Parshat Teruma Sermon
February 17, 2018 | 2 Adar 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Here is a thought exercise.

Follow along with me, please, and think about the question that will come at the end of this lead-up to it.

Until very recent weeks, as we again read the story of our people’s sojourn in Egypt – highlighting the progressive beating down of an oppressed people until its miraculous exodus – we saw sustained “big acts.”

Hollywood movies have portrayed them, but the text of the Torah itself is certainly sufficient.

Plague after plague, the God of Israel placed a chokehold on Pharaoh, a god of the Egyptians … until, finally, Pharaoh said, “Uncle.”

The Exodus ensued, but it succeeded only because of the Holy One’s most miraculous act of salvation – the parting of the sea and the drowning of the Egyptians.

But hold on, one last “big act” awaited the Israelites.

Even as God’s role within the community was beginning to change from miraculous savior to law-giver, one last “big act” remained – standing at Sinai amidst the frightening claps of thunder and bolts of lightning that signaled God’s revelation.

And then it was over …no more “big acts.”

Now it was about quasi-courts to adjudicate matters between people.

It was about the laws of the community.

Where was God amidst these scenes from Parshiyot Yitro and Mishpatim?

Perhaps at this point the Israelites had difficulty recognizing God in their midst.

So, as the desert journey continues this week, God, in a sense, does return to the community, but not through any “big act.”

Now, in Parshat Teruma, the people must act in order to sensitize themselves to God’s presence.

So they build a shrine – the mishkan, the Tabernacle – where sacrifices and other offerings to God will be made … all for the purpose of showing that God remained in their midst.

Our Israelite ancestors had no doubts about that even if God no longer appeared to be physically present.

Here comes the thought exercise question.

When Nikolas Cruz walked toward Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday afternoon and prepared to wreak untold havoc and misery on a community of 3,000 students plus faculty and other staff members, what if God, in a most miraculous fashion, had manifested God’s self in a recognizable way to this very troubled young man?

What do you think would have happened next?

Of course, my question is ridiculous and has no answer.

But I pose this thought exercise to highlight the potentially spiritual quality of the scene as Nikolas Cruz entered Stoneman Douglas High School and began his shooting spree.

“…spiritual quality of the scene…” Seems to be an awkward way to describe that place at that time.

However, make no mistake about it – As high school students and others at Stoneman Douglas were reaching the end of the school day, excitedly preparing perhaps for extracurricular activities and the like, the Holy One was very much in their presence.

Unlike our biblical stories, there were no visible signs of God’s presence and no one had acted to invoke it or remind the community that God was there.

But amidst vibrant life seemingly filled with the endless possibilities of adolescence and young adulthood, how could God not be present?

Then, in a matter of moments, it was as if the Holy One had disappeared, utterly exiled by an unspeakable act of gunning down God’s creations.

With senseless deaths and injuries, one person after the other, God’s name was surely profaned.

The Holy One’s presence and the beauty of a world entrusted to us as God’s stewards were obscured.

That, my friends, is why I believe the issue of gun violence in our country is, among other things, a spiritual matter.

And when a problem is understood as a spiritual matter, it is incumbent upon clergy and those they serve, among others, to address it.

Of course, our hearts have been seared once again by the deaths of seventeen innocent people, many of them young students.

We pray for the well-being of loved ones.

We pray for the recovery – in every possible way – of those who have been injured.

But I have to tell you – I’m tired of just praying.

I’ve had enough of “saying the right things at this time of tragedy.”

The numbers are staggering!

Every day in America, 93 people die from gun violence; 32 of them are murdered.

Every day, 222 people are shot and survive; 64 of them are injured in an attack.

Now, let’s talk about young people from birth to age 19.

In an average year, 2,647 young people die from gun violence; 1,565 of them are murdered.

14,365 young people are shot and survive; 11,321 of them are injured in an attack (source of statistics – The Brady Center).

Positively dizzying, isn’t it?

Maybe these numbers and others I could cite are too abstract, or too impersonal.

Well, then try this unspeakable horror – What if it was your child or your grandchild?

Your loved ones were fortunate not to be at Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday.

But what thoughts, what fears arose in your child or grandchild as he or she walked into school on Thursday morning or yesterday?

