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Sermon Starters: Gun Violence Prevention-Rabbi Douglas Sagal

SERMON TZAV – PARASHAT ZACHOR 5774

Rabbi Douglas Sagal, Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, NJ

Every Shabbat is special, but this Shabbat is more special than most. It is of course the Shabbat of B----‘s Bar Mitzvah which would be enough – but it is also known as Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance; and tomorrow morning B--- will be reading a special Haftarah, a special reading in honor of Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance.

If this were not Shabbat Zachor, B---, you would actually have a different portion; you would be reading a section from the Book of Jeremiah. Now Jeremiah, lived 2500 years ago in ancient Judea. He was a priest who were among the elite, the rulers of the ancient Israelites. But even though he was a priest himself, even though he was part of the ruling class, the elite, he criticized the wealthy and the powerful for mistreating the poor, for perverting justice, for ignoring God’s ways, for paying attention to the rituals while ignoring the morals, for turning away from justice and mercy. He even went right into the Temple itself in Jerusalem and he said to the priests and the assembled people, “You have done evil, you have ignored what is right and good in order to make happy the wealthy and please the rulers”.

People didn’t like Jeremiah, he made them uncomfortable; he told them that what they were doing was wrong. They didn’t like what he had to say, they even put him in jail. They brought louder voices, paid prophets to drown out his criticism, but in the end, it is his voice that we hear 2500 years later.

In the Haftarah that is read on this Shabbat when it is not Shabbat Zachor, Jeremiah says something so chilling, so devastating. He says to the rulers, to the priests, you even practiced child sacrifice. You worshipped the dark gods right here in Jerusalem and sacrificed your children to them – right here in this valley just below this Temple. And he was right.

Some Israelites had worshipped idols and sacrificed their children to these idols. You have built shrines he said, in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and you have burned your sons and your daughters in fire, and God never commanded such a thing. And what will uour punishment be, says Jeremiah? Because you brought death to innocents and did nothing, you will bring death to everyone in this valley where you sacrificed children, it will be filled with your corpses. It will become known as the Valley of Slaughter. No wonder they tried to silence Jeremiah! What he said was horrifying and made everyone uncomfortable and shamed.

Now I am no Jeremiah. But it seems to me that maybe we need one – someone who can walk with confidence into the halls of the powerful, into the boardrooms of the wealthy and influential, into the Congress and Statehouses of this land and say since the massacre of 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut, 20 of them children, 32 thousand Americans have died by firearm violence. Over 200 children have been killed, ten times the number of those who died in Newtown, 10 Newtowns this past year. Of those 200 children, of those ten Newtowns, more than 130 died in their own homes. Over fifty died by picking up an unsecured firearm. Over 60 died at the hands of their own parents. The average age of the victims was six.

What might this modern Jeremiah say, this unpopular hated figure who would walk into the halls of power; he might say you are sacrificing your children you cowards, who refuse to implement even the simplest of laws to protect. You refuse to implement universal background checks to keep unfit people from buying firearms. You refuse to impose legislation that would require gun manufacturers to use safety technology to prevent a gun from being fired by an unauthorized child. You refuse to place identifying marks on ammunition, you refuse, you refuse, you refuse and 200 children die every year; and upwards of 30,000 Americans are killed every year.

This modern Jeremiah would say, “Don’t tell me that you do not sacrifice children, you do, and don’t tell me that you have not created your own valley of slaughter because you have.

This Shabbat is also special because it has been designated Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat. A Shabbat when faith communities all over this country are asked to highlight the scourge of violence brought about not by gun ownership, not by responsible citizens who enjoy the use of firearms. We have a Second Amendment that must be respected, but by the refusal of those in power, those with wealth and influence to pass even simple legislation that would make our children safer. We need to require universal background checks for all gun purchases, making gun trafficking a federal crime, improving access to mental health services for all and exposing gun advocacy organizations like the NRA as the lobbying groups for gun manufacturers what they have sadly become. And I say this as one who has participated in NRA programs both as a youth and as an adult.

Like the prophet Jeremiah, those who have tried to stand up for these principles have been vilified and ignored. Legislation designed to require universal background checks has failed time and again. Our own representative, Congressman Lance has said that he will not support any more federal gun legislation. I know some here might disagree, but in my opinion, this is not an issue of liberty, it is an issue of sanity. We sacrifice our children; we have created our own valley of slaughter and it must end. Unfettered access to firearms as created in the words of the prophet Jeremiah- hurvah-destruction.

On this Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, I ask you to also remember the two year old in Lakeland, Florida who shot himself with his father’s loaded gun. The nine year old in Texas who was killed whole playing with a 13 year old and a loaded shotgun. The fifteen year old honor student shot in a park in Chicago by young thugs who were shooting at someone else. The 6 year old in Kentucky who shot his two year old sister. The 6 year old in Toms River, New Jersey who was shot by a four year old while playing with an unsecured rifle almost one year ago this day. And of course the 26 children and teachers killed not 90 miles from here in Connecticut.

But we don’t sacrifice children – of course not!

The Haftarah from Jeremiah that is often read on this day concludes with these words:

Thus said the Lord

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom

Let not the strong man glory in his strength

Let not the rich man glory in his riches

But only in this should one glory

In his earnest devotion to me

For I the Lord act with kindness, justice and equality in the world

It is in these things that I the Lord delight!

On this Shabbat devoted to eradicating gun violence, may these words uttered 2500 years ago come to pass in our time.