Rosh Hashanah Day 5774: “Building the Parapet of Gun Legislation”

While we read this morning this from Genesis, my mind turns to a verse from Deuteronomy which we recently read as part of our regular Torah reading cycle.

In Deuteronomy chapter 22 verse 8 we read: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”

Interesting word, parapet—not one we usually use that frequently. A parapet—ma’akeh—in Hebrew is a low wall placed around the edge of a roof. We can imagine in our sloping roofs we do not have need for such a feature, though the flat roofs of houses in the ancient near east, the cultural context of the Torah, would be a different story. Perhaps a wall or railing around a raised deck or patio would be more relevant to our own houses and buildings. But we can understand the intention even if the verse didn’t make it clear. Being on a roof is dangerous. One can fall and be seriously injured, if not die. We therefore are obligated to do what we can to minimize harm and protect those who are in our home. If we do not, then we are guilty of “bloodguilt”—another great biblical word—the blood is on our hands, our negligence is tantamount to homicide.

Like all mitzvot in the Torah the commentators take this very seriously in its details. According to one commentator, the wall must be at least 10 handbreadths high. Some say, it should be a meter high, and no less than 96.2 cm high. It also must be strong enough to withstand the weight of a person who leans on it. If children are to be exposed to it, than it must be higher than is obligatory. I’ll let the contractors and engineers among us quibble about this, and I don’t know what the Olympia city code would say about requirements. But in any event, the railing must be there, and it must work.

And some commentators even say that not only must one build a parapet such as this, but there is a blessing for building one—the blessing we recite over mitzvot—barukh atah adonai, eloheynu melekh ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav vetzivanu, la’asot ma’akeh. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made us holy with Your sacred acts, and commanded us to make a parapet.

We have an obligation to protect those who surround us. This is, as the Torah reminds us over and over again, a fact of our existence—that we live as part of a greater whole, we are more than just ourselves and we have an obligation and responsibility for one another and an obligation for the well being of our neighbors.

It doesn’t stop with parapets on roofs. In the Shulchan Arukh, one of the key law codes, we read that based on this verse we are also obligated to put covers on pits, or fences around holes—basically anything that may cause injury—a rickety ladder—must be removed from your property, and not allowed to be used, lest it cause harm, especially a fatality.

So I think about this. I think about parapets, roofs, removing obstacles, and protecting from injury. And I think about guns.

I think about guns. The prevalence of gun violence in our country is staggering, and should not come as any surprise. The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control tell the story. In 2010, the most recent data there were in this country 16,259 total homicides. 11,078 of those homicides were by firearms. The same time there were 38,364 total  suicides, and 19,392 of those suicides by firearms.

With regard to guns, we need to build that parapet.

I am still reeling from the events in Newtown, CT and I think about it every time I walk into my son’s elementary school. Every time I sit down in a movie theater I can’t help but think about Aurora, CO an event which I will always remember took place on my birthday. The shooting at Ft.Hood is back in the news with the trial and conviction of the shooter. And every day there is something about a gun related shooting on the street or a child kills himself because he found a gun and started to play or someone who takes their own life because in a moment of despair they had access to a weapon.

And closer to home, there was the shooting at Café Racer in Seattle, and we have just passed the 7th anniversary of the shooting at the offices of the Jewish Federation in Greater Seattle, in which a gunman forced his way into the office, shot and wounded several people, and killed one. For us in the Jewish community, that one hits particularly close to home.

And while the Trayvon Martin case raises for us the need to examine and reflect on the state of race and racism in our country—and I don’t mean to dismiss those important issues, they need to be talked about—we must also take note that this was a tragedy which came about because of the callous and fearful use of an easily accessible weapon.

Fear is perhaps the operative word. We live in fear, so we try to answer that fear by protecting ourselves, which only compounds the fear because we create a society now that is armed, that is inured to the violence that guns bring.

Maybe we are just a violent society. Maybe the issue is not just about the prevalence of guns in our society, it is about our general inclination. From a nation that was born of violence, starting with the “shot heard round the world” to our modern military interventionism around the world, we are focused on violence. And we do violence to each other on the small scale, with deeds and with words.

We can recall the future hope of the prophet Isaiah who says “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” This futuristic, messianic hope is one I hold onto, that we can get to a place where wars end, weapons destroyed, and humanity focused on the common good rather than mutual destruction.

But when it comes to guns in this country I am also pragmatic. I understand that America loves its guns, and I’m not here to parse the Second Amendment. There may be gun owners here in this room, and there are those who feel they need a gun for protection, or because they like to shoot for sport, or hunting for pleasure or sustenance. And I’m not here to argue with any of those motivations.

And I’d like to think that I’m not so naïve as to think that gun related violence will completely end. We will always have shootings, both accidental and intentional, just as there always will be car related fatalities, no matter how safe we build cars. These things come with their inherent risks. There will also always be crime, and some way to get a firearm. I don’t pretend to think that the above cases mentioned may not have happened because of legislation.

