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Friday, December 21, 2012

Beyond Sandy Hook: The Prophetic Call for Unity and Community

This week we wish had never been. We saw America – and humanity - at it's worst and at it's best. We witnessed unspeakable violence against innocent children and adults. Yet, we also heard the stories of the brave teachers who risked and lost their lives saving their students. The stories of 6 yr. olds who grabbed their friends and ran with them to safety, even holding the door for them, while the gunman was still in the building. We read of the neighbor of Sandy Hook Elementary School, who took in the young children he found sitting in his driveway, still dazed and in shock, and cared for them until their parents arrived. And we witnessed the strength of the parents who, in their time of deepest loss, turned not to anger, but instead to love, wanting nothing more than to share who their child was in life, even while mourning their death. These are all humanity, and America, at its best.

But after the carnage was over, we began to hear other examples of the worst. We heard extremist evangelicals pervert the name of God by saying that the massacre was brought about because we had “taken God out of the classroom and public life” or blaming the massacre on the fact that Connecticut had legalized gay marriage. We have turned our backs on God, so they say. And so, their warped prophetic message was nothing more than believing that we reap what we sow. If that truly how God acts, then I don't think I could go on believing or praying. And yet, I do believe in God. And I must. For it is my connection with God, whatever that happens to mean at the moment, that gets me through difficult times. I also pray, and believe in its importance, but not officially sponsored prayer in public venues or schools, but at home or in synagogue with my fellow Jews, or with others. 

Furthermore, it is not true that God abandoned us or the people of Newtown. But God was not in the hand that pulled the trigger. Rather, God was was weeping with the innocents as they died. And God was present in the arms that held the frightened children, comforted bereaved families and in the hearts of all who mourn. God is the source of that which connects all of us and urges us to seek a spiritual unity.

But alas, there was no real unity in our country before this tragedy. We saw that in the rhetoric from all sides in what had to be one of the most contentious and partisan elections in modern history. Yet, when the tragedy struck, that was forgotten. There was a sense of unity in our grief. But now we can already see that unity unraveling. There are still those who claim it was punishment from God. There are others who believe that the correct response to the massacre is to allow more people to carry guns for protection, while other say that we need tighter and stronger gun control laws. The battle is beginning, while many of the dead have yet to be laid to rest and while the nation, if not the world, is still in shock.

All week I have known that I would, indeed I must, speak about this unspeakable tragedy on Shabbat, but how. How do I avoid becoming overly political when I feel so strongly and passionately about the need for stronger gun control, to improve our mental health system and to ease the restrictions that keep out so many people who need help. How do I avoid turning this sermon into a rant or a tirade? How do I find something different to say after a week of being bombarded by articles, news shows, blog posts, etc. from various religious and secular positions who have weighed in on the issues from all sides. How?

First I turned to the parashah/portion from the Torah we're reading this week. Va'yigash is about the tearful reunion between Joseph and his brother, and then the brothers bringing Jacob and his entire camp down to Egypt to live. I couldn't see any way to connect this to this week's tragedy. So then I went to the Haftarah, this portion we chant from the Prophets this weekend. This passage from Chapter 37 of the Book of Ezekiel speaks about God eventually reuniting the two halves of the divided kingdom of the Jewish people – Israel and Judah. In the future, God says, they will dwell together and “I will make a covenant of Shalom with them – it shall be an everlasting covenant with them – I will My Sanctuary among them forever. My Presence shall rest over them; I will be their God and they shall be My people.”

When I read these final verses, it became clear that the prophet was speaking to me, and to all of us. For in the passage Ezekiel is speaking about the once united tribes who were now split into two kingdoms. Today, we may not literally live in a divided country, but all one need do is look at the blue and red maps from the last election, to see that we are indeed a nation divided. During the campaign season, the passion, even hatred, was palpable everywhere. It was as if we were fighting a political, philosophical – and I would say spiritually – civil war. And after the election, with the so-called fiscal cliff looming in the distance, it seemed that the battle continued to rage.

Then Sandy Hook happened, and we stopped for a moment to remember what was truly important. Parents hugged their children a little tighter. People with no connection at all to the the school or the town were weeping as they watched and read about the horror that had occurred there. It was as if for at least that day, or a couple days more, we were one nation in mourning

But now, only one week later, the illusion of unity is dissolving. The battle lines are being drawn for the fight over gun control, though there is no doubt that the battlefield and the rules have changed. A discussion that should be about how to best protect the people of our country is framed by a false dichotomy as being about one party's desire to protect the rights of the people first and the other that wants to control every aspect of our lives. And the discussion about our country's pitiful record on treating and funding the treatment of the mentally ill has not really even begun. But when it does, I have no doubt that there will be those who see the mental health issue as a red herring or an exaggeration or who feel that it's all about freedom and the will to choose. But that debate has not started yet.

And though the blood on the floors and wall of Sandy Hook is still there as a stark reminder of the tragedy, our nation and its leaders are already once again posturing, arguing and blaming one another in terms of proposals for how to avoid the so called fiscal cliff. In other words, after one brief shining moment of unity, the divisions have returned. That is where the Haftarah comes in. For I believe that the Haftarah indeed provides a prophetic vision that can be a spiritual antidote.

I in no way  agree with those who claim that taking God out of the public sphere was the cause of the massacre. However, as much I believe taking organized prayer and religion out of the schools and the government, etc is the right thing to do, I believe that there is something missing in our society and our world. That something is the sense of interconnectedness and unity that I believe is at the heart of what I call God. God is that force which connects us to everything. I call it God, you may call it something else, but I believe it is essential for us to remember that this force does exist, no matter what you choose to call it or how you choose to connect to it. We know that, for so long in America, this sense of connection has been missing. We are a nation of rugged individualist in which the sense of community that once existed has been torn apart as our homes, our town and our families grow further apart. Back in 2000 Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, discussed how the social compact that once existed had disintegrated. The title was based on the fact that more people were bowling than in the past, but the majority were bowling alone and no longer as part of a team or a league. It was indicative of America, then and now. There may be more of a sense of community in a small town such as Newtown. However, even there, the increasing distance between the houses reflects a desire for a certain amount of distance from others.

In the wake of what happened in that small New England town, I would like to interpret the verses from Ezekiel in a way I believe might help us begin the work of truly healing and reuniting a nation, and as a humanity, if we only listen to the words and take them to heart.

Again, the words of Ezekiel are: “I (God)will make a covenant of Shalom with them – it shall be an everlasting covenant with them … I will place My Sanctuary among them forever. My Presence shall rest over them; I will be their God and they shall be My people.”

Here God is saying that establishing a covenant of Shalom, an abiding peace and wholeness in the nation, involves placing God's Sanctuary, God's dwelling place, in their midst. God's presence shall also rest over them. The relationship between God and people will be an intimate and interdependent one. The people are dependent on God, but God is also dependent upon the people. And this is what we need to help our country heal. We need to remember that there is a power greater than us, here in our midst, which can bring us together in an intimate way, while providing spiritual shelter and comfort.  I don't care if you call it God or the Force or the energy of the world. I call it God, and I believe that God is right here, wherever we are, waiting for us to connect. We don't need to teach religion or pray in the schools in order for this to happen. On the contrary, we should each do this on our own, or in a religious or spiritual community. For our individual spiritual practices, no matter what they may be, are all connecting us to the same Divine Energy in the universe, no matter what we may call it. If we remember this, then we can create a greater sense of community and start to bring healing to our country and our world. One community at a time.

Yes, the so-called fiscal cliff will still be looming, and we will still disagree on how to approach it. Yes, the debate over gun control and mental health issues will continue. However, if we remember that when we connect with each other we are also connecting with the Divine, then we can have the disagreements without feeling the need to demonize the other. Perhaps then, we can once again have passionate debate and disagreements that are still civil and respectful..

So God and prayer have been taken out of our schools?  Just in terms of any organized, school-sponsored activities.  Anyone can pray on their own at any time.  And that's the way it should be. But let us also do what we can to make sure God – or whatever name or word you choose  – is still here in our hearts, connecting us to eacg another, bringing comfort to the grieving and compassion to the downtrodden, bringing happiness and joy wherever, and to whomever, possible. And bringing healing our fractured world.

Let us begin this work now.  We only need to take it one day …. one moment at a time. And let us do this in memory of the victims of last week's shooting, the victims of all violence, terrorism and war, the victims of hatred, prejudice and malice. Let us do it for ourselves and for the generations to come. In that way we can begin to bring to fruition that Brit Shalom, that eternal, everlasting Covenant of Peace and Wholeness, that we all so desperately need.

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