When Prayers are Not Enough: A Response to Las Vegas

Another beautiful High Holy Days season with my congregation has just come to an end, and we immediately are turning toward Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Yesterday, we put up the sukkah in the Temple rose garden. This morning, I’d planned to work on my programming and prayers for this Shabbat.

And then….

And then I was awakened to the news from Las Vegas. More than 50 killed, 200 wounded, by a single man with unclear motivation but lots and lots of military-grade weaponry and a clear shot from his hotel room at a crowd of 20,000 at a music festival across the street. Once again, we are using the phrase “largest mass murder in our nation’s history.” Once again, our nation is in shock. Once again, our leaders ask for prayers.

I’m a rabbi. I’m in the business of prayers. And I’m telling you – no.

No to empty rhetoric. No to the shock, when our recent history tells us we shouldn’t be. No to the call for prayers when you won’t do anything to prevent this from happening again. And again. And again.

How long has it been since Orlando? Or Sandy Hook? Or Columbine? How many more times do we have to use that phrase “largest mass murder in our nation’s history”? How many times do politicians have to kowtow to gun manufacturers who use the National Rifle Association as a front for their madness and their mendacity, and the politicians use the Constitution as an excuse for taking their money? When do you grow a backbone and decide that the lives of your constituents are more important than the blood money in your campaign chest?

Just Saturday, on our fasting and atonement day of Yom Kippur, we read from Isaiah 58, in which the prophet chastised the people for false piety.

““Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, And you strike with a wicked fist!“[1]

If God has no patience with words with no action, why should we?

At this writing, I have no idea what the motivation of the shooter was, or his mental state. All I know is that Americans have once again been victimized by a cult of death that has infected our nation with the evil notion that a man (or a boy, and generally mass shooters are male) should reach for a gun as a first resort to settle his scores, or soothe his pain, or make a political point. All I know is that I was brought to tears by Tom Brokaw on the Today Show this morning, when he talked about how parents all over the country would now be worried to let their children go to concerts, and what a sad commentary that is on our nation today. All I know is that, once again this Shabbat, I will be asking my congregation to remember the victims of Las Vegas as they did those of Orlando, and San Bernardino, and Sandy Hook. And nobody should be asked to do that. Ever.

So I’m as done with false piety and empty promises as Isaiah was:

“Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the LORD is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke.”[2]

I’m an American and I demand more. I demand safety when I go to concerts, or to school, or to the movies. Or even when I’m at home (since there is a proven connection among many mass shooters between gun violence and domestic violence). I demand that we support our police and our other first-responders, whose Kevlar vests do not protect them against military-grade weaponry.

I demand that we have national laws that, once and for all, require that all gun sellers – including private dealers – run background checks on buyers, and that the checks be completed (see Dylan Roof) before a sale is made. I demand a waiting period of at least three days before that sale can be concluded – so that someone does not buy a gun while in the throes of anger or distress. I demand that anyone who buys multiple weapons and/or large rounds of ammunition in a limited amount of time be reported to authorities – because chances are that such a person is either buying to re-sell illegally, or is planning something very, very bad.

And I demand that we have national laws that make it illegal for private citizens to own military-grade weaponry such as the semi-automatic weapons that have caused such mass carnage – a ban that even Justice Antonin Scalia allowed for in his majority opinion in the District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment affirmed an individual right to bear arms:

“[L]ike most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. . . . [It is] not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose . . .  Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Justice Scalia wrote that the Constitution protects weapons that can be carried and are in common use.  And while a million AR-15’s and the like are in the hands and homes of private citizens in this nation, they should not be considered “common.” There is nothing common – that is, ordinary – about a weapon that can cause such carnage, instill such fear, shed such much blood in such a short period of time.

Have you watched the videos taken by concert attendees, as the bullets were fired so fast, so long, and with such deadly power, that people didn’t have time to hide? Can you watch this – and listen to shot after shot after shot – without feeling anger and revulsion as well as fear and pity?

And can we expect our prayers to be answered by God, unless the Eternal sees that we mean it when we pray with awe and reverence?

“Then, when you call, the LORD will answer; When you cry, He will say: Here I am. If you banish the yoke from your midst, The menacing hand, and evil speech, And you offer your compassion to the hungry And satisfy the famished creature— Then shall your light shine in darkness, And your gloom shall be like noonday.”[3]

Our nation will not see the light of salvation unless we remove the “menacing hand and evil speech” from our midst. Until we as a citizenry demand that our nation’s leaders stop engaging in platitudes and start engaging in the work for which we have elected them: protecting our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We cannot sustain these rights when we fear going into public places. We cannot be free when guns have such a stranglehold on our elected leaders, and on our peoples’ psyche. We cannot be happy when we see the sorrow that gun violence brings.

So, yes, I will ask for healing prayers for the survivors and the families and I will offer a memorial prayer for the dead. I’m a rabbi, so that’s what I do. But as a rabbi, I cannot and will not be silent in the face of this cult of darkness and death. Let there be light.

#####

©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

[1] Isaiah 58:3-4

[2] Isaiah 58:5-6

[3] Isaiah 58:9-10

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