Today marks the Winter Solstice.  We have moved through the shortest day and are entering longest night of the year, and, in doing so, we also start moving toward the rising of the light. For several millennia, it’s been hard for our species to resist the metaphor in that fact!

This week, I think we need to delay our eagerness to get to the light, and dwell a bit longer in the darkness— long enough to learn what it has to teach us.

As we all know, there are a lot of “longest nights” in life, and some of them seem impossibly long… Those who have endured the seemingly unending “longest nights” of depression, know how important it is to let darkness become a teacher. The poets know this, too…

The American poet Theodore Roethke said: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

A master of many literary genres, Wendell Berry wrote:

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

And on this particular Winter Solstice, before we start turning toward the light, we need to spend some time embracing the darkness—or letting it embrace us.

Even as we grieve the horrendous tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, last week—even as our hearts break for the families and classmates, colleagues and first-responders in Newtown— even in our darkest times, let us spend a few more moments in the darkness and try to glean some lessons, insight, and, G-d willing, some positive steps to take from this experience.[1]

Permit me to share a poem written last week by my colleague, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, also known as the Velveteen Rabbi:

“G-d, let me cry on Your shoulder.
Rock me like a colicky baby.
Promise me You won’t forget

each of Your perfect reflections
killed today. Promise me
You won’t let me forget, either.

 

I’m hollow, stricken like a bell.
Make of my emptiness a channel
for Your boundless compassion.

Soothe the children who witnessed
things no child should see,
the teachers who tried to protect them

but couldn’t, the parents
who are torn apart with grief,
who will never kiss their beloveds again.

 

Strengthen the hands and hearts
of Your servants tasked with caring
for those wounded in body and spirit.

 

Help us to find meaning
in the tiny lights we kindle tonight.

Help us to trust

that our reserves of hope
and healing are enough
to carry us through.

We are Your hands: put us to work.
Ignite in us the unquenchable yearning
to reshape our world

so that violence against children
never happens again, anywhere.
We are Your grieving heart.”[2]

 

And a prayer by Rabbi Andrew Vogel Ettin[3]:

“Because we feel helpless, let us reach our hands to those in need.
Because our grief seems beyond comfort, let us comfort those who suffer.
Because we are fearful, let us be strong for those who are vulnerable.
Because we are confused, let us be sure of one another.
Because we confront emptiness, let us honor those who protected lives.
Because we are angry, let us labor for changes.
Because we see brokenness, let us strive more purposefully for the world’ repair.

May the children who were killed and the teachers and administrators who died trying to protect them be enfolded in precious memories of their joy their promise and their virtues.

May those who survived walk paths that lead to healing and comfort, for the sake of life.

There are several issues that fill our thoughts:   Certainly we think of gun safety, mental illness, and the proliferation of violence in the media to which our young people are exposed.  We feel impotent to stop what seems to be a whirlpool sucking us down into the blackness.  But we are not impotent.  We have been granted divine free will and the ability to repair the world.  “L’takein et ha olam” our tradition teaches us.

So I’d like to share with you a Resolution on Gun Safety,[4] onto which I’ve signed, as a member, and immediate past-President, of OHALAH, the professional rabbinic organization of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal:

“The horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT last week leaves us grieving. Our grief at the deaths of the twelve girls and
eight boys (all aged six or seven), among the twenty-eight victims– some of whom were their teachers, who died trying, in the most sacred traditions of their Calling, to save the lives of their students – impels us to offer this resolution, along with our prayers for healing and comfort for the families who now grieve unthinkable loss.

In the United States, we live amidst a growing epidemic of gun violence and
mass murders. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg wrote this
year:[5]

“Guns have murdered more Americans here at home in recent years than have died on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. In support of the two
wars, more than 6,500 American soldiers have lost their lives. During the
same period, however, guns have been used to murder about 100,000 people on American soil.” According to The Brady Center to Prevent Gun
Violence[6]approximately 30,000 people die in gun-related incidents in the United States each year.  A Mother Jones investigation[7] found there were 61 mass shootings in 30 different states between 1982 and 2012. Most of those murderers obtained their firearms legally, which only underscores the urgent need to change our gun laws. A significant portion of these deaths are children and teenagers — our future.

The problem is much worse here than in other countries.  Last year, handguns killed 48 people in Japan, 8 in Great Britain, 34 in Switzerland, 52 in Canada, 58 in Israel, 21 in Sweden, 42 in Germany and 10,728 in the United States. The U.S. ranks first in the world in privately held guns per 100 citizens according to the Geneva-based Small Arms[8]

 

It is within our power as a society to prevent at least some of these deaths, and therefore that prevention our solemn responsibility. The tremendous disparity between the number of deaths by gun violence in the United States and the number of deaths in other industrialized countries supports this conclusion. Further, while correlation is not causation, states within the United States with strict gun control have significantly fewer deaths by gunshot than states without such controls.
What has been lacking is the political will and moral courage to make the necessary changes to save lives.

