Posted on March 29, 2023
On Tuesday afternoon we received an email from the principal at our children’s elementary school. She was writing to the parents to let them know that there would be a fire drill tomorrow. Nothing unusual with that, and as a parent with a child who doesn’t like loud noises or changes to his routine it’s good to be prepared for a drill happening. But it was the next sentence in her email that really caught me: In light of recent events, I wanted to share this information to prevent any alarm around police and fire vehicles at the school tomorrow.
She was not writing to warn us about the fire drill, she was writing to prepare us for seeing emergency service vehicles at the school. She was writing because she was worried that we would jump to conclusions and assume that a school shooting was taking place. She was writing because in America in 2023 sending our children to school is actually a very scary act for many parents who are understandably concerned about what might happen in that school building.
On that same Tuesday, Micol and I went to vote in the local elections at our children’s elementary school. When we left, she didn’t talk about the candidates we’d voted for, the measure we’d supported, her first reaction was – someone could walk straight through the gymnasium and into the school. And I understood that this was a reflection on the very real fear of a person with a gun or assault weapon entering the school.
When I saw the news emerging from the Covenant School in Nashville it just made me sad. I was sad as I saw the reports of another school shooting and the murder of three 9-year-old children and three school employees. I was sad as I saw the pictures from the school of frightened children holding hands as they were evacuated and crying through bus windows. I was sad as I read the biographies of the victims, getting a glimpse into the lives of Katherine Koonce, Cynthia Peak, Mike Hill, Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney. And I was sad in knowing that there will be comments about thoughts and prayers, there will be arguments about how we keep our children safe, and there will be no real action.
In America in 2023 we seem to have become strangely resigned to the fact that gun violence and mass shootings are a part of our society. Politicians will offer their thoughts and prayers, commentators will reflect on the ready availability of assault-style weapons, and a town will mourn for the lives that were tragically and unnecessarily cut short. But will anything actually change? As President Biden continued his call for an assault weapons ban, he posed a rhetorical question: “Why do I keep saying this if it’s not happening?” he asked. “Because I want you to know who isn’t doing it, who isn’t helping to put pressure on them.” Even the President of the United States of America appears resigned to the fact that he does not have the power to prevent further acts of gun violence.
We are living in a country where a person’s ability to purchase an assault-style weapon is more important that children’s ability to go to school without fear of that weapon being used to murder them. We are living in a country where despite incidences of gun violence parents sent their children to school on Tuesday with a lump in their throats and fear in their hearts. And we are living in the only country where this is an accepted reality of our day-to-day life.
In our Torah reading cycle we are in the midst of reading the sacrificial laws about the animal offerings that were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. How many more children must be sacrificed on the altar of this country’s addiction to assault-style weapons and complete freedom of access to guns? The Israelites eventually realized that there was another way to worship God and here we are praying that we as a country can find another way and stop worshiping our guns.
On Tuesday evening the Governor of Tennessee, Bill Lee, said: “We can all agree on one thing: that every human has great value. And we will act to prevent this from happening again.” But what action can we actually expect to prevent this happening again and when will he and others recognize that the value of one human life is greater than the value of having access to assault style weapons? On that same Tuesday as people mourned for the six innocent victims a federal judge in Tennessee reduced the minimum age at which residents can carry handguns publicly without a permit from 21 to 18.
I was looking back through my records and in 2015 I delivered a sermon about gun violence after the San Bernadino shooting, in 2017 I delivered a sermon about gun violence after the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, and I have touched on the subject in a number of other services. And here I am again delivering a sermon about gun violence … again.
In a few weeks we will recite the holiness code that sits at the heart of our Torah, in it we will read: “lo taamod al dam reecha” – do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Lev. 19:16). In Rashi’s commentary he explains that this verse means that if we witness a death that we are able to prevent, we have an obligation to intervene and save the person. The examples he gives are of a person drowning in a river or being attacked by a thief; these are situations where we could intervene to make a difference and save a life. I do not think it is a stretch to say that as long as we permit people to access assault-style weapons then we, as a society, are standing idly by countless preventable deaths.
