Community Before Self

A late post this week as I have been distracted, as we all have been, by the events in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman last week killed 17 people in a high school. And while this is not the first time this has happened, this one has hit me particularly hard for a variety of reasons: it is a location I am familiar with, as my grandparents lived in the general vicinity; the impact on the local Jewish community feels greater than in other mass shootings; and with a son in high school, I could relate to the community, the students and the parents.

With this latest school shooting, we also return to the familiar cycles of civic ritual: mourning and grief, vigils and memorials. We also return to the familiar cycles of sound bytes and platitudes: politicians offering “thoughts and prayers” followed by a chorus proclaiming that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. And the dance by many lawmakers around any other reason for the shooting other than the most obvious, the accessibility and ease of procuring guns themselves.

I don’t have much more to add to the overall conversation. I too mourn the loss of life. I mourn too the inability of our society to do anything about it. I’ll just repeat that we need to recognize that one of the biggest deterrents to mass shooting accidents is gun responsibility legislation.

There will still be violent people, of course, who seek to hurt others. But if they do not have access to lethal means to hurt others, then fewer people will be victimized. One can still do damage with a knife, or a club, but the damage will be much less than a semi-automatic rifle. People still die in car accidents, that is not an argument to stop wearing seatbelts.

While limiting and qualifying gun ownership is the biggest need to stop similar incidents, there may be some truth to the statement that it is not just guns that are the problem. While the right likes to defer to “mental illness,” and there are those on the left who point to “toxic masculinity,” I think that the real underlying factor is “radical individualism.” We suffer at times under a society that values the self over the community, rights over responsibility, the one over the many. Governments, authorities, societal structures are suspect.

We are always in need of improving our communal institutions, but we can not live separate from them. The Torah portion this week is a object lesson; parasha terumah describes the building of the ancient mishkan, or Tabernacle, the central institution of the Israelites. It is to be the gathering place of the people, the center for worship, the place where God dwells among the people.

The fact of the Tabernacle in and of itself is a lesson–we need communal norms and structures, and we can not exist independently. This is made more explicit in the description of how the Tabernacle is to be built. While a few people were selected as the craftspeople, everyone contributes the raw materials. At the beginning of the parasha we read: “God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts, you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.'” (Exodus 25:1-2)

In other words, everyone contributes to the building of the mishkan. It can not be built in isolation, everyone has something to give. We do not live our lives in isolation, we are dependent on, and responsible for, each other.

In this case, our own “right” to own a firearm does not outweigh the need to protect fellow citizens and preserve public safety. This goes beyond distinguishing between “law abiding” and “not law abiding.” In some cases, those categories should not even exist. The key should be to restrict and limit guns, not just ownership.

To do so in our country, we need to recognize that “rights” are not absolute. People wrote the Constitution, and they can rewrite it. But more than just the technical aspects of legislation or amendments, we need to embrace the value that community sometimes comes before self. Too many lives have been lost already because we have failed to see this. Let it be that our hearts so move us to make a change.

Torah tl;dr: “Ki Tavo” and “Nitzavim-Vayeilech”

Two this week, since I forgot to post last week. It’s been a busy Elul!

Ki Tavo: Carrot or the Stick?

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Ground Yourself.

60 SECONDS TO WISDOM. Short Teachings on the Weekly Torah Portion. Suitable for All Who Seek.

Moses and Aaron: Allies for Justice

The Inauguration is upon us. The peaceful transfer of power that is a hallmark of our American democracy goes into effect on Friday. Yet this time power is being transferred to a man who enters the office with the lowest approval rating in recent history, who lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, whose entry into office will be marked by protests across the country of unprecedented scale.

There is an intriguing juxtaposition of these events and our Torah reading this week, parashat Shemot. This week we read in the Torah the beginning of the Exodus. As we move from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Exodus, we make the transition to a book of a family’s saga to the book of a national epic. Jacob and his sons have settled in Egypt and have become a people.

This people, however, is seen as a threat to the new Pharaoh. The new Pharaoh who, the text says, did not know Joseph. In other words, he did not know his history, he did not know of the relationship and bond between the majority Egyptians and the minority Israelites. Seeing them as his enemies, as those who could even overthrow him, he enslaves them.

We are introduced to the character of Moses, who will dominate the rest of the Torah. Born a slave, but sent off by his mother, he is raised an Egyptian in the house of the Pharaoh. When as a young man he sees an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite slave, something stirs in him and he kills the guard, then flees to Midian to escape punishment.

It is there in Midian he makes a new life, a new family. And it is there in Midian that he gets the call that will change the course of his life and of the world.

Tending sheep one day he notices a bush on fire, but the fire is not consuming the bush. From the bush comes a voice, the voice of God, who tells Moses that he is to go back to Egypt to free the Israelites. After some argument—Moses is a reluctant hero—and assurances that God will support him and he will have his brother Aaron as a helper, Moses answers the call and heads back to Egypt.

As the story continues, a story that we know from retelling, from the Passover celebration, or even popular imagination, Moses confronts Pharaoh, demanding that he release the Israelites. Pharaoh continues to refuse, and Moses exhortations get stronger, more strident and when accompanied by the plagues, more perilous to the Egyptian society.

It is a powerful story of telling truth to power, of standing up to despotism, of making the plea for equality, liberation and justice. It is a story that we know resonated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we celebrated this past week. And it is a powerful story that will hopefully resonate with us as new leadership takes over at the highest levels of our government.

There is, as our Torah teaches in this story, the opportunity and obligation to call out that which we know to be wrong. That we do not need to be nor should we be silent in the face of oppression. And that we have the power to confront our rulers when we seek change.

But in addition to reaching up, we also must reach across. We must reach across to our neighbor, our fellow community members. For what is most important, what forms the strongest society, what allows us to be successful in what we hope to accomplish, are the relationships that we are able to forge.

The Torah models this for us as well. For Moses knows that he can not go it alone. Standing in front of the bush he says in the text that he is “slow of speech,” and asks God for someone else to be the divine emissary. But God insists, and tells him the Aaron his brother will be by his side. We can say that “slow of speech” is up for interpretation, so while it can be interpreted as a speech impediment, or as lack of eloquence, we can also say that Moses understands that one person’s words by themselves may not be that effective. That what is needed is not a soloist, but a chorus.

Aaron’s presence symbolizes the strength in numbers. Aaron’s presence represents the need for allies in the fight for justice.

And how does one be an ally? Aaron and Moses meet for the first time shortly after the episode of the burning bush. Moses returns to his family in Midian, and prepares to return to Egypt. We read in the text, “God said to Aaron, ‘go to meet Moses in the wilderness.’ He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him.” (Exodus 4:27)

Aaron doesn’t wait for Moses to return to Egypt. Aaron goes out to meet Moses where he is. And that is how we become allies, how we form strong relationships: we meet people where they are. We go out of our way to connect with them. We recognize that it isn’t about the “I” it is about the “we.” We support each other, we give of ourselves, we uplift each other’s tactics even when they differ. We make sure that challenging external threats is not compromised by needless division and infighting.

We turn towards, and not against each other.

It is through these relationships that we can overthrow the Pharaoh, free the oppressed, envision a better world and climb the mountain of God.