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Breaking The Moral Silence

(Sermon delivered on February 16, 2018, Temple Israel, Boston) (Image: Naples Daily News)


Take a moment of silence. Just one minute.

Silence is a common human reaction to tragedy.

A shocked silence.

A silent grief.

A desire to sit in silence to process a reality that has been shifted beyond recognition

The silenced hush over a funeral gathering

A moment of respectful, prayerful silence in a classroom or house of worship

A silence that enables us to listen deeply to the people and places in our society and culture that are crying out for healing.

Silence is a common human reaction to tragedy.

However, in the Torah, human silence is rare. Formed in the Divine image, we are created to communicate.

In fact, there are only three times where the Torah tells us of human beings responding to God’s action with silence, and all three are in the face of tragic personal loss –

When God kills two of Aaron’s children after they make a ritual mistake, Moses rushes to explain and justify God’s actions to Aaron. In response, Aaron is silent.

There is nothing to say, when someone tries to justify the murder of your children.

In an ongoing message to the prophet Ezekiel, God describes Godself as a spouse spurned and abandoned by their partner, the wicked and lawless Israelites. To make the point, and to force empathy on his prophet, God kills Ezekiel’s wife.  In response, Ezekiel is silent.

There is nothing to say, when someone tries to justify the murder of your spouse.

And when God kills Job’s wife and children, destroys his livelihood and turns all his friends against him, in order to prove a point to Satan – Job, just like Aaron and Ezekiel before him, is silent.

There is nothing to say, when someone tries to justify the destruction of your life.

On Wednesday, with my infant son in one arm, and my iPhone in another, a NY Times alert notified me that yet another school, another community had suffered incomprehensible loss.

17 human beings murdered. At least 16 injured.

One white, male, angry murderer with a gun.

However, the silence that fell over me on Wednesday, was not merely one of grief and shock and anger — it was a silence of deep demoralization and despair.

Because we have been here before.

In fact, this is not my first sermon following a gun violence tragedy. And I worry it will not be my last.

These 17 innocent souls, join 26 in Newtown, and 32 in Virginia, and 13 in Columbine

9 in Charleston, 12 in Aurora, 14 in San Bernardino, 49 in Orlando, 58 in Las Vegas.

According to the New York Times, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide. In those events, 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed.

In a self described conservative calculation, the Washington Post  has found that “more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.” This does not include dozens of suicides, accidents and after-school assaults that have also exposed youths to gunfire.

In an article in the journal Health Affairs, World Health Organization data shows that the United States is “the most dangerous of wealthy nations for a child to be born into.”

I don’t need to go on, most of us have spent the past two days scrolling past these facts and memes on twitter and Facebook. We have listened to Anderson Cooper, NPR, the nightly news.

I think we can all agree that we have had enough. Our society is failing our children. Our society is failing.

As our President tweets “prayers and condolences,” The New York Times headline reads – “Gunfire Erupts at a School. Leaders Offer Prayers. Children Are Buried. Repeat.”

We live today with the reality that much of the American, political machine refuses to value a human life more than it values the right to bear dangerous, semi automatic assault rifles.

We live with the knowledge that the NRA spent over $70 million to influence the 2016 elections. We live in a world where Democrats and Republicans have lost the ability to engage in meaningful bipartisan work, where political compromise is a thing of the past and the soul of American democracy is squeezed in this vice grip of greed and ego.

Aaron and Ezekiel and Job responded to personal tragedy and loss with silence because there was nothing to say to a Deity who held all the power and controlled life and death on a whim.

But we are not dealing with a monolithic Deity – we are dealing with a human political system that can and must change.

While our current government responds to tragedy with thoughts and prayers, a moral silence, we can respond loudly, we can own our moral voice.

I must be honest with you this evening – I have no idea how this will be solved. But I know we must try to articulate productive paths forward.

We can join Rabbi Matt Soffer, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and others as they lobby for smarter and safer gun laws and regulations.

We can work hard to elect officials who care deeply about ending gun violence in this country, and then we must hold our officials accountable to human lives not NRA dollars.

We can engage with thought leaders like Nick Kristof who argues in the NY Times that we can reduce gun violence by following a public health strategy like the one employed in 20th century automobile regulation.

And we need to realize that increasing security is not the only means of keeping our communities safe – we must also engage in preventative measures that make sure those on our margins find the support and care they need to thrive.

Tonight, I share your heartbreak and your outrage.

Aaron, Ezekiel and Job might have been silenced by God’s misuse of power in their personal lives. But they were not silent figures. Aaron served as the first high priest, helping the Israelites live as a healthy community. Ezekiel preached a message of ethical justice, and brought his people back to the right path. Job proved Satan wrong, and showed God and humanity that people can be resilient and strong. They moved beyond their silence and used their voices to create a just world, a healthy community.

Members of the Parkland community who have lost children, siblings, spouses and friends may well stand in shocked silence this Shabbat. But we as a society cannot and will not be silent any longer.