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The Sermon I Am Not Going to Give

Hol HaMoed Sukkot / 3 October 2015

October 15, 2015

The sermon I am not going to give today is about the ancient ritual of hoshanot, and the significance of our reciting the hoshanot prayers on Shabbat without a procession or a lulav, and without taking the Torah out of the Ark. It draws on insights from some of the greatest Jewish scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, and includes a charming Talmudic anecdote in which Sadducees hide the willow branches from the Rabbis to prevent them from performing the hoshanot in the Temple. The sermon I’m not giving is a sweet, light-hearted reflection on the meaning and significance of Sukkot, and I would have loved to share those thoughts with you but it’s not going to happen today because America has apparently decided that, as a society, we’re totally fine with a mass shooting every six to eight weeks.

I shiver when I imagine the moral outrage our Sages of Blessed Memory would feel if they could see what we live with in this country. In their day, under the Roman Empire — a culture that put human death on display as entertainment — our Rabbis ruled that a person’s mere presence in a stadium or amphitheater constituted an act of bloodshed.[1] What shall we say for ourselves, as the news reports fill with details of ten more dead at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College? How will future generations judge a nation’s willingness to tolerate the ongoing murder of students, citizens, children? What will we tell our own children when they ask us, “Why?”

The Jewish tradition takes a decidedly unambiguous position. From the Talmud through the most authoritative halakhic codes, all authorities emphasize the same basic principle: we may not sell weapons to private individuals, out of concern that they may be used to cause harm. We may not sharpen, repair, or otherwise service weapons, out of concern that we might be facilitating the harm of others We may not sell weapons to others who will sell them to people who might cause harm.[2] We may not sell the means to produce weapons.[3] We may not sell weapons because the very possession of a deadly weapon dramatically increases the likelihood of homicide.[4] Weapons pose such a grave danger to the public that we are responsible even for secondary consequences of our actions. As President Obama emphasized in his remarks on Thursday night, “This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.”[5] As a nation, we have failed to compel our leaders to restrict the flow of dangerous weapons, and as American Jews we stand in violation of our own moral values.

The Torah captures the enormity of our responsibility in a single verse: כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ וְעָשִׂיתָ מַֽעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ, “When you build a new house, you shall make a fence around your roof, so that you will not bring blood upon your house.”[6] For the great Torah commentator Ramban,[7] this mitzvah comes to fulfill the general instruction לֹא תַֽעֲמֹד עַל־דַּם רֵעֶךָ, “You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor.”[8] The obligation here extends far beyond just fencing off a flat roof; Sefer HaHinukh, an important guide to the meaning of the mitzvot, frames this mitzvah with the heading, “The mitzvah to remove all dangerous impediments from our dwellings.”[9] Strikingly, while the verse speaks of building a new house, our Rabbis emphasize our obligation to prevent danger no matter how we come upon it.[10] The exact details of how we end up in the situation have no bearing on our need to take responsibility and prevent the danger. Jewish tradition very quickly extrapolates from the specific example of a fence around the roof to a far more general principle: do allow any potentially dangerous situation anywhere in our homes.[11] To quote the Sefer HaHinukh, “The Torah commands us to guard our dwellings and settlements, lest any death occur through our negligence.”[12] 

And yet we have allowed a very dangerous situation to fester in our country. How long will it be before we read of another shooting, more lives cut short? How long before we see the names of people we know in the news reports, God forbid? In the President’s words, “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.” Indeed, we have become like the ancient Romans, whose mere presence in the Colosseum left them with blood on their hands.

Nevertheless, the Talmud does offer a way for us to avoid complicity in the bloodshed we see before our eyes: “One who sits in the stadium has shed blood; but Rabbi Natan permits it if he advocates for mercy on behalf of the gladiators.” In order to absolve ourselves, we must take an active stand against the violence. Representative democracy is a double-edged sword: it gives us leaders who are accountable to the people, but it also makes us accountable for their actions — or their negligent inaction. We must hold our elected leaders accountable for change, or we in turn will be held accountable for allowing the current state of affairs to continue. To do nothing in a country already awash in guns is to bathe our hands in the blood of Umpqua Community College, and Charleston, and Aurora, and Newtown, and Virginia Tech, and Columbine.

President Obama was right to say that “Thoughts and prayers are not enough;” the Torah calls us to action, to demand, as Rabbi Natan insists, an end to the bloodshed. If we do not take action, there will be more killing — and we, through our collective negligence, will have that blood on our hands as well. We need to make the lawmakers who purport to represent us understand that any vote against rational gun laws will be met with votes against them, at the polls. We must cry out in a unified, unambiguous, persistent voice: Enough! 

Then we will see change. Then we can wipe away the indelible stain of innocent blood. Until then, there will be no peace.

[1]  Tosefta (Zuckermandel ed.) Avodah Zarah 2.7; Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 1.7 (40a); cf. Pnei Moshe, Avodah Zarah 1.7.
[2]  Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 15b; Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 9.8; Laws of Murder and Life-Saving 12.12-13; Tur, Yoreh De’ah 151; Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 151.5. But see Hagahot Maymoniyyot, Laws of Murder and Life-Saving 12.13.
[3]  Tur, Yoreh De’ah 151.
[4]  Kesef Mishnah, Laws of Idolatry 9.8; Prishah, Yoreh De’ah 151.12.
[6]  Deut. 22:8.
[7]  Ramban, Deut. 22:8.
[8]  Lev. 19:16.
[9]  Sefer HaHinukh (Chavel ed.) 538.
[10]  Torah Temimah, Deut. 22:8 n.69.
[11]  Torah Temimah, Deut. 22:8 n.79; Maimonides, Laws of Murder and Life-Saving 11.4; Sefer HaHinukh (Chavel ed.) 538.
[12]  Sefer HaHinukh (Chavel ed.) 538.

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