I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on December 11, 2015.
Over Thanksgiving I was able to go home, to Texas, where all of my family lives. The most precious time was with my two nephews and my niece. The day after Thanksgiving, Archer, the four-year-old, pulled me upstairs to play. He decided he wanted to wear his Halloween costume, and so he showed me the basket for his dress-up clothes. He begin pulling out his pink tutu, cowboy hat, green dress, etc. He finally got to his firefighter costume. He carefully donned the hat and coat and asked me what I thought. When I suggested he might need shoes to be a firefighter, he obligingly strapped on his pink sandals. Ready? I said. Not yet, he replied. He pulled out of the pocket of his coat a laminated card with four illustrations. Okay, he announced. This is what we have to do. These are the different things that can happen, he said, pointing to the card. And so we went from room to room, first putting out a house fire; then a forest fire that spread from a campfire; and finally a kitchen fire that started from a pot left on the stove. And then we rescued a cat in a tree. What else can we do?, I asked. That’s all there is, he replied. Let’s do them again!
My brother is an engineer — and my grandfather was an engineer — and Archer has certainly inherited their exactitude and penchant for following directions precisely. So I know that it’s not just a child’s assurance of safety that encompasses his approach to make-believe. For Archer, the card that comes with the jacket tells you what to do. These, and only these, are the threats that firefighters face. They are circumscribed, and they are predictable.
I came to Texas for Thanksgiving with the heavy weight of the brokenness of the world. I continue to be sickened by the terrorist attacks at home and abroad, whether by knife-wielders in Jerusalem — where many of my classmates are now studying — or gun-toters here. The sense of insecurity that I feel on a daily basis is profound, and as I took part in Archer’s highly circumscribed set of crises, I wondered whether I will be able to give him — and my other nephew and niece — anything other than a world of out-of-control unpredictability.
I felt this again on Wednesday night, when a small group of us from Nehar Shalom went together to the Boston Candlelight Vigil Against Gun Violence, part of a week of similar events nationwide. The event took place in what I assume was the small sanctuary of the very large First Church of Boston in Back Bay.
There was a modest crowd, at least in comparison to my expectations — which provided a marked contrast to the number of victims of gun violence who were remembered. A candle was lit for each of the victims of gun violence this year in the Boston area. And then attendees were invited to light candles for their own loved ones who had been victims of gun violence. And then the pastor lit a candle for each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia while the number of victims of gun violence in each place were read aloud. I worried we might burn the church down with all of that fire. (And this was not one of the scenarios on Archer’s card!) Even the presence of the large Boston police officer who spoke briefly was diminished in the shadow of the flames. Before and after the service, on a large screen at the front of the sanctuary, a tribute video played, with pictures of victims of gun violence — a name, date, and location with each. The dates ranged back as far as 1990, with the dead all over the country. The enormity of what we face overwhelmed me, and I felt helpless and scared. I don’t mean to criticize the organizers of this important event — I mean only to share my experience.
In that moment, sitting in a small chapel memorializing the victims of this seemingly unending, volatile scourge, what we call “Gun Violence in the United States,” I flashed to an episode of my favorite TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Yes, you can laugh. What, you thought I was going to say the parshah? Themes of Chanukah? Words from our venerable rabbinic tradition? In my world, there are at least two Torahs, and one of them is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show is about a superhero in Southern California who fights the forces of darkness — but on a metaphorical level, it’s also about what we do as human beings when the monsters come. In Buffy’s world, as in ours, the monsters always come. Of course, in Buffy’s case, it’s because the town of Sunnydale also happens to sit on the hellmouth.
The episode “The Wish” explores an alternate reality: What would the town be like if Buffy weren’t there? The vampires have taken over, but most of its human residents have adjusted to the constant fear. They have curfews, avoid the bright clothing that attracts vampires, and have weekly memorial services for the ever-accumulating dead. They can’t take on the vampires directly. Horrific death is a matter of when, not if. This is just how things are.
Throughout the episode, we see Buffy’s would-be mentor begin to realize that they’re living in an parallel universe. He came to the town to help Buffy, but she never showed up. And in the meantime, the town of Sunnydale surrendered to the darkness. He finally figures out that this reality is the result of a magical spell — and that he can break the spell by destroying the amulet that was used to cast it. As he prepares to smash it, the demon who cast the spell taunts him: How does he know the other world is any better than this one? “Because it has to be,” he says. With that leap of faith, he rights the world — monsters still exist, but does the person who fights those monsters.
Sitting in that sanctuary, I felt like the residents of Sunnydale. I don’t want for us Americans to accept gun violence as they do vampires — but we don’t have a superhero, and we don’t have a magic amulet. We do, however, have an example in the Jewish tradition. (Yes, now we’re getting to that Torah!)
Parshat Miketz also contains a looming menace that threatens death. In this part of Genesis we see the long-forgotten Yosef finally remembered by Paro’s cupbearer and called to interpret Paro’s dreams of fat and lean cows and of full and withered ears of grain. Like Archer’s firefighter card that precisely delineates scenarios, Yosef accurately predicts seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. And then he recommends preparation. The job is given to Yosef himself, who successfully executes his task — and then some, as he’s ultimately able during the famine to feed more than just the people of Egypt because of his careful planning.
As an activist, there is so much that I like about this story. I think we can see it as the beginning of community organizing in Jewish tradition. After the cosmology of the story of creation at the beginning of Genesis, the Torah focuses narrowly on family narrative: Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya’akov, Rachel, Leah. When Yosef’s brothers sell him into slavery down into Egypt, the scope begins to widen. With Yosef’s eventual rise to power, the actions of our ancestors begin to have national and historical implications. What we do matters to others.
Importantly, Yosef doesn’t just tell Paro what his dreams predict: He proposes a solution. And the solution, significantly, does not assume deliverance: Gd may have enabled Yosef to know what was coming, but Yosef suggests what to do about it. The text attributes the idea for action to Yosef — not Gd. לֵאלֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים, “interpretations belong to Gd,” Yosef says — but the story shows that action belongs to human beings.
I imagine that the prospect of famine, of the potential starvation of the people of Egypt, was quite frightening. Knowing the threat is coming doesn’t blunt fear. The famine looms, but Yosef isn’t cowered by it. He doesn’t accept it. He sees a different world, and he works to bring it into being.
Like Archer’s fires, and Buffy’s monsters, and Joseph’s famine, there are and will continue be destructive forces in the world. We create them in these fictional forms to manage our fear. We can also do it in this world. We can and we must end gun violence. Let’s change this era of daily gun deaths so radically as to make it seem like it was an alternate universe. I want our moral imagination in this area to be as vibrant as our creative imagination.
Like the Maccabees of old, who defied the culture of their time that said that destiny could not be changed and instead, jumped in to write a new story, my hope for us is that we dare to dream of a different world — and then work together to bring it about. It’s not a superhero or a soothsayer — we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.