Monday, April 16, 2012

Plea for the Removal of Strange Fire

There once was a small town near a fast-flowing river.  Just beyond the town the river ended in a huge waterfall.  The townspeople knew to stay away from the river, because anyone caught in the current would surely end up over the edge of the waterfall, and there was no way to survive such a fall.   One day, the townspeople heard shouts coming from the river.  They ran and saw someone caught in the current, heading toward the dangerous falls.  Working together, they were able to throw him a rope and save his life.  A few days later it happened again.  Someone was caught in the current, and they rushed to save him.  They decided to keep the rope tied to a tree by the river for the next time.  Sure enough, it happened again.  And again, and soon multiple people were falling in the river and the whole town set up a watch to fish people out of the dangerous waters, and they had an alarm system installed to bring people to help if necessary.

Then once day they had an idea.  They built a net across the river, so that anyone who fell in would be caught by the net and easily saved by a few people monitoring their net.  Sure enough, it worked, and only rarely did people slip through the net and need extra help.  Everyone in the town was so proud of their solution that they never thought to go upstream and discover why people were falling in the river in the first place.

This week’s Parashah contains one of the strangest bits of text we encounter.  Parashat Shemini begins with the first sacrifice following the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests, with Aaron as high priest.  Aaron offers the sacrifice and fire comes down from God to consume it.  Then Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, try to do the same thing.  It happens in two verses:
Now Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  2 And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Adonai (Lev. 10:1-2).

Aaron’s sons, trying to do what they had seen their father do, ended up dying at God’s hand.  The same fire that came down moments earlier to accept Aaron’s sacrifices comes down again with tragic results.  One moment the Israelites shout and cheer as they revel in God’s acceptance of their sacrifice, and the next there is deafening silence.

Fire from God is an incredibly powerful force, and when summoned with the correct intent it brings expiation and elation.  When summoned falsely or by the wrong person, at the wrong time, or with the wrong intent, the consequences are deadly.

In the Bible we can give a little leeway to this disturbing story.  We can explain it with midrashim that suggest God knew Nadav and Abihu had malicious intent and were therefore punished.  We can read it as a warning, over the top for the modern reader but perhaps on track for the Bible, to not act without proper instructions, especially when dealing with the Divine elements that require a particular understanding.  We can assume that there is some sort of lesson to be learned from this terrible story, but all we can do is speculate as to the original writers’ intent.  Nadav and Abihu took their father’s ritual equipment, used it improperly, and it resulted in their death.  They were victims of their father’s strange fire.

Today’s’ modern parallel would be a child stealing their parent’s gun.  We read it all the time, when children want to be cool and show a friend what was under daddy’s bed or in mommy’s purse.  When they use what they don’t understand in an improper way.  It never ends well.

Perhaps it could be argued that guns are helpful.  I don’t personally agree.  I think they only harm.  But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that someone could convince me that for some reason it is necessary to have a weapon in the home.  When they are not stored properly, used properly, locked away out of reach of anyone who could misuse them, they can only become the same strange fire that Nadav and Abihu toyed with.  Usually when a child takes a handgun that is not properly locked away, the results are the same for them as for the sons of Aaron.

Here in Florida we have extremely lax gun laws.  My brother-in-law, visiting our family here two weeks ago, greeted me with, “So happy to be in Florida where murder is legal."  I responded, "Welcome to the Gunshine State!"  We have laws that allow someone with arrests for assaulting a police officer and domestic battery to carry a concealed weapon.  We have laws that allow someone to use deadly force against another human being just because they feel scared.  We have laws that allow police officers to free a suspect because it looked like he was “standing his ground.”

It is absolutely tragic what happened to Treyvon Martin about six weeks ago.  It is disgusting that it took so long to bring charges against George Zimmerman.  There does need to be justice, and hopefully this will come to some sort of resolution soon.   Zimmerman may have shot Martin in self defense, and Martin may have attacked Zimmerman in self-defense.    But if we focus on George Zimmerman and Treyvon Martin, tragic as the story may be, we are just fishing people out of the river. 

The problem we have is not that one guy who has police officer pals displayed terrible judgment and went unpunished for too long.  The problem we have is Florida’s gun laws.  Martin was a victim of Florida’s Strange Fire.  Zimmerman should not have been allowed to own a weapon, much less serve as his community’s neighborhood watch.

I heard a story on NPR recently about a military battalion coming home from Iraq.  They got through Iraqi airport security without a hitch and flew home, landing here in Florida.  20 or so men and women, finally home from a tour of duty, were detained for two hours by security in America.  One soldier had a nail clipper confiscated, but he was allowed to keep the gun strapped to his chest.  All of the soldiers were allowed to keep their guns and rifles, though several of them had lotions and razors taken away from them by TSA.

In late August, Tampa will be hosting the Republican Party’s National Convention.  They are trying to create a “Clean Zone,” that will help control protesters outside of the convention.  There is a list of items that cannot be brought into this area, including clubs, knives, chains and pepper spray.  But because of Florida’s gun laws, they cannot ban guns in that area!  According to the Hillsborough County Public Defender, “If you’re walking in the convention area, you can’t have a water pistol, but if you’re licensed properly to carry a concealed firearm you can.”[1]

My friends, I know that there are people in this sanctuary who have concealed weapons licenses.  With close to a million people carrying them in Florida, that should be no surprise.  I pray that you don’t have them with you in this holy space, but I acknowledge that it is possible.  I know that those of you who carry weapons do so “for your own safety,” or because you live alone or don’t believe the police would get to you on time.  I know that as a rabbi I am supposed to be nice.  I am supposed to give way in the name of the Talmudic dictate, dina malchuta dina, “the law of the law is legally binding.”  When a congregant tells me about the weapons in their home I typically smile and nod and change the subject.  Every time I do that, I am guilty of putting a net across the river.  So I will do this no more.

It’s time to stop fishing people out of the river, time to stop casting nets to prevent people from more harm than they already have gotten into.  It’s time to go upstream.  This is not about the Treyvon Martins of the world.  This is about laws in the Gunshine State.  This is about political control the NRA has in our country.  This is even about misrepresentation of the 2nd Amendment of our Constitution.

Owning firearms is wrong.

If you defend our country or cities by serving as a military or police officer, I commend you.  Your weapons should be kept in some sort of protective custody when you are not using them for your job.  If you are not employed as such, get rid of your weapons.  They cannot do any good in your home.  In all likelihood if they are ever used they will only harm you or someone you love.  If you are a hunter, try bow and arrow.  A bow cannot accidentally go off in your hand.  It takes much more skill and would not only prevent accidental shootings (ahem, Mr. ex-Vice President), it would prevent the thinning of animal population that is regularly threatening our ecosystem.

Until we get rid of the weapons, please—please lock them up.  Lock them tight with keys and combination locks and anything that keeps them out of the hands of people who don’t know how to use them.  Help prevent our children from toying with strange fire and suffering such a terrible fate.

[1] According to Reuters, “Trayvon Martin killing puts spotlight on ‘Gunshine’ state” by David Adams and Kevin Gray