Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, June 4, 2016
It was heartening to see so many members of our congregation and the Jewish community at the South Bend Moms Demand Action Wear Orange Walk to mark National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Unfortunately the approximately 100 people who came to the event were still too feeble a response for the immensity of the task. Over 30,000 Americans are killed each year do to gun violence. That is 20% more than people who die of Leukemia. A year ago the Ebola virus struck such fear into the populace that the US. Congress set aside a billion dollars to fight Ebola. In that year 2 Americans died from Ebola. Yet Congress has passed a law prohibiting the Center for Disease Control from studying gun violence.
Civic leaders and religious leaders, including yours truly, had the opportunity to participate in the rally but the most effective speakers were two African American women who have organized groups in different parts of town to take back local parks for the children, demanding accountability for those who carry or shoot guns in the local parks.
One of the very important elements lost in all the talk about 2nd amendment rights of gun ownership, community safety, the loss of life, is the psychological and emotional toll of gun violence in our communities. Gun violence is a very large category. Many who die from gun violence are suicides. In some cases, impulsive violence – such as the tragic murder of a young man at a bar downtown last week. Gun violence may be gang related or retaliatory violence. Mental illness plays a hand in too many mass murders.
But in addition to the devastated lives of those who survive lost loved ones, what about the toll on the community where violence is prevalent?
The Urban Institute, a social and economic policy research institute produced a study which looked at the impact of gun violence in communities where such violence is common.
In one study of urban youth, 42 percent reported having seen someone shot or knifed and 22 percent reported having seen someone killed. Exposure to gun violence has been linked to a variety of psychological challenges like anger and dissociation, anxiety and depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also affect youth in the classroom, making it difficult for them to concentrate in class and damaging their academic performance and educational or career aspirations.
Retaliatory violence is another consequence of some neighborhood violence which leads a vicious cycle. “I got the concept,” one survivor explained. “You know, I’d rather get caught with [a gun] than without it . . . I was willing to hurt somebody if they tried to hurt me. Nobody was going to do that to me again.” In this way, the urban league report compares gun violence which spreads far beyond one original incident, sometimes targeting innocent family members, to a blood-borne disease like HIV which unfolds through social networks.
Also, gun injuries and exposure to gun violence are often triggers for PTSD, and it’s not uncommon for sufferers to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. This coping strategy imposes a variety of new health risks including, most tragically, increased risk of suicide. And the increased likelihood of loss of impulse control leading to more indiscriminate violence.
Nancy Scales-Simon, who lost a brother to gun violence, spoke to the concerns of the wider impact of gun violence at the rally on Thursday. She told the crowd that her family narrowly averted another gun-related tragedy when her children and grandchildren were among the kids caught in the crossfire of a shootout at the city’s Ravina Park. She said her granddaughter is afraid to return to the park and has trouble sleeping. When violence disturbs daily life and normative activities; when residents see no visible achievements in curbing the violence, not only frustration and anger are the results. Existential angst develops and grows. Recently a South Bend Tribune article described a couple on the Northwest side who have been victims of gun violence. They want to move but can’t sell their home because it has lost 50% of its value as the neighborhood deteriorated. After no success in positive change, the wife expressed her true feelings: "We are trapped. We are prisoners."
How much the more so for children who grow up in such common quotidian violence, who sense that this is normal. How different, really, is their life, with the constant fear of guns and brutality, from children in war zones?
Our Torah portion this morning graphically describes a society that is suffering from violence and massive upheaval. Of course the Torah’s description of this terrifying situation is due to the people’s intransigence and rebellion against God. The end of the book of Leviticus lays out the conclusion to the list of rules and statutes that began with the Holiness Code in Chapter 19. “If you follow My rules, a communal life of blessing and goodness will be achieved. But if you defy the mitzvot that I place before you, a litany of tragedies will visit you.” We could say that the depictions of violence we live with in our society are also a response to not following the path that a healthy society should follow: The lack of economic opportunity for so many, the terrible state of our public education system, and of course the ease with which mentally unstable and unqualified individuals can acquire guns. The comfort for the member of the Jewish people is that after we read this frightening list of tragedies that may occur, we are reminded in the end that ultimately “Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God.” But for us Americans, who will bring salvation and redemption to communities devastated by 30,000 annual murders and violent deaths if not we ourselves?
The Tochecha brings conclusion to the Book of Leviticus but it does not end the book. Leviticus and our Torah portion end with a chapter on the voluntary vows of tzedakah a person may make to the Temple. A person could vow their value to the Temple and offer it as a gift. Distinct categories of people carry with them specific values. This has caused some controversy to our modern sensibilities since men have a higher valuation than women. In the reality of the Biblical world, men did have a more practical value. A male slave could do more work and cost efficient work than a woman. Or you could look at it as a bargain, women could vow their value to the Temple and it would cost them less.
In any case it is an odd juxtaposition. Blessings and curses, God’s promise of eternal support and then immediately this dry list of valuations. Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin (late 18th C), explains the proximity. One listening to the Tochacha might despair. Not just out of fear but also an existential dread could creep over him – if such is possible what is the point? He might begin to doubt “What am I worth? Does my life have meaning or value?”. And then Chapter 27 follows the Tochecha which comes to remind us that, despite everything, every Jew has does have value.
We need such reminders in our civic life as well. While I hope that all of us will support efforts to make gun safety a premium in our community and work to stop the insidious violence that destroys so many lives, we also need to insure that those who are most affected by violence, all of us really, though some more than others, recognize that their lives do have intrinsic value and significance and this is why despair and acting out of desperation should cease.
The oldest living man in the world today is Israel Kristal who lives in Haifa. Kristal is a survivor of Auschwitz and lost all his family in the Holocaust. In Israel he remarried and today is a great grandfather. Our job in life says Kristal, “All that is left for us to do is to keep on working as hard as we can and rebuild what is lost.”
As we think about the warnings in this week’s Torah portion, and the Moms Demand Action Orange Walk this week to fight against Gun Violence, let us keep Mr. Kristal’s words before us – Let us work hard and rebuild what is in danger of being lost – our integrity, our security, our trust, our communities.