessing] – which is a sinful act. If you pray for victims of gun violence but do nothing, it is a sinful act.”

Our prayers tonight will not be levatala, said in vain. We won’t pray for an end to gun violence. We will pray for the courage, strength, and power to end gun violence ourselves. We will pray for the power to hold our politicians accountable, democrat, republican and independent alike.

Instead, most likely, we will allow idol worshipers to continue worshiping their guns, including the politicians who will travel to support the gun manufacturers tonight at the NRA convention, just a four-hour drive from where 19 innocent children were murdered. They will continue to receive millions of dollars from the NRA, funded by gun manufacturers, and will undoubtedly repeat the fallacy that if only we put more armed police or soldiers in schools and armed our teachers our kids will be safe. Their answer to gun violence is more guns. As states such as Texas pass laws restricting what teachers might teach, claiming that parents should have more say over their education[9], those same politicians are now asking them to put their lives on the line for our children. No one, children, teachers, not even the police should be in danger because we refuse to ban assault weapons.

We are fortunate to live in a state that took action and has some of the most restrictive laws in the country. And we have to do more to protect our children. If we refuse to act because 250 years ago several white men, slaveholders who owned and oppressed other human beings decided that we should each be able to have a musket to fight against the British, we are all murderers according to Jewish law. The Torah teaches us “not to copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt…nor shall you follow their laws.[10]” They held you as slaves, they had hard hearts, don’t follow in their ways. We can learn to discard laws created by oppressors that continue to harm us.

We must decide that this 18 year old man, who society decided cannot legally purchase a beer should also not be permitted to buy one, let alone two AR-15 assault rifles and 375 bullets which can ONLY be used to kill another human being.

If we fail to act, more lives will be lost, more worlds destroyed until there is nothing left.

And so we pray.

V’al kulam, Elo’ah s’lichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper-lanu.

For all of these and more, God of forgiveness, Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For all these and more, teachers and parents, Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For all these and more, our innocent children, Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

As you hide under desks and cry in our arms because you are afraid to return to school, dear children, please forgive us.

[1] Lev 19:16

[2] Lev. 26:3,6

[3] Lev 26:14-16,

[4] Lev 18:5

[5] Yoma 85b

[6] See Steinsaltz commentary on the Talmud, Yoma 85b

[7] Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 328:2

[8] Sanhedrin 37a

[9] https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/15/abbott-critical-race-theory-law/

[10] Lev 18:3