An Armed Amalek: Why We Must Not Stand Idly By – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, Yom Kippur Sermon 2012
One night this summer my daughter appeared in my doorway, saying she couldn’t sleep. She was scared, and I told her it would be ok, and we sat together on the edge of my bed and talked. But after a few minutes…I realized the program on my television wasn’t meant for her six-year old eyes and ears. It was late. So the program I was watching included coarse language, graphic images and violent threats. It was… you may have already guessed…the 10 o’clock news! You’ve probably all had that feeling. Just watching the news at night, and seeing what happens daily on our streets and in our communities could keep you up half the night!
This was one of the most violent years in recent memory – not just in expected places such as Pakistan or Syria. In recent weeks, a Denver-area movie theatre, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and a city street outside the Empire State Building in New York City have been touched by gunfire. Even for us in Ohio, this year included horrific violence. In February a student in a high school in Chardon carried to school a full clip of ammunition and his grandfather’s shotgun in order to take the lives of fellow high school students. In April a known abusive husband upon hearing that his wife wanted to leave him, left the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Parma, where his daughter was getting ready to blow out candles on her 10 yr. birthday cake, and returned with a weapon he had purchased to kill his wife and both his daughters.
Now, I know it is painful. But I want you to remember. Remember the anxieties that arose in you when you first heard a gun toting student was on a rampage in a local high school in February. Remember your gut reaction in April when you saw the news about the Cracker Barrel shooting. Do you remember how you felt? I remember the feeling in my gut because it felt just the same way during a similar day five years earlier. Five years previous to the Parma shooting– when I was a rabbi in Virginia, I received a call at home from a congregant reaching out on behalf of another mom in our community. She was at a rest stop on the way up to the campus at Virginia Tech the day of their gun attack. This mom couldn’t reach her child by phone. So she and another mom in the same neighborhood jumped in one car and rushed onto the highway toward the campus at Virginia Tech to see their children and hug them tight. But on the way to Blacksburg, the other mom had received a call on her phone to say that her child had been one of the shooting victims, and had suffered gunshots by a senior student known to be mentally ill but who was easily able to obtain two semi automatic weapons with several magazines of ammunition, and extra hollow-point bullets, which expand upon entering the tissue of the body.
The mom whose child was safe was in shock, and needed her rabbi’s help in sorting out her thoughts. I couldn’t sleep that night, as my mind was racing with thought about what it would be like to be one of those students, afraid to move through a university building lest I be the next one to receive a hollow-point bullet from the raging heated guns carried by a fellow student. I later learned many of the kids at Virginia Tech had only survived that attack by pretending to lie dead on the classroom floor.
Pretending to lie dead! That has been our kids’ protection! It had worked for students in Columbine, and in other school shootings. Now it has become our practice in the face of growing violence affecting our kids. And what has been our reaction to all of this? Well, such incidents are followed by a ritualized response. We shake our heads in disbelief. We speak of our shock, and then promise ourselves that when this particular crisis is over, we’ll be sure to do something about the proliferation of guns in our schools and our society at large.
When the shooting at Chardon High School occurred this past winter, Cantor Sager and I gathered with our middle and high school students, in the chapel as soon as they arrived for Monday night classes. We prayed together and hoped for the welfare of the kids who had been wounded. We spoke of our admiration for officers on the scene who’d apprehended the shooter, and who’d taken students to the care of local emergency rooms. Then Cantor led students in singing Hashkivenu, a prayer that states our desire to lie to sleep feeling protected and in peace but to rise up in the morning to life’s tasks renewed. After our service, in a conversation with one of the students, it became clear to me how our kids struggle to tell the difference between a sullen classmate in the back of the classroom who needs a friend and a person who might have a gun and could hurt them. I admitted to one of the students: there is no way to tell.
