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Sermon: "The blood of my brother's blood cries out to me from the ground"

On Wednesday night my daughter Gabby, sick and in pain, couldn’t sleep. It goes without saying that I couldn’t sleep either. From about 1:30 until 5 in the morning, I watched the minutes and the hours tick by as I tried to help her get comfortable and get the rest that she needed. And I don’t know about you, but when I find myself awake during the night, my mind seems to race overtime, and I think, I think about all of those things that I don’t have time to think about during the day. And as a Rabbi, I think about the sermon that I am going to deliver on Shabbat. During those hours, as I comforted and held my precious daughter, I realized that I could not offer you the sermon I had originally planned.

I could not stand up here and talk to you about Chanukah and heroism, because to do that would be to avoid the subject that has been avoided for far too long. The words from our Torah echo in my ears: “The voice of my brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”[1] And this voice has been crying out in this great nation for far too long. And until this moment I have remained silent. I had hoped that I would not need to speak, that saner heads would prevail, and that our leaders would intervene to stop this epidemic. But I can no longer hold my tongue, I can no longer be silent, because as we are told in the holiness code, the series of laws challenging us to emulate God: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”[2]

I am not yet an American citizen, but as a Green card holder I am now a permanent resident. One who has thrown his lot in with this country, and more than this, I am married to a citizen, and most importantly, I am father to a citizen with another on the way. I may not yet be able to vote, but I have a voice, and today I feel compelled to raise it.

Fort Hood, Texas – 13; Aurora, Colorado – 12; Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut – 27; Washington DC – 12; Charleston, South Carolina – 9; San Bernardino, California – 14.

These are just some of the deadliest shootings since 2009; the names of places that will live in infamy for the tragedies that took place there. As I sat down to write this sermon, there had been 355 mass shootings in the United States of America this calendar year. That means that we average more than one mass shooting every day. Every day, more lives are needlessly lost. Every day, more families are forced to bury their loved ones. And every day, we hear the same excuses.

On Wednesday I had spent most of the afternoon interviewing candidates for rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College, and as such my phone was switched off and I was out of contact with the outside world. When I finally checked my phone and logged on to Facebook, though I didn’t know any of the details, all it took was a cursory glance at my newsfeed to understand immediately what had happened. I had seen these posts before with different place names, details, and numbers but the posts were unfortunately all too familiar. I didn’t know exactly what had happened in San Bernardino, but I immediately knew that there had been another mass shooting.

On Wednesday evening, in the aftermath of the murder of 14 innocent victims, social media and the traditional media responded. And this time, more than others, religion was brought into the debate. I don’t know exactly how it started, but I imagine that somewhere, someone had grown exasperated with politicians whose only response to these incidents was to say that their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims, their families, and the first responders. Chris Murphy, the Senator from Connecticut, who represents the people affected by Sandy Hook tweeted to the world: “Your "thoughts" should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your "prayers" should be for forgiveness if you do nothing - again.”[3] With over 20,000 retweets and favorites it is clear that his words touched a nerve for people who were following the news. And then on Thursday morning, the New York Daily News’ front page read quite simply: “God isn’t fixing this”; challenging us to do something more than pray in light of the latest loss of innocent life.

The voice of my brother’s and sister’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

In our Jewish tradition, we know that prayer and action have always gone hand in hand. In the shema, the central prayer of our liturgy, we are told v’ahvta et Adonai Elohecha bechol levavcha, bechol nafshecha, uvechol meodecha – You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. We could imagine that loving Adonai with our hearts and souls is about praying to God, but I think the idea of loving God with all of our might is about taking those prayers and converting them into action. We as Jews have never simply prayed; we have always complemented our prayers with actions. Just last week in our Torah, as Jacob prepared for the reunion with his brother, he prayed. He prayed to God for help and support but he also acted. He made sure that his people were ready for the meeting with Esau and recognized that his prayers without action would be incomplete.

We have unfortunately had to say too many prayers for too many innocent victims, and now the time has come for us to accompany our prayers with action.

As I held Gabby through that Wednesday night, I kept thinking about how we as a community have responded to mass shootings. In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, when children in a school were attacked, there was understandable concern from our parents about the security measures here in the synagogue for the Religious School and especially the ECC. We are in the final stages of a security review in which we have consulted with an external company to put regulations in place to keep our children safe. We now keep our doors locked whenever the children are in the building for school. And in this past week or so, we have finally finished the installation of a new security system so that we can check more clearly each and every person who attempts to gain entry to the building while school is in session.

Our unfortunate and necessary response to the Newtown shooting was essentially to build bigger and higher walls around ourselves, and our community, to ensure our safety. And today children across America know that if a certain alarm sounds while they are at school then they need to go to the cupboard in the classroom and play statues. These are all necessary precautions to ensure our children’s safety. But this is not the type of world in which I want to be raising our children.

Our response to Newtown was wrong because we acted to treat only the symptom, and did nothing to address the problem. We accepted the situation of mass shootings as inevitable and we failed to tackle the real problem. Our prayers after Newtown should have been accompanied by action to introduce laws to reduce gun violence. Our prayers should have been accompanied by actions to try and make this country a place where mass shootings are not a daily occurrence. Our prayers should have been accompanied by actions to ensure that no more families have to bury their loved ones after such senseless violence.

But this was not our action, and we know that after the prayers were recited no significant action took place to change the situation in this great nation. Gun violence has continued, mass shootings have continued, and so many more innocent victims have been buried into the ground.  

The voice of my brother’s and sister’s blood cries out to me from this ground.

I have always been taken by the idea of American exceptionalism. In so many ways this country is unique and a beacon of light to the rest of the world. With a Declaration of Independence that asserts the equality of all people, promising the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; this country has foundations that are different from any other. This country has clearly been blessed and it has been a blessing to its citizens and the rest of the world. American exceptionalism has always been a source of pride and admiration from the rest of the world. Unfortunately today I am concerned that America is being viewed as exceptional for the fact that it is the only developed country that suffers from mass shootings with such terrible regularity.

In this case, perhaps we should look to emulate Australian exceptionalism. In April 1996, a gunman opened fire on tourists in Port Arthur, Tasmania; he killed 35 people and wounded 23. Twelve days later, in a bipartisan deal, sweeping gun control measures were enacted; primarily centered on a buyback of semi-automatic weapons and new laws prohibiting private sales and requiring individual registration of all guns. Twelve days later. This did not lead to a complete end to gun violence, but in the following decade homicides by firearms plunged 59%, suicide by guns declined by 65% and there has not been a single mass shooting in Australia since Port Arthur. A 2011 Harvard summary of the research into the laws passed in 1996 said; “it would have been difficult to imagine more compelling future evidence of a beneficial effect.”[4]

I can no longer stand idly by the blood of my neighbor.

In Judaism it is clear that our highest value is that of pikuach nefesh – the saving of a life; almost every other commandment can be broken to fulfill this highest ideal. We believe that every life is sacred and in the Talmud we read that the person who saves a single life it is as though that person has saved the entire world. And the inverse is also true. The person who destroys a single life, it is as though that person has destroyed the entire world.[5] How many worlds have been destroyed through mass shootings and senseless gun violence? And by standing idly by, what is our responsibility in this destruction?

We could spend hours debating the rights and wrongs and the intended meaning of the Second Amendment. However, I would argue that the individual’s right to bear arms should not come at the expense of the people’s right to life, as laid down in the Declaration of Independence. While Judaism ensures the rights of the individual it was always done in the context of the wider group and guaranteeing that the community as a whole is safe and protected. People were allowed to own swords, but the Talmud discusses to whom you may and may not sell a sword. Dangerous dogs could be kept as a way of defending one’s property, but there were important laws about how and when the dog must be tied up. Self-defense was understood and accepted, but it was always done in a way that ensured the safety and security of the wider community.[6]

I am not an expert on what should be done to reduce gun crime and eliminate mass shootings from our nation’s future. There are people far wiser than I who have spent years researching this subject and offering suggestions for what might be done. I look to Australia, and other countries around the world, to see what is possible and I turn to others who have dedicated their lives to this cause. Jim Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary was shot and paralyzed during an assassination attempt on the President in 1981. Since then the Brady Campaign has worked to prevent gun violence. They suggest three areas for action: changing the culture by educating people about the risks of guns in the home; changing laws by calling on our elected officials to enact laws to counter gun violence; and by changing the gun industry by holding the manufacturers of these weapons accountable.

By the start of next week we will have a page on our website with resources about what you can do to take action on gun violence.

In June of this year, I tweeted that my thoughts and prayers were with all those affected by the shooting at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. I realize now that my thoughts and prayers, while important, are simply not enough. As Jews we have never been a people who simply prays for changes in this world; we have always been a people who go out and make change happen.

One mass shooting is too many. 355 mass shootings in a single year is a tragedy and embarrassment to this country, to its citizens, and to the founding fathers who imagined a different type of society. 

The voice of our brother’s and sister’s blood cries out to us from the ground.

And as the newspaper headline made clear, God isn’t fixing this. But we, made in the image of God; we, God’s partners in the work of creation; we, God’s covenanted people charged to bring blessing into this world - we can fix this and we MUST fix this, for ourselves and for our children.

Thoughts and prayers can be helpful and are important, but today the time has come for action. I hope that you will join me in whatever way is right for each of you in saying no more, in calling for gun violence prevention, and in doing all that we can to ensure the safety of our society, our children, and our country.

Ken yehi ratzon – May it be God’s will.


[1] Genesis 4:10.
[2] Leviticus 19:16.
[5] Talmud Sanhedrin 37a

About Rabbi Danny

Rabbi Danny
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