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Behukotai 5782               May 28, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

     In the ancient Near East, it was the custom, when a ruler would publish a list of laws for all the people to follow, a list of crimes and their punishments, the law code would end with a list of curses addressed to those who would think to disobey the rule of the king. It is not surprising that we see the same format in our Torah, a list of laws from the King of kings, the commandments of God. In this week’s parsha, the end of the holiness code of Leviticus/Vayikra, and at the end of Deuteronomy/Devarim we see a tochecha, a list of terrible curses addressed to those who would not comply with God’s laws.

     Rabbi Aviva Richman of Yeshivat Hadar in New York City explains the curses this way: In the Torah, these curses are not about fortifying the power of a flesh and blood ruler, but about motivating us to follow the Torah’s guidance and do mitzvot. Perhaps there is some efficacy in the fear and guilt that undergird the curses as we reach for a sense of control and agency. If I only do better, the thinking goes, then I can make the problem go away.

     That is one way to read these curses, but rabbinic commentators from as far back as the second century, began to be uncomfortable with this explanation. The Torah has no problem with one person sinning and the entire people suffering. The rabbis of the second century did have a problem with this. The midrash from this time is not about “do these mitzvot or else!” it is more like what we do as a people will determine what will happen in the future. If we follow the law, then there will be blessings and we will dwell in peace. If we do not follow the law, it will lead to all manner of problems and curses.

     Again, Rabbi Richman explains, Throughout Sefer Vayikra, we have been amplifying the importance of a mutual intimacy in our relationship to the mishkan (tabernacle) and to God. This underlying depth of trust in relationship may be the only thing that can help us move forward to address the problems that may feel like punishments and curses. God is “with us” in trouble not just to cry with us or lend a shoulder to cry on, so to speak, but to nourish the generativity and creativity that can help us find our way out.”  

     What we see is that the blessings are not guaranteed, they are the result of the good things that we do. The tochecha, the curses, do not really come from God, they are the result of the terrible things that we do. It is not a matter of having to endure a punishment, but of understanding where these curses come from and then changing our actions to bring change for the better into our future.

     We have certainly had our share of curses in the past several years. We have known about the dangers of climate change for decades and now we are starting to feel the very same effects of climate change that was predicted long ago. The average temperature of the earth is rising; there are droughts, floods, and storms far more severe than at any other time in the past. And there are new problems that were unexpected. Fires caused by climate change are releasing ever more carbon into the atmosphere.

     COVID was a severe unanticipated disease that was unexpected and uncontrollable in the beginning. When the last pandemic, the Spanish Flu, came to this country in the early 20th century, we had no idea about bacteria, viruses, and the need for keeping our hands clean. That was not the case in 2020. We knew what we needed to do to slow down the spread of this virus, but instead of a public health emergency, it became political and hundred of thousands of people died in the first year because we did not take it seriously enough.

     We face food shortages and safety issues because of war and instability in other countries. We could do more to help bring food and safety to those who are facing famine and are being forced from their homes. And yet we hesitate to address several critical problems that could help ease the suffering. We worry that if we help others then we will not have enough for ourselves even though we already have far more than we can already use.

     I believe that the ongoing slaughter of citizens of this country is a preventable curse. We faced this week another school shooting; this time nineteen fourth grade students and their teachers who tried to protect them. There are no words to describe the horror and the pain. We in this state, Connecticut, we know this horror extremely well. It is a disaster that is no less real today than it was ten years ago. We have lived with random shooters in this country since 1966 when a student climbed a tower at the University in Texas and started shooting the students in the quad below. The names of the schools, University of Texas, Columbine High School, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, Upqua Community College, Santa Fe High School (Texas), and now Ulvaldi, Texas are the names of schools where the most people died. There are hundreds of others where gunfire erupted at schools and where only, only, one or two died and the others merely wounded.

     And, of course, schools are not the only places where innocent people are being shot. Shooters like places where they can kill lots of innocent people without them shooting back. We have had mass shootings at concerts, shopping malls, grocery stores, movie theaters, churches, synagogues, and baseball fields. And this does not include the daily carnage that takes place on the streets of our cities each and every day.

     There are those who insist that if more people have guns, then there will be less violence. The statistics tell a different story. Shootings happen when the police arrive within a minute, but in that time, a semi-automatic gun will have already killed a dozen people. People armed with handguns only succeed in getting themselves shot because the shooters have bigger and more deadly guns. Have you noticed that the most recent mass shooters are also dressed in tactical gear, wearing body armor that ensures bullets fired at them do no damage?

     There are some who think that this is a mental illness problem; that people who are not mentally stable are responsible for mass shootings. There are laws proposed, called “red flag” laws that prevent people who are not stable from having guns; a court can take away guns from someone they deem dangerous. Except, these laws are only proposed. Our law makers refuse to adopt them into law. Almost ninety percent of the citizens of the United States, including gun owners, including members of the NRA, believe that universal background checks would help prevent more violence, but the laws have not been put to the vote in Congress so 40% of the guns sold in this country do not require any background check at all. It is true, a foreign terrorist cannot fly on an airplane in this country, but he can buy a semi-automatic AR-15 with a high-capacity magazine.

     Democrats are quick to point out that Republicans are responsible for holding up all the legislation that could begin to slow down the killing. And that part is true. But Democrats are also unwilling to do what it takes to pass the laws without Republican support. Our own Senator Chris Murphy, after this week’s mass murder in Texas, screamed from the floor of the US Senate, “What are we doing!!!? We all know the answer. We are doing nothing.”

     Thousands of people march for sensible gun control. The US House of Representatives passed sensible gun control, with HR 8 two years ago. The Senate has yet to even discuss the bill. Gun proponents insist that there is no way to predict these random acts of violence. That may be true, but they are doing nothing, nothing to even make such events less likely. It is not the members of the NRA that are to blame, it is the gun manufacturers, who give millions to the NRA PAC to donate to state and local officials to make sure they vote to keep gun sales up.

     I thank God I live in a state that has sensible gun control. But the Supreme Court is poised to rule on a sensible gun regulation in the State of New York and so far, the betting is that it will be declared unconstitutional. The Supreme Court appears to be leaning toward the position that the Second Amendment protects anyone who wishes to carry a handgun outside of their own homes, striking down New York’s law requiring gun owners to register their guns.

     Ellie Gettinger, the Director of Digital Learning at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote in her D’var Torah this week, In the tokhehah, God’s wrath comes from the rejection of commandments—commandments that include the exhortation to care for those in need, “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.” Curses emerge from unappreciated prosperity, failing to live up to the moral code at the center of God’s laws and commandments. Blessing can also arise from curses. Anxiety and challenge can heighten mindful appreciation of the plight of others and our broader world. We can be responsive instead of apathetic. Yes, we are deeply enmeshed in a difficult time in a challenging world. This offers us a chance to see the wreckage and evaluate what we can do differently. Even within the “curses” of the COVID era, there have been opportunities for “blessing”—for us to take stock and better appreciate the simple joy of being with friends, to explore and enjoy nature, to consider what really matters to us. It would be easy to be mired in the debris that is trailing behind us, but … we can be intentional, facing forward, looking to what comes next.

     In moments of trauma, we can develop an awareness of our challenges and shortcomings and develop a powerful sense of empathy. Behukkotai implies that there are reasons for national calamity, rooted in complacency during times of prosperity and ignoring inequity and injustice. There is a sense of the power of human agency to behave differently, and the moral responsibility to do so. And for people to find ways to do this together would truly be a blessing.”

     If guns are a plague in our country, and if this curse has become the major cause of death for children in this country, surpassing the number of children killed in auto fatalities, there is only one way to end this, to end complacency and behave differently. We do have a moral responsibility to do this. Parshat Behukotai teaches us that we caused this curse, and we have the power to end it. Our state is already on the forefront of ending this plague of gun violence. Let us lend our voices to those of other states. We must not “stand idly by while the blood of our neighbor is spilled.” Let us turn this curse into a blessing so all of the people of this nation can sit in the shade of their vine and fig tree, with no one to make them afraid.

     May God help us in this quest to save lives.  Amen

Tue, November 29 2022 5 Kislev 5783