D’var Torah Bereshit - The Tohu Vavohu of Gun Violence

Congregation Kol Ami - West Hollywood, CA - Friday, October 9, 2015

Written by Jeremy Gimbel

In the beginning, there were swirling masses of chaos that were, tohu vavohu, unformed and void. In the days of creation that followed, God created light and darkness, water and sky, land and vegetation, celestial bodies, animals, humanity, and Shabbat. In short, in the beginning there was chaos, and the story of creation brings about order. 

Wouldn't it be great if that was the end, if that was the only thing we needed to learn from this story? 

In fact, we are just at a beginning. 

B'reishit bara Elohim, begins the Torah, "In the beginning God created" ... or so we think. The bet at the beginning tells us "in," and "reishit" tells us "beginning," but what is unclear is what comes between "in" and "beginning." But the grammar tells us that we cannot think of b'reishit bara Elohim as "in the beginning." Instead, the vowels want us to read this as "in a beginning," implying that there are lots of beginnings. And before you think that this is just my idea, this is actually an interpretation that has great Kabbalistic and rabbinic backing. 

B'reishit bara Elohim, "In a beginning of God's acts of creation..."

Moses Maimonides reads the story of creation as a parable, understanding that we, as creatures created in the "image of God," are commanded to develop an ability to understand the world and how we, as Godly messengers, function in the world. Our job is to take the chaos of the world, the injustices of the world, the tohu vavohu of the world, and bring about order through justice. 

B'reishit bara Elohim, "In a beginning of doing divine work..."

As we begin to read the Torah again, and as we begin this new year, we are compelled to acknowledge that there is a narrative out there that says that our country was unformed and void, and the second amendment gave us order. There is a narrative out there that says that if the government does something about guns in this country, we will move from order to chaos.

That narrative is harmful, dangerous, and factually wrong. 

According to the FBI’s recently released “Crime in the US, 2014” report (https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/resource-pages/downloads), a report that includes all incidents of gun violence known to law enforcement (except for Florida and Alabama), nearly 1800 people were killed by a gun due to an argument not during the commission of a felony. Not as a result of gang violence nor drug trafficking - just arguments that escalated. In fact, the number of gun homicides due to those two categories I mentioned, gang violence and drug trafficking, was HALF of the gun deaths due to an argument not during the commission of a felony.

And in the aftermath of the most recent high-profile shooting in Oregon, the NRA tweeted, "It'll take a lot more than one disturbed individual to intimidate or silence Americans who believe in the #2A!" (twitter.com/NRA) One astute respondent asked, "How many more?"

There is a narrative out there that says that this is not a gun issue, but a mental health issue. Yes, mental health is an issue in this country. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 4 Americans are impacted by mental illness. As an aside, I encourage you to do your part to help by taking this three-word pledge: "I will listen." 

But the narrative that tries to connect mental health and gun homicides is just factually inaccurate. According to an article in the Annals of Epidemiology, the large majority of mentally ill people are non-violent. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24861430) And the vast majority of gun violence is committed by non-mentally ill people. The American Journal of Public Health reports that "fewer than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings [studied] were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness." (http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdfplus/10.2105/AJPH.2014.302242)

Mark Follman, reporting for Mother Jones, cites a member of an FBI program that is seeking to stop the proverbial next mass shooter. He argues that mass shootings are predictable and preventable, and not usually the result of psychosis. Quoting the agent, “When the next shooting happens, the question will again be asked, ‘What made him snap?’ But mass murder is not an impulsive crime. Virtually every one of these attacks, forensic investigations show, is a predatory crime, methodically planned and executed.” These people are sick, but they’re not sick.

There is also a narrative that we need more good guys with guns. Except that, according to a Politico analysis of school shootings, “no armed civilian has ever actually stopped a school shooting.” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/10/oregon-shooting-gun-laws-213222?o=1)

All of these narratives are not just factually inaccurate, they go against our Jewish values and the Jewish tradition. Throughout time, Judaism has focused on the sanctity of human life. The Ten Commandments tell us, "You are not to murder." (Ex. 20:13, Fox) The Prophet Isaiah tells us to "beat [our] swords into plowshares, and [our] spears into pruning hooks." (Isaiah 2:4, JPS) The Rabbis tell us in Mishnah Sanhedrin that "the one who takes one life it is as though that person has destroyed the universe." (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) 

