When I wrote to my congregation from Jerusalem last week, I said that Israel is a complicated place. As I have settled back into the normalcy of life here at home, I find myself thinking the same thing about the United States.
We too live in a complicated society, one in which school shootings happen with alarming regularity, and yet we continue to condone military assault weapons in the hands of civilians. We cry and then turn a blind eye.
This is not entirely true, thanks in great part to the students and families from Parkland High School. Because of the tragedy at their school in February, when 14 students and teachers were murdered, they have raised our collective consciousness like no other school shooting has, including Columbine, the first mass murder in a school that took 13 lives, and Sandy Hook, the deadliest, with 26 small children and their teachers murdered.
On Friday, we added to the list Santa Fe High School, near Houston Texas, where 10 students and teachers died.
Can anything be done to stop this? Of course.
Will anything be done to stop it? I hope so but the cynic in me says, probably not. It will continue and the new reality for children in the U.S. will be schools equipped with metal detectors and armed guards, much like our airports have become over the past two decades.
At the same time that this new horror was taking place, a new crop of college students was celebrating their graduations, decked out in colorful regalia, listening to inspirational speeches from their peers and guest speakers.
To understand this weekend, you could put contrasting photos on your computer screen; one with smiling, happy young graduates, and one with high schoolers screaming, crying and running. Both would be accurate depictions.
So too in Israel this past week. On one side of your screen you could see smiling faces and hear songs of peace and unity as the U.S. Embassy was opened in Jerusalem, and on the other you could see Palestinians screaming, crying and running. And both would be accurate.
Our immediate impulse when we hear terrible news is to ascribe blame. It’s the shooter’s fault. It’s his parents’ fault. It’s the NRA’s fault. It’s the mental health system’s fault.
Of Israel we hear, it’s the Palestinian’s fault. It’s the Israeli army’s fault. It’s Hamas’ fault. It’s Trump and Netanyahu’s fault. It’s the Zionists’ fault.
It seems the only thing we can’t blame on each other this week is the volcanic eruption in Hawaii.
The Torah portion that we read on this Shabbat is called BaMidbar, in the desert, and sometimes it feels that way to us today. We feel that we are in a wilderness, wandering through a violent and unpredictable world.
And because it’s called that, one might expect the Torah portion to continue with stories of the wilderness, to read about confusion and arguments and blame. But instead, the first thing we’re told is that the people took a census. They counted themselves.
In other words, after announcing that they were indeed in a wilderness, the Torah went directly into details about how the community should organize itself. To offset the wild nature of their environment they needed to work together so that they could maintain order and create unity.
Having just returned from traveling to Israel with a group of only 18 people, I can tell you from first-hand experience that counting heads is important. People wander off; take a wrong turn, stop to take photos.
So I have no doubt that Moses needed to take a census. And even so, we know that there will still be problems among the Children of Israel, still be strife, and hatred, and conflicts ending in deaths.
There are no easy solutions to the societal wilderness in which we find ourselves, no quick fixes that can make everything sane again.
And so, how can we impose order on a disorderly world?
Perhaps there is a clue in next week’s Torah portion, which includes the Birkat HaKohanim, the three-part priestly blessing in Numbers chapter 6, which reads:
May the Eternal bless you and protect you,
May the Eternal’s face give light to you, and show you favor,
May the Eternal’s face be lifted toward you, and bestow upon you peace.
The central line of the blessing asks that God’ face “give light to you.” When I’m feeling hopeful about our world, I pray that God’s light will shine upon us, not so that God will fix everything for us, but that with God’s light we will be able to see clearly and know what needs to be done and how to do it. May we be so blessed.
This is a slightly edited version of the sermon I gave at my congregation this Shabbat.