Monday, October 5, 2015

A Response to Oregon in Place of Hallel, delivered Shabbat Chol ha'Moed Sukkot, Oct.3, 2015

          If there is indeed a God, that pays astute attention, I can only imagine him rebuking us for our ineptitude.  Maybe that’s why he hides his face in a rock before Moses in our Shabbat Chol Ha'moed Torah reading: he can’t even stand the look of us at the moment.
Here we stand poised ready to sing praises to this God – Hallel, ancient words of poetry that we have made sure get passed down l’dor va-dor, from generation to generation.  Even as an increasing number of Jews are disconnected from worship and disaffected from traditional images of God, still our prayer book mandates the recitation of these psalms. We make the effort to keep these words present even if they may indeed be the only thing left to stand in the window of the synagogue to chant over the world's tears.
            This Shabbat Chol ha-moed, however, I cannot lead us in Hallel.  I can’t participate in the rejoicing that Hallel entails.  Yes, Sukkot is our z’man simchatenu -- you’ve heard me every year since 2008 remark from this bema that this is the one holiday where we aren’t just supposed to rejoice, we are commanded to do so: u’samchtem, our Torah demands that we rejoice even as we sit in our sukkot, dwellings that provide at best fragile and tenuous shelter from the elements.  We are to rejoice despite the insecurity and uncertainty of life. 
But, how on earth can we rejoice on this Shabbat chol ha’moed that falls on the heels of yet another mass shooting in our country? Gun violence is not some uncontrollable phenomenon like the weather or the unpredictability of our harvest.  It is not like Joaquin whose exact path keeps us guessing until it actually gets here. 
How can we stand and rejoice on this festival in light of our constant witnessing of gun violence, of intentional mass and violent murder.  This is, to reference the comedy flick that became one such tragic scene this past summer, a trainwreck.  Gun violence and mass shootings are becoming so commonplace in the United States that we tune out all but the most outrageous and horrific.  We should be ashamed at our silence, at our failure to pass better laws that restrict access to violent weapons, and at our scapegoating the mentally ill when it is clear that mental illness exists in every other country, even in those that don’t have gun violence being perpetuated on a daily basis by its citizens. 
           President Obama was correct on Thursday to scold our nation for allowing gun violence to become routine.  We have become numb.  We are no longer shocked; and, that in and of itself should at the very least unsettle us.  I spoke about this very issue during the High Holidays three years ago, and nothing has changed.  We should be ashamed at our collective inertia.  We are responsible.    
Using the definition employed by an index called the Mass Shooting Tracker, there has been at least one episode of gun violence directed at 4 or more people every day so far in 2015.   If there is indeed a God that pays astute attention to our actions, he doesn’t care about our Hallel.   He doesn’t want us rejoicing in the face of constant violence perpetrated by our own human hands.   Recall, we are, according to our High Holiday Avodah liturgy, the species adorned with: “a mind alert, a heart alive to love, a soul aspiring to know and to fulfill, a destiny governed by wisdom” these are attributes that distinguish us as humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.  It’s time we activate these divine gifts.
So in place of Hallel, in place of praise, I share this prayer – a prayer I’ve shared now more that I wish I had occasion to.  Let us consider its words.  Let us then be reminded that prayer is just lip service if it fails to motivate us to action.  We must get angry.  We must be willing to feel discontent, and then be prepared to stand up, speak out, and cast our vote against the proliferation of guns and gun violence in our country.