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You Shall Lie Down and No One Will Terrify You

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 satisfiedI 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).

WearOrangeBethEl2019The 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

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We Must Be Prophets

On Tuesday June 2nd of this past week, I intentionally wore orange. While orange is my favorite color, I donned such a hue with a specific purpose. I wore orange as part of the first annual National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Such a day of awareness was brought to the national level with the help of Everytown for Gun Safety, but it was not the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT or at the Movie Theater in Aurora, CO that sparked this day of awareness. It was not the systemic racist shootings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, or Michael Brown that launched such a day of awareness.

wear-orange-gun-violence-awareness-dayRather, the day was started by the friends of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was mistakenly shot by gang members in a Chicago Park in 2013. An honors student who only days earlier had performed in Washington DC at President Obama’s second inauguration, Pendleton and her friends were taking cover in a Chicago park during a rain storm when two men thought the group gathering together was a rival gang and began shooting. Her friends launched Project Orange Tree, asking people to wear orange on Tuesday because it would’ve been Hadiya’s 18th birthday. Everytown for Gun Safety brought such a day of awareness to the national level and elected officials and legislators, actors and actresses, athletes, and so many others, tweeted out just as I did, that they were wearing orange to raise awareness.

As my colleague and teacher Rabbi Aryeh Cohen pointed out, I’d rather than elected officials symbolically wearing orange, we need them to pass legislation to truly make this world a safer place. And so, a day after I attempted to raise awareness through pictures, tweets, and hashtags, I woke up and got dressed, this time putting on a white dress shirt instead of orange. That day, I followed the news closely as Maplewood Middle School was on a Code Red lockdown because a seventh grader brought a loaded 9mm Glock handgun to school at lunchtime.

A day later, I again got dressed, but instead of orange, I put on a blue dress shirt and followed the news closely that Columbia High School was on a Code Yellow lockdown because a student brought an air soft gun to school.

Thank God, no one was hurt. And yet, as the scare of gun violence and the realities of the world that we live in hit much closer to home, we must realize that raising awareness, wearing orange, only does so much and only takes us so far.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat B’haalotecha. In the Torah portion, we are introduced to Eldad and Medad, who remain in the camp and as God’s spirit rests upon them — v’tanach alehem heRuach — they acted as prophets. Yet, when Joshua hears of this, he is outraged. Next in line to take over as leader and serve as the mouthpiece for God, Joshua complains to Moses, but Moses responds in Numbers 11:29:

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all of God’s people were prophets and that God would put God’s Spirit on them!”

Moses’ hope is my hope: we must all see ourselves as God’s prophets, and thus, walk in God’s ways, striving to create a safer and more peaceful world, reflective of the world that God set out to create. As prophets, we all have a responsibility to build a safe community, to speak out and stand up, and assure that our children are safe. Just as v’tanach alehem haRuach, as God’s spirit rested upon Eldad and Medad, I pray that v’tanach aleinu haRuach, that God’s spirit will rest upon us as well. We must be prophets so that our children will not have to live in a world where they need to walk through metal detectors in order to take a math test or carry their books home from school in a bulletproof backpack. We must be prophets so that firearms and bullets aren’t sold at the same store that sells food, clothing, and video games.

Some of us may disagree on the solution, but we can all agree on the problem: more than 30,000 people killed every year in United States because of Gun Violence. May we join together, advocate together, and pray together, to ultimately force change together. May God’s spirit rest upon everyone. And may we one day see a day when we are all safe.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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