What I am describing is something many of us have tried to deny– the possibility of being victimized by an aggressor we know. This fear is relatively new to us to admit in modern American life. But it is no stranger to Jewish experience. Our tradition has its own narrative of Jews suddenly at the mercy of known attackers who carry deadly intentions. In the Torah, we read fearfully about the Amalekites who attacked our people from behind. We are taught “Zachor Et Asher Asah L’cha Amalek,” remember what Amalek did to you. Remember how he attacked, ruthlessly cutting you down when you were vulnerable, showing a “complete lack of conscience.” Midrashim concerning Amalek make it painfully clear he is a symbol of our worst nightmares, an amalgam of all the zealots who’ve caused us anguish. Amalek is described as a sniper, a “fly seeking an open wound,” a “dog with a vicious bite, awaiting its prey.” Such savage images are attached by our leaders to the names of those who’ve put us at risk. We are rallied behind a message that the “assailant,” the “insurgent” or “evil-doer” at large will be brought to justice. We paint the shooter in these dark terms so when enemy installations are raided, arrests are made or authorities successfully inflict harm on aggressors, relief can come over us and we don’t have to constantly hold a posture of vigilance! All this can lead us to dangerously forget that these days Amalek is armed, and is more dangerous than ever.
So tonight, I confess to you my fear. I am afraid that the news of the year to come will be no different than last year. And our vigilance is still deeply warranted. For as Jews we remember: Amalek was not easily subdued. Even though the police took out Kevin Allen outside the Cracker Barrel in Parma, even though they successfully apprehended T.J. Lane, now on trial for his attack in Chardon, even though Wade Michael Page shot himself on the scene at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and James Holmes is in police custody after his horrific attack on innocent Denver moviegoers, have we done anything to prevent gun violence from touching schools, theatres, restaurants and temples? No.
Let’s face it. Most of what we’ve done is imitate our nation’s leaders, who’ve lied on the floor pretending to be dead, as a powerful gun lobby marks up any bill we propose before it ever hits the floor! We’ve excused so many of our leaders for acting as if they are powerless- while handguns, assault rifles and other deadly weapons are passed through the loopholes in our laws right into the hands of people who threaten us.
Yes, it is true that guns don’t shoot by themselves. Often what we encounter are enraged and mentally ill individuals who do not represent the majority of legal gun owners. But I also believe that in some way, each of us has been party to decay in our society’s values. We have allowed lethal force to be self-righteously exalted as a singular worthy response to the conflicts we face. It is ugly and frightening. So many of us have let our fear be our excuse for standing idle while Congress allowed a meaningful assault weapons ban to expire. We’ve allowed our fear to be an excuse for looking the other way as loopholes in our laws allow gun shows to sell weaponry in ways gun stores cannot. Though surely many law-abiding citizens gain new weapons for their gun collections at these shows, there are also many customers at such shows who are nothing but Amalekites. We look the other way at our own peril, for these folks have no intention of hunting anything but fellow citizens.
Indeed a Jewish new year has begun and we must continue our lives. We can’t stay locked each night with that same horrid feeling in our gut the night of the deadly shootings in Chardon or at Virginia Tech. But tonight is Kol Nidre. It is a time for brutal honesty.
Kol Nidre is a service on Yom Kippur named for the nedarim, the promises we have made in the past year, the promises we fulfilled and the others upon which we reneged. When bearing witness to the growing gun violence in our society, many of us made promises about taking action. These promises made us feel temporarily soothed, but they were promises we never had confidence we’d fulfill. And what can excuse us on Kol Nidre for failing to deliver a single new action last year to prevent a gun from falling into the wrong hands? What can pardon us for telling our kids, it will be alright, while we know a nightmare may await them? Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha, we ought to say: for the sin we have committed against you O God, by vowing to prevent another massacre, and then lull ourselves to sleep, letting our resolve tragically diminish. The few who are working to fulfill promises about the control the gun trafficking, groups such as the Mayors Against Illegal Guns or the National Council on Jewish Women, these coalitions to stop gun violence have relatively few allies holding state or national office. Often their leaders include citizens whose loved ones have themselves been gunned down. But their voices, voices seeking a restoration of a ban on assault weapons or stiffer background checks, the ones seeking the development of smart-gun technology, or those asking our leaders to enforce existing laws, are voices that get drowned out. Yes, their voices are squelched by the louder voice of a gun industry whose spokesmen claim that the reason such attacks like the one at Chardon High School were so successful was that not enough people at the scene were armed.