We simply can no longer shake our heads at this horror, pray for well-being and then move on until the next act of mass gun violence enters the news cycle.

So what can we do? Can we make a difference?

Here is an important distinction to make and fully understand.

The problem of gun violence is spiritual.

That is why we in this congregation must care about it and seek to address it.

But the potential solutions, though varied in nature, begin first and foremost in the political realm.

That is why we must focus our actions there.

In that regard, I want to propose a general direction for our actions and then turn to some of you perhaps, the NRA members among us and elsewhere, with a request.

But, first, I want to make something clear about me and my personal views concerning gun rights.

I am not a gun owner.

I have no interest in hunting, which itself is contrary to Jewish tradition.

I have no interest in target practice.

But I believe that people have the right to do both.

I also believe that people have the right to sensibly protect themselves, their loved ones and property.

I have no particular wisdom when it comes to the specifics of sensible gun control.

I trust those who are far more knowledgeable than me about such things and am prepared to follow their recommendations.

But we just can’t seem to get there…

We can’t seem to get anywhere positive even though large, in some case overwhelming, majorities of Americans favor specific, sensible safeguards against gun violence.

We know why that is the case.

So what do we do? What have we done up to this point?

Some of us, too few to be honest, write letters to those who represent us in the state legislature and in Washington; we call them.

Sometimes, in small groups, we even lobby them in person.

And we say to ourselves, “I’m doing my best,” and we feel good about our efforts.

And though we are doing our best, it all tends to be ineffective.

Today, seventeen families grieve the deaths of their loved ones in Parkland, Florida.

They join hundreds of others whose loved ones have died under similar circumstances in recent years.

And you know they will be joined by others in the months ahead!

Do you remember the quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, about the definition of insanity?

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Calls to write letters to officials urging them generally to “support sensible gun control measures” will likely fall on deaf ears because, absent the right kind of effort, the number of those letters will likely be insignificant.

Calls to gather at state capitols, again, to “support sensible gun control measures” may gain thirty seconds on the evening news … but likely not much else.

The only actions that have a chance of succeeding in today’s political climate in which the NRA reigns supreme are large, even massive, well-coordinated efforts.

Those are the only things that will speak to those who represent us.

On December 6, 1987, Susan and I joined with 250,000 people on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Some of you were also there.

You remember why we were there – It was Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry.

A massive outpouring demanded of then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev – “Let my people go” …. and it had an impact – on President Reagan, on members of Congress and, ultimately, on Soviet leaders.

By the early 90’s the gates of the former Soviet Union had opened…and Jews, en masse, flooded out.

That is what I am talking about … on a national level and on a commensurate state level – strategic and massive actions.

Rabbis and their congregations do not plan such gatherings and actions.

We don’t have the expertise.

But if the professional leadership of organizations whose missions are to lessen gun violence properly plans and organizes efforts, congregations, including our own I hope, will be among those who will help to implement the plans.

I hope that Rabbi Rosenthal and I will be able to share such plans with you in the near future.

Now, finally, let me address the members of the NRA who are among us and elsewhere.

There are specific potential legislative actions – among them obligating universal background checks and banning assault-style weapons – that are supported by large majorities of Americans.

You know that.

We know why legislative bodies never even vote on such issues.

NRA members – I believe there are two morally-defensible positions you can and should take today.

You have to choose one of them:

  1. Either, as a statement of protest, resign your membership in the NRA.
  2. Or, better, maintain your NRA membership and appeal to your leadership to act responsibly.
  3. By all means, protect freedoms and rights to have and use a gun, but not the types of guns that enable scenes like the one we saw this past Wednesday to unfold with heart-wrenching frequency.
  4. In the name of a God who we imagine weeps even as we weep at such moments – Demand of the NRA leadership that it act to heal.

Friends, I really do carry an image of the Holy One weeping on Wednesday as the world that God entrusted to us was shattered again.

But prayer for healing is insufficient.

The dangers are simply too high; the stakes are too great – for us, our children and our grandchildren … indeed for our country!

As I think about the potential consequences of our failure to address gun violence in America, a well-known midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabbah haunts me.

When the Holy One created the first human, God took Adam and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! All that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to repair it after you. (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

May we take the implications of this midrash to heart and join with others in our county to redeem our very broken world.