This article is co-authored by Rabbi Ronit Tsadok, Rabbinic Fellow, IKAR.
Shock. Disbelief. Outrage. Dismay. Brokenness. Anger. Sadness. Despair. These are just a few of the diverse emotions Americans have been feeling in the few weeks following our latest battle with the gun-violence epidemic. And rightfully so. The tragic loss of so many lives ought lead us to these very reactions.
But do we honestly still have the right to be surprised by these deadly attacks? Since 1989 there have been at least 40 incidents of school-related gun deaths in this country, which is not to mention the countless shootings in malls, movie theaters, houses of worship and homes. We continue to point fingers and attempt to find the one "reason" why this keeps happening. However, we can no longer intentionally ignore the fact that the sheer amount of guns in America contributes to our epidemic. In a recent New York Times piece we see that:
Scientific studies have consistently found that places with more guns have more violent deaths, both homicides and suicides. Women and children are more likely to die if there's a gun in the house. The more guns in an area, the higher the local suicide rates. "Generally, if you live in a civilized society, more guns mean more death," said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. "There is no evidence that having more guns reduces crime. None at all."
"More guns means more death." It is a statement that should not astonish us, yet in the weeks following the tragedy in Newtown, gun sales have significantly increased. This is cognitive dissonance at its most dangerous.
The talmudic rabbis recognized long ago that inundating people who are susceptible to sin with the very tools that enable them to falter is almost inevitably going to lead to an undesired outcome. Just after asserting that the very nature of humanity is as hard-wired to misstep as it is to follow the straight-and-narrow, they praise Moses for his boldness in partly blaming God for the incident of the golden calf. The rabbis re-interpret a place name in the very first verse in Deuteronomy, Di Zahav. The plain meaning of the text, of course, is clear. Di Zahav is just another stop on the Israelite journey:
"These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Aravah, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan, and Hatzerot, and Di-Zahav" (Deuteronomy 1:1).
But in this ambiguous name also lies a heteronymic opening to send a powerful message and reread the very same letters to mean dai zahav, or, "enough gold!"
"What is Di Zahav? The House of Yannai said -- Thus is what Moses really said to God: "The silver and gold (zahav) that you showered upon the Israelites until they said enough (dai!) caused them to sin by making the Golden Calf." (Tractate Berakhot 32a)
Which is to say, the Israelites themselves realized they were being inundated with huge quantities of Egyptian gold and would not be able to restrain themselves from reverting to idolatry. In the rabbinic imagination, Moses accuses God of setting the Israelites up for monotheistic failure by giving them the very tools with which they can, and ultimately do, make an idol. Should anyone, including God, be astounded by this cardinal sin? And when Moses realizes that God is going to punish the Israelites for this, he challenges divine will and calls God out on this unrealistic expectation.
They proceed to drive home this point with an unsavory parable (Tractate Berakhot 32a):
"Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Consider the case of a man who bathes, anoints, feeds and perfumes his son. And then he puts a purse of money around his son's neck and leaves him at the doorway of a brothel. Does anyone reasonably expect the son to avoid committing a sin?"
Seems pretty clear, right? The parable illustrates that even though each of us is imbued with the freedom to make choices, sometimes the circumstances are so "weighted" to a certain outcome that any expectation of the opposite is simply naive.
This is most certainly not an abdication of free will and accountability. Any such conclusion would invite a society unfathomable to the current American who is enmeshed in the value of liberty. But consider the gravity of this lesson. At a certain point the ability to choose wisely becomes overwhelmed by excess. Yes, the Israelites sinned, but -- and here is Moses' boldness -- God should not have encouraged them to keep acquiring, amassing and collecting. God should not have enabled their fears of scarcity and safety. They were humans, with a human weakness for using their freedom of choice in precarious ways.
And that is precisely what this country suffers from right now. Three-hundred million guns. Fifty percent of the world's guns housed right here in America. Military style assault weapons easily purchased and hoarded. What do we honestly expect?
We have long tolerated the NRA's god-like power in our political system. Their successful lobbying has allowed for an influx of needlessly violent and scarily proficient weaponry into our fragile society. But now is not the time to infuse our society with more guns. We have more than enough. Too many of us are susceptible to misusing and/or abusing the abundance. What we need is a modern-day, courageous leader like Moses who will stand up and say, "Enough. Is. Enough!"
Gun-owning community: It has long been established that your Second Amendment rights will not be revoked. OK. But recognize that you are members of a community, and as part of that community you have a responsibility to find your inner Moses and courageously come forward to speak truth. This is beginning to happen in small ways. The message, though, needs to be viral. Get your house in order: 1) Get rid of the semi-automatic assault weapons. 2) Significantly increase the criteria required to purchase and own guns. 3) Don't allow for any possible loopholes in background checks. 4) Mandate, like many other civil societies, regularly scheduled safety training for all gun owners.
We now find ourselves in a liminal space, knowing that this is precisely the time in which we, together, will either effectively address our country's obsession with limitless and needlessly violent weaponry, or slide back into our typically self-focused and detached existence. Who will come forward and say "enough is enough!"?