Gun Violence in Our Country: A Crisis for Every Single American

A bullet is positioned in front of Springettsbury, Pa., Police Chief Thomas Hyers at Girard College in Philadelphia, Monday,
A bullet is positioned in front of Springettsbury, Pa., Police Chief Thomas Hyers at Girard College in Philadelphia, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, after a round table discussion on gun control with Vice President Joe Biden and other elected and law enforcement officials. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

I'm astonished that powerful public voices are still chastising gun-violence prevention advocates in this country by claiming that they are using the Sandy Hook shooting as a manipulative tool to backhandedly rid our country of guns. It's not helpful. It is also unclear how reacting to trauma by working to subvert further trauma is anything but just. One may not like their proposed answers, but let's not attack the integrity of the response. There is simply no (credible or supported) movement to "grab all the guns," but rather, an essential debate on how to best uplift public safety for everybody while still taking Second Amendment rights seriously.

I'd like to offer at least one reason why I won't stop talking about gun violence, specifically Newtown and its watershed implications.

I recently attended a multi-faith clergy gathering in Washington, D.C., on the topic of gun violence in our society. I expected we would focus our collective energy in bringing a religious voice to the sorts of common-sense gun control measures being hotly debated across America. To a certain extent, we did, and I am overflowing with statistics and facts about modern weaponry, beyond what I ever imagined I would know.

But I quickly realized this unique gathering offered something different. When asked to share just one personal story of gun violence, I looked across the table from me toward two pastors, who looked somewhat confused. "One story?" "Really?" "ONLY one story?!" Reality began to set in. It occurred to me that most of the clergy in this particular room would officiate at more funerals of gun-violence victims under the age of 25 in a month, than I would even attend in my lifetime. My blinders began to lift. Was this my "Moses comes down from the mountain" moment?

In perhaps the most suspenseful story in the Torah, Moses, after pleading successfully with God to spare the Israelite's lives after the Golden Calf debacle (Exodus 32:11-14), sees for himself the raucous actions of his clan and cannot contain his anger and outrage. He crashes to the ground the sacred and precious gift he had just received from God, the Ten Commandments.

But is this public display of frustration an acceptable leadership paradigm to celebrate? Isn't this kind of emotional response exactly what we strive to keep out of the public sphere?

In a boundary-pushing rabbinic response, the Talmud radically reconfigures God's reaction to Moses' shattering of the tablets as a sign of respect, and admiration. When God directs Moses to construct the second set of tablets, two "seemingly" superfluous words appear at the end of the verse:

The Lord said to Moses: "Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered" (Exodus 34:1).

Why did God feel the need to remind Moses that he broke the first set of tablets? You'd think that memory would still be quite fresh. The rabbinic response:

Resh Lakish says: There are times when the shattering of Torah is actually its foundation, as it is written: "which you shattered (asher shibarta)." God said to Moses, "Way to go, you broke them! (Yasher Koach She-shibarta!)" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot 99a-b)

Resh Lakish imagined that God recognized some events so jarring and disruptive that the only authentic response is outrage, astonishment and direct action -- even if something important is lost along the way. Yes, even the Ten Commandments, wholly Divine, became secondary to human behavior in this moment.

In fact, this raw response is the essential stuff of transformation. It is only when we tangibly experience the pain, denigration and even failure of others -- to the realistic extent possible -- that we can become catalysts for real change. This powerful sense of empathy links us to their stories and begs us to responsible participation in the unfolding narrative that surrounds us.

This remarkable passage and its message speak truth for so many of us right now. It directly addresses why so many voices are loudly gathering to challenge the unnecessary legislative and financial gridlock that threatens our communities as thousands of lives are continually being lost. It is why the NRA's out-of-touch leadership is rightly demonized throughout vast sectors of society.

The Newtown tragedy -- and its "that could have been in my neighborhood" sensation -- is waking us up to the fact that Sandy Hook happens each day in this country. It has cracked open a nation's heart such that our eyes may finally witness that which is directly in front of us: in our towns, throughout all neighborhoods in our cities, across our nation. It is Aurora and Sandyhook, but so much more. It is about angry men and vulnerable women, adults and children, suburban schools and inner-city playgrounds, gangs and suicides. It is in Newtown and New Orleans, Chicago and Columbine, and Oak Creek and Oakland. And it occurs several times a day. As an entire nation we are now sufficiently unsettled and broken, and we ourselves must continue the process of tablet shattering.

Of saying, "Enough!"

Of saying, "My entire country is my community and all in its borders deserve the opportunity to live in peace and safety."

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s eternal message teaches, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly" (Letter From a Birmingham Jail).

If you, like me, are just waking up, now is the time to make your voice heard. If you advocate for stronger and common sense gun-control measures, call your elected officials or sign a petition.

If you are a member of a faith community, invite your congregation to join communities across the country in the upcoming Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath.

If you think stronger gun control is the wrong direction, you still have a voice and moral imperative in the gun violence conversation that goes beyond the Second Amendment. Please assert it. Support proven life-saving programs all across our country with donations, like the Boston Ten Point Coalition or the Institute For the Study and Practice of Non-Violence or the nation-wide Ceasefire programs.

And finally, average members of the NRA, please notify your leadership that they likely no longer speak on your behalf, but only obscure our national dilemma with duplicitous smokescreen tactics.

Now is the time.

A collection of several rabbinic responses to gun violence has been recently published and can be purchased on Amazon.