Lights from Newtown – 12/12 Parashat Vayigash

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Alexander Davis
December 12, 2012 / 28 Kislev 5773

In addition to the heart wrenching scenes of parents burying their children that we’ve seen this past week, one image sticks in my mind. My heart continues to break and pour forth prayers of compassion. But one picture has my mind turning over and over.

It looks like Disney Princess backpack. It is pink and pint size for a little girl. But one thing distinguishes it. It is bullet-proof. There is a matching action figure bullet proof backpack for boys.

Since last week, a Utah-based company, “Amendment 2,” has seen a 500% rise in sales in this back-to-school apparel.

I saw a picture of this bullet-proof princess backpack produced by “Amendment 2” and I asked myself, “Have we really descended to this? “American America God shed his grace on thee” we sing as blood is shed in our schools. We are the freest Nation on earth, the most prosperous Nation, the most civilized. And one of the most violent. Where did we go so wrong? No doubt the reasons are many and complex. And so too, therefore, must be the response.

As Hanukkah came to a close this week and as I watched vigils and funerals in Newtown, a midrash came to mind. The midrash appears in two slightly different versions.

Version 1 appears in the Talmud (AZ 8a):

Our Rabbis taught: When Adam, on the day of his creation, saw the setting of the sun he said: “Alas, because I have sinned the world around me is becoming dark; the universe will now become again void and without form — this then is the death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!” So he sat up all night fasting and weeping. When, however dawn broke, he said: “This is the usual course of the world.”

Version 2 is from Midrash Rabbah on Genesis:

When the sun sank at the close of the Sabbath, darkness began to set in. Adam was terrified thinking “surely the darkness shall envelop me” (Psalms 89:11). What did God do for him? He made Adam find two flints and strike them against each other. Light came forth and Adam said a blessing, “borei m’orei haeish.” Hence it is written – “the night was light about me.”

In both stories, Adam fears the darkness. He feels responsible for the disappearance of light and he sees the world returning to chaos. But his response in the two versions differs.

What does Adam do in the first version? He simply waits. Remember, he had no idea that daytime was going to arrive. He thought that darkness was permanent. It must have been a long, anxious night. He prayed. He fasted. But he was otherwise paralyzed by the darkness. He waited and hoped and slowly, slowly, the light began to grow. Of course, Adam quickly discovered that this cycle was the way of the world- light to dark, dark to light- “golel or mipnei hoshekh v’hoshekh mipnei or.” With patience, light would surely come again.

How different is the second version. Here, Adam does not wait for the darkness to recede. Not knowing if this darkness was a permanent, he took action. He created light. With God’s help, he developed the tools to push back the darkness. So that even should darkness descend as it regularly does, “hayta lo ora v’simha vsasson,” he would know light.

It goes without saying that as Hanukkah ended, Newtown and indeed our Nation has been plunged into darkness. For the families, indeed it feels like tohu vavohu, chaos. It is a darkness that undoubtedly seems permanent.

The question for us is, how are we going to respond? Like version 1 or 2 of the midrash. Are we just going to sit back and accept that darkness inevitably falls and then passively wait for a new day? It is tempting. The darkness is so thick, so vast, so all pervasive. We wonder what can we really do other than to recheck the Mayan calendar and pray for meshiah?

There is no doubt. In face of darkness, we must bring light. How? With 26 acts of hesed (loving kindness) and increased security measures; with introspection by an entertainment industry that glorifies violence; With mental health initiatives and reasonable gun control.

None of these alone is enough. None of these efforts individually might have prevented Newtown. But that does not mean we are paralyzed or powerless. That does not means that we cannot respond. We have kids walking around with bullet-proof backpacks, for God’s sake! We must respond.

In our parasha, Judah steps forward to a disguised Josef saying, “I am responsible for my brother. If anything should happen to Benjamin, his father could not bear it. Ki avdekha arev et hanaar.” Listen again to that phrase: “I am responsible for my brother.” Finally, as the book of Genesis draws to a close, we hear the answer to a lingering question.

After the world’s first homicide, Cain’s murder of Abel, Cain pleads innocent. “What? am I my brother’s keeper?” “Indeed you are,” says Judah generations later: “I am responsible for the lad. His life, his soul is bound to mine.”

In introducing Judah’s passionate plea, the Torah uses a noteworthy word, “vayigash” which means, “Judah stepped forward.” Now if we look closely, we’ll see that Judah was already speaking to Joseph. He didn’t step forward to have a private conversation as some commentators suggest. No, he stepped up to take responsibility. He stepped forward to say, “hineini” answering the call to action. He stepped up in the way of his great, great grandfather, Abraham about whom it says “vayigash Avraham.” Avraham stepped up to challenge God saying, “how can you let the innocent die?” What if there are 50 innocent. What if 20 pure ones? Abraham stepped up. Judah followed in his footsteps. And so must we.

We, who taught the world that saving life is like saving a world, who taught the world not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors, we must step up.

We who revel in a stained glass window that proclaims our vision of swords beaten into plowshare, we must step up.

We who have known the pain of bloodshed this year in our own community must step up.

We, the descendants of Yehuda who bear his name, Yehudim-Jew, must step up.

We must do more than wait out the darkness. We must light a candle:

We must be vigilant in preventing danger

We must build a compassionate, caring community.

We must reach out to those in need and support mental health initiatives even if we think we are not touched directly.

We must advocate for reasonable gun control.

We must create a culture that upholds the highest values of the sanctity of life.

We must strengthen our resolve, firm our faith, lift our spirit with tefilah, prayer and Torah study.

And like Yehuda who pledged to take responsibility for his brother, each of us must see ourselves as responsible for ourselves, our family, our community, society and responsible to God.

“I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind, writes Elie Wiesel in his newest book, The Open Heart. “And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either.

“Was it yesterday-or long ago-that we learned how human beings have been able to attain perfection in cruelty? That for me killers, the torturers, it is normal, thus human, to act inhumanely? Should one therefore turn away from humanity?

“The answer, of course, is up to each of us. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves.

“I know-I speak from experience-that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man… As a Jew, I believe in the coming of the Messiah… I belong, after all, to a generation that has learned that whatever the question, indifference and resignation are not the answer. Such is the miracle: A tale about despair becomes a tale against despair.”

Hanukkah is over. Her eight lights have gone out.  But like Adam, like the Macabees, like the thousands who lit yahrzeit candles on makeshift memorials throughout Newtown, we can illumine the night.

Pink princess bullet-proof backpacks?

In the face of darkness, kindle light!