Sunday, February 3, 2013

Parashat Yitro: Fear and Flight. Idolatry and Guns

Here is the sermon that I delivered last Friday Night at Shabbat services about the link between Idolatry and Guns.
Parashat Yitro:  Fear and Flight
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
February 1, 2013
My Dear Friends,
On this Shabbat we stand together at Mt. Sinai.
Our tradition teaches that Sinai was a moment of absolute clarity.  At Sinai there were no doubts.  God’s presence was absolute.
God appeared. 
God’s voice was heard.
The people SAW and HEARD.
At that moment – all was complete – the true meaning of Shalom  - Wholeness – was brought into the world.

In Exodus 20:15, we find the following verse: 
V’chol ha-am Ro-im et ha kolot v’et ha-la-pi-dim.
And all the people “Ro-im” the thunder and the lightning.

I didn’t translate the word Ro-im because grammatically it seems out of place.  It comes from the Hebrew root, resh, aleph, heh which means “to see.”  But the the text is full of contradictions;

1st of all – it is written in the present tense – it is described, not as an historical event – but as an Eternal Now – revelation is happening all around us – all the time.  In this sense, the translation is:  “And all the people are seeing the thunder and the lightning.  In this context, what happened at Sinai was not in the past, but occurs all the time. Just as the Israelites saw the events then – we – their descendants – still witness them today.

Secondly – how do we See Thunder? 
Some commentators state that this means that the awareness was so complete that it transcended physicality – the ability to see and to hear became intertwined.  There was total understanding – total acceptance.
But then… the text continues…the people fell back and stood at at distance.  “you speak to us!” They said to Moses “and we will obey, but let not God speak to us- lest we die!”

 The people were too overcome by the experience to allow it to last longer than a brief moment.  They couldn’t take it all in…

There are many midrashim on the ten commandments – one says that this moment of supreme awareness occurred only during the 1st commandment – Anochi H’ Elohecha’ -  I am Adonai Your God – which truly is not a commandment – but a statement of fact.
Others say that the only word that the Israelites heard was Anochi – “I”.
Others say that all that was heard was the first letter of the first word, “Anochi” – the letter Aleph which, as most of you know – has no sound at all – it is the beginning of sound -  the sound of taking a breath….  Even that was too much.

Have there ever been moments in your life when everything was absolutely clear – when you knew what you were seeing, hearing, experiencing?  When you knew what your task was to be in life?  When you were overwhelmed with joy:

·        Under the chuppah?
·        At a Bar/Bat Mitzvah
·        A Conversion ceremony?
·        A Graduation?
·        At the birth of a child?

But there are other times when our sense are overloaded – times of tragedy and fear:

·        At the funeral of a loved one?
·        Perhaps on an airplane- in the midst of turbulence
·        Or on a cart as you are being wheeled into surgery?
·        Or after the airbags deploy in your car…..
These moments of joy, of fear, of passion…bring a clarity of purpose to our lives.  Ideally, they can move us to find ways to change our actions, our perceptions, our purpose.
Sometimes they do – and sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes they linger with for a long time – most of the time, they quickly disappear.
Sometimes we see things a little bit differently – for a while =- but then slowly, almost imperceptibly, we revert back to old patterns of behaviors and beliefs.

As a people –we experienced this type of moment at Sinai.

As Americans – we have experienced it as well:

·        July 4 1776
·        November 22. 1963 – the day that John Kennedy was shot
·        10 years ago today – when the Challenger disaster occurred –
·        8 years ago when our 1st African American president was sworn in and then four years later, on the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King
·        And just two months ago – on the 7th day of Chanukah – December 14th, a deranged gunman shot his way into a Connecticut school room and massacred 20 children and 6 adults after shooting his mother and then killing himself with high-powered automatic weapons

It has been a little over 6 weeks since the events of Sandy Hook united our nation in grief and disbelief.  For a brief moment – we all stood together as we cried our pain and sorrow.

It has been a little over 6 months since the Aurora Tragedy. 

How long did it take until the shock and pain of these events brought us back to ‘business as usual?”

Just last week, there were several incidents of violence involving guns and automatic weapons.  They filled our headlines for a day – but then, things went back to normal….or what we want to FEEL is normal.

I have to say, when I saw the lead story on the news last night about how Wal Mart stores in Denver are rationing ammunitions sales, I felt a little sick to my stomach.

When I read that permits for concealed carrying of handguns in Colorado are at such a high demand that in some counties, a lottery is being set up to determine who can apply on each day…

When I read of how the Gun Lobby is sending out urgent messages to its followers – urging them to buy as many guns as they can – before the laws change to restrict their “Right to bear arms….”

I am sad – and, yes,  I am angry.

What kind of sick reasoning uses the tragic deaths of innocent children to promote the purchase of weapons designed for no other purpose than to kill as quickly and efficiently as possible – the very weapons that were used to slaughter innocents in Aurora, Sandy Hook, on the streets of our cities and in schools, houses of worship and too many other places to mention?

At Sinai – we stood as one – afraid and united by the prospect of a new Revelation.  But it didn’t last.  We couldn’t take it.  We told Moses to intervene – we were too frail.

Moses ascended the Mountain and, 40 days later, we were building a Golden Calf.

The third of the 10 commandments prohibits the practice of idolatry.
Idolatry, by definition, is the worship of that which is not Divine.  We commit idolatry when we focus our values, our attention, our passion on items, or even ideas that detract and deflect us from the pathway that God has set out before us.

There is no doubt in my mind that the so-called “Gun Culture” that the NRA and other groups promote is a nefarious and deadly form of idolatry.

Simply put: too many men and women in our nation worship guns.  The gun lobby claims that it is protecting our freedom – our ability to defend ourselves against an enemy that crouches just around the corner.  But the freedom that they claim to protect comes with a price – the price of the death of innocents so that some can feel powerful with their hands wrapped around a trigger.

Now I know that guns are not responsible for all evil.

I know that there are many people – perhaps even here tonight – who own guns and are responsible, law abiding citizens.

I know that access to mental health care and treatment is an important goal that we must pursue – one that we, a congregation are actively engaged in bringing to the attention of our community and its leadership.

[I want to encourage everyone here tonight to attend our community forum on mental health sponsored by our HESED community organizing effort that will take place on March 3rd at 5:00 PM]

But when fear and intimidation are the tools that are used to protect the freedom to possess machines that are designed to kill; and when the deaths of innocent children are used as a tool to promote the sale of guns, I believe we have strayed too far from the purpose of our freedom in the first place.

At Sinai we all stood together – if only for a moment.

We heard God’s voice and understood that with freedom comes responsibility and responsibility comes with purpose and that our purpose is to be a holy people – created in the image of God.

We cannot allow our society to succumb to the Golden Calf of fear.

We need to remember the moments when we were united – in our anger and our grief…in our pride and our passion…in our hope and our hunger for justice, peace and a vision of a better world without violence.

We need to go back to that moment – when we are hearing and seeing and feeling God’s presence.

That is our task.  We can do no less.

Shabbat Shalom.


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