An Expanded Summary of My Yizkor Sermon - Shavuot 2016
Whenever we read the Prayer for Our Country on Shabbat and holidays I always feel grateful that I live and was born in the greatest country on earth. We should be grateful for the freedom we have and be cognizant of the fact that our country was founded on principles of justice and freedom for all. We remember the Pilgrims and their escape from religious persecution in England. We remember President George Washington's letter to the 6 synagogues in America thanking them for their good wishes on his inauguration and promising to secure religious freedom for all. I remember all 4 of my grandparents and their emigration from Poland, the Ukraine and Romania, fleeing the pogroms and religious persecution and seeking a better life in America. And we should be aware of the thousands of people, many of whom risk their lives to reach our shores every year in the hopes of living in the freest country in the world.
Along with that freedom though comes a sense of trust. Societies set up their system of government and their constitutions with the understanding that all citizens buy into the system. There is a basic sense that everyone who is a citizen of a country agrees to live by the laws of that country. We see that in the Torah. The midrash teaches that everyone in Israel was of one mind and one body when God revealed the 10 commandments and the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
Yet the Torah recognizes that not everyone will obey the rules all the time. There are punishments in the Torah for those who transgress and other ways in which the community can ensure that all remain faithful to the covenant. So too in America. With our freedoms come a tremendous sense of responsibility. Not only must we ensure the safety of all Americans but we must ensure that those who of their own volition are evil can never harm other people.
Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of the horrific shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando last Saturday night/Sunday morning. There should have been no way that the perpetrator should have been able to buy an assault rifle and a semi-automatic pistol and then use them in such an evil way. There are common sense gun control measures that should be enacted that can reduce if not eliminate such massacres from occurring. People should have the right to buy a rifle to go hunting but there is no way that people should have the right to buy army grade weaponry.
When an event such as Orlando occurs we wring our hands and pray for the victims. But we need to do more. We must recognize that our country should remain steadfast in its foundational principles of freedom and justice for all. At the same time we must advocate to ensure that those who seek to do harm never have the opportunity to do so. We must be more aware of our community. We must reach out to the marginalized and provide protections for them. We must expand our charitable resources to ensure that those who feel left out can be brought back in.
God recognizes that there will always be poor people in the community therefore we are commanded to leave the corner of our fields and the droppings from our gleanings for the poor. The system, in other words, has methods built in to care for the disadvantaged.
We can also look to the example of our loved ones for motivation and inspiration. Just last week I officiated at the funerals of three long time members of Shaare Tefila. Joe Shuman owned a book store in DC for 55 years. When he retired the clientele all agreed that he was the kindest, friendliest and most honest businessman they've ever met. Joan Eskin married her husband after only one semester in college. After her 4 children were old enough she went to the University of Maryland and completed a degree in Women's Studies at age 59. Bill Harkaway, past president of our shul, was held in high esteem by clients and peers as a lawyer with integrity and honesty. These three, along with the memories we have of our loved ones today, should continue to inspire us to true and righteous living.