I want to begin by sharing my sadness and my anger in reading about another mass shooting. The latest, in Kansas, was the 22nd in the month of February alone. It hurts right now, in our country. It is hard to read the news and to see the pain of the families of the victims in the senselessness of this violence.
There are many ways to react to painful events. Anger, in the face of such tragedies is natural, as is sadness, frustration, and fear.
It is understanding our responses that the Torah speaks to this week.
Imagine, for a moment, you are an Israelite. Moses has been at the top of the mountain for over a month and the Israelites are reasonably terrified. Until recently, they were slaves, taken from the only place they had ever known. They were brought into the wilderness, stood under a mountain exploding with thunder and lightening, and now, after all of this, they are alone. Moses, their direct connection to the Divine, is nowhere to be seen. They are lost. Some turn to Aaron and say, make for us a God because we don’t know what to do.
Aaron and the people make a mistake. They let their fear guide them and they build an idol. They break God’s trust and they turn their attention and their hopes to an inanimate object.
“And God told Moses: go down, for your people… have quickly turned from the path that I commanded them, they have made a molten calf, prayed to it, sacrificed to it, and they said, ‘you are the God of Israel that took us up out of Egypt.’ And the LORD said to Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people. And now, leave me alone, for I am angry with them, and I will consume them, but you, I will make a great nation.”
Putting ourselves in God’s shoes, we might say, how dare they! They betrayed me, God? How can they do this to me after everything I’ve done for them! How many times in our lives have we worked on something, a project, on a team, just to have it seemingly crumble at the last minute.
It is at this moment, the moment we all stand. How do we react to this painful event?
God’s reaction is that of anger, as we’ve seen.
Aaron tries to evade responsibility. When confronted with his role by Moses, he blames everyone else. He blames the people saying, “you know these people, they are bent on doing evil.” He blames the gold, “I threw it in the fire, and out came this calf.”
Moses over reacts. He takes his frustration and throws the tablets to the ground, shattering them. This gift, the Divine word, is lost.
The people mourn, taking off their jewelry.
Each of these reflects the ways that I know I react when I read the news of another mass shooting. I feel angry and sad, and I mourn. Each have their place, that is for certain, even the challenging emotions.
Even though the anger we might feel is natural, even reasonable, giving into that anger is dangerous. If it festers and becomes the primary motivator, it will lead us to the Dark Side. It can cause us to over react, as in Moses’ case. It can cause us to hold a grudge for years. Finally, it can cause us to hate. In Star Wars, a cornerstone of American culture, the Emperor tells Luke: “I can feel your anger… Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete!”
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine in 1921 until his death in 1935. He teaches, that baseless hatred, שינת חנם, caused the destruction of the Temple. Allowing ourselves to let the seed of hate sprout can lead to disastrous consequences. In this case, hate forced God to leave home, the Temple. However, Rav Kook teaches that the response, the way we should approach this, the way we rebuild, is with אהבת חנם, with unbounded love, given freely and without limit.
In our world today, we tend to speak to those with whom we already agree. Those who disagree, we dehumanize and ignore. When we respond with love, we reopen the opportunity for relationship and connection. God shows us love, as we recited before the Shema, through the giving of the commandments. Love, we can then understand, is manifested action. The mitzvot are tools to impact each other and the world around us.
The last number of weeks, in the Torah, have been exploring the Mishkan. Like the Temple, it represented God’s dwelling. The Torah describes that the Israelites were camped, as tribes, encircling the Mishkan. For pages, the text describes every tiny detail about it, the materials, the order, and the builders.
God tells Moses that God has selected Betzalel, by name, to be the designer and builder of the Mishkan and the furniture within. He is given, wisdom חכמה, understanding, תבונה, and knowledge, דעת, to fulfill his task. Each of these serve a different need and each required in its own way.
The Mishkan is the home for God, but so is our hearts. Just like Betzalel, each of us can use our gifts to make the world a better place. We can apply the wisdom, understanding, and knowledge we have with the unbounded love we strive for to make a real difference.
After tragedies such as mass shootings, we should take the time to feel the real emotions that come. They are real and challenging. But once we have decided that we are not going to let them fester and act with love, we can move forward.
With love combined with wisdom, we can strive to make conscious decisions. We can think productively about what we will do together to deal with gun violence and protect our families. We can connect with organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action, or a myriad of others. With wisdom, we can ask if our actions reflect our values and what we believe.
With love and understanding, we can strive for compassion. God is described in this parasha with a list of thirteen attributes, which we recite during the High Holidays. God who is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger. We reflect Godliness when we manifest these qualities. We have the power to support the families of the victims and provide care. Organizations like The Gun Violence Survivors Foundation provides financial support for survivors and their families.
Understanding means that we recognize the complex world we live in and there are no simple answers, but that there is always something we can do to help.
With love and knowledge, we can empower each other. We can share our visions of a world without violence, we can raise our voices and use our votes. With love and knowledge, we remind each other that there is hope. Hope that we can live in a better world.
When I read the news about the shooting in Kansas, I was angry. I was sad and upset, but I did not despair. Together, we can build a Mishkan of Ahavat Hinam, of boundless love, a home of safety and compassion. We can do it together.