How can we bear the guilt? (On the first anniversary of Newtown)

This week’s Torah portion includes Jacob’s blessings—first of his grandsons and then of his sons. Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s children) read as we would expect—summoning God’s blessing on these children and their progeny. However, when Jacob blesses his children, the blessings come out as a review and critique of their lives. Our Rabbis tell us that Jacob had intended to foretell for his progeny “the end of days” (Genesis 49:1) but that his prophetic vision was blocked. Instead he takes account of what his children have wrought.

In blessing his second and third born sons, Shimon and Levi, Jacob must come to account with one of the most disturbing events in Genesis—the slaughter of the Shechemites following the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. In the event, it was Shimon and Levi who orchestrated the well wrought response. They demanded that the Shechemites circumcise themselves on the pretext that then Jacob’s clan would intermarry and trade with them. Once the Schechemites were weakened from the circumcision, the brothers proceeded to slaughter the Shechemite males. (Genesis 34) Jacob in his “blessing” says the following:

Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.

This is the newer Jewish Publication Society Translation. The word which poses a problem is me’chayrotetayhem which is translated here as “tools of lawlessness.” The Old (1917) Jewish Publication Society translation, renders the phrase “Weapons of violence their kinship,” while the King James version has “instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.” This should give one a sense of the difficulty in figuring out what the word me’chayrotetayhem means.

The English translators are not the first folks to face this challenge, of course. The classic Medieval Jewish commentators were also well aware of the problem. Rashi, the dean of Torah commentators, seems to side with the Old JPS translation. He writes: “This art of murder is a stolen thing with you.” Rashi continues saying that murder was Esau’s blessing and Shimon and Levi stole that blessing from Esau to make it their own.

It is Nachmanides’ translation, however, that I wish to focus on. He dismisses Rashi’s translation (and some others). He then writes:

As I understand it, the weapons of violence are their habitations, their life. … for the weapons of violence are themselves their dwelling place, for with them they live and eat. … As a result of this they must be divided in Jacob and scattered in Israel (reference to Genesis 49:7) so that they will not congregate in one place. Thus the lots of the tribe of Shimon are amongst the people of Judah… and their cities were separated one from another through Judah’s tribal lands, and the lots of Levi, the cities of refuge, are scattered in all of Israel.

Jacob recognized in Shimon and Levi that they had crossed the line into a culture and a life of violence. They were no longer merely possessing weapons in case they were needed, but they were possessed by their weapons. Their weapons were their habitation. Their weapons defined their lives and therefore they were dangerous and had to be dispersed so as not to endanger Israel or her neighbors—because “when angry they slay men.” (Gen. 49:6)

This week’s parsha is read on the one year anniversary of the slaughter at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT in which twenty children and seven adults were killed by one man with many weapons, who ultimately took his own life. In the past year there have been twenty six other school shootings. Overall, in the past year almost 33,000 people have been killed by guns in the United States. Despite this massacre (in comparison, 50,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam in a twelve year period) federal gun regulations have been stymied by a small group of Americans.

This country has been held hostage by those for whom their weapons are their habitation, those who are living in a culture of guns and death. This is a situation which is intolerable as innocent people—infants to the elderly—are killed in a daily onslaught of gun related deaths. We must say loudly: This must stop here, this must stop now! We must say with Jacob:

“Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.…
Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their wrath so relentless.”

If we remain silent, then next December we will have to account for another forty thousand dead. Can we bear that guilt? I cannot. Can you?

_________________________

Things to do:

Faiths Calling: Interfaith Call-In Day to End Gun Violence

Folks in LA: 

3:30 p.m. • Bell Ringing and Vigil • Westwood Federal Building, Northwest Lawn, 11000 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Sponsors:  Brady Campaign San Fernando Valley ChapterBrady Campaign LA County; Organizing for Action, Moms Demand Action, Women Against Violence, IKAR

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