Shavuot is one of my favorite festivals. The awesome imagery of imagining ourselves as standing at Sinai in the midst of God’s revelation has always moved me. More personally, the celebration of my student’s Service of Confirmation is one that is always filled with equal measures of pride and joy as I kvell over the amazing young adults they have become and the deep connections they have formed with each other and with our Judaism. Each year that joy, however, is tempered the next morning as I prepare to lead the Shavuot Yizkor service and our thoughts turn towards those who, though they are no longer present in our lives, remain present in our hearts, our spirits and our memories. It is a transition most years is filled as much with the sweetness of remembrance as it is with the pain of loss.
This year that transition from celebration to mourning was a bit sharper and much more painful as I awoke to news of the murderous rampage by a lone killer at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The targeting of so many simply for the fact of who they chose to love, the increasingly inclusive country in which they lived or their desire to celebrate life through dancing and companionship broke my heart. As word of the rising casualties came in, ultimately 49 dead and over 50 injured, the joy of the previous evening dissipated. It was replaced by a sorrow for the victims and their families and for our country as we began to deal once more with an act of terror, hatred and illness facilitated by a misguided and all too deadly gun culture.
As I sat in my study preparing for Sunday morning’s Yizkor service, the events of earlier that morning brought to mind a conversation from only a few weeks earlier. Our Synagogue serves as SAT Testing site for those who are Shabbat observant and cannot take the SAT’s on a Saturday morning during their regular administration. At the end of the morning, an Orthodox young woman who had just finished her exams asked me about the pride flag we proudly display on the front of our building to indicate that we are a welcoming, open and inclusive community. After a brief discussion of Reform Judaism’s embrace of LGBTQI members, she made an interesting comment. She said “That seems like such a courageous thing, to display such a flag on the front of your synagogue.” My reply in turn, “It’s not courageous at all, it is simply loving.”
Even in the aftermath of Orlando, my answer remains the same, it is simply loving. It is simply loving to display our solidarity with and welcome for the LGBTQI community, it is simply loving to mourn with and show our support for all those in Orlando and it is simply loving to redouble our efforts toward making our country one that is evermore open and embracing of diversity and difference. As so many have said, Love Conquers Hate. But love alone cannot bring the change our country needs in the aftermath of so many mass shootings.
As Jay Michaelson wrote in the Forward:
“But the sad fact is that… There will always be some who are mentally unstable, always be some who are virulently anti-gay, and always be some who are religious extremists, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Which is what brings us to the fourth necessary condition for Orlando: guns… the massacre at Pulse would not have happened if he hadn’t so easily obtained a deadly assault rifle that, until ten years ago, was illegal under the Bush-era assault weapons ban.
There is no reason on earth why any civilian should be allowed to own an AR-15 assault rifle , a weapon based on the M-16 that has been used in at least ten mass shootings since 2001, and that has no conceivable hunting or self-defense application.”
Orlando, like San Bernadino and Sandy Hook before it, is a wake up call that I pray this time we will not ignore. I fully support the right to bear arms, to own a hand gun, hunting rifle or target rifle, if you are properly trained and vetted. But I do not think that right extends the right to own that which is simply meant to do one thing and one thing only, kill large numbers of human beings quickly.
An AR-15 is not appropriate for hunting, nor is it truly a sporting weapon prized for accuracy on the target range. Rather, it is more often than not the choice of those who wish see themselves as soldiers of fortune or characters in Call of Duty, as one look at the ads for these guns will tell you. And, sadly, it is the choice of mass shooters like those in Orlando, San Bernadino, Sandy Hook and elsewhere. The time to return to a ban on these weapons of war and the high-capacity clips that go with them has long passed. This is not about banning gun ownership, but about eliminating from our midst easy access to the tools of a mass shooter.
During Shavuot Yizkor, I read some thoughts written by Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg that included this lesson: “Our sages tell us that there are two kinds of tears: one is demaot shel ashan – tears that disappear like smoke… But then there are also demaot shel perot – tears that enrich the earth and bear fruit.” May the tears we have shed for the victims of the Orlando attack not simply disappear like smoke as another wake up call ignored and forgotten. Instead, may the be tears that water the fields of justice, that inspire us to finally take action and that bear fruit for a safer future for us all.