In Memory of Rashad Jones
Parashat Bechukotai, the last Torah portion of the book of Leviticus, begins with the promise that those who follow God’s ways will be blessed. And then goes into detail about the blessings that they will receive:
I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit… You shall eat your bread and be satisfied… I will grant you peace in the land. You shall lie down and no one shall terrify you (Lev. 26:4-6).
Rabbinic commentary is clear that these are three separate blessings, even if each comes one right after the other. The Sifra, midrash on the book of Leviticus, explains that the reason we are told that we will eat and be satisfied immediately after being told that we will have an abundance of food is to teach us a lesson that abundance doesn’t equal satisfaction. It is only after the over abundance that we realize that although our natural instinct is to always want more, to always strive for more, we should realize that the blessings that we already have in our lives are enough.
But then the midrash continues: it doesn’t matter what we have, and it doesn’t matter if we are satisfied with what we have, if we don’t have peace, if we don’t feel safe in this world and we don’t feel like we are protected.
The Torah is quite specific in what this means:
v’cherev lo ta’avor be’artzeichem. And no weapon shall pass through this land (Lev. 26:6).
The Torah is suggesting that we will only achieve peace when we rid our world and ourselves of weapons of murder. This week, at the entrance to Congregation Beth El, we have orange lawns signs posted out front, with the word #ENOUGH written on them. Tree branches hang over these signs, each with orange ribbons tied to them. This week, we observe Gun Violence Awareness Day and wear orange to say enough is enough. This week, we declare that the blessings in our lives don’t matter, that being happy with what we have doesn’t matter, as long is we don’t have peace in our lives, as long as approximately 100 Americans are killed by guns every day.
Why orange? Because that was Hadiya Pendleton’s favorite color – and that is what her friends wore in her memory. She was shot in the back, and murdered in 2013, while on a playground in Kenwood, Chicago, with friends, after taking a school exam; she was murdered one week after performing at President Obama’s second inauguration.
Just this past weekend, a disgruntled former employee walked into the Virginia Beach Municipal Building, the Town Hall where the Mayor’s office is, and starting shooting, killing 12 people in an officie complex that housed 400. This mass shooting is the deadliest in our country this year. We might focus on the tragic mass shootings that cause us fear, school shootings like at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland, or synagogue shootings like at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, but we cannot forget the daily losses of life by gun violence. The loss of life that becomes just a number, those who are victims of this epidemic that kills 36,000 Americans a year. Like Hadiya Pendleton. Or like Rashad Jones.
Anita Pittman, a wonderful person and a dear member of our community and professional team, works as Beth El’s Financial Administrator. As we gathered for Shabbat services last Shabbat to read Parashat Bechukotai, she was burying her 20-year-old godson and cousin, Rashad Jones. He was shot and murdered just miles from here, sitting on his front stoop, in Newark last week. An innocent soul. And just one of the over 36,000 that are victims of gun violence every year. We cannot just be fearful of mass shootings. We need to end the gun violence epidemic that ends the life of a child on their front porch on a warm spring weekend evening.
We can wear orange. We can put up ribbons. We can post lawn signs that say #Enough. But that really isn’t enough. And we can be thankful for all the blessings we have in our lives. And believe that they are enough. But they aren’t. Because it won’t be enough until we stop bury children. It won’t be enough until our elected officials stop participating in avodah zarah, until they stop worshipping AR-15s like they are idols. It won’t be enough until our elected leaders are beholden to voters, to their constituents, instead of the gun lobby. And it won’t be enough until we pass federal laws to reduce gun violence.
And we will not stop fighting this epidemic until we see God’s blessings – God’s promise — of cherev lo taavor b’artzeichem, of no weapons of murder in our land, come to fruition. May the memory of Rashad Jones be for a blessing. And may we finally see God’s promise in our lives. May the prophecy of Isaiah become reality as we turn our swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, as we plant flowers in our gun barrels. Because we cannot truly be satisfied, until we can build a world where we are all safe. May it be so. May it happen speedily in our day. And may we do the holy work, the necessary work, to make it happen.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky