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Acray Mot. May 4, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Our Parsha takes place “Achray Mot” after the death of the two sons of Aaron. Aaron was a man of peace and well loved by all the Israelites, but he still had to face the tragedy of the death of two of his sons. The Torah implies that the two boys, Nadav and Abihu, brought the ultimate punishment on themselves. Some say they disrespected their elders. Some say they officiated drunk; some say that they did not have the appropriate “Kavana” or intention when they were working in the Mishkan. Whatever the offence, they paid a high price. Their death marks the moment in time that will be the starting point for all future moments.

And this applies to our times as well. We are gathered here this morning after the two shootings that have left communities scarred and terrified. It is now becoming clear that no congregation, Jewish, Christian nor Moslem is safe from those that would seek to destroy any chance of people living together in peace. The shooters in Poway, Charleston and in Christchurch may have acted alone in their day of terror, but they all had a larger agenda, to bring about the kind of twisted world where the losers can be on top and those whom they think oppose them, are all shot.

Now I recognize that the fantasy that is in the heads of these white nationalists has no grounding in reality. There will be no race war. They will never be given the keys to society. One does not impress others by killing unarmed people who are praying, attending school or doing their jobs so they can feed their families. These haters will never be on top of the world. When they are caught, they will rot in jail and be forgotten, not remembered by anyone. Victims of violence are remembered for the good they have done. When the killers die, their names are just footnotes at the end of the obituaries.

Once again, we will mark our time from the moment that the first shots were fired in a synagogue. Once again, we will be asking ourselves how can we pray with all our hearts, all our souls and all our might if we have to always keep an ear open for shots coming from the lobby? How can we enjoy synagogue when we first have to look around the room and notice where all the emergency exits are? Maybe we are safer at home on Shabbat morning, rather than coming together to laugh, learn and pray? How do we move on from here?

Jews in South America and in Europe already live with the violence that surrounds them. Those of us who are well traveled know it is common to have to give our passport numbers in advance to security guards at a synagogue before we can be allowed in, passing tallit bags through metal detectors and having to answer direct questions as to why we want to enter the synagogue. Perhaps it is time that such security measure will be required here. Only in Israel can one enter a synagogue without security, but only because you can’t get into the country without going through security.

Should we build a security fence around our property so the evil can’t enter our domain? Neighborhood children sled down the hill behind our building. Police officers use our parking lot to do paperwork while on patrol. It is a big decision to build walls to hide behind. Is this the kind of community that we will have to accept in the name of security? Will these walls make us feel safer when we come to pray?

Should we have armed security at the door to our building? Will a serious guard that wants identification from those that he or she does not recognize before they can enter, make us safer? Will it encourage Jews estranged from their faith to find their way back into the Jewish community? Is that Middle Eastern looking person a terrorist or just a visiting Israeli? If someone came without picture ID, would we make them go home and get it before we let them in?

Perhaps there is another way to go. We could pray every day that we be safe from assault. We can ask God to protect us from those who wish to do us harm, that, like in Poway, their guns should jam, and they should be chased by law enforcement out into the parking lot and be arrested before they can do any harm. Maybe all we need is to have faith in God, and we never need worry about harm coming to our community. If harm does come to the community it will be because we did not have enough faith, that we didn’t check every mezuzah for errors, or we forgot one week to light Shabbat candles. Maybe we should make God our security plan.

If you want to know what keeps the Rabbi up at night, it is the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. A white nationalist walks into a church, joins a bible study program, learns for an hour or so and then stands up and shoots everyone at the table. How does a house of God prevent a tragedy like that? Do we really need metal detectors at every door to make sure that each person who enters is safe? We would need a team of professionals to monitor the detector, to look through bags and to prevent anyone from trying to jump across the line.

None of these security ideas work because we want our cake and eat it too. We want our doors to be open to those looking for the peace that our religion can bring to their lives, but we also want security; we don’t want to be praying with one eye on the door. We don’t want to live our lives in fear, and yet there is so much danger out there that we find we are almost always afraid. It is for Law Enforcement to think up all the dangerous scenarios, we just want to be free to practice our faith in peace.

The Haggadah that we read at the Seder two weeks ago, noted that in every generation there are those who arise who seek our destruction. There has never been a time in Jewish History where Jews always felt safe from harm. Somehow, we have always come through, we mourn those who have lost their lives protecting our lives, but we somehow always go on. We try and protect ourselves, but we don’t want to give up on that which makes us not just any community, but a Jewish community.

So, what can we do to make our community safe? As I have already stated, I believe that this country needs practical gun laws that actually keep firearms out of the hands of those who are a danger to themselves and others. We need to ban semi-automatic weapons for sale since there is no practical use for these guns. This alone would make a huge difference. We need to make gun owners responsible for the guns they own, just like drivers have to be responsible for the cars they drive.

We need to be alert to our surroundings; we need to practice, “See something, Say something”. We may not want to get involved but what we ignore can hurt us. This does mean that sometimes innocent people are stopped and searched because they look or act suspicious. We need to be careful here. Being a “person of color” is not a suspicious person by definition. The most notorious killers did not fit any racial profile. Pay attention to those around you and don’t be afraid to call for help.

Finally, learn what to do when there is an active shooter nearby. We are not on our own. We can choose our course of action wisely and increase our ability to survive an attack. Our congregation hopes to hold soon an evening to teach our members what they need to know in an emergency. I am not a big believer in arming yourself to be prepared for an attack. I know from my work with the West Palm Beach Sheriff’s office that most of the time guns meant to defend ourselves end up killing someone we love. If we do take that route, we need to make sure that we have all the proper licenses for carrying weapons, that we use the appropriate safety devices, that we store the firearms properly where children can’t get at them, and practice, practice, practice at a gun range so we are not firing indiscriminately and hurting innocent people who are just in the way. Owning a gun is a big responsibility, one we must take very seriously.

We have a security committee. They are serious about protecting everyone who comes here to worship. But real security does not come cheap. We have made our building a harder target in many ways already. The Manchester Police are actually impressed with what we have already done. Still there are a lot of hard decisions that will need to be made.

What we do know is that too many people have died, and we must continue to do the hard work, to keep all people of all faiths safe in their homes, at work and in their houses of worship.

May God show us the way to stand with each other, not in fear but in peace, as we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom



Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780