Now don’t get me wrong. Gun enthusiasts have every right to speak their mind. I have no quarrel with their right to speak. And there is no reason that freedom of speech or the 2ndamendment should be another casualty of gun violence. But if the NRA is the only voice speaking out, then the men and women who lead our nation will, and the ones now running for office, will continue to lie motionless on the floors of our capitols. Meanwhile our society becomes more perilous- for us, for our kids and grandkids. It has gotten so that when you talk with kids about this issue, you detect a quiet but real sense of submission from them about violence and its effect on them. They hear us say on Yom Kippur from this bimah each year that the central mitzvah of Torah is U’vecharta Ba’chaim, to choose life! But given the assaults they see in the daily news, assaults on children, they find it hard to believe we’ll protect them. Sadly, their resignation about our violent culture seems warranted. Every billboard on the road, every movie and video-game on their screens shows a hero holding his opposition at gunpoint. They are watching the war of television ads between the candidates running for U.S. Senate and for our President. But they see as easily as we do that none of the candidates for office is pledging a single concrete action when it comes to gun violence. In such a climate, isn’t now the precise moment to call out “U’vecharta Bachaim, choose life! Choose life, and stop the bloodshed. And the truth we can speak is so very simple. It is that we have had enough. It is that we need not fear that today will be our turn to see how easily people can obtain assault weapons and hollow-point bullets with which to maim and kill, knowing neither the victims nor our leaders are likely to make a change because no one has organized to make a change! For some the situation is so desperate, they’ve fallen prey to marketers who know how to take advantage of the fears we share for our safety. I saw recently a new security measure that is being aimed at parents with kids of grade-school age in our cities. Get ready for this. They are now selling bullet-proof backpacks! Seriously it is at bulletblocker.com, where they stress benefits of armor in a child’s school bag! Can you imagine? Bullet-proof backpacks? Is that the best we can do?
My friend and our temple president, Jim Levine is here tonight of course. Jim, would you please rise at your seat? You may know that Jim is a policeman with the SWAT team in Chagrin Falls. He is trained and licensed to use the gun he carries, and was among the first responders at Chardon High School. Jim asks me what we can do at temple to raise our voices about the proliferation of guns. After all, he asks, if he enters the scene of an attack, and dozens of people are carrying their weapons, how can he know who is the perpetrator? Is someone here capable of explaining to Jim who to take out in that Denver movie theatre if everyone there is armed? Jim recently showed me a note he received from commanders concerning a weapon to which to keep alerted. It is called the FHN Five-Seven, and has been nicknamed the cop-killer because it has the shape of a handgun but it carries the Teflon rounds you’d find in an assault rifle. Jim told me that gun is designed for one purpose only- to penetrate this bullet-proof vest.
Do you see the bullet holes in this vest I am wearing? I realized that to know more about today’s weapons, I’d better see what it feels like to wear one of these. In planning to teach about this at temple, I realized that as part of my research, I ought to lay my own eyes and even my own hands on some of the weapons now legally on the market that can do this to a policeman’s armed vest. So I asked Jim to have an unusual president-rabbi meeting at a local gun store.
One of the weapons we saw there was a semi-automatic assault weapon called the KRISS-Vector which because of its massive firepower, looks like it was designed by a video-gamer. No one hunts with this weapon, Jim said to me, even as he watched my hands tremble while placing its collapsible stock against my shoulder to brace it. But it wasn’t holding that gun that frightened me. It was when Jim asked the owner about the FHN Five-Seven. The man just looked him right in the eye, and told him. No sooner does he get one of these (cop-killing) weapon than it moves right out the store into someone’s hands.
Thank you Jim. Thank you and fellow officers for what you do to respond when we need you. But also, thank you for reminding me what a difference might be made if we’d find the strength to demand a ban on selling guns not meant for hunting deer or practicing shooting, but for intimidating bank clerks and piercing police body vests.
