Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
On January 9, 2013, the Houston Chronicle published my op-ed, “We are all responsible for Sandy Hook Slayings: The nation needs to talk about guns, mental health”. The bulk of the text is below. I reprinted it here with blanks to fill in the names of new cities and perpetrators. I can’t rewrite the article if the story hasn’t changed. Let’s change the story and write a new article about lives saved and mental health addressed. Let’s begin by insisting on bi-partisan change that will save lives and honor our nation’s promise to all people.
The massacre in (fill in the city name) was a horrifying and senseless killing spree that left the nation in shock, again. That proverbial (fill in the blank) from down the street who kept to himself came out to reveal his demons in acts of terror. This time it was the death of people of all ages who came out for a nighttime concert in Las Vegas.
Naturally, my response is a Jewish one. In Judaism, death can provide a means to redemption for one who commits a heinous crime; but, there is no sin and certainly no crime for which the innocents in (fill in the city name) needed redemption. I had nothing to do with what happened in (fill in the city name); not directly, anyway. I did have something to do with it indirectly, and so did you. There is a conversation about gun control and mental health that our national leaders have failed to have with us. It’s a political hot potato, so no one has touched it. But, (fill in the city name) has changed everything. We are citizens in a nation that must open this conversation and reframe it for a new outcome. How do we begin?
Judaism teaches us to revere the law; but reverence for law, while noble, should not become an idol of worship that prevents us from cherishing life as our greatest human endeavor. Torah teaches us “Choose life that you and your offspring may live” and we are taught to do ethical deeds — one person to another — in order that we may live by Torah, not die by Torah.
Our text is the 2nd Amendment of The Constitution of the United States. There we read, that “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” We have left little or no room for commentary. The text has become an idol, and the price we pay is the life of innocents.
In Judaism, we read text with commentary. One example of a commentary on guns comes from the IDF. The Israeli Defense Force lives by a code of conduct called “The Basic Values”. It includes devotion to defense of state, its citizens and its residents, love of the homeland the loyalty to the country, and human dignity. Every solider carries with them a card with the words “Tohar HaNeshekh” Purity of Arms inscribed on it. It explains: The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.
The gun is obviously an essential tool in their roles as defenders of the state. But, their right to bear the gun is subordinated to their duty to human life.
Mental health is the second commentary. To treat a chronic mental illness requires an ethical commitment to the whole person. But, our nation’s commitment to the whole person has failed all of us. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, reports that “even during the best of economic times, youth and adults living with mental illness struggle to access essential mental health services and supports.” One in 17 people in America lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder. Texas ranks 49th in the nation for adequate services and support. Cuts in mental health services shift responsibility to emergency rooms, law enforcement agencies, correctional facilities and homeless shelters. Ultimately, the burden is forced upon neighborhoods, shoppers in the mall, students on university campuses, a congresswoman serving her district, kindergartners and their teachers in a small town in Connecticut, congressmen playing baseball, and concert goers at a country music performance.
Many conversations will be held on what to do about gun control and mental health services. One of those conversations must be prompted by President (fill in the name of president) and our ablest national leaders. With midterm elections in the near future, its’ time to insist that they provide a context for new conversations on these essential subjects. They can begin with the Constitution as our text, and then insist that the commentary be our ethical duty to human life. One way to do it is to think of the 2ndamendment as the body. It’s the vessel that contains the principle created by our Founding Fathers. Commentary, then, is the heart and soul of the law. When the body has a soul, it lives and breathes. Then we come closer to what the Founding Fathers surely intended for themselves and for us. No one will repeal the 2nd Amendment, but neither should anybody tolerate disregard for human life as our highest priority. Subordinating the heart and soul of humanity to the vessel of a man-made Amendment is out of order. Let’s reframe the conversation to sanctify life first, and subordinate everything else that might destroy it.
The legacy of all those who have been gunned down in our nation is in our hands. We have the means and the know-how to fashion new gun laws and address mental health in America. But, do we have the will? The ethics of all our faith traditions should inspire us to be God’s partners to sanctify life above all else.