When Sarah heard that Abraham had almost sacrificed Isaac, she dropped dead: The horror of his act. The potential violence. The terror that Isaac must have felt. The willingness of Abraham to put their only son in grave peril. We can imagine that all of these conspired to stop her heart. Even the relief of knowing that Isaac had survived the ordeal could not save Sarah. And so at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion — after the horror of Abraham’s actions -– she drops dead.
Abraham acted out of idealism. Many people point to his willingness to give his own son to God as the epitome of faith, as the ultimate example of sacrifice in the name of higher principle. I have never bought into this notion. At the beginning of the ordeal we read וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם –- God tested Abraham. Well, I think that Abraham failed the test. I choose to believe that God wanted Abraham to distinguish himself from the surrounding culture by refusing to sacrifice his son, by holding life as the highest ideal. Admittedly, my view disagrees with the traditional interpretation. But, as Reform Jews, we embrace our obligation to study Torah and understand it ourselves both with the aid of traditional commentary and without it. Abraham failed the test because he put principle above human life, above the life of his own son. And, when adherence to an ideology or principle leads to unnecessary death, we need to revise or reject that ideology or principle.
We still have the same problem today. 4,000 years after Abraham we regularly witness the horror of child and human sacrifice for the sake of principle and ideology. These sacrifices occurred in a small church in Texas, at a country music festival in Las Vegas, at the night club in Orlando. And children were sacrificed for principle at Sandy Hook and Columbine. Every time -– with AR-15s and bump stocks and handguns –- children and young people gave their lives. The executioners showed no remorse. With stockpiled weapons and endless ammo they took lives and ended families and brought untold pain and horror. Pure horror for those who perished and those they leave behind all for the sake of ideology.
We allow death and destruction and horror in order to maintain the twisted ideology of essentially limitless gun rights. Time and again we put the rights of people to have guns above the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year. Not Abraham’s near-sacrifice of one boy on a mountain top. No, we sacrifice 30,000 people each year to the right to bear arms. Enough is enough.
Now pull out the rituals around the sacrifices. The priest of the religion of guns genuflect to the media and public by declaring that mental illness or poor enforcement cause the deaths. But these 30,000 people do not die each year because of mental illness. They do not die because an unenforced law pierces their skulls or tears apart their hearts. They die because of the ideology that insists on an incredible availability of guns, because of the ocean of steel and lead that fills our nation from shore to shore. Mental health and poor enforcement has an impact but the data are clear: over the last 50 years, the more guns in a country, the more mass-shootings. And America had 4 times more mass shootings than the next deadliest country, the Philippines. With 4.4 percent of the global population, we have 42 percent of the world’s guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31 percent of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American. Without all the guns this could not be the case no matter the state of our mental health system or the enforcement of existing laws.
Why do we make the sacrifice to the gods of steel and lead? We pay this tribute because the ideology of guns has been tied up with identity and politics; tethered to a sense of individualism that insists that no one can protect us but ourselves. This attitude, fed by a mythic Old West sensibility and an isolating individualism requires that we pay an annual blood debt. We pay because people believe that if we limit the right to own guns, that the government will take away hunting rifles. We give up our children because the NRA preaches that reducing the ammunition capacity of a clip, would lead to the confiscation of simple revolvers. We watch friends and neighbors bleed to death because militiamen preach that licensing requirements for guns are akin to fascism. There is only one word for this sort of thinking: paranoia.
This is the part of the sermon when I say that people do have a right to bear arms and that we can take simple, reasonable legal steps to make everyone safer. This is the place where I talk about smart triggers and ammunition limits, banning bump stocks and increasing mental health funding. You, too, can read the articles about so-called sensible gun control measures. I do support those things but I do not believe that they can have enough of an impact. I do not have better answers. I only cry out for the sacrifices that we make to the gun gods. I seek any way to drain the ocean of lead and steel in which 30,000 Americans drown each year.
I think that Abraham failed the test when he brought Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him. But I do not think that he was crazy. He simply went with the prevailing religious culture, a culture which accepted and even encouraged child sacrifice. In the same way, I see people of good will in congress and the executive branch and on the bench who succumb to the principles and ideology of so-called self-defense, of so called gun-rights. Like Abraham drawing the knife to slay his son, these officials give in to the politics and gun-culture of our day. The difference is that Abraham did not kill Isaac. God stopped him from going through with it. Who will stop us from accepting the sacrifices of children today? Where is God’s angel calling from the heaven to say, “Do not raise your hand against your children or do anything to them!”
We cannot be like Sarah. We cannot drop dead from the horror of human sacrifice for the sake of ideology. We need to stand up and call the sacrifice what it is: death for the sake of essentially limitless gun ownership. We can then push for and work for sane gun laws. And, more than that, we can take a page from Abraham and from the NRA and we can build an ideology of our own. An ideology of life, an ideology of trust in law enforcement, an ideology that supports the many over the few and that disentangles patriotism from the cult of firearms. When we build that movement, when we hold high those principles, when we vote according to those ideals, we may be blessed to finally see the end of child sacrifice.