The Reform Movement has been at the forefront of leading the charge for combatting the curse of gun violence, passing resolutions as early as 1975 calling for legislation "that would limit and control the sale and use of firearms." (URJ 1975) The Central Conference of American Rabbis just this August reaffirmed their commitment to gun control by urging “the members of the congregations and communities [they] serve to demand that their Representatives and Senators enact effective gun violence prevention legislation.” (https://ccarnet.org/rabbis-speak/resolutions/2015/ccar-resolution-gun-violence/) They also encouraged government bodies — such as the military and police forces, which account for 40% of the guns sold each year — to use their purchasing power to demand certain safety features from gun manufacturers. (http://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/2015/06/18/rabbi-minister-and-priest-host-gun-show)

It is our time to flip the script and change the narrative. As we begin to reread the Torah, it is time for us to realize that we are at a beginning. We are at a beginning where gun violence in this country is tohu vavohu - chaotic and harmful. We are at a beginning where we can stand up and say: We will do whatever we can to bring order to this chaos.

“Does [it] make any sense that we should put rifles and guns in the hands of people who have long criminal records, or people who are insane, or people who are mentally incompetent, or people who are so young that they don’t know how to handle rifles and guns?” Do you know who said that? Bobby Kennedy in May, 1968, just a month before he was shot. How right he was.

The time has come for common sense gun regulations. This includes, but is by no means limited to preventing those convicted of domestic abuse from buying guns, closing the “gun show” loopholes, and repeal the law that helps gun manufacturers avoid legal consequences from the criminal use of their products.

And don’t even get me started about Australia, where after introducing common sense gun regulations in response to a mass shooting in 1996 and in concert with social and economic trends, there have been ZERO mass shootings. None. (McPhedran, Samara and Baker, Jeanine, Mass Shootings in Australia and New Zealand: A Descriptive Study of Incidence (2008). Justice Policy Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2011. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2122854)

Why am I speaking about this? It’s not specifically because of Oregon, Charleston, Lafayette, or Virginia or any of the other mass shootings that have happened this year. It’s not specifically because of Sandy Hook or Columbine. It’s not specifically because in the first 274 days of 2015, there have been 294 mass shootings. (shootingtracker.com and Washington Post) Not 294 dead from mass shootings, 294 incidents where there were 4 or more victims. 

I'm speaking about this specifically because I could not even finish writing this sermon before another mass shooting senselessly took innocent lives. I’m speaking about this specifically because I could not even finish editing this sermon before another mass shooting senselessly took innocent lives. I’m speaking about this specifically because these shootings are not, as Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng called it today, “isolated” nor “unprecedented.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/10/09/one-dead-3-injured-in-shooting-at-northern-arizona-university/)

And I’m speaking about this specifically because there's an emergency phone on the bimah. And I hope that at some point in my rabbinate, I will be able to leave it upstairs. 

For now, though, it is time, at this beginning of doing God's work, for us to pick up our phones and contact our legislators. Yesterday, Senators Schumer and Stabenow introduced plans for gun control reforms that would close background check loopholes, expand the background check database, and tighten regulations on illegal gun purchases. In the scheme of things, it's not a lot; but it will make a difference. 

We are living in a chaotic world. And complacently is not an option when it comes to gun violence in this country. 

B'reishit bara Elohim - in this beginning of doing God’s work, "Let the old year and its curses come to an end. Let the new year and its blessings begin.” (Kitov, "The Book of our Heritage," Vol. 3, p. 332)

Mi shebeirach avoteinu v'imoteinu, God of our ancestors, let us recognize that we are at a beginning of doing Your work. May we see the light in the darkness. May we bring about order in the chaos of gun violence. May we inspire humanity to, in the words of Rabbi Menachem Creditor, "rebuild Your World by saving each other." (rabbicreditor.blogspot.com)

Yir’eh Elohim, ki tov - God will see, and it will be good.



12/01/2015 9:39am

God of our ancestors, let us recognize that we are at a beginning of doing Your work.

10/21/2016 2:59am

I think to end any kind of religious induced violence, we should all start acting like kids. You can put kids with different religion in one room and I am telling you none of them will discuss culture. Kids just want hugs, and running and laughing. When someone makes fun of another kid, they don't do it intentionally and they are quick to learn that it is wrong and they will not do it again. None of them is being taught to hit another kid just because he is different. If they do, they will be very confused and given a chance, they will not do it unless forced by a sick adult.


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