Archive for February, 2018

Sacred Space?

February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is about the creation of sacred space for the Israelites as they wander through the wilderness. God says to Moses vayikchu li terumah, “they will take a gift for me.” A key question here is why the use of the verb “take” instead of just “they will give me a gift.” Then begins a long list of valuable and beautiful materials that will be used for the space, along with this sentence, V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham, “They will make sacred space for me (a sanctuary) that I might dwell among them.” A question asked by Rabbi Yitzchak Arama is, since the Israelites experienced Sinai and learned that God is not material, why is it necessary to create a material sanctuary for God?

One answer is to read this not just literally, but metaphorically. The sacred space we create for God is about the world we create, the morality and/or goodness that are the result of our actions. A midrash from Pesichta d’Rav Kahana teaches that human action either draws or repels God’s presence from our world. If we act evilly, God’s presence leaves and retreats to heaven. If we act righteously, God’s presence dwells with us.

We are currently repelling God’s presence.

On Valentines Day – a day of “love,” 17 people were killed and numerous others wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. This is the third mass school shooting in our country since January 1 of this year. Please tell me what other major developed country has any where near the number of mass shootings as the Untied States. The answer is none.

One of the students killed was Alyssa Aldaheff, a 14 year old girl who attended Camp Coleman. A young man from our congregation, Andrew Goren, who is now a student at UF, was one of her counselors in the Kesher unit last summer. Here is what he texted me, “She was loved throughout the unit by her friends and her counselors.” Andrew attended her funeral today in Parkland, FL along with other staff members from Camp Coleman.   This sadness has touched many of us. Another one of our younger students is camp friends with Alyssa’s younger brother.

I have never been one who has been vocal on gun issues. I have always felt that gun ownership was not the major cause of our problems with violence. After the school massacre in Columbine about 20 years ago, I agreed with Pope John Paul II’s observation about our country, “America has to provide its children with a moral vision.” The problem is American culture; its obsession with raising the desires of the self constantly above the needs of the community, the idolizing of guns by a significant portion of the population. We worship the god of personal liberty to the point of forgetting the responsibilities and obligations we have to each other. In many ways I still believe these attitudes, which corrupt our culture, are at the base of what causes gun violence.

Now I feel that enough is enough. I am sick of the continued tragedies in which innocent people, most horrifically children in schools, keep getting murdered. Already numerous Republican leaders and right wing commentators are chiming in once more that this is not about gun ownership, but about mental health. The left, of course, makes this about gun ownership. Here is the reality. Both sides are right that their concern contributes to the problem. And, both are wrong if they think their perspective is the only correct way to view the problem.

But now I admit feeling real anger with leaders like Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and President Trump, just to name a few. They all cite mental illness as the cause of the mass shootings, yet they fail to do anything to prevent gun ownership by those displaying mental illness that could lead to violence. This shooting is a prime example of what is wrong with our system. The accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz, (who has confessed to the shooting), was expelled from 3 schools for exhibiting violent tendencies. He has at least a 5 year documented history of mental problems. The staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was warned to be on watch for him as someone who could pose a potential threat to the students. A staff member who saw Cruz enter the campus sounded an alarm and called for help, but the response was not soon enough to prevent the shootings.

Of course we must add to this tragedy the failure of the FBI to properly process the tip it received on Cruz the beginning of January. This is inexcusable!

However, here is a key question. How could Cruz legally obtain an AR 15 semi-automatic assault rifle given his tortured background? Here is another question. How can a person not old enough to even legally buy a beer be allowed to buy an assault rifle? But here is the most important question. What is our political leadership going to do to stop standing behind ideological lines and have real discussions on how to handle gun violence not only in schools but in our country period?!

The answer to the last question is – nothing.

Why? Because they are corrupted by idolizing the self as opposed to what is good for the community. They are corrupted by political ideology instead of truly caring about morality. Politicians care more about raising money for re-election than doing what the country really needs.

Who is to blame? Well, I certainly lay a good share of blame on the NRA. This is an organization that has become an immoral lobbying group for gun manufacturers. Their payments to politicians to prevent them from even having significant dialogues on the possibility of reasonable and effective gun laws is reprehensible. Marco Rubio received over 3.3 million from the NRA. President Trump received 30 million – and switched his view supporting a ban on semi-automatic weapons expressed in a book in 2000, to being even more radical than the NRA!  The NRA’s lobbying was successful in getting congress to pass a law a number of years ago, that prevents government agencies from even researching the connections between mental health and gun violence. This is beyond hypocritical. It is corrupt. In Florida, they successfully lobbied for our legislature to pass a law preventing doctors to have discussions about gun safety with their patients, so they cannot even discuss safe gun storage to prevent accidental shootings. We need to shout out and condemn the NRA for what it really is.

I also blame the 2nd amendment, or rather, those who now see it as freedom to obtain any weapon without restrictions. Do you really think the founding fathers, in particular James Madison who wrote the Bill of Rights, would have wanted the situation that exists today given the ultra advanced forms of guns existing now versus the single shot pistols and muskets existing in their time? Further, it is likely the 2nd amendment was written in the context of the importance in the early years of our country, of maintaining state militias. I have come to believe the 2nd amendment, at least as interpreted by certain groups, is not only irrelevant, but harmful. We live in a different world than the 1780’s.

Mostly, however, I blame us. We are failing to make our voices heard. We are accepting corruption. We have become too complacent. We should be inspired in our resistance and protesting by some of the students who survived the shooting.

One, Carly Novell, hid in a closet for 2 hours, much like her grandfather, Charles Cohen, did 70 years ago. He also was hiding from a mass gun shooter. What I love about Carly is her response to a tweet by Fox newscaster, Tomi Lahren which read:

“Can the left let the families grieve for even 24 hours before they push their anti-gun and anti-gunowner agenda? My good ness, this isn’t about a gun, its about another lunatic.”

This was her response:

“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there, you don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.”

Other students who survived are protesting and pushing for change. They are providing the leadership us older folks have failed to do for them.

I do not claim to know what the real solution would look like. I do not know what changes to the laws will be most effective. I only know that the jabbering of right wing newscasters, the presence of the NRA, and ideological rigidity on all sides will not bring us to the answer. I strongly believe that protests and pressure on leaders at all levels can make a difference. Here is a reality. Poll after poll shows that an overwhelming majority of our country wants some kind of change to gun laws to address this problem. We must begin to speak out.

In Judaism, pekuach hanefesh, the saving of a life, is one of the highest values. The Talmud teaches that one who saves a single life is like one who saves an entire world. One who takes a life is like one who has killed a whole world. The 17 lives lost in the shooting are the destruction of 17 worlds. If we are going to create sacred space that invites the presence of God, we need to save lives, not kill them. We need to create holy space that recognizes the sanctity of life, that enacts laws to prevent the loss of life. When God says the Israelites must take something from themselves to give to God, that implies much more than just giving a superficial gift. We must be willing to take something from our self desires, our egos, and sacrifice it for the sake of our community at large. Perhaps then God will decide to rejoin us. If we do not take action, our prayers will be meaningless.

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