Following the mass shooting in Highland Park on July 4th, R’Steven delivered a drash entitled “Despair Is Not A Strategy” at our service on July 8th. In seasons of sorrow, we turn to our tradition and to each other. We invite you to our upcoming services: a Virtual Friday Night Shabbat on July 15th and an outdoor, in-person Friday Night Shabbat on July 22nd. We also invite you to answer the National Council of Jewish Women’s call to demand our legislators address gun violence.
I need to be honest with you: I didn’t want to write this sermon. I didn’t want to compose a meaningful response to a tragedy that should not have happened. What words can help us feel better about the 314th mass shooting in this country since the new year. What wisdom can fill the absence of seven individuals who should still be with us today? What message will help pull bullets or shrapnel or fear or grief or anger from our bodies?
I am at a loss. And I have a suspicion that a lot of us are feeling this way. Gun violence is an overwhelming crisis with a mounting death toll that only seems to get worse despite promises from this nation’s leadership – at all levels of government – that they are working to make it better. Thoughts and prayers are offered, yet no one seems to hear them. Solutions are proposed, yet no one seems to do anything about it. Activist and community organizer Ruth Messinger once said: “Despair is not a strategy.” So why is this clearly the course of action that we, as a country, have chosen?
So here I am on Friday morning. I’m sitting with my coffee and staring at a blank screen, wondering what to say. I’ll admit I don’t usually start my sermon writing process by looking at the parashah, our weekly portion from the Torah (it’s not uncommon for R’Lizzi and R’Deena to gently remind me that it exists, and that I might want to include something about it in what I’m saying). But you know what, it seems to work for other folks.
What I found was a people in crisis. Miriam, prophetess and song leader, has just died – and suddenly the well that had magically appeared wherever the Israelites encamped in the wilderness has dried up. The rabbis teach that this miraculous source of water that had followed them around for nearly forty years came to be through her merit, and her merit alone. It was her unique, life-giving, and irreplaceable gift to the Israelites. And now: it is gone. At first, the people are afraid. What is going to happen? They take a moment to mourn the loss of both a beloved leader and a vital resource. And then they turn to anger. “Would that we were already dead,” they shout at Moses and Aaron, Miriam’s brothers. “Have we just been taken into the wilderness to die of thirst? Why go through all the work of liberating us from slavery in Egypt, if you were just going to march us to this godforsaken place where nothing can take root — not a pomegranate tree, nor a fig tree, nor a grape vine? Look around you, there is no water here.”
Moses and Aaron are at a loss. Where are they going to find water in a desert? This is only the latest in a series of obstacles they have encountered since leaving Egypt. They have faced starvation. They have been hunted by unknown enemies. They have suffered from disease. It has been crisis after crisis after crisis. And now, the brothers are mourning their sister. They are thirsty. And they have to figure out how to calm an increasingly agitated people while also resolving a problem that, if left unaddressed, will result in all of their deaths.
In despair, the brothers go to the Tent of Meeting – the place where the divine presence had come to dwell among the Israelites – and fall prostrate, faces on the ground. God help us. There is nothing else we can do.
And God says:
“Look, you have to do something. Nothing is not an option (unless you really do want to die of thirst, but I’m guessing that isn’t the solution you’re looking for since you’ve come here to chat with me). As a wise woman will tell you in three thousand years or so: despair is not a strategy. So get up. Gather the people. You’ll find a rock in the place you have come together. Moses, take the staff that is in your hand and speak to that rock. Water will appear.”
And so Moses and Aaron get up. They bring the Israelites together. Moses goes to the rock, turns to the assembled people and says: “Listen up, you ingrates, and watch me give you water.” (I imagine God is, at this moment, facepalming; clearly not the words that God had in mind when giving Moses instructions). In any event, Moses takes his staff and whacks the rock twice. Water gushes forth and the people drink.
Moses was not good at following instructions, and we soon learn that there are consequences for doing things his way. But even in hitting the rock, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded, Moses still gets the Israelites what they need to survive: water. Perhaps it doesn’t provide a permanent solution to the loss of Miriam and her miraculous well, but in a way Moses is doing exactly what God suggested – he is doing something. The lesson of our parashah is clear: when facing a crisis, we are not permitted the convenience of inaction.
This is not to say that we should not be afraid, or sad, or angry. There is a time for tending our wounds. There is a time for mourning those we have lost. There is a time for venting to friends or getting out some frustration at the gym or screaming into a pillow. But as our tradition reminds us, and in words popularized a half century ago by the Byrds: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. So alongside our fear, our grief, our rage there can be, there must be, time for resolve, for courage, and for thoughtful action.
So perhaps in this moment, held by the sacred rest of Shabbat, we can – like Moses and Aaron – fall to our faces in loss and uncertainty. But we cannot stay there, especially when we have been given a roadmap toward a better future.
Because we have that roadmap. We know what needs to be done. For the 34 years of my existence on this earth, our country has known what needs to be done.
I was eleven years old when twelve students and one teacher were gunned down at Columbine High School. We knew then what needed to be done: comprehensive background checks, national databases of gun owners and firearms, a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, “red flag” laws that take guns from people in crisis — and also, ending the glorification of guns, alleviating poverty and protecting the most vulnerable, and providing comprehensive mental health services to each and every person in this country.
And the reality is that we also knew what needed to be done after Sandy Hook, and Pulse, and Parkland, and Tree of Life, and El Paso, and Boulder, and San Jose, and Buffalo, and Uvalde, and each and every mass shooting that has occurred in this country. And now, after Highland Park, we know what needs to be done. Nothing is not an option. Despair is not a strategy. I have said it before, and I will say it again, when given the choice between life and death our tradition is unequivocal in its demand that we choose life. Every time. No matter how hard that choice may be. No matter how long that journey may take. No matter how much work may need to be done. We choose life.
Of course, no one of us can do everything. But each of us can do something. I sincerely believe that if you are alive right now, it is because you bring something as unique, life-giving, and irreplaceable as Miriam’s well. Perhaps it’s the vote that will tip the balance in an essential election. Perhaps it’s the courage to march that will inspire others to take to the streets. Perhaps it’s the comforting hand that will help those affected by gun violence heal, so they can regain the ability to share their own precious gift with a world in need.
So yes, let’s take this moment to mourn, to give space for shock and disbelief, and to hold each other in the comfort and grace of this sacred community — but let us also empower each other, and give each other strength and resolve, and hold each other accountable for doing something, for doing what we can, to secure a future where this sermon will never need to be written again.