Rabbi Marc Gellman, in his book, “Does God Have a Big Toe?” begins the story of Moses with a conundrum that God must deal with. He writes, “God needed a Jew who knew about freedom to get the people free and Moses was the only free Jew. … There was, however, on problem with picking Moses. Moses knew that he was free, but he did not know that he was Jewish. Nobody was Jewish in the Pharaoh’s palace and Moses was in the Palace.”
Moses discovers that he is a Jew and becomes the one Jew in the whole world who can teach our ancestors what it means to be free. It will take him 40 years of wandering in the desert to teach our people the meaning and responsibilities that come with freedom. He will have to convince skeptical people that it is better to work in freedom than to work as slaves. He will face rebellions and stubbornness from the people. Getting the people out of Egypt, the story we read last night, was difficult, but it was nothing compared to what it took to get Egypt out of the people.
This basic ignorance of freedom by the Israelites, is one of the best examples we can point to, to show the importance of education. Without knowledge, we are like cavemen in a library, all the information in the world surrounds us but without the ability to read, all the books are useless. One of the first tactics of tyrants in all of history is to limit the education and information that is available to the public. If Jews were persecuted throughout history, it is all too often because we could read, we were educated, and we understood how kings and clergy kept the dark ages, dark. Think of how far the world has come in the last 200 years since we started educating women and slaves.
The founding fathers of the United States understood that one of the ways government would become corrupt was through the telling of lies, and so they enshrined a free press to enable the people to know when their government was lying. The Vietnam War was brought to an end once it was discovered that the Johnson Administration was lying about winning the war. President Nixon was forced from office when the Press discovered that he was lying about political corruption.
Once we have knowledge and once we have understanding, we can begin to address the most difficult issues we need to face. Many of the most intractable problems of modern society are precisely difficult because we react out of our prejudices and feelings and not from positions of knowledge. Once we understood how seat belts could save lives, we were able to mandate seatbelt use and the number of highway fatalities dropped significantly. Once we understood how alcohol caused accidents on the highway, we could create appropriate laws about the drinking age and drinking responsibility to make our roads safer.
Last weekend, at the many “March for Our Lives” rallies around the world, teenagers and children begged adults to do something to save the lives of our children. They had lots of ideas about how to address the problem of school shootings. They had many ideas to share about how to make our schools and streets safer. But adults kept telling them that they did not understand the problem. They were told that we have a Second Amendment to the constitution that gives everyone the right to own a gun. They were told that there was too much money being given by the gun lobby to make the idea of gun control impossible. The carnage on our streets and in our schools is just the price of our freedom and the best way to counter the threats to our children was to arm their teachers and teach the students CPR.
We have taken dangerous weapons and, rather than make them safer, we have done all we can to prevent us from making any changes at all. It is forbidden for our government to fund research on the reasons behind gun violence. We are not allowed to know what we can do to make guns safer. We are not allowed to study how to curb the violence on our streets and in our homes. Our government does not what to know and they don’t want us to know either. Our leaders just want to stand, with their fingers in their ears, and pretend that they don’t know for sure just how deadly the weapons on our streets are.
There was much talk this year about a flu pandemic, the many people who died this year because we did not predict the correct strain of flu that would plague our country. But we have a plague of gun murders in this country and we pretend that there is no immunization that can protect us. This idea, of course, is nonsense. There is much that can be done to protect us. Just as seat belts protect us from car crashes, so too laws requiring safer guns, guns that can be fired only by their owners, better gun locks, better laws about the proper storage and use of guns would go a long way to ending the plague of gun violence. Just like we have speed limits on our roads to make them safer, we can have limits on ammunition and the proper licensing for gun owners. The vast majority of car owners drive responsibly, and so too the vast majority of gun owners act responsibly. Yet we still don’t let car manufacturers build cars that can go too fast to be driven safely or without basic safety equipment. We have the technology to pair a gun with an owner, so the gun will not work if someone else steals it. Just because we can make guns shoot faster and longer does not mean we should allow them to be manufactured.
Just like car owners, perhaps gun owners must have the proper insurance to own and operate a gun. You can own a fast car, but you will pay more to insure it. You can own lots of guns, but what might be the cost of insurance when the risk of misuse is so high? Some simple statistics seem to indicate that having guns in a home increase the chances of a successful suicide or an accidental death. What might insurance companies do to discover the costs of insuring that risk? What would the savings in insurance costs be if the guns were safer and secured properly in a home?
These kinds of laws are common sense laws. The simple ideas that just help us own up to our responsibilities when we wish to handle dangerous devices. We might be able to create better laws if we could study how guns could be made safer. But funding for the study of guns and gun ownership is prohibited. So, we can’t study how guns are used, we can’t adjust our laws to make guns safer and we can’t even prosecute companies who make unsafe weapons. If we propose any limit on guns at all we are tainted as “Un-American”, we don’t know what we are asking for and we don’t understand gun culture.
But the students who spoke last Saturday, the students who were marching for their lives were doing what children have always done in western society. They were pointing out to us adults that the “Emperor has no clothes”. All the excuses we adults had about why gun use, and gun rules could not be changed were less than lame excuses. We were walking around convinced that we were doing all we could to keep our children safe from violence. Our children called us out as naked. There is no excuse. Of course, we can do more. And we are embarrassed that we have not done anything after all this time.
Where is our Moses who understands what we have failed to learn? Where is the leader who can bring some sense and sensibility to this problem and guide us to safer cities and schools? Haven’t we stumbled around in the desert long enough to at least find a way to get to the promised land of safety and security? We need a Moses who says, not “Let My People Go!” but one who says, “Let My People Know!”. Until now all we can know is that our children are dying, and we must find a way to stop the killing. All kinds of people, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, men and women, are all dying, and we have the power to stop it.
Children. The first born of Egypt, had to die for our freedom. In the wilderness, it was the adults who had to die before we could enter the promised land. I think that enough people have died because of our inability to make guns safer and our culture saner. There is much we can do: elect better leaders, protest like our teens, and, if we own guns, then at least we should do what we know needs to be done to make our homes and families safer.
If we can say that guns don’t kill, people kill, then we can also say that guns won’t get any safer unless we people make them safer. I understand that common sense is, far too often, not very common at all. But at least we can say that we are trying to make the world a better place … it is better than walking around naked, pretending we are wearing our armor.
Dear God, help us find a way to a world of freedom and security, a world of liberty and safety. And let our children lead us as we say … Amen, Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, March 31, 2018.