You Don’t Have to Take It

The worst thing about gun violence in America is, of course, the tragedy and pain of senseless killing. Who among us can truly empathize with someone who has lost a loved one to a killer brandishing an assault rifle? Who can truly feel their pain or their sadness? I admire and marvel at the courage of Mark Barden, who lost his 7-year old son Daniel in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago, for speaking about his loss and then introducing President Obama at a press conference. Somehow he was able to translate his pain into an activist message, but I suspect that most others who have experienced such searing tragedy do not find that possible.

Perhaps the second worst thing about gun violence in America is that we’re getting used to it. We’re not even surprised or shocked any longer when we hear of a mass shooting somewhere in the country. Even the Torah, in this week’s parasha, hints that one of the tolls taken by such grim experiences in life is that we grow accustomed to them. In Exodus 6:6, God reiterates to Moses His promise to end the enslavement and degradation of the people of Israel: “Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you…” The Hebrew phrase that translates as “the burdens of the Egyptians” is Sivlot Mitzrayim. A Chasidic commentary points out that the word Sivlot comes from the word “tolerate” (in modern Hebrew, Savlanut means patience). The effect of the enslavement on the people of Israel was not only physical; they had gotten used to the burdens placed on them and had learned to tolerate them. The physical torment of slavery was made worse because they had grown numb to their pain. As a nation, have we come to tolerate such tragic and senseless taking of life? Has apathy set in to our national consciousness, a feeling that nothing can be done to keep us safe?

Every generation must have its activists, its inspired and courageous individuals who do not see the burden of violence as something to be tolerated. Moses, Aaron and the Elders of Israel were the activists for our people ages ago, coming along to remind us to shake off the feeling of resignation as a prerequisite to claiming freedom. In our day, there are numerous organizations that are devoted to resisting the gun culture in our country and to opposing powerful gun lobbyists. The message of such organizations to us is that gun violence need not be a burden that is tolerated and that we need not sacrifice our safety or that of our children.

Moms Demand Action is one such organization. Our Social Action Committee has partnered with MDA to present two outstanding programs this year on gun violence prevention. A third will take place at Oheb Shalom in the coming week, on January 14 at 7:00 PM (next Thursday night). MDA will present its Be Smart Campaign, designed to educate parents and grandparents about gun safety and empower adults to ask the necessary questions about the presence of firearms in a place where we expect our children to be safe. Avoiding gun violence, including the unintentional firing of a weapon, cannot be taken for granted, yet it’s likely that most people feel awkward about asking whether or not guns are present where our children or grandchildren will be, or simply don’t think to ask. The Be Smart Campaign includes a video and a moderated discussion, and is appropriate for parents or grandparents who care for young children. I encourage you to attend this important event on Thursday night, because gun violence is not something we must accept.

The Importance of a Single Hebrew Letter

A lot has been written and said about the tragic war between Israel and Gaza that is nearing the end of its third week. Countless blog posts from analysts and commentators around the world have offered a wide variety of perspectives on nearly every dimension of this terrible conflict. The most moving piece I read this week came from Rabbi David Golinkin, head of The Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem, who wrote about the funeral of Second Lieutenant Yuval Heiman, z”l who was killed in battle in Operation Protective Edge near Kibbutz Nir Am. Rabbi Golinkin attended the funeral because Yuval was the son of Zohara Heiman, a veteran worker in the Accounting Department at the Schechter Institute. The eulogies offered in memory of this fallen soldier of the IDF described him as a modest person who sought to excel in everything he did in life. His grandfather Yehudah, whose own father was killed in the War of Independence, quoted from the Book of Numbers (32:32) where it says: “And we ourselves shall cross over as halutzim before God into the land of Canaan.” In his eulogy Yuval’s grandfather noted that the word “we” in the verse (“anachnu” in Hebrew) is spelled in an unusual way, without the customary letter “aleph.” Why? Because the soldiers, the halutzim who go before the rest, are modest and they hide the “aleph”, the “I,” because they are acting for the good of the entire Jewish people.

That is the nature of the soldiers of the IDF. They fight with modesty, with the intention of putting aside their own needs for the sake of the needs of the State of Israel and the People of Israel. They fight to protect and defend Am Yisrael, not so they will have a place to live but to ensure that the Land of Israel is there for all who love and cherish the land as the homeland of the Jewish people. They fight not only to win today’s battle, but with the weight of all of Jewish history and all of Jewish destiny on their shoulders. When the soldiers of the IDF fight, they set aside the “aleph.”

I considered writing this week about an overturned world in which justice and morality are scorned, and terrorism, hatred and violence born out of narrow minded fundamentalism are rewarded. I thought about writing about the sting of anti-Semitism and the outrage and fear of being hated by so many in the world. I thought about writing about the importance of unity, felt so deeply at the Solidarity Rally organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey this week. But the funeral of Yuval Heiman speaks to me powerfully about what it should mean to be a Jew and a Zionist. We’re all called upon to suppress the “aleph” in the word “we.” In our support of Medinat Yisrael and Am Yisrael, whether in times of calm or times of crises such as we are now living through, we ought to act for the good of the entire Jewish nation. We are not soldiers in the IDF, who are too often called upon to risk their lives in defense of the State of Israel, nor are we citizens of the state who live under threat of missile attacks. But we can set aside the “aleph” by giving our resources, spiritual, emotional and financial, for the good of the nation of Israel. If we love Israel, if we are concerned about her welfare, that is the least we can do.