And all too often it is our children who are the victims. Statistically for much of our nation’s history disease was the number one killer of children; in the 1960s with the spread of the automobile, car crashes became the number one cause. But this changed three years ago. As a New York Times article reported: “In the year 2020, during a pandemic that extinguished the lives of millions of people around the globe, a different sort of epidemic became the leading cause of death for American children. That was the year that gun violence surpassed car accidents as the most likely way that an American 18 or younger might die.” Not all of these deaths were from mass shootings, there were a variety of ways that these deaths occurred. In America in 2023 guns are the most common cause of childhood death.
To keep our children safe drug companies have invested millions of dollars to develop medicines to treat diseases. To keep our children safe car manufacturers have invested millions of dollars to ensure that occupants are protected in the event of a crash. To keep our children safe today we need to invest in gun violence prevention in the same way that we did in these other areas.
We know that there is a different way. In Australia, 12 days after the Port Arthur school shooting in which 35 people were killed, the conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, introduced legislation to tackle gun violence. The legislation “banned the sale and importation of all automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns; forced people to present a legitimate reason, and wait 28 days, to buy a firearm; and – perhaps most significantly – called for a massive, mandatory gun-buyback.” In the 26 years since that event there has only been one mass shooting in Australia, and gun homicide has decreased by 60%. As Prime Minister Howard reflected on those events, he acknowledged: “The hardest things to do in politics often involve taking away rights and privileges from your own supporters.” But he was able to take the necessary difficult decisions and today Australia is a safer place for all of her citizens.
We know what the problem is. We know what the solution is. We just have a problem in getting from point A to point B.
So, what is the Jewish response to gun violence? I think in the first instance it is the affirmation of the sanctity of life and the obligation to do whatever one can to save a life. As we learn in the Talmud: “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.” And then as Jews we can never stand idly by in the face of death and suffering; we recognize that we have an obligation to do whatever we can to make this world a better place, to take action, and to stand up for those who cannot defend themselves. And finally we are the people of Tikvah – of hope, who always believe that things can get better, that we can build a better world for us and for our children.
While images of children leaving the school brought me so much sadness on Monday. I also saw images of children together with their parents protesting in the Tennessee state capital, these pictures brought me hope. They gathered together and raised their voices to call on their elected officials to stand up to gun violence and finally do something. I watched teenagers standing shoulder to shoulder in the doorways of the capital so that the politicians could not pass by and ignore them and their demands for real change. We might have let our children down in not doing more to fight gun violence, but I have faith that it is our children who will ultimately save us; they see the problem, they are on the frontlines, and they will be the solution.
And we must support them in this fight. We need to support the Brady Campaign, Everytown for Gun Safety, and other organizations committed to prevent gun violence. We need to lobby our politicians to introduce the necessary legislation that will tackle the epidemic of gun violence and make our country a safer place for all her citizens. And we need to continue taking this fight to the corridors of power, because we must expose the inaction of our politicians and the unwillingness to protect the very people they are supposed to represent.
Next week, as we come together to celebrate the festival of Passover we will sing the song Dayenu. And while the various Haggadot that people use will offer a range of translations for this song – the word Dayenu can also be translated as we’ve had enough. So as we celebrate a festival of freedom from slavery in Egypt, let’s plan for a festival where we can celebrate our freedom from the slavery to guns.
Dayenu – we’ve had enough of politician’s excuses.
Dayenu – we’ve had enough of the gun lobby controlling our country.
Dayenu – we’ve had enough of being scared to send our children to school.
Dayenu – we’ve had enough of accepting gun violence as a normal part of our society.
Dayenu – we’ve had enough mass shootings.
Dayenu – we’ve had enough needless murders by gun violence.
Dayenu – we’ve had enough thoughts and prayers, now is the time for action.
 Rashi on Leviticus 19:16.
 A mass shooting is defined here as an event in which four or more people were murdered by gun violence.
 Sanhedrin 37a.