But these episodes of violence in Newtown and Aurora and others should shock us all. And what should also shock us is that time after time our leaders have failed to implement meaningful gun legislation. To to say we shouldn’t do anything because it won’t solve everything is shocking, and shameful. We do what we can to minimize risk because to not do so puts the blood guilt on our hands. When it comes to guns, we must build the parapet. When it comes to guns, we take a tangible, realistic step to attaining the violence free world that Isaiah envisions and we desire.

Organizers and activists here in WashingtonState have decided not to wait for the other Washington to take action, and are already looking forward to the next election. While legislation will be introduced into the legislature this coming session, similar legislation failed last session. Currently signatures are being collected to put an initiative on the ballot which will require universal background checks on the purchase of firearms. It is not everything, but it is a start. It is a way to build that parapet.

You may be familiar with the facts of the law. Currently federal law requires only licensed gun dealers perform background checks. Sales of person to person, or over the internet, or at gun shows are not regulated. This accounts for about 40% of all gun sales nationwide, an estimated 6.6 million guns.

The initiative would require private sales such as this to take place at a licensed gun dealer where they buyer would fill out all the same paperwork as if he or she was purchasing it from a dealer. It sets up an easy and accessible system. There are over 1,000 licensed dealers in the state, more than the number of Starbucks.

Faith communities have joined together with the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility to put forth this initiative. The Jewish community, through the Jewish Federation in Seattle and a coalition of other organizations has formally joined this effort. I intend to support it and work for it as it makes its way forward.

We are not the first Jews to think of this type of legislation. The rabbis in the Talmud are perfectly aware of the need to restrict access to dangerous weapons in order to promote public safety. They were aware of the violent capacities of their neighbors, and although they did not have to deal with assault weapons like we do, they knew that weapons in the wrong hands could be used for ill. In the Talmud the rabbis restrict the sale of weapons to “enemies”—or those whom it is known wish to cause harm. Weapons may not be sold to one who has already committed murder, or one who is “cowardly”—i.e., one whose disposition will make it more likely they will act rashly and cause harm.

And when our Torah teaches, “do not put a stumbling block before the blind,” the rabbis expand this to mean any barrier, physical or not, that would cause harm to someone who may not anticipate it. “It is a positive commandment,” our law codes read, “to remove and be vigilant about any stumbling block where there is danger to someone’s life.” In the case with guns, to remove a barrier we must impose a barrier—we must restrict access to weaponry to remove the threat of harm. Our ancient rabbis knew this lesson, we must learn it too.

Let’s build the parapet.

There is an interesting midrash in our reading from this morning of the story of Isaac and Ishmael. While we can understand the motivation perhaps of Sarah as to why she may wish Hagar and Ishmael weren’t around—Ishmael is the first born and thus the inheritor over her own son Isaac—the Torah is specific in what caused Sarah to implore her husband Abraham to cast out the two of them.  Despite whatever experiences, feelings, ideas she may have had before, the Torah says that “Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham metzahek (playing).”

This last word is vague and has provided much fodder for exegetes. What does it mean, that Ishmael was metzahek?

Drawing parallels with the use of the word in this context as well as in other places in the Torah, the ancient rabbis accuse Ishmael of everything from idolatry to murder to sexual impropriety. All of these grounds for banishment from the community, indeed these are the trifecta of sins according to our tradition, the worst three one can engage in. If this is what Sarah saw, then we can understand her motivation.

But another interpretation in the midrash reads, “Ishmael and Isaac would go out into the fields, and Ishmael would shoot arrows at Isaac, pretending to be playing.”

What did Sarah see in this last midrash? The potential to violence? The danger of projectile weapons? Or the understanding that if she didn’t do something, the casual attitude around weapons, the inability to behave responsibly, will have serious consequences. Blood may not be spilt now, but whether by accident or on purpose, blood will be spilled later. Sarah didn’t want the son she so longed for, the child of her old age, to be cut down in a senseless act.

No one wants children to die a senseless death. No one wants anyone to die a senseless death. It is part of our obligation to take measures that prevent harm to one another. The Torah in its ancient wisdom recognized that fact: build a house, of course, that is your right. But take the necessary measures which would prevent harm coming to others because of your exercising of that right.

We may allow the legal ownership of guns, but lets take the necessary measures which would prevent harm coming to others because of it.

Barukh atah adonai, eloheynu melekh ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav vetzivanu, la’asot ma’akeh.

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  1. […] A few years ago a mentally ill man attacked the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one person and wounding several. For this reason, among others, the organized Jewish community in Washington has come out in favor of I-594. And if you recall, last year at Rosh Hashanah I gave a sermon on the subject drawing on Jewish sources, you can find it here. […]

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