Parashat B’midbar Sinai: Is the United States, “All For One” or “None For All,” and, if the Latter, Do We Deserve to be a Country?

Parashat B’midbar Sinai: Is the United States, “All For One” or “None For All,” and, if the Latter, Do We Deserve to be a Country?

(delivered by Rabbi Sacks on Friday, June 3, 2022)

When Shabbat ends tomorrow night, we begin a very special celebration in the Jewish world, the birthday of the Torah, Shavuot. Our tradition depicts the sixth of Sivan as the day when we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai some 3200 years ago. In the rabbinic mind, it was then that the Jewish people received the great gift of the Torah.

A legend in the Midrash explains how we merited receiving the Torah. Like an aspiring writer going from publisher to publisher hoping to have their manuscript read accepted for publication, G!d went from nation to nation asking each to receive and accept the Torah. Invariably each nation’s leadership would ask G!d one question: “What is in it?”

The dialogue went something like this: G!d would respond to the question, ”It states, ‘Thou shall not steal.’”

“Not steal?!!? That’s ridiculous. We are plunderers. That is how we make our living. Thanks, but no thanks. Get out of here before someone hears such an idiotic idea.”

G!d then went to the next nation and, after being asked the usual question, responded, “Thou shall not murder.”

“Not murder?!!? That’s ridiculous. We have no skills other than killing, and we are quite proficient at it and make a good living. Thanks, but no thanks. Get out of here before someone hears such a ludicrous idea and tries to undermine our economy.”

G!d went to every nation in the world only to repeat some version of the above dialogue. Finally, he went to one of the smallest nations of the world, the Israelites, and offered them a gift of a tablet that contained the Torah. Our Israelite ancestors asked a different question: “How much does it cost?” G!d responded, “It’s free.” Whereupon the Israelites quickly rejoined, “O.K., we’ll take two.” (Please excuse my inner Mel Brooks; I couldn’t help myself.)

The version of the Midrash I just shared with you actually states that after G!d made the offer of the Torah to the Israelites, they immediately responded, “Na’ase v’nish-ma,” we will do it all. Now that we have agreed to abide by it, tell us what is in it.”

With that faithful and trusting response, G!d awarded the Torah to us. Since I first heard this midrash, I felt an even closer kinship to our people. We were different from the rest of the world. Not necessarily always better, not necessarily always good, and not always necessarily right, but different in that we had a unifying code that was greater than any one individual, and we were willing to sacrifice a lot of personal autonomy for far-reaching values that unified us as a people even when we did not agree or behave exactly the same.

Our individual needs or wants were important, of course, but never more important than the needs of the whole. In our history we were never stronger than when we shared those overriding values and never weaker than when we abandoned them in pursuit of parochial rewards.

In the somewhat antiquated literary narratives of Tanakh, the Bible, when our ancestors followed the will of G!d they were rewarded with peace and prosperity in their land. Conversely when they did not G!d’s will, they were attacked and, in the extreme, were expelled from the land.

Tanakh thus teaches that having an independent country was always going to be conditional. You would have it when you deserved it, but you could lose it if you abandoned the very values that earned you the right to that nation. That was the power of na’ase v’nishma, we will do, and then we will hear. A country deserves to exist when its people put aside their individual needs and commit to the values and the security that comes from observing those values.

Just last week we again observed the nightmare of our collective failure to protect our children. On May 24, in Uvalde, Texas, a shooter murdered 19 children and 2 adults, wounding 18 others at the Robb Elementary School. Is there a societal value greater than preserving the safety and well-being of our youngest and most defenseless population, and, furthermore, if we fail as we continue to do, do we still merit having a country?

Between May 24 and June 1, in the eight days following Uvalde, our country also experienced 20 more mass shooting incidents.[1] Taft, Oklahoma (eight shot), Henderson, Nevada, (seven shot), Chattanooga, Tennessee (six shot), Charleston, South Carolina, Benton Harbor, Michigan (my home state), and Tulsa, Oklahoma, were among the cities experiencing the violence.[2] There have been 230 mass shootings[3] so far this year. Since Sandy Hook in 2012, there have been well over 3,500 mass shootings. Do we still merit having a country?

There is no agreed upon “Torah” for how to maintain the safety of our children. Everyone has a different idea on how to safeguard the children in school, or the shoppers in Buffalo, or the worshippers in communities of faith. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone has a point. Some want more guns; some want no guns. Some want restrictions on the type of guns available for sale, while others want unlimited access. Some call the proliferation of guns an obscenity, and others a cherished constitutional right.

I ask now for what we need: seichel, common sense wisdom. Here is what I think seichel suggests. Our starting point must be for everyone to recommit to the common good, and put aside the notion that any one individual, or groups of individuals should impose their will, beliefs, or practices upon the majority, and damned be the result, even including murdered children.