Friends, many of us here tonight are like Jim, praying for more peaceful and a gentler day to arise. We are concerned, and afraid, and we wonder if we can ever truly respond to the flood of weapons available on the market! And the answer is – you bet we can. We can get the guns. In doing so, we will be acting on what our Torah commands, “Al Ta-amod al dam reyecha, do not stand idle while your neighbor’s blood is spilled.” This is one of the most critical verses written in the Torah. It commands us not to be indifferent when violence occurs. But how does the NRA interpret this commandment? They say they agree- our kids should not stand idle. Rather, our kids will only be safer if they too have guns. That’s why the industry is designing newer lines of weaponry, smaller and lighter, youth firearms for use by our children! We know better. We who are heir to the Jewish prophetic tradition, we who know Isaiah’s message of beating swords and spears into ploughshares and pruning hooks, we know better. That’s why we as Jews ought to stop being shocked by the frequency of gun violence, and we’d do well to stop calling such attacks “unbelievable.” With the anguish our nation has faced at the hands of aggressors, we know that violent attacks are perfectly believable and as Jews, we know that pogroms are all the worse when the enemy is armed.
At their worst, the violence that afflicts us leaves us at a loss and paralyzed, afraid to make a move. But it need not be so. The gun violence on the rise can prompt us to raise our voices, and work for a more peaceful day to arise! For how many of our legislators even realize how Jewish community members feel about gun violence? How many of our prosecutors realize how we feel about enforcing existing gun laws, let alone the new laws we might propose?
No, mostly our leaders see Jewish citizens paying scant attention to this threat. Sure, we’ve taken ample steps to protect our own Jewish institutions with guards and door locks. But we’ve commonly stood idle when it comes to our safety in schools, bars, and restaurants. Meanwhile state leaders have relaxed, one by one, the laws that protect us from concealed weapons in these places! If we aren’t vigilant and active, soon our synagogues will become places to legally conceal a weapon. And again, we should know better! For Reform Judaism has long opposed our society’s obsession with lethal force! Our movement has been on record supporting gun control for decades.
In the aftermath of Columbine in the early 90’s, we were truly proud when it was a reform rabbi, Eric Yoffie, at the microphone of the Million Mom March in Washington, calling America’s predilection for big powerful guns “a form of idolatry—the only appropriate response to which is sustained moral outrage.” But have we sustained our moral outrage? No.
In fact, we’ve typically laid it to rest on the night of a shooting. Yet by the time we rose up in the morning, we have found that the foes of gun control were already organized to block our leaders from ever taking steps to allay the outrage. Yet it need not always be so. It need not always be so, when we admit that this was no ordinary year.
This year our kids endured a bloodbath in Chardon. This year the Amalekites didn’t fly planes into buildings. Rather they went one by one, armed to the teeth, into temples, restaurants, and movie theatres. The only thing in their way were our Kol Nidrei, our broken promises of action meaninglessly offered, shooting after shooting, for years.
As the New Year begins, let the words of our ancestors rise again to our lips: Al Ta’amod Al Dam Reyecha, Do not stand idle as your neighbor bleeds. Once we say it to ourselves, and internalize its message against our indifference, we will have no choice but to raise these words in the public square, saying:
• We will not stand idle when we can do something to teach our young people about the dangers of guns.
• We will not stand idle, while current laws are ineffectively enforced, and new laws are marked up by the gun lobby before ever reaching the chambers of our lawmakers.
Al Ta’amod al dam reyecha… We dare not stand idle while our neighbor bloods. For living and enduring today’s violence is frightening, this year more than most. But our fear needn’t lead to paralysis. When it comes to guns, we are fighting Amalek, and this is an enemy we know.
In Torah we defeated the Amalekites by partnering with our leaders. When Moses grew weary during the battle with Amalek, we stood by his side and lifted him up and engaged him. We too can approach national leaders weary of tough political battles, and of a polarizing election year. We can approach our public servants as we once did Moses: understanding their jobs, the pressures placed upon them on a daily basis. But we must also share with them the unequivocal message that we will make a difference when it comes to gun violence. And in the years to come, we won’t accept solutions that don’t protect our lives and our well-being.
When we speak out, and when we take to heart our responsibilities to mend this broken system, we bring closer the age of peace for which we pray. For God knows it is a mitzvah to gently rock our kids to sleep each night with faith that a peaceful new day will arise. My prayer tonight is that when that day comes, when society is transformed for our common good and we know we did everything we could, we too can drift off to sleep, truthfully promising the vow we make to our kids… the one where we said: “It’s ok… it’s ok, you are safe.”