Stand Up Shabbat.

Parashat Bo

Passover may still be a ways off, but in this week’s Torah portion, we find a number of components from our Haggadah and the Passover story front and center. As we take the opportunity to reflect tonight — as dozens, if not hundreds, of congregations around Charleston and throughout the state of South Carolina are doing this weekend and next — on the prevalence of gun violence and our need to pass meaningful, commonsense legislation to curb it, these themes of Passover resonate deeply.

Locusts, darkness, death of the first born… This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, begins with the end of the ten plagues — the last three to be exact. The purpose of the plagues in the Exodus story was multifaceted — to demonstrate God’s power, to be sure, but toward what end? To amaze the Israelites, such that they would believe, they would have faith, they would put their trust in Adonai, come what may, having experienced all that God did to free them from Egypt. But, perhaps most importantly, the ten increasingly devastating signs of God’s power were designed to put fear into the hearts of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. For anyone in their right mind, we would imagine, would reach a point when, after so much senseless destruction, so much needless loss, they would say: Enough already! They would change, evolve, grow. And yet…

Eileen Soffer, National Coordinator of Rabbis Against Gun Violence, has written:

“With each plague, Pharaoh was frightened and promised to do the right thing – to free the Israelite slaves. But when [each] plague ended, he changed his mind, and with hardened heart, continued to enslave the people, to prolong their misery, and to profit from their suffering.

“With every mass shooting — in schools, military bases, movie theaters, city corners, even first grade classrooms and places of worship – Americans find themselves horrified, heartbroken and angry. They vow that something must be done to end the carnage and suffering. But with hardened hearts, the forces pushing back claim ‘it’s too soon;’ they fight against common sense measures that evidence shows can save lives and create safer communities while they continue to reap profits and maintain their power.

“And the plagues continue [remove a drop from the Kiddush cup for each one] …

1. Columbine
2. Virginia Tech
3. Fort Hood
4. Aurora
5. Tucson
6. Sandy Hook
7. Washington Navy Yard
8. UC Santa Barbara
9. Charleston
10. San Bernardino

“These mass shootings [just 10 of many] capture the headlines and rightly appall us, but account for less than 2 percent of annual gun deaths. It’s the shootings that don’t get much attention — the ones taking place in parking lots, bedrooms, and street corners across America — that are responsible for the vast majority of injuries and deaths from guns. With our eyes and hearts opened to the loss of life and the suffering caused by gun violence — whether it makes the headlines or not — may we be moved and motivated to raise our voices and act to help end this scourge plaguing our country.” [1]

It takes 10 plagues to convince Pharaoh, but the last one seals the deal — how could it not? The death of children, of Pharaoh’s own son. And yet… Are we, as a nation, really so stiff-necked and hard-hearted that even that which changed Pharaoh’s mind has had so little impact upon us? It has been 19 years since the shooting at Columbine High School. It has been 5 years since 20 students, six- and seven-year-olds, were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. Since 2013, there have been 279 school shootings in America — and we have done nothing. Nothing but make our children practice drills for the possibility of a lockdown situation and an active shooter. Instead of stepping up to pass legislation that might protect our kids, we’ve only made the anxiety and burden they have to bear that much greater.

This week’s Torah portion also contains the origins of the Four Questions and the Four Children — the wise child, the challenging child, the simple child, and the one who does not know how to ask a question. “Now we have a Fifth Child,” Rabbi Joshua Hammerman writes. “Alongside the one who does not know how to ask, we must now include the one who can’t ask, not because she’s stuck in a Gulag or Gaza’s prison, but because he’s been killed, right here in America. This is the child whose inquisitive mind has been stilled forever by the magazines of a maniac’s assault rifle, or by the single bullet of a parent’s unlocked handgun, or at the hands of an abusive caregiver, or as result of incessant bullying and unremitting cruelty. If Egypt is a metaphor, then we are enslaved not to Pharaoh, but to our own prejudice and anger — and to our pervasive culture of violence.

“There are far too many Fifth Children out there — [nearly 1,300 in the United States every year] — and we’ve allowed that to happen. We have produced a society where child sacrifice is once again in vogue. …

“The children of Newtown need a voice. So do the four children of Shirley Chambers, the Chicago mother who lost all four of her children to gun violence.” [2] Perhaps one who was wise, one who was challenging, one who was simple, one who didn’t even know how to ask a question. They need our voice.

So let’s turn to the name of this week’s Torah portion: Parashat Bo Vayomer Adonai el-Moshe: Bo el-Par’oh. “God said to Moses: Go to Pharaoh.”

Torah portions typically derive their names from the first unique Hebrew word or words of their text. So the first parasha of the entire Torah is B’reishit — “In the beginning;” later in Genesis there’s Chayei Sarah — “The life of Sarah;” last week’s portion was Va’era — “I [God] appeared.”

By definition, the name of this week’s Torah portion is unique — no other Torah portion is called Bo. That’s the point in giving names to Torah portions — being able to distinguish one from another. But the word itself, the instruction to Moses to go to Pharaoh, is nothing new or unique at all. Instead Parashat Bo continues what has been happening in Torah for the past two weeks: Moses going and going and going again to Pharaoh until the latter relents to the Israelites’ demand, to God’s will. Parashat Bo begins with the eighth of ten plagues. So seven times before this, Moses was commanded by God to “Bo—Go to Pharaoh” and tell him to free the Israelites or suffer the consequences of blood, frogs, vermin, beasts, pestilence, boils, and hail. Several more times before that, Moses and his brother Aaron were commanded to “Go before Pharaoh,” to deliver the divine message with magical signs and warnings.

