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Fires, Shootings, Unfenced Roofs, and Uncovered Pits: Lessons from Torah in the Face of Increasing Danger

When I was in college, during the study week before finals, you would find me either in the computer room writing papers, or in the game room, dropping quarters into the video game machines. Three friends got me through finals: Ms. Pac-man, Spy Hunter, and Centipede. Only in the game room could I momentarily push aside the overwhelming pressures of real life. Yet even though I was pretty good at racking up extended play, whenever the games ended, those papers still needed to be written. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t duck the reality that I had to face.

These past few weeks, as I faced sermon writing – the rabbinic version of college finals – I tried to again get lost in my iPhone games, battling virus wars or engaging in space battles, instead of editing sermons. And yet, however momentarily the games captured my attention, I still had to face the approaching sermon deadlines.

I remember walking by a group of teens, ignoring the pressures of homework, by playing a first person shooter games. Those games allow players to experience action through the eyes of the protagonist. They see their hands in front of them, aiming and shooting the gun, holding off enemies, or sometimes just running rampant through the crowds.

Those are not my kind of games because violence is not my cup of tea, but it got me thinking: there’s something incredibly Jewish about that first person perspective. It is what Midrash, rabbinic interpretation of Torah, is all about. After all, what is Midrash, if not a rabbinic attempt to get into the mind of our biblical ancestors, to see the world through their eyes, to try to understand what they were thinking and feeling.

During the Passover seder, a first person midrash on the exodus, the Haggadah says, bechol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo kilu hu yatza mimitzrayim – in each and every generation, each person must see themselves as if they themselves went forth from Egypt. In other words, see the world through another’s eyes, and your mind and heart will soften.

Much has been written about seeing the exodus through Moses’ and Miriam’s eyes. I wonder, with Torah’s focus on the vulnerable, what would it be like to see through the eyes of those forgotten people in Torah? Like the people left behind when Noah’s ark took off to escape the floods. Or the Israelite slaves, being whipped by their Egyptian taskmasters?

OMG. Jewish first person video games. We totally have to design those! Who’s in?

Then I shifted back to those first person shooter games. What would it be like playing those games if we similarly switched perspective? Imagine that instead of being the first person shooter, we became the ones being shot at, the ones whose world was being destroyed? But I didn’t have to imagine too much, because I’ve already seen this play out. Only it wasn’t in a game.

Last November, I woke in the middle of the night, as I often do. And I picked up my smartphone, as I often foolishly do. On Facebook, I saw there had been shooting at the Borderline country western dance bar in Thousand Oaks. Immediately I knew that our congregant Ben Ginsburg, an avid country music line dancer, must have been there. Scrolling through, I discovered that Ben had been there, dodged the bullets, and narrowly escaped. He lived, while 13 people did not.

In the days to follow, Ben told us in great detail what happened. It was as if, instead of playing a first person shooter, I was seeing the shooting through the eyes of those being shot at. Except it wasn’t a game. And it involved a kid. My kid: I bar mitzvah’ed Ben. I confirmed him at the temple. And as it turns out, following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I sat with him to re-assure him, that (and I quote) “the chances were so slim that you would ever in your life face such a shooting.” But the Borderline shooting happened days later, and he was there. That could’ve been any of our kids. And to think that one of ours came that close to dying because of some rage-filled maniac went on a murder spree.

[Breathe] See the world through another’s eyes, and your mind and heart will soften.

I wondered how Jewish tradition spoke to this. I remembered Exodus 22:8. “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet [a low protective fence] for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”

At the moment in time when houses had flat roofs, where family and friends might hang out and barbecue or in the heat, sleep on it, Torah elucidated a simple principle: we should anticipate the danger and build a railing so that no one falls and gets hurt, or worse, dies. Torah teaches us that we are obligated as Jews to act precipitously and proactively against the dangers that we know about, and the dangers we can readily and reasonably imagine. I didn’t get to more fully develop this teaching, because less than 16 hours later, a new threat emerged.

I watched on first person videos as the flames of destruction raced through the neighborhoods surrounding our synagogue, forcing nearly 80% of our congregants into mandatory evacuation. As the fires claimed acre after acre, volunteers from Or Ami and my colleagues from across the country, called Or Ami congregants – many up to four different times – to check on how people were doing, to offer rooms and places to go, and as Rabbi Julia recounted on Rosh Hashana, to announce our Kids Camp and Adult Hangout at de Toledo High School.