This is what na’ase v’nish-ma means. We will not agree on all the details, but we must come to the table with the common good in our hearts, taking account of what experts tell us and what Americans say they want. What is common is that experts and Americans agree that steps must be taken to protect our society.

The words of the Torah are finite and fixed but the thousands of volumes of commentary on the Torah speak to the fact that there are multiple interpretations of Torah, but that doesn’t mean that in the greater picture we don’t share a common perspective. One unifying principle of Jews and Judaism everywhere has always been the sanctity of life. And we have always agreed upon the preciousness of children.

To merit remaining a country then we have to find a way to reach commonality, to attain a compromise wherein each side yields for the betterment of all, so that we don’t lose sight of why we are here, and why we deserve to continue to be here. This is called compromise. Judaism and Jewish law have always valued compromise.[4] Our representatives in Congress, whether in Washington, D.C. or in Sacramento, are supposed to work together and effectuate compromise for the common good. Those who only want to follow their party line are not only not doing their job, they are hurting our country and ensuring that we do not address the scourge of gun violence in our country.

But where should we start? An overwhelming majority of the country[5] wants background checks on gun purchases. An overwhelming majority feels that people on our government’s terrorist watch list or the FBI’s should not be able to buy or own guns. An overwhelming majority are asking for red flag laws that allow government agents to temporarily confiscate a gun when there is a suspicion of mental illness.[6] The guns are immediately returned if the person is mentally competent to own that gun.  The overwhelming majority of mass shooting incidents in our country are perpetrated by those under 21 years of age. Yet in some states 18-year olds can buy guns and assault rifles but are too young to buy Sudafed or a beer. Might this be just the opposite of what common sense should dictate? Assault weapons are used to kill people. It’s difficult to think of any legitimate need an eighteen-year olds would have for buying an assault weapon.

Can we not start here with these widely agreed upon changes? Can we start with even one of them? Of course it is true that these common sense changes will not stop all such attacks, and, it is also true that there are many other preventative and protective measures that might be put into place that might be better, but can we not at least start with these measures, to which the vast majority of the country already agrees and wants?

Let us reassure those in the minority who are not yet on board with such laws that we can monitor the results of such changes over time. If laws were not well-conceived, or not well-implemented, we can amend the law or do better education and training. And, of course, we can continue the communal conversation. And of course, we should expect that things will be imperfect and require tweaking. And of course, we have lots to do in the areas of security, mental health, and balancing the public good with individual freedoms. And we’ll need to work on many fronts, including education, research, and advocacy. And this is our problem: we are the only modern country that suffers from gun violence.[7]

Yet, can we not at least begin the process of coming together to assert that we are a country that cares for others, especially children? If the answer is, “No, because that won’t be enough,” I ask how many more children are you willing to see die waiting for our governmental leaders to agree on your utopian packages, when we to date we haven’t been able to get them to enact the pieces of legislation that their constituents have already demanded. And, if the answer is “No, you can’t infringe on our rights even if to save children from mayhem and murder,” then what is the role of a government, if not to do the best by her citizenry?

We have common sense legislation regulating cars, which also take lives. We have stop lights and stop signs, and rules regarding which side of the road one can or cannot drive. Every car has an identification number, and everyone driving has to prove themselves capable and competent to do so and periodically get that determination verified again. With all of this, I have never heard of anyone on the left claiming we should not have any laws until we have an even better system, and I have never heard of anyone on the right saying we should do away with all laws, stop lights, stop signs and other sensible ways to maintain the public good.

Yet now, gun deaths have topped deaths in car incidents. So, again I ask, if we cannot find our way to a “Yes, we want our government to take sensible steps of gun safety to protect all Americans, especially children, do we even deserve to have a country?

 

[1] A mass shooting is defined by the Gun Violence Archives as an incident in which at least four people were killed or injured. Obviously, if we counted gun incidents in which fewer than four people were killed or injured, the numbers would swell.

[2] From June 3 through June 6, there were another 23 mass shooting incidents in our country. (See the Gun Violence Archives for more details. The Archives in a non-profit organization that collects and validates data from 7,500 sources each day from media, government, law enforcement, and commercial sources.

[3] As of June 6, we have now experienced 256 mass shootings.

[4] For example, the great figure Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha ruled that “compromise is a mitzvah,” based on the biblical passage: “Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zech. 8:16). Both Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and the esteemed code, Shulchan Aruch, among many others codify the possibility and desirability of compromise.

[5] Polls continue to show that between 80-90% of all Americans favor universal background checks.

[6] Polls show that between 70-80% of all Americans favor red flag laws. The goal of such laws remains to get guns out of the hands of those with mental health issues. Polls show that between 85-90% of all Americans favor laws that help do this.

[7] A study published in 2022 in the International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice looked at mass shootings in which four or more were killed in the U.S. and 35 other high-income countries. Only five countries had more than two mass shootings from 1998 to 2019. The United States had 101. In addition, the study found that mass shootings in the U.S. accounted for 73% of all the mass shooting incidents in these countries combined during this period.

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