Friday, May 30, 2014

Promises Made, Promises Broken

Among the more inscrutable passages of the Hebrew Bible we find the mitzvot pertaining to Nazirites.  In Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89), we read the rules for one wishing to engage in a Nazirite vow; in the accompanying haftarah (Judges 13:2-25), derived from the story of Samson, we see the laws' practical application.  At first glance, everything seems to be in order: a devout Israelite who is not fortunate enough to have been born into the Levite or priestly class, but nevertheless wants to participate in Temple service, can pledge himself toward that work for a fixed period of time.  It would seem to be a lofty and admirable pursuit; might not the best person for the job be the one who so avidly seeks it at the expense of a much freer lifestyle?

But when we fully examine the complete list of rules, we find that God is evidently troubled by the idea that one would enter into such a vow.  While it is not expressly proscribed, we do read that at the completion of such a period of service, the nazir is expected to bring a sin offering.  This then suggests that something about becoming a Nazirite is distasteful or wrong (Samson's story, of course, can be read as a further cautionary tale).

Many rabbinic commentators opine that the sin offering is necessary as a caution to those who might be inclined to undertake a Nazirite vow, lest they enter into such an arrangement with a cavalier attitude.  It reminds us that our words have weight and meaning; it emphasizes that one should not make promises that he or she may be unable to keep.

I've been thinking a great deal about broken promises lately.  I fear that, as a country, we have broken the promise enshrined in our constitution that all Americans are entailed to the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We have done so by failing to have a meaningful conversation about gun violence.

The shooting near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara last week was but the latest example of the fallout arising from our nation's fetishization of guns.  Yes, the perpetrator of this particular crime also used a knife in his attacks, and, yes, there were other failures in the system that left an opening for him to commit these crimes, but ultimately three people lost their lives last weekend because this young man was given access to firearms.  And if you want to pick apart that particular example, consider that according to the Gun Violence Archive, cited in this chilling New York Times article, 7,145 people have been injured and 4,123 have been killed by guns since the start of 2014.  Of those incidents, only 331 involved the defensive use of guns.

When the shooting happened at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado fifteen years ago, people said it was time for a national conversation on guns.  When 26 first graders and their teachers lost their lives in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012, people were outraged and said it was time for a national conversation on guns (instead, no new gun restrictions were enacted and 2/3 of states loosened their gun laws).  And now, once again, people are calling for such a conversation, fueled by the pained exhortations of Richard Martinez, whose son Chris was killed during the UCSB attacks.  He is urging concerned Americans to write their elected officials with just three words: "Not. One. More."  Martinez' message is simple: not one more individual should have to die from gun violence because we have continually postponed this "national conversation."  Not one more person should have to grieve a loved one because the National Rifle Association has bought politicians and stifled sensible conversation on guns.  While the letter-writing campaign cannot bring back Martinez' son, or any of the other victims of gun violence, it can put the politicians on notice: Americans are fed up, sick at heart, and ready for change.

As Joe Nocera, New York Times Op-Ed columnist, recently reported, a new book by Michael Waldman (The Second Amendment: A Biography) is but one of many pieces reminding us that the framers of the constitution were not in support of individual firearm ownership for personal use.  Instead, the rights enshrined in this amendment were meant only to ease the establishment of "a well-regulated militia."  Having seen how national armies could potentially devolve into tyrannical bodies, the founding fathers felt that these militias were the best way to "provide for the common defense."  Thus, colonial homes were required to have muskets- not for self-defense or for taking potshots at deer or squirrels, but so that the militia could be mustered at a moment's notice.

Waldman argues that "When the militias evaporated, so did the original meaning of the Second Amendment."  But rather than viewing that law as a relic of a bygone era, gun lobbyists have successfully shifted focus onto the final clause of the amendment, "shall not be infringed."  This has led to distasteful rhetoric such as Charlton Heston's declaration about his "cold, dead, hands," or "Joe the Plumber"'s recent open letter to the families of gunshot victims in which he proclaimed, "Your dead kids don't trump my constitutional rights."

Personally, I'm not an absolutist.  I'm not looking to eradicate all guns from our country.  I think there can be such a thing as a "responsible gun owner."  And yes, I'm aware that along with conversations about sensible gun laws, there's a significant need to address mental health issues, racism, misogyny, and a myriad of other issues that may lead an individual to engage in violent acts.  But when elected officials refuse to even consider endorsing a national registry for background checks or closing the gun show loophole, when gun manufacturers resist putting so-called "smart locks" on guns, when we're told that "the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" (as though we live in the black-and-white world of television Westerns), when Wayne LaPierre of the NRA instructs politicians to avoid conversations about gun laws because "now is not the time," it simply boggles the mind.  When will be the time?  How many more people have to die before we are finally willing to have "the conversation?"

Until we do- until we tell our politicians in our state capitols and in Washington, DC that we want an end to the status quo of stonewalling on gun control- we are all complicit in allowing the violence to continue.  And we have broken our promise- a promise to ourselves and to future generations, a promise articulated by our prophets: that all may dwell in peace, and none shall be afraid.  To me, that's worse than the making or breaking of a Nazirite vow.  What sin offering could we possibly bring to atone?  How will we explain ourselves to God and to one another if we allow this to continue?