Through the eyes of many of you here, I gained a first person perspective, hearing about your fear, exhaustion, and worry. Some people passed time at hotels, while others stayed with relatives and grandparents. But too many watched the fires approach their homes, raging through the underbrush, racing up hills, until – fleeing just ahead of the flames – they learned via from people who stayed behind or the news what the fires did to their homes. Unlike the burning bush that burned but miraculously was not consumed, their homes burned until they were consumed. Unlike God’s voice that called out to Moses, they didn’t hear God’s voice, only heard the sounds of roofs, walls, and beloved keepsakes burning into dust and ashes. [Breathe] See the world through another’s eyes, and your mind and heart will soften.

Seeking to find God’s voice, I turned again to Torah. In Exodus 21:33, I heard God whispering to me, to us: “When a person opens a pit, or when a person digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution.” In other words, if you dig a pit, or there is one on your land, you have to cover it, lest someone or something gets hurt. Here Torah elucidates another simple principle; if there are dangers created either by our actions or inactions, they should not be allowed to fester. We have a duty to confront those dangers. Unsurprisingly, our Torah is reminding us that there are consequences – financial, personal, life and death – when we don’t address these dangers. That when someone gets hurt, or property gets damaged, we are liable.

Our neighborhood shootings and these wildfires are occurring with a frequency and intensity that we have not seen in generations. These are the symptoms of a world crying out to us to pay attention and take action. And as much as we might want to throw coins into a video game or flee to whatever is our preferred diversion, it’s always the same: From this reality, there is no escape. When we return, the danger persists.

How many of you took note of the metal detectors at the theater doors this morning? The Kavli Theatre has decided that to keep their patrons somewhat safer, they need metal detectors. Similarly, synagogues around the nation are devoting an increasing share of their budgets to security. And yet, I’m not sure any of us are really any safer than before.

How many noticed that your homeowners insurance has gone up, or heard that it will – even if you did not live right in the area hit by the fires? And that insurance coverage for smoke damage will most likely be capped at a very low figure? The insurance industry, a business of statistics and algorithms, has determined that major rate hikes will be necessary to offset the payouts that their business models project they will need to make, to those of us in wildfire areas, and to others in the flood zones around the Gulf, and hurricane zones in the Southeast and the East Coast. Because their algorithms show… that these patterns… will continue.

A few years ago, Moody’s, the international company that determines bond ratings (which determine the interest rates at which money can be borrowed), sent warning letters to municipalities and states explaining that because of increasing wildfires, flooding, and hurricanes, the cities and states had to quickly develop responsible plans to address the dangers posed by climate, or their bond rating would be lowered. No matter what we may believe or not about climate issues, the financial risk market has determined that the changes – now and in the future – are real and pervasive. Moody’s warning to cities and states – “if you don’t deal with this, its gonna cost ya” – is a modern extension of Torah’s admonishment that we must address the dangers of the pit and the unfenced roof. The lessons from Mt Sinai are calling out to us today.

In Deuteronomy (11:13-21), we discover v’haya im shamoa, a paragraph inserted into the traditional prayer service after the prayer. V’haya im shamoa warned that if we don’t follow God’s Torah, then the rains will cease to fall and the produce of our fields will decrease dramatically. The early Reform Rabbis were very uncomfortable with this theology that suggested that rainfall would be affected and our harvests adversely influenced by whether or not we kept kosher or kept Shabbat. In fact, they pulled the prayer from the Reform Jewish prayer book a century ago.

But today, as we face severe storms that batter us, fierce flooding that devastates, diabolical fires raging uncontrollably, and mass shootings week after week, we might return to Deuteronomy to reexamine the connection between our actions and our world. And its not about Kashrut or Shabbat.

With this in mind, Rabbi Richard Levy, may his memory be a blessing, the Reform Movement’s preeminent liturgist, reinterpreted the traditional prayer. It appears in the Shabbat prayerbook we use at the synagogue. Pray it with me (it is on the Visual T’filah screen):

IF WE CAN HEAR the words from [Mt.] Sinai then love will flow from us; and we shall serve all that is holy with all our intellect and all our passion and all our life.

