Reflections on Parkland Shootings

Written by Rabbi Irwin Huberman of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove

What if God was one of us….?

Just a stranger on the bus…
tryin’ to make his way home?
-Eric Bazilian

This has been a very difficult week for God.

As I write this message, Jessi Robbins, our former office manager, is on her way to Parkland, Florida to comfort friends directly affected by this week’s latest installment of America’s recurring nightmare.

Jessi is a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She has friends whose siblings died in this week’s massacre. We will leave Jessi and her friends to mourn privately, but let us pause for a moment and reflect jewishly upon this devastating and perhaps pivotal event.

Over the thirteen years that I have resided in the United States, there are many things I have observed and questioned. It is clear that issues such as health care, immigration, public morality, free speech, and gun safety are approached differently here than they are in many other countries.

I am also sadly aware that constructive conversation between Americans on a variety of issues is no longer possible. So, rather than fan divisions, I prefer to preserve Shalom Ba’it — peace within our holy community. Hopefully our bonds, maintained during times of passionate discourse, will assist us to eventually heal and refresh.

Yet this week, I am inspired to ask: is there a point when public policy and religion intersect? And if so, how do we reflect upon events in Parkland, Florida in a Jewish manner?

On the evening of December 14, 2013, I accompanied my friend and colleague, Rabbi Shaul Praver, as he addressed a group of citizens in Great Neck on the first anniversary of the killing of twenty-seven children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Rabbi Praver served as the rabbi at Congregation Adath Israel located in Newtown, and stood with residents of the community and one of his congregant families as they suffered the agony of personal loss.

On that night, Rabbi Praver was seated on a panel composed of clergy, law enforcement officials, and politicians as they discussed, in front of a crowded auditorium, ways to assure the safe use of guns and, ultimately, the protection of human life.

As Rabbi Praver began to speak, a member of a pro-gun organization rose and began walking menacingly towards the stage.

The interrupter began yelling at Rabbi Praver. “Rabbi, stick to theology. This is not your business.”

To which Rabbi Praver replied. “You can’t scare me. This is a theological issue. Whenever human life is wasted, it is God’s issue. I will speak.”

A lot has transpired during the last five years. Hundreds have been killed in schools, campuses, cinemas, malls and concert venues, often with weapons that have no place in a civilized society — weapons that are barely imaginable on a battlefield.

Yet, as we approach Shabbat, a time of peace, I am moved to speak, not politically, but on one of Judaism’s most treasured principles, Pikuach Nefesh — the preservation of human life.

Pikuach Nefesh is a principle which teaches that the preservation of life overrides virtually any other consideration. When the life of a specific person is in danger, almost any mitzvah or obligation becomes inapplicable.

In my earlier years working in government, I spent time with First Nations residents in northern Canada. Moose, deer, and caribou were hunted for sustenance. Always with respect. There, guns are part of life. They have a role. The killing of citizens is not one of them.

In an interview this week, one of the surviving Parkland students spoke passionately to the news cameras. Seventeen-year-old David Hogg noted. “We’re children,” he said. “You guys are the adults.”

So this week, as we reel from another school massacre, and issues revolving around mental health and the use of semi-automatic weapons, it is appropriate to ask the questions, “How can we be adults?” And, as Jews, “How can we serve as a light to others?”

One of the most important teachings of the Torah revolves upon a statement by Simon the Righteous who advised two thousand years ago: “Build a fence around the Torah.” (Pirkei Avot 1:2)

It means in part that, as a society, we need to protect our values and principles. It means particularly within a Jewish context that when care, kindness, and compassion are involved, we must extend our boundaries beyond the letter of the law.

But let us ask when it comes to the divisive issue of mental health and dangerous weapons, “What is the principle or value we are protecting?”

This is the week in the Torah where we read the parashah titled Terumah (gifts). The portion describes the array of offerings the Israelites contributed towards the building of the first home for the Ten Commandments. Some gave materials, others provided labor and expertise. But it all came from the heart.

This is a classic story of how a previously enslaved nation becomes a community of givers towards something greater than themselves. In so doing, they created room for God “to dwell among us.”

If God wishes to dwell within a house of peace, then inflexibility is the enemy of that peace.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, “A society based on rights, not responsibilities — based on what we claim from others, not what we give to others — will always eventually go wrong.”

Rabbi Sacks lauds a society in which we do not entrench and expand our entitlements, but rather we incline our hearts towards the greater good. And that involves heart and wisdom.

A mentor once shared with me a lesson which has carried me through a many difficult decisions. “The challenge as a leader is not to know when to apply the laws — that’s easy. The tough part is to know to amend the law when it no longer assists those it is supposed to serve.”

The loss in Parkland, Florida is indescribable.

We are told in the Torah to feel the pain of the stranger, for we too were once strangers in Egypt. What are you feeling now?

Thoughts and prayers may play a role, but as God tells us repeatedly in the Torah, prayer can only go so far.

There are many secular forums to discuss this issue from a political perspective. But from a Jewish mindset, this is clearly, completely, and emphatically a matter of Pikuach Nefesh. We must act and advocate in the name of life.

There were seventeen precious souls who died this past Valentine’s Day. God mourns each one equally. Among them were students Jaime Guttenberg, Alyssa Alhadeff, Meadow Pollack, and Alex Schachter, and teacher Scott Beigel, who saved students’ lives by closing a door as he was shot.

We will recite Kaddish for them at services this Shabbat, as we ask the soul-wrenching question, “What is the fence protecting?”

As we pose a second perhaps more important question.

“Is it worth it?”

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman
Congregation Tifereth Israel

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