Friday, June 13, 2014

Gun Violence and Seeing the Promised Land

About three weeks ago just after the shooting near UC Santa Barbara, the satirical newspaper “The Onion” ran a little article that, sadly, proved not so satirical.  It read: “In the days following a violent rampage in southern California in which a lone attacker killed seven individuals, including himself, and seriously injured over a dozen others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Tuesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. ….At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.””[i] 

We are living in, what I believe to be, a particularly dark moment in our country’s history.

A different sort of dark moment is marked for our ancestors in this week’s Torah portion Shelach.  The parashah records our ancestors’ actual arrival at the border of the Promised Land only 2 years into their wandering. Moses directs twelve tribal leaders to scout and assess the land, its inhabitants and cities. When they return, they report on the land’s goodness, but 10 of the 12 also warn that the obstacles in front of them are simply too overwhelming, in particular detailing the giant-sized residents.  Overtaken with insecurity, they assume that they must have looked like grasshoppers in the eyes of the land’s giant inhabitants.   This sends the entire Israelite population into a fear-fueled panic. Despite the desperate pleas of the undeterred Joshua and Caleb, the people beg to return to Egypt. Enraged, God seals the fate of their entire faithless generation: none of them, save for Joshua and Caleb, will ever see the Promised Land again.

We can deduce from the story that the 10 scouts did something wrong in their reporting, but the Torah never actually specifies what exactly their failure was.  Most commentators assume the scouts’ sin was their exaggeration of the challenge in front of them – their warped sense of their enemies’ size, which caused them to fall victim to their own insecurities and fears.  This ultimately led not just to their own demise but to that of their entire generation.  

This explanation resonates I think.  We can see obstacles that stir insecurity and fear inside us; and if we allow these concerns to run unchecked, they can certainly drive us to betray our values and ourselves.  We see this in our lives and world today all the time – how often does insecurity derail relationships, does anxiety stop people from moving forward in their lives, does fear paralyze and blind us to what is still possible. 

It’s certainly playing out when it comes to our response to gun violence.  My 5 and 7 year olds have regularly rehearsed lock-down drills, so they can be prepared should, in the words of my son, “a bad person come into the school with a gun and shoot, because it happens a lot mommy.” Just this week, our nation added another school shooting to its growing roster, and this week, two different corporations launched products for schools to help protect the students and staff in the case that a shooter entered their school.  1) a bullet proof blanket with backpack like straps that a person puts over themselves while cowering on the ground or in a closet during a lock down.  2) a metal device that can slip over a classroom door making it nearly impossible to breach, thereby preventing a shooter from entering a classroom.  And although on the one hand, I am glad to see the development of protective devices that might lower shooting fatalities, on the other hand, I can’t articulate appropriately the growing frustration and anger and terror I feel about this situation.   It’s hard not to see anything but the growing reality that gun-violence is now just part of a normative list of other life-threatening risks we all face, like car accidents and disease.  

But let’s not give up so quickly, and instead return to the Torah portion for a moment, because not everyone sees the problem the same way.  18th-century Chasidic master the Baal Shem Tov understands the real sin of the scouts as their skewed perception not of the land’s inhabitants, but of the land itself. In the portion, when the scouts arrive in the land, the Torah offers a substantial description of its bounty.  In particular, the text details that a single cluster of grapes proved so abundant that “it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of [the scouts].”  Really big grapes! But when the scouts report back to the people on what they saw, they describe the fruit of the land in simple, brief terms, focusing instead in hyperbolic terms on the intimidating nature of the people already living there, whereas the Torah text itself offers only a brief, nondescript verse on them.

According to the BeShT, seeing the fruit of the land should have cued the scouts to recognize that the hard work would have a worthwhile payoff. This explains why the Torah’s description of the land emphasizes the quality of the terrain and the beautiful crops: the Torah had the end game in mind. If the scouts had understood this, they would have focused on the promise of what was ahead, just as Joshua and Caleb implored them to do, but instead, they saw the task as too daunting and ultimately not worth either the risk or the reward.

Sadly, we too are so easily daunted by the magnitude of major systemic challenges that we quickly throw up our hands: the obstacles that stand in front of us are giants in our midst. Who are we, so small and insignificant, to even attempt to conquer them? It would be great to see an end to gun violence in our country, or even our city, but the real challenges far outweigh the potential rewards. Like the scouts, we list the obstacles one after another – race, class, the right, the left, the NRA, the 2nd amendment, mental health systems, prisons, police, gang violence, bullying, gun stores, and on and on and on, and we forget the promise of the end game – a safer, more peaceful country and world. 

In the portion, Joshua and Caleb’s gaze stayed fixed on the promise of the future while still acknowledging the challenges ahead.  There are many Joshuas and Calebs in the fight against gun violence.   Here are two.  Take Dr. Gary Slutkin, the infectious disease doctor who determined that patterns of gun violence follow the exact same patterns as infectious diseases.  And so, in the early 2000’s, applied the same method of addressing and stopping the spread of infectious diseases like malaria to gun violence. The results were drastic reductions of violence in each of the communities where the system was applied and this continues to prove effective today.  If you haven’t seen the film the Interrupters, inspired by his work, I would commend it to you.  Or take Rabbi Joel Mosbacher and the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign, which is engaging communities and congregations around the country in advocating that local mayors, gun retailers, firearms manufacturers and large buyers like the military sign a “covenant” of gun overhaul measures. Among its 30 points, the covenant calls for voluntary limits on selling certain types of weapons and large-capacity magazines, sale of guns only through federally licensed dealers and mandatory safety classes for buyers.   Neither is a perfect solution.  But it doesn’t take perfection or a grand leap.  It just takes one step forward toward the vision of something better.   When it comes to the scourge of gun violence in our country, we’ve forgotten to hope and dream for what might be possible again, resigning ourselves to the fact that the best we can hope for is status quo, and in doing so, we’ve set ourselves right back in Egypt.  The Baal Shem Tov’s insight into Parashat Shlach reminds us that if we don’t keep our eye on the prize, our destination right in front of our mind’s eye, we’ll never get anywhere.   Ultimately, the true lesson of this week’s Torah portion beckons powerfully in our day too.  Let it sustain us as we continue our efforts to cultivate peace and freedom throughout our land.
Shabbat Shalom