Rabbi's Blog

What if we arm the teachers?  A lesson from Purim

Esther Chapter 9

23 February 2018 / 8 Adar 5778


The 3 college-age children of Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL) just started a campaign called Bake Action Against Gun Violence.

Bake Action Against Gun Violence logo with hamentaschen as the capital As 

"For us, social action is rooted in our Jewish values. As Purim approaches, we invite Jewish communities across the country—organizations such as Hillels and synagogues, or groups of individuals, or collaborative efforts across one city—to join us in the fight to end gun violence in America. Purim celebrates courage, and this Purim, we will stand strong. We will bake Hamantaschen and make Mishloach Manot baskets to sell in our communities. We will donate the proceeds to groups working to end gun violence in America. Examples include Everytown for Gun Safety, the March for Our Lives, and GoFundMe pages helping survivors and the victims' families. We invite you to join us.

Every year on Purim we read the Megillah, a story about a Jewish woman named Esther who stood up to an evil man who wanted to destroy the Jewish people. Her cousin Mordechai, one of the heroes of the story, asks her: “Who knows if you have not come to your position for just such a time as this?”

Now is the time to take action. We are in a position to create change. It won’t be easy, but each of us has the power to help stop gun violence. Let’s remember the 17 students and teachers lost to senseless violence at Douglas so that they did not die in vain."

 Awesome and Yasher Koach -- Jewish values in action, grounded in Jewish text.  

Then I realized there's an even tighter link between Purim and school shootings in particular.

Due to governmental regulations, King Achashveyrosh can't disarm the factions who have been encouraged and given 11 months to prepare themselves to massacre Jews on the 13th day of Adar.  (Esther 3:7-13)  A decree, once given, cannot be countermanded.  (Esther 8:8) Instead, Esther and Mordechai write new orders permitting the Jews to use massive force against anyone who attacks them.  (Esther 8:9-13)

Result?  800 dead in the capital Shushan alone, plus 75,000 elsewhere in the kingdom.  (Esther chapter 9)

Is that what we want?  An on-going bloodbath?

It brings up other issues with arming teachers: Are all teachers fit to wield deadly weapons?  What training would be required of them?  Teaching youth has to be one of the potentially most frustrating jobs in the universe, right next to parenting.  How much danger would students be in from their teachers?  What danger would there be that a gang of angry students would sieze a gun from an unprepared teacher?  And so on.

Bringing guns into schools, even under the supervision of teachers, only brings more guns into schools.  More guns means more opportunity for gun violence.  There is such a difference between a fight breaking out between people who are armed with fists, and those who are armed with any weapon.  School is not a safe place for guns.

King Achashveyrosh had his hands tied by pre-existing regulations, or long-standing custom, which apparently he couldn't change.  The US has the power to change our laws in ways which reduce violence, not encourage more of it.

Holy places are safe spaces

T'rumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19

16 February 2018/ 1 Adar 5778


"Let them build me a mikdash, a place of holiness" says God, "and I will dwell in their midst."  (Exodus 25:8)

Not "in it" but "in the middle of them."  

If you can successfully build a place of holiness, then I will [already] be present in your community.  

And what constitutes a place of holiness?  A place whose metal portions are gold and silver, copper, and bronze, but not  iron, the weapon of war. (Exodus 35:5)  

A place which may not even be built using iron tools to shape the stone.  (Exodus 20:22)  Nor should the sounds of striking or beating or hammering even be heard in the place.  (I Kings 6:7, describing Solomon building the First Temple in Jerusalem)  

A place of holiness is a place where weapons and tools which are also used to make war are intentionally excluded.  

It's not that those tools don't have their place: In Solomon's building, the stone was shaped at the quarry.  (I Kings 6:7 again)  While one can make strong arguments in support of pacifism and non-violence in Judaism, and war is to be a last resort ("When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace" Deuteronomy 20:10), Torah does not go so far as to ban the military.  

But if you want to build a society in which God dwells, you focus your intention on creating spaces where reminders of war and even the sounds of violent physical conflict are excluded.  

And when you have created those spaces, then God is already dwelling among you.  

May the memories and lives of those who were murdered in Parkland, Florida this week by a young man who should never have had access to a weapon of war ... may their memories join with those of all other victims of gun violence to galvanize us into action.  May we create a society in which God dwells among us because we are able to exclude weapons of war and violence from our holy public space.

 כן יהי רצון/Keyn y'hi ratson -- We know this is God's will.  It is up to us to make it into our will.




We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest

Rabbi Debora S. Gordon at Troy Interfaith MLK Service

14 January 2018, Bethel Baptist Church


[Leah Penniman’s introduction:] Our family joined Berith Sholom in 2005 after visiting every other synagogue in the Capital District. As a Black Jewish farmer with a Sephardic spouse, multiracial children, and a profound commitment to justice, Berith Sholom was the one congregation that offered a reflection of self and an unapologetic embrace of all our complexity. Rabbi Debora Gordon has offered her musical genius, profound knowledge of Torah, and personal friendship to our family and to the entire congregation all these years, for which we are deeply grateful.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in blessed memory, advised us that, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” One of the things that we cherish most about our beloved Rabbi is that she is never silent on things that matter most. Rooted deeply in “tikkun olam” - the healing and repair of the world - Rabbi Gordon has spent her 20 years at Berith Sholom Congregation giving voice and taking action on matters of justice. She stands up for the Movement for Black Lives from the pulpit and in the streets. She stands up for immigrant rights, in word and deed. She advocates for children with different abilities, for the elderly and the hungry, and for people experiencing intimate partner violence. And in acts of great moral courage, she boldly questions and challenges the State of Israel on its human rights abuses in Palestine. She “talks the talk and walks the walk.”

Rabbi Gordon is carrying on a long legacy of solidarity between the Black and Jewish community. Just as Jewish students and clergy showed up for Freedom Summer, just as Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld sustained beatings in Mississippi for his Civil Rights Work, just as Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner paid the ultimate price in the swamps of Mississippi, our Rabbi is showing up whole-heartedly for this community. Rabbi Gordon has been attending since shortly after she moved to the area and started bringing her multiracial family once she became a parent over 10 years ago. She is deeply honored and humbled to speak with you today.


I am honored and humbled to stand before you to preach this afternoon.  Thank you Leah Penniman for that introduction; you and your family’s work inspire me.  My thanks to the Martin Luther King Committee of Troy Area United Ministries for believing in me and inviting me to deliver the message today.  And thank you to each of you who is here this afternoon.  The world has need of your energy and your commitment.

I struggled for a long time with how to start this drash, this sermon.  There is too much to say.  There is so much good work going on today — and such great need for it. 

As I wrote, I researched, and I learned history that inspires and teaches me.  I read the words of preachers and teachers who have moved me.  And I asked, over and over, “What is the message that I need to bring today?”

And this is the message that I received: 

Bad things are happening.  (But you know that.)

Good things are happening.  (But you know that.)

Don’t give up.

♫ We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoPofPzkJ4U  (Sweet Honey in the Rock with VocalEssence)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6Uus--gFrc   (Sweet Honey in the Rock in performance)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRiveZNEqjs  (Toshi Reagon, Angelique Kidjo, Taina Asili, Climbing PoeTree and more at the Women's March in Washington DC on January 21st, 2017)

“I can’t hear you.”  [Congregation joined in louder:]

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