On this issue, we interpret the injunction in VaYikra, “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,”[9]  to mean we must advocate at every opportunity to prevent the deaths and injuries caused by gun violence. Further, we concur with the majority of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that regulating private ownership of firearms does not violate the Second Amendment to the US constitution, which guarantees the right of American citizens to bear arms.
Although Jewish tradition forbids killing animals in such a way as to cause pain (which gunfire is likely to do), and therefore forbids hunting for sport, we recognize the existence of cultures and communities in the USA within which hunting is central. We recognize the validity of hunting as a cultural practice and as a means of sustaining and defending oneself, as well as the fact that marksmanship and gun collecting are significant activities for many people. It is important for any regulation of gun ownership to recognize these activities. We also recognize that guns can play an important role in defending society — witness the example of Israel, where reservists and off-duty soldiers have automatic weapons, but where private gun ownership is almost one fiftieth the rate of gun ownership in the United States. But we reject the logic which would hold that the right to bear arms means free and unfettered access to automatic and semiautomatic assault weapons.

*Therefore, be it resolved that:*
We urge the swift passage of comprehensive gun control legislation on both the federal and state levels, which includes any of, and we hope all of, the following elements:

• a renewed and updated ban on private possession, sale or purchase of
assault weapons, high capacity ammunition magazines, and hollow point
bullets;
• licensing requirements to possess any firearms. Such gun licenses must be
renewed annually and include background checks and character witnesses;
• eliminate the gun show and private sale loopholes on background checks;
• registration of all guns;
• tight regulation on sale of all ammunition, including amounts that can be
purchased in a given period and possessed in total;
• universal gun-safety training and periodic refreshers;
• mandate safe storage of guns;
• hold gun owners liable if they are shown to have been negligent in
storing their guns and a gun stolen from them is used to commit crime;
• create incentives for gun owners to voluntarily relinquish their guns,
especially military and police style weapons;
• prohibit gun ownership by convicted felons and the mentally ill.

We are dismayed that the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban[10] was allowed to expire in 2004, and insist that any new gun control legislation be passed without an expiration date.

We recognize that many of the perpetrators of mass killings in recent years have been people suffering from mental illness. We urge our legislators to restore sufficient funding so we may renew our societal commitment to diagnose mental illness accurately and to offer treatment and care to people with mental illness.

We urge that all candidates for federal or state office refuse and return all donations from the NRA until that organization stops its efforts block any meaningful gun control.

We pray for wholeness and healing for those who have suffered from gun violence, and for our nation as a whole.[11]
We need not put the total burden of change on our legislators.  The amount of violence our children are exposed to on television, in films, and, perhaps most insidiously, on video-games imprints young minds negatively.  We can monitor what our kids watch or with what they interact on their consoles.  We can write the producers and directors in Hollywood and plead the case for more wholesome entertainment.

And, in the spirit of “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself,” we can participate in some simple act of chessed, lovingkindness.  NBC’s Ann Curry began a movement of meaning; it is simply called “26 Acts of Kindness” to honor the 20 children and six teachers.  Anonymously paying for the groceries of another at the Supermarket, delivering soup to a friend with a cold, volunteering at a women’s shelter or a homeless shelter, mentoring a student in the public school system, bringing in books for underprivileged children….there are an unlimited number of opportunities for us to pay it forward.  If each of us takes it upon him or herself to consciously perform 26 random acts of kindness, we will be, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, put it, ”praying with our feet.”

May our words be heard on the Hill and our prayers on High.  Ken y’hi ratzon…

 

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

21 December 2012

 



[1] Based on thoughts by Parker Palmer.

[2] Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Poet and Blogger, a.k.a., the Velveteen Rabbi, and Spiritual Leader of Congregation Beth Israel, in North Adams, Massachusetts

[3] Rabbi Andrew Vogel Ettin, Spiritual Leader of Temple Israel, Salisbury, North Carolina.

[4] This may be found on the www.OHALAH.org website

[5] <http://www.northjersey.com/news/opinions/lautenberg_073112.html?page=all>

[6] <http://www.bradycenter.org/>,

[7] <http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map>

[8] Survey<http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/>

 

[10] <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Assault_Weapons_Ban>

[11] Sources:  “Gun advocates want to arm
teachers<http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Gun-backers-want-to-arm-schoolteachers-4126214.php>,”
by Kevin Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle, December 18, 2012.
– “Terror and fear
American-style,<http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/terror-and-fear-american-style/>”
by Rina Ne’eman, The Times of Israel, December 15, 2012.
– Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence <http://www.bradycenter.org/>.
– “Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United
States<http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/14/nine-facts-about-guns-and-mass-shootings-in-the-united-states/>,”
by Ezra Klein, The Washington Post’s WONKBLOG, December 14, 2012.
– The Graduate Institute – Geneva; Small Arms
Surveyhttp://graduateinstitute.ch/corporate/institute/news_en.html?newsId=146825