To Arms?

Here's my dvar torah from last Friday night 1/14/11 (Shabbat Beshallach/ Shabbat Shirah)

Thoughts on Beshallach (2011/5711)

(Ex. 13:7 – 17:16)

“The ways of the Torah are pleasant, and all her paths are peace.  Temple Israel bans guns on these premises.”

That’s what it says on the sign by the door of this building. 

Shocking, when you think of it.  The fact that we need to specify that we don’t want guns in this House of Prayer.  That, otherwise, there are those who might think it’s fine to carry a gun in our midst.

But that’s apparently the nature of the State we live in.  And the nature of many other states in the U.S.

I first saw signs like this when I went to Arizona for the first and thus far only time in March 2007, the year the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association had its annual meeting in Phoenix.    I would pass various shops and businesses with signs like this and think, what sort of bizarre place is this where gun carrying is the norm.   

Shabbat is meant to be a day of peace.  “Shabbat Shalom”/ “Sabbath Peace”  -- That’s how we greet each other on this day that our tradition teaches is a “taste of the world to come” – a day when we acquire “neshama yeteyra”/ “an additional soul” – and when the “malachei hasharet”/ “the ministering angels” accompany us in our Temples and in the “mikadashim me’atim”/ the “miniature Temples” that are our homes.

How sad and tragic and gut-wrenching is it that last week – on Shabbat of all days – our nation experienced such horrific violence, with the killing of six people and the wounding of 13 more?

From what has been reported, it seems pretty clear that Jared Loughner was dealing with his own paranoid delusions.  I can’t help but believe that stricter gun control laws might have kept him from carrying out his violent acts.  There needed to be better background checks so that his history of threatening behavior could have prevented him from purchasing the weapon he used to kill and wound his victims.  Moreover, the type of weapon and ammunition that he used was legally banned in the United States from 1994 to 2004 until Congress debased itself before the NRA to let the assault weapons ban expire.

The prevalent attitude of our society towards the proliferation of guns is a sick abomination.  And if such language lacks “civility” – so be it – at least I’m not threatening to “reload” or employ “second amendment solutions” against those whose views on this topic I despise.

And yet, here’s what Arizona congressman Trent Franks said this week, as quoted in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

 “I wish there had been one more gun there that day, in the hands of a responsible person.” [“House Pays Tribute to Attack Victims,” Wall Street Journal, 1/13/11, p. A5]

I dunno --- I’m not a marksman, I don’t hunt for sport (which is counter to Jewish tradition anyway), and I’m not a police officer or soldier on active duty.   All of those uses of guns I can see my way to understanding. 

But to me it’s just a shanda/ a shame, a travesty that our society is so filled with guns.  Congressman Franks says he wishes there had been one more gun.  As for me, I wish there had been one less…

Thinking about the events of this past week, I found myself paying particular attention to a verse near the start of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Beshallach.  At Exodus 13:18, the Torah says “…vachamushim alu veney yisra’el mey’eretz mitzraim” --- “The Israelites went up ARMED from the Land of Egypt.”

The word “chamushim” (חמשים) is actually an obscure term which, at first glance, appears to have something to do with the number five – which in Hebrew is “chameysh” (חמש).

Rashi’s commentary (France, 11th century) understands “chamushim” to mean “armed” –  and that seems to be the interpretation favored by most of the traditional sources and contemporary Jewish translations.  Ibn Ezra (Spain, 12th century) says that some say “chamushim” means “armed”, because it refers to the “fifth rib” opposite which a sword is worn.

But the 12th century French commentator Bekhor Shor says “chamushim” means “well stocked with food.”  He bases this interpretation on the use of the verb “lechamesh” in Gen 41:34.  That passage concerns an earlier era when Joseph advised the Pharaoh of his time ”ve-chimeysh et eretz mitzrayim besheva shney ha sova. – that he should  “take one fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven years of plenty.“  Bekhor Shor notes that the manna didn’t start coming down until a month after the Exodus.  So it would make sense to understand the adjective “chamushim” to mean “well stocked with food,” just as the Egyptian storehouses had been thanks to Joseph’s advice to Pharaoh.

I guess I like that interpretation better.  On this Shabbat when we want to put the violence of Tucson behind us and envision a world of peace and justice, it’s comforting to think of our ancestors loading themselves down with food rather than arms.

I know.  It seems like wishful thinking. 

And yet, maybe on this Shabbat we can imagine a world where what is most abundant is לחם/ lechem (“bread”) rather than מלחמה/ milchamah (“war”). 

As it says in Psalm 34 – “Ta’amu u’re’u ki tov Adonai – Ashrei ha gever yecheseh bo/  “Taste and see how good is the Eternal;  Happy is the one who takes refuge therein.”

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg (5771/2011)



Posted on January 19, 2011 .