If we can serve all that is holy, we shall be doing all that humans can to help the rains to flow, the grasses to be green, the grains to be golden like the sun, and the rivers to be filled with life once more. All the children of God shall eat and there will be enough.

BUT IF WE TURN FROM [Mt.] Sinai’s words and serve only what is common and profane, making gods of our own comfort or power, then the holiness of life will contract for us; our world will grow inhospitable.

LET US THEREFORE lace these words into our passion and our intellect, and bind them as a sign upon our hands and eyes. Let us write them in mezuzot upon our doors, and teach them to our children. Let us honor the generations that came before us, keeping the promise for those yet to be.

Friends, the world is crying out to us, our children are crying out to us, and its time for our minds and hearts, softened by experience, to lead us to act.

Remember the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which was shot up last November? One year later, the synagogue is still shuttered and closed. They can’t move on. And we shouldn’t either.

The burden we have placed on the next generation’s shoulders is overwhelming them. Our twelfth grader Allison Pine told her rabbis and then her Congressperson last winter: “I was 8 years old when I endured my first lockdown drill, hearing the announcement that an ‘active shooter”’ was intruding my school. I remember running to the rainbow carpet to protect myself from a made-up scenario. I remember feeling my heart racing at the thought of a stranger murdering my peers and me. Years have passed, but I remain the same. The thought of being violated with bullets still haunts my mind. I look out the classroom window every time someone walks by, fearing that the next time someone will kill me and my peers.”

In response to the kids and adults who are getting shot at in dance bars and in school classrooms, at concerts and in malls, in mosques, in churches, and in synagogues, a startling 85% of you (nationally) say that there is a simple first step: we should require background checks for gun purchases and gun ownership. Others point to addressing mental health issues, removing weapons from people with mental illness, limiting access to specific weapons, closing gun show loopholes, or more vigorously enforcing the laws we already have on the books. It seems to me that each of these ideas are part of the solution. So, heeding Torah, pick your one or two, and get out there and advocate. Make something happen this year. Do it now.

Did you hear that recently flooded again in Houston. And the hurricanes in the southeast keep intensifying. Did you know that in just 5 years, because of nearby wildfires, we evacuated Or Ami’s Torah scrolls from the synagogue four times? Or that major corporations worldwide are moving to reality-based business models, factoring in these changes that are increasingly affecting their ability to do business? And that our young people are pleading with us adults to take seriously our responsibility as guardians of their future. They want all adults – whatever we believe about the origin of these extremes in the climate – to take action. These kids are living through devastating wildfires, floods, and hurricanes, seeing the destruction with their own eyes. They are frightened about the future. They are demanding we get real. Heeding Torah’s call, let’s cover the pit: make your next car a hybrid or an electric model, move toward solar energy, reduce your red meat consumption. Go beyond the plastic straws to reducing your dependence on all single use plastics. Choose some of these or others significant acts that resonate with you. But take some serious action. This year. Now.

We are digging ourselves into a pit.

The Midrash foresaw such a possibility. It relates that when God created Adam and Eve, God led them through the garden of Eden. God said, “See how beautiful and praiseworthy are My works? Everything I have created has been created for Your sake. Remember this and don’t ruin My world. For if you do, there will be no one to fix it after you.”

When we see the world through another’s eyes, our minds and hearts must soften.

Friends, this has been a very difficult year: the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, Borderline bar shooting, raging fires in our neighborhoods, the shooting at the Poway synagogue down south. It’s Yom Kippur, a time for self-reflection. Have we done enough to make the world safer for us and our children? Yom Kippur is calling out to us, asking if we have addressed the problem of the unfenced roof and the uncovered pit.

Friends, we’ve got work to do. Let’s get started.

NOTE: My sermons blossom thanks to a team of people who read, edit, and with kindness, guide me forward. My wife Michelle November is my first and last editor; with deep wisdom she removes the trivial, shaping what remains so that the essential can emerge. Other valued editors include Rabbi Ron Stern (who wields his wisdom incisively), Rabbinic student Sara Rosenbaum Jones (I thank her newborn Adira for growing so strong that mom has time for my words), and Or Ami congregant Jon Wolfson (who I turn to for the wise perspective of the Jew in the pew).

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