After death, holiness? Responding to the scourge of gun violence


Rabbi James Bennett, Congregation Shaare Emeth

We must have become numb to gun violence.

Hardly a day goes by without another “mass shooting” in a school, shopping center, place of worship, or public square. We don’t even know what qualifies as a “mass shooting” these days. Deaths attributable to weapons of war, high-powered rifles designed to kill the maximum people in the minimum amount of time have become an epidemic.

These so-called “mass killings” that murder, maim or injure multiple innocent people daily are unthinkable, and the number of single killings, by handguns and rifles – murders, suicides, and accidental shootings – has grown so large that most are hardly even reported by the media. The false belief that the courts and our elected officials are obligated to protect a so-called “Second Amendment right” to bear arms, has been elevated to a “right to murder other human beings.”

Instead of protecting the innocent lives they were elected to protect and defend, many legislators and judges are intent on protecting the power and influence of gun advocates and the corporate influence of the National Rifle Association. The “American Way” is now the right of more and more people to purchase guns without paying taxes on them, to own any type of gun they wish, to carry guns anyplace they want, and to endure no common-sense gun legislation of any sort.

Those of us who mourn the accelerating death toll of gun violence feel as if there is nothing that we can do to stem this horrifying trend. The Torah, though, as usual, offers a path for us to follow. In the very names of this week’s double portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, there lies a profound and immediate antidote, if only we heed the call.

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim in Hebrew means “After death – holiness.” The first of these two portions reminds us that when we are surrounded by death, we have no choice but to be moved, and sometimes, like Aaron, the High Priest of ancient Israel, we are often moved to silence.

When Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, are murdered by God in the wilderness in a violent attack following their unauthorized offering, Aaron remains understandably silent. How often have we watched in horror as the loved ones of those murdered in our day find themselves also silenced. Shocked, traumatized, unable to respond except in tears and mourning. We, too, are silent, far too silent. We have become complicit by our collective inability or refusal to demand that these murders are unjust, that they cease, by legislation to limit the proliferation of weapons of war on our streets, not by a misguided increase of guns in our society.

The Torah then teaches that “after death,” we must move to kedoshim, holiness. The very next portion in our sacred text teaches us that because God is holy, we, too, are expected to behave in holy ways. The irony is not lost on us. God was the one who took the lives of Nadav and Avihu in what can only be called a violent murder, the ancient version of a mass killing.  While those who defend God’s actions argue that God had the right to take their lives because of their disobedience and improper religious ritual, they are killed, nonetheless.

Apparently, God realizes that human beings must ultimately be given a path to make the world right once again, for the Torah teaches that “after death – holiness.” In Parashat Kedoshim Moses communicates God’s many laws that tell us how to be holy, like God. Treat human beings with dignity, respect, kindness and compassion, we are taught. Don’t cheat in business, don’t humiliate those with disabilities, honor the elderly. One might imagine a contemporary addition: “Don’t allow guns to proliferate without common-sense gun legislation, don’t let corrupt corporate power control the legislature, don’t allow corrupt judges to legislate against the will of the people to limit the proliferation of guns. Strive to find a path to wholeness and holiness.”

After Death, Holiness. The rest is up to us.

Rabbi James Bennett is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth.