Yom Hashoah Sermon
You don’t remember, but your parents probably do, your first steps -where you were, who was there, your age (probably in months). If you think of all the steps that you have taken since then, it is amazing that this singular event has the gravitas that it does. It was most likely not remembered because of its dazzling display of speed or grace, but rather because of its much deeper significance. Those steps were your first lunge towards freedom.
Ever since then, we have all been on this “freedom journey” as Nigel Savage puts it, not only as individuals, but as a people. Passover represents “freedom from”- from slavery, oppression, hunger, want. But after the seder we continue this journey, but now we are moving in the direction of “freedom towards.” The change is a subtle but important one in our personal lives, in the history of the Jewish people, and in our society today.
In Judaism, this freedom journey is marked by the counting of the omer. There are 49 days between Pesach, the holiday that marks the Exodus and Shavuot the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah. Each day, we count down; tonight is the 11th day of the omer. If Passover is the freedom that celebrates that impulsive and exhilarating lunge forward, Shavuot is the freedom that honors the need for limits on the human propensity for reckless abandon.
In a society where there are no means of controlling what any individual can do, no one is free. Ironically, although the notion of a ‘free for all’ society may seem like the most equalitarian and unencumbered environment, as we know from our own Jewish history, – unrestricted behavior can lead to devastating choices. Consequently, it is usually the most vulnerable who, without the protection of laws, suffer the most dearly.
Tomorrow night at sunset begins Yom HaShoah, the day in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the Holocaust. But for most of us, the memory of this experience is not confined to one day; rather its impact is etched on our souls eternally. That nightmare was what happens when unbridled power led to violence which destroyed 6 million of our people and a total of 11 million people.
Hitler did not start with concentration camps, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Rather he started by eroding the laws that protected the most vulnerable people in his countrythe gypsies, the disabled, the homosexuals, the Jews. When his power went unchecked by any controls, he aggressively expanded to attack the most vulnerable countries. Without any legal limits, he continued until the burning hell that we call the Shoah left its stain on the history of humankind.
Relying on human decency, common sense, or good will to create a society which protects the rights of all is a mistake, if history is any lesson. This truth is not only a part of our Jewish experience; it has also become a part of our experience as citizens of this country and of the state of Connecticut in particular.
Four months ago, one very disturbed individual was able to kill 26 innocent people, including twenty helpless children. His motives will never be known, but his ability to acquire the kind of weapons and ammunition that could wreck such destruction in 300 seconds has become the topic of a national debate.
I believe that most gun owners in this country are law abiding citizens who feel that they are exercising their constitutional rights. However, it is the intricate balance between these rights and the right to live in a safe environment that is now the central question. Both rights are part of what it means to be free.
When Govenor Malloy signed into legislation a bill that limited the size of gun magazines to 10 rounds, expanded the state’s existing assault weapons ban and required universal background checks on all gun sales in the state, Connecticut became one of only three states since the Sandy Hook tragedy to acknowledge the inherent and essential bond between rights and responsibilities. The accomplishment of this bi-partisan effort will not be a perfect solution to gun violence. In fact, sales of assault weapons and ammunition have skyrocketed in our own state in an effort to beat the deadline for when this legislation would take effect. A handful of states have even gone the opposite direction passing laws that would expand the availability of deadly weapons. It will take more than one bill to change our culture’s understanding of both parts of this equation.
But on this Shabbat, we can pause for a moment and acknowledge where we are on this freedom journey. We can count this day of the omer as a step in the right direction. When the ancient Israelites received the Torah with all its laws and ordinances a new society was established one whose hallmark is the relentless pursuit of justice, and protection of the vulnerable. We forged a civilization that encompasses both ends of the spectrum of freedom, a religion that commemorates Passover and Shavuot, the exodus from bondage and the receiving of the Law. That freedom journey continues today.
We thank you God for those who have labored tirelessly to raise our nation’s awareness of the devastating effects of gun violence and who have advocated for responsible measures. We are grateful for the concerned citizens and lawmakers who have labored to overcome bi-partisan opposition for the common good. We realize how divisive and emotional this subject is. We pray for the clarity and willingness to engage with one another in thoughtful and respectful ways. May we be blessed to see our children grow up in safety and may the memory of those who perished from senseless violence inspire us to work for a better world for all.
Ken yehi ratzon.
Rabbie Leah Cohen
Georgetown, CT – April 5, 2013