Yet it is precisely the repetition of the word Bo that makes it so powerful. Go, and go, and go again… There are times when giving up is simply not an option; when human dignity, safety and freedom demand we stay the course until those with the power to change prevailing circumstances relent to the people’s will. And sensible gun legislation that could have a meaningful impact on curbing gun violence is the people’s will. 84% of all South Carolinians want background checks on all gun sales — that’s 86% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans.

Two years ago this month, an organization founded to promote the passage of common sense laws to curb gun violence, created a concept they called Stand Up Sunday — or, for those of us whose day of worship is other than Sunday, Stand up Shabbat. The idea was powerful in its simplicity: Congregations from across the state of South Carolina would dedicate one weekend on their worship schedule to raise awareness about the dangers of gun violence; educate about common sense legislation that could positively impact the prevalence of violence — legislation that enjoys overwhelming support throughout the state of South Carolina; and ask their congregants to literally Stand Up and pledge their participation in a day of advocacy in Columbia later in the year.

We did this two years ago.
We did this last year.
And here we are again.

Our legislators’ minds have unfortunately not yet been changed; collectively they have failed to pass any piece of legislation that could have a positive impact on the public health crisis that is gun violence. So we must Bo — go, and go, and go again.

Bo — Go to the website of the Religious Action Center and send a letter to our U.S. Congressmen calling on them to reject the SHARE Act (H.R.3668) that would weaken an 80-year-old federal law that regulates the sale of gun silencers.

Bo — Contact our state legislators and urge them to stop the SC House bill (H.3240) that would provide concealed carry reciprocity and allow individuals to carry concealed firearms in our state without meeting the standards South Carolina has established for obtaining a permit.

Bo — Insist that our legislators stop the bills in both the SC House and Senate (S.449, H.3930) that would allow anyone to carry a gun with NO permit, NO training, NO vetting — open or concealed — in unprohibited areas like beaches, restaurants, parks, and stores. Read the bills online and see the strikes through lines and lines and lines of legislation — all the legislative work of decades ago that would be undone by these bills; far from a step forward, passing this legislation would be a giant leap back.

Bo — Join an organization like Arm in Arm: South Carolinians for Responsible Gun Ownership; Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; Rabbis Against Gun Violence — you don’t even have to be a rabbi! Join one of these organizations, or others, and get legislative alerts and updates when your voice can make a difference and your involvement can be instrumental.

Bo — Make a pledge, as I have, to continue to make this issue a priority, and insist that our elected officials do the same. As I’ve previously written:

When I go into the voting booth, I have one responsibility above all others: To protect my child and others from threats to their safety and wellbeing — not perceived threats, imagined threats, fabricated or trumped up threats — but real threats; the ones that keep me (and him) up at night.

So join me in making a pledge: If you are an incumbent (in national or state office) who introduced or voted for legislation that would make it easier to access, use, or carry deadly weapons, you will not get my vote.

If you are an incumbent (in national or state office) who failed to work to introduce or vote for sensible gun legislation, you will not get my vote.

If you are a candidate (for national or state office) and your website or the flyers in my mailbox show backing by the NRA or make mention of the Second Amendment, you will not get my vote.

And if there’s no one left to vote for — shame on all of us.

I mentioned earlier that — in addition to the plagues, the Four Children, and Moses’ advocacy before Pharaoh — the Four Questions have their basis in this week’s Torah portion, as well. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” How many times have we stopped in the wake of a terrible shooting and said: Something has to change? How many times have we assumed after this shooting, after this tragedy, surely something must be done? How many times have we preached about this topic from this very bimah? (This is our third Stand Up Shabbat, so at least three, at least.)

Let this night be different because of us. Let us turn conversation into doing and awareness into commitment and action. Let us see that there are concrete steps we can take to save lives and create safer homes and communities. Let our resolve for change be so strong that the hardened hearts of our legislators will have no choice but to move. We can gradually walk ourselves back from the brink. Common sense gun regulations can and will make a difference. Universal background checks would be a small step, but an effective one, and a step in the right direction.

This is how redemption happens. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. Never losing courage, never abandoning hope. [3] Asking ourselves always: If not now — then, by God, when?

And if you’re so inclined, I invite you to say: Amen.

 

[1] Rabbis Against Gun Violence: Passover Seder Supplement 2016, p. 7 (adapted).

[2] Interfaith Seder, Interfaith Council of SW Connecticut, 2013, p. 2.

[3] Based on Rabbis Against Gun Violence: Passover Seder Supplement 2016, pp. 4, 6.

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4 thoughts on “Stand Up Shabbat.

  1. Rosalyn Monat-Haller says:

    Shabbat Shalom,
    Being sick I was unable to be in Temple tonight so I was delighted to read your sermon. You so beautifully speak the truth and give us a way to act. We are blessed to have you as our leader. Todah Rabah! Rosalyn Kramer Monat-Haller

    Like

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