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From Hardening Our Hearts to Opening Them: working towards ending gun violence

Dear friends,

I was asked by many of our congregants to share my drash from this past Shabbat on remaining present and open-hearted in our national conversation on gun violence. We had a beautiful conversation with many contributing their own  ideas about how we as a community might work together to stay engaged—not allowing the passing of time to erode our resolve to work towards new common sense gun laws and improvements in our mental health system in this country. If you do not feel like reading the whole drash, please scroll to the bottom for a list of things you can do RIGHT NOW to make your voice heard on this one month anniversary of the tragic shootings in Newtown!


Rabbi Philip Ohriner

From Hardening Our Hearts to Opening Them

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about plagues this week. Plagues are not a relic of the past.  They are an aspect of life that we continually face— the current Flu epidemic, poverty, hunger, and violence are just a few. This morning, I’d like to speak about how we respond to plagues when they confront us. And in particular, what we might learn from the way pharaoh responds to the plagues wrought by God through Moses and Aaron about which we read in this week’s parashah. There is much to speak about regarding the plagues, but I would like to focus our attention on a subtle but incredibly important transition that takes place between the fifth and sixth plagues.

Exodus 9:7—After the plague of pestilence (#5)

When Pharaoh inquired, he found that not a head of the livestock of Israel had died; yet Pharaoh remained stubborn, and he would not let the people go.


Exodus 9:12—After the plague of boils (#6)

But the Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not heed them, just as the Lord had told Moses.


Midrash helps us to understand what this shift signifies. What does it mean that it was now God who in some way hardens pharoah’s heart as opposed to pharaoh maintaining his own stubbornness?

Exodus Rabbah 13:3

Reish Lakish said…when God warns someone once, twice, and even a third time, and that person does not repent, then (and only then) does God close his heart against repentance and exact punishment from him for his sins. Thus it was with wicked Pharaoh. Since God approached him five times and he took no notice, God then said (in effect) “You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; well, I will add impurity to your impurity”. Thus God tells Moses, “For I have hardened (hikhbaditi) his heart” (Exodus 10:1). What does it mean that God “hikhbad” the heart of pharoah? It means that God created his heart to become like a liver (kaved) into which no juices can enter, even if boiled a second time. Thus, the heart of Pharaoh became like a liver, and he did not receive the words of God.


Pharaoh became so complacent, so transfixed in his refusal that he eventually became unable to move, to let go of the Israelites even when he cognitively realized he and Egypt were lost. He loses all ability to choose another path and becomes utterly desensitized to the suffering that surrounds him. There is a terrifying moment somewhere between the end of the pestilence and the beginning of the boils when pharaoh is no longer capable of opening his heart.


Last week, students from Sandy Hook elementary school returned to class in a new school building just as momentum in the world of public policy was building. After Columbine, Blacksburg, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek, and now Newtown it seemed as though hardened hearts were opening. President Obama announced his new task force on gun violence headed by Vice President Biden and there was a sense that our political leaders, the lobbyists, as well as everyday citizens might be capable of opening their hearts and listen to one another for the sake of peace in our cities and our schools. But as with so many things, the initial drive and good intentions slowly erode. The emotional impetus demanding change recedes. Hearts begin to harden once again. And we find ourselves wondering, “Ad Matai?” How long will it take? How many murders? How long can we continue down this path as a society before, like pharaoh, we lose the ability to hear one another and work together for the common good?


Of all the petitions and statements made over the last couple of weeks about Sandy Hook, it was the following notion that has kept me awake at night:


From the petition (now with over 16,000 signature)

We will not allow the intense emotion we feel now to return to a place of complacency where we become desensitized to the atrocities that unfold around us daily. We must come together to build a society worthy of those lost and a culture that represents our best virtues.


I am thankful to all who have engaged in the process and I have a sense that as a country we are essentially in agreement that regardless of the details of the outcome, we must collectively fight against complacency and inaction over the coming weeks and months. We must remain engaged in the process of listening to those with whom we might disagree while also being resolute in advocating for some common sense gun policies at the state and federal level.


Earlier this year, the USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly passed a joint resolution calling for restrictions on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, as well as a more rigorous screening policy a more robust background check. Rabbis and Cantors across the country have signed petitions calling for changes. Congregants have done so, as well.


Each day, I, like many of you, gain greater insight into the complicated interplay between the realm of mental health and gun violence. There seems to be some consensus surrounding low-hanging fruit that might keep guns out of the hands of patients who suffer from the kinds of mental illness that make them a threat to themselves and those around them.


But learning and following the news is not enough to keep the forces of inertia and complacency at bay. And they will not keep those 20 children from fading away in our consciousness. Nor will they honor the memory of the other 12,000 Americans who were murdered with a gun last year. As Rabbi Hillel Silverman once wrote:


Rabbi Hillel Silverman, From Week to Week

Every time we disobey the voice of conscience it becomes fainter and feebler and the human heart becomes harder to reach and move.


The Torah this morning confronts us with a real and present danger and calls us all into question. How are we as members of Congregation Beth David going to fend off complacency? How are we going to ensure that we will not follow in the ways of pharaoh’s protracted inaction that calcified his heart and his ability to change his reality and the reality of his people?


Frequently here at Beth David, our morning study is about ideas and values. But today, I hope that we can create a sacred space to speak about action. I know that we do not all agree on every detail of this complicated issue. And frankly, I am not asking anyone to share our policy positions. What I am asking is how we remain present in this issue in an active way? How do we motivate our family and friends to engage in the national conversation? How do we remain sensitive and open-hearted to this issue within the context of our daily lives?


Over the week, I compiled my own list:


1. Sign the JCPA Petition for comprehensive action in the wake of the Newtown massacre:


2. Let our president know that you support common sense legislation addressing gun control:


3. Join close to one million fellow Americans in advocating for required criminal background checks for every gun sold in America, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and legislation making gun trafficking a federal crime with stiff penalties for those who arm criminals.


4. Ask Gov. Brown to address a mental health component of gun violence by closing gaps in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.


5. AND MOST CRUCIALLY: Encourage fellow congregants, friends, and family to remain open-hearted and engaged in the conversation. LISTEN to their point-of-view. Seek common ground. Create more energy in our community to confront gun violence.


We concluded with a selection of a beautiful prayer composed by Rabbi Naomi Levy:

A prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy

Bless us, God, Work through us. Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy with a renewed faith in the goodness of our society. Shield us from indifference and from our tendency to forget. Open our hearts, open our hands. Innocent blood is calling out to us to act. Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed with all our hearts and souls. Teach us perseverance and dedication. Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair so that all children can go to school in peace, God, let them be safe.