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Sermon: Parshat D'varim, 8/9/19

08/11/2019 09:49:00 AM


Rabbi Charlie

Deuteronomy – D’varim begins with Moses recapping the Israelite’s wanderings as they draw near to the Promised Land. And as Moses speaks, it’s hard not to notice what sounds a lot like frustration. Moses stresses the times when the people wouldn’t listen to God. He blames the people – “Because of you, God was incensed with me” (Deu 1:37). He asks rhetorically, “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deu 1:12). We don’t always see Moses as sad or angry or frustrated.

According to our rabbis, he had reason to be. S’forno, the 16th century Italian commentator explains that Moses was frustrated by the Israelites because, “Rather than focusing on their major problem, how to get out of the desert into the Promised Land, they had wasted their time and efforts in the pursuit of petty concerns, undermining their interpersonal relationships in the process” (Sforno on Deut 1:12).

After I read that, I felt Moses’ frustration and I felt that S’forno was speaking to us, today. Because for a long time it seems that we have had a hard time focusing on major problems due to more trivial concerns that are harming our interpersonal relationships.

While this teaching applies to many important issues, we are reminded daily that Gun Violence is a major problem in the United States. According to the Gun Violence Archive ( over 15,000 people were killed in America due to gun violence in 2016 and 2017 and almost 15,000 people were killed last year. Almost 9000 people have been killed so far in 2019 – Zichronam Livracha, May their memories be for a blessing. The Gun Violence Archive identifies any incident where at least four people are killed by a gun, not counting the shooter as a mass shooting. There have been over 250 mass shootings in 2019 – more than one each day. We are sad. We are angry. We are frustrated.

Conservatives and progressives, Democrats and Republicans all seem to agree that this is a big problem. The question is what to do about it. Our tradition is very practical when it comes to the idea of guns. Self-defense is a mitzvah (BT Yoma 85b). And while Judaism isn’t supportive of hunting for sport (Orach Chaim 316:2) due to the potential of cruelty to animals, Judaism does not take issue with the idea of owning a gun.

At the same time, Jewish tradition specifies that we need to safeguard anything that might be a danger to other people and that would be applied to guns (BT Baba Kamma 15b, 79a; Choshen Mishpat 427, 409:3). We are also forbidden from selling dangerous weapons to anyone who would use it irresponsibly or for criminal purposes (BT Avodah Zarah 15b; Yoreh De’ah 151:5-6). Such teachings apply directly to our nation’s conversation about gun violence.

Israel is an incredible example of how these values can be lived in today’s world. In Israel most everyone knows how to use a gun, but guns are tightly regulated because of the great responsibility that comes with dangerous weapons ( In spite of the major cultural differences that exist, I feel that there are many lessons that the US can learn from Israel on this issue.

And we need to learn. The status quo is not acceptable and has not been acceptable. Gun violence is a public health problem and research into gun violence has been inadequate for far too long ( We need to better understand the problem in order to know what effective change looks like.

There are a number of people who are concerned about what that change will look like ( We all should be. This is a major problem and we don’t want to waste more time on trivial issues. We need solutions that are practical and intelligent and effective.

That’s why the work of people like Cathy Barber at Harvard’s School for Public Health is so exciting. She’s “…working with gun owners, gun advocates, gun trainers, and gun shop owners. Together they are finding common ground and developing solutions” ( Effective change is doable and possible.

To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon, while we can’t fix the problem by ourselves, each of us has a role to play (Pirkei Avot 2:16). Now is the time to contact our Senators, call your Representatives. Wherever you stand politically, speak your truth. Share your story. They need to hear from all of us!

There is no magic wand to wave and make it all better – nothing that will take away all of the sadness and anger and frustration and mourning - but we can move the needle. We can change the status quo. We can save lives. Please do what you can. Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, August 6 2020 16 Av 5780