The anomalous words in the Torah — the words that make no immediate sense, that are out of place, awkward, redundant — are the words that teach us the most important lessons: they are the hidden Torah wisdom within, beneath, behind the obvious Torah. Consider one example of this from the beginning of the book of Leviticus. Leviticus 1:2 begins God’s instructions concerning the sacrificial offerings with the following words:
Adam ki yakriv mi-kem korban…
When any of you presents an offering…
The Hebrew words, Adam and mi-kem, are translated by the Jewish Publication Society Bible collloquially as, “When any of you.” However, translated literally, the words mean, “When any person from among you.” Looking at these words, the rabbis of the Talmud sensed that the Hebrew word, mi-kem, “from among you,” is not only superfluous, but it is grammatically strange as well. Read even more literally, this compound word, mi-kem, actually means, “a part of you.” Based upon the strange features of these words, the Talmud concluded that we should read them in this way: “When you offer a sacrificial offering it must be mi-kem, a part of you,” that is, it must have belonged to you. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 30a) You cannot steal someone else’s sacrificial animal and use it for your offering to God. Such an act constitutes a mitzvah ha-baah al yedei aveirah, a mitzvah whose fulfillment resulted from sinful behavior. Worshipping God can’t be based upon unethical, unjust and illegal action: you can’t “money launder” your relationship with God Who expects us to be as careful in our moral integrity as in our ritual integrity. As the Talmud so poetically puts it, (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin 55b) offering sacrificial property which is not ours, to God, would lead people to say that God’s altar is happy to consume stolen goods, something that is repugnant to God, the ultimate source of truth and justice.
Right now, America’s children, our children, are protesting with anguished vigor the unconscionable offering by adults to a most unholy and false god: that unconscionable offering is our children themselves, that false god is a dictatorially powerful, rabidly irrational, morally ossified gun lobby. Our children will no longer tolerate the shamefully obstinate refusal of our nation’s leaders to curb gun violence in our schools and public spaces. Our children will no longer accept our leaders’ cowardly caving to this bully which threatens them with political destruction should they stand up for even the most modest legislative gun safety proposals. The nation-wide student walk outs and the upcoming National March For Our Lives in Washington, DC are only the first stirrings of a loud message which our children are sending to us, the adults, who should be caring for them: “You have no right to sacrifice us on that altar of your political and moral myopia. We are not your korbanot, your lambs who you can send to the slaughter. When you make us the ones who have to pay with our lives for your poor leadership, you offer up stolen sacrifices. We are not yours to be sacrificed. The true God, the God of justice, looks down upon you and us in tears and rage, declaring, “You have desecrated My children, You have desecrated My altar, you have desecrated Me.”
As a Jew who knows Jewish history all too well, I understand fully the need for people to reasonably arm themselves for self-protection. Judaism, which is a religion of peace but not of pacifism, never says that a person should not be able to defend him or herself. But Judaism also says unequivocally that the safety needs of the public take precedence over the desires of the individual. As an American, I also understand the need to reasonably protect Americans’ second amendment rights. However, the National Rifle Association has gone too far by overreacting wildly to every call for gun use regulation, as a mortal threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How about our children’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? How about the rights of innocent movie goers, college students, concert goers, ordinary Americans, to be protected from being murdered by angry, violent people who, in many states, can simply walk into a big box store or gun shop and purchase a military style assault weapon: few or no questions asked, few or no controls applied, few or no restrictions invoked?
The American national conversation on gun safety has been perverted by a strident, cynical refusal of very powerful people to admit that protection from harm is not only the right of those who carry a gun for self-protection; it is also the right of every other American who does not carry one. But, truly, the national conversation on gun safety should not be about protecting or denying anyone rights. It should be about public safety, the responsibility that comes with having rights. Responsible adults accept that we regulate all sorts of things in our lives: medications, driving cars, building houses, buying a pet. And though some might argue that any regulation of a constitutional protection can be dangerous to democracy, I would remind them that the American supreme court has always reasonably regulated the first amendment right of free speech through case law and interpretation. No right, including the right to bear firearms, is ever unconditional and absolute. It is simple common sense to reasonably regulate firearms to protect public safety and health, particularly the safety and health of our most vulnerable citizens: our children.
And it is not only common sense to do so, it is also a moral imperative of the Torah, which tells us, hishamer lekha u-shemor nafshekha: beware for yourself and guard your soul. Commenting on those words, Maimonides explains: “It is a positive mitzvah to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger to life, and to be very careful regarding these matters, as Deuteronomy 4:9 states: ‘Beware for yourself and guard your soul.’ If a person leaves a dangerous obstacle and does not remove it, he negates the observance of a positive commandment, and violates the negative commandment: ‘Do not cause blood to be spilled.’” (Deuteronomy 22:8; Mishneh Torah, “Laws Concerning Murderers And Self-Protection”,11:4, translation by Rabbi Eliahu Touger)
America’s children are crying out: “We are done being sacrificial lambs on unholy altars to false gods. You, the adults in our lives, owe us much, much better than excuses, false promises, and cynical back room deals with blind reactionary forces and gun profiteers. We, your future voters, we your hopeful future, are making it loudly clear: restore the sanity, protect out welfare, and even a little bit, try to make America safe again.”