The Long Way to Eden

Judaism starts with a vision. It’s born in a world that’s full of slavery and evil and war and oppression but its dream is of Eden, the Garden of Eden. It says this world can and should be made into a paradise. –Rabbi Irving Greenberg in Road to Eden: Rock & Roll Sukkot

It was a rare weekend at home, packed with family time, household chores, and an unusual number of cultural events and social engagements. It was, for the most part, a wonderful few days, marked by many memorable moments. But two stand out.

The first came at noon on Shabbat, when I first learned three people had died by gunfire that morning in my hometown at the charming and sunlit “Mall in Columbia,” setting of many childhood memories. This was not wonderful. I felt a sickening chill reading the news, even as I received reassurances from friends and loved ones who live nearby.

I’ve never put much stock in the idea that “it can’t happen here,” wherever the speaker and whatever “it” is. Violence, tragedy, illness, and suffering know no boundaries. I don’t know any of the families of the three dead (two victims and the gunman). My grief for them is no different from the grief I feel over lives lost to gun violence in Newtown, Connecticut, or Oak Creek, Wisconsin, let alone Aurora, Colorado, or Pearl, Mississippi, places very near the two congregations I serve. Still, I can’t deny that the whole incident feels quite different when the dateline on the news updates reads “Columbia, Maryland,” where I was raised and where my parents still live.

Which brings me to the second notable moment of the weekend (if a “moment” can last several hours). On Sunday afternoon I attended the Mississippi premier of a remarkable new film, Road to Eden. It was part rock & roll documentary, following the Jewish musician Dan Nichols and his band Eighteen on a concert tour through the American South. More importantly, though, it was an extended meditation on the festival of Sukkot, which may be, as one contributor to the film put it, “Judaism’s most underappreciated holiday”: Nichols and his band deliberately chose to schedule their winding road trip during this eight-day festival that celebrates redemption by literally throwing us out of the house, commemorating the Israelites’ wanderings out of Egypt, from Sinai to the promised land. When we sit in our sukkot today we get to reflect on how we might replicate and extend their journey by continuing to seek and to build the Garden of Eden, a paradise of justice, compassion, and peace here on earth.

What does Sukkot and Dan Nichols have to do with the tragedy of innocent lives lost to gun violence? Sukkot, the festival of booths, strips us of the illusion that we are separate, safe, and self-contained, each in our own sturdy home. As Nichols reflected after an inspiring meeting with the Reverend Billy Kyles at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee: Sukkot, which removes us from our comfort zones and places us at the mercy of natural elements, vulnerable to outside threats, also serves to remind us of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s wise words, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I hope you will all have an opportunity soon to see this wonderful film. But that’s not the point of my message today. My purpose in mentioning it here is to raise a question, one that all of us should seek to answer, one that Judaism calls us to answer: how do we balance the justice of law-abiding citizens wishing to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms against the injustice of innocent lives sacrificed every day in this country to that right?

The status quo is unacceptable. I do not yet know the answer, but I know that we must not stop asking ourselves and our lawmakers the question. If we wish to continue on the Road to Eden, we must make a change.