Jonah in the Hold: San Diego, Guns and Us

Noa Kushner

May 3, 2019


Sometimes the hardest thing is to speak plainly.

We always want to domesticate a hard truth, to gloss it over so that it does not hurt so much

But our job tonight is to try and see clearly.


Because if we don’t look, really look, nothing will change,

and we will become unwitting accessories to the crimes of our day


Let’s be plain:

A rabbi was shot, and a woman, Lori Gilbert Kaye, praying for her mother on Yizkor in a shul, is dead. An eight year old girl got shrapnel in her leg.

And this was not the first synagogue shooting this year.


If we insist nothing can be done or that we must come up with the solution now, or that our small donation, effort, or gesture is meaningless,

If we do nothing,

Then we will be bystanders to the proliferation of these crimes, crimes that are now, without a doubt,

In our own schools, our restaurants, our houses of worship,

In the houses of worship of many of our fellow Americans

Against the Jewish people and anyone who prays with us.


So let’s skip the infighting.

Let’s skip the feeling puffed up, emboldened, because we were right, this latest violence only proves our version of the world feeling.

Let’s skip the part where we argue about which has become worse --

The anti-semitism on the right or on the left.

Let’s skip the part where we throw up our hands and go back to a glass of Rose, or watching Game of Thrones or whatever your preferred form of denial is these days.


Let’s admit it:

Now we too will worry about security.

Yes, even in San Francisco,

Yes, even at the progressive Kitchen,

Yes, even though we don’t own a building, Jewish or otherwise,

Even though we have a plan, and we’ve talked to security people,

And thank god, this school is well designed, safe --

But now I will worry about my hands,

And now I will worry about each and every one of you,

And now we will be talking about things I never thought we would ever talk about.


Many rabbis, my colleagues, will come to the conclusion that we must build a giant fence to protect ourselves, lock the gates,

Mourn for our own

Maybe, in some cases, to continue to build a religion around this heady combination fear and grieving

To return to the very real traumas in our history and just stay there. Put up camp.


We are being plain, so I’ll just say it:

Trauma, no matter how legitimate, no matter its source, is not going to create a future for Jewish life,

Holocaust museums are not going to be able to narrate the next chapter of our story,

And vigils, you will forgive me, this borrowed ritual, will not light our path.  


Only a living Judaism – only living Torah

With moral demands

And intellectual engagement

With commandments for how we drink and eat and talk and approach the world, with a thousand prompts and gestures and responsibilities that remind us that we did not create the world nor is it owed to us, nor do we have the right to oppress because we were strangers


Only living Torah, only what is happening in this room and of course, many other places, only Shabbat, only this living Torah can be an appropriate response to senseless destruction

Not only because these rituals and ways of life are just that, ways of life for the living

But because these commandments help us protect the parts of us no fence can secure


The sfat emet teaches that we are commanded to “remember” two things:

“Zachor Amelek and Zachor Shabbat”[1]

We remember Amelek, the villain who takes a new shape in every generation, who looks to destroy us, who goes after the weak.

Much as we would prefer to forget him altogether

We are commanded to remember to blot out his name.

To stay vigilant, to stay smart, to protect ourselves

Thus, the security systems in all their forms, yes. “Never forget.”


But there is also Remember / Zachor Shabbat.

Remember Shabbat and keep it holy.

The command is not to just remember not to break the rules of Shabbat

(That is like worrying about the proper way to set the table but forgetting to have people over and to eat.)

The command is not simply a warning against rule breaking,

The command is that we must protect the infinite space within us,

We must protect what makes us uniquely human and dignified and special to our God, blessed be the holy name. 

We must protect our memories of a time when there were no mass murders of civilians by gun violence in our restaurants and hospitals and schools and concerts and places of worship in this country, it was not that long ago.


See “Remembering Shabbat” is having the discipline to see that what is, is not what must be.

Remembering Shabbat means there is not only security in the form of guards, there is security in the form of exchanged prayers, of the way we treat one another with kindness and gentleness

Of the possibility of holding the world accountable to the standards of heaven

Yes, even now, especially now.


This is why the Rabbi who was shot, while he was still bleeding,

Before he allowed himself to be carried to the hospital,

Insisted on speaking words of Torah, of teaching words of Torah

He wanted to remember Shabbat no matter what.

Can you imagine that we are part of such a brave and beautiful and valiant tradition?


Don’t get me wrong: Six days of the week we need to be out there in the world.

I want us to help Moms against Gun Violence, and the Parkland heros and heroines, I want to give money and energy to anyone who is going to fight the NRA.

This is not brain surgery people, give $18, give $180, write a letter.

Don’t convince yourself that you cannot do enough, and do nothing.

We are commanded to do.

I want us to give to anyone who is smart and thoughtful out there fighting anti-semitism in all its crazy mutations.

But in all that remembering of the Ameleks we must also Zachor / Remember Shabbat

Remember to protect the possibility of a whole world in us, a world of peace and everything we dream about

The work of keeping this interior dream world intact -- this is just as serious, this is also a matter of our lives.


Which leads me to another worry still, (I realize this is very Jewish)

Even though I don’t think vigils are the solution, as I said,

I also worry that the fact that there were no vigils.

(There were about 40 last time in SF alone)

No vigils, not even mention of vigils.

And I worry that this reflects a kind of settling into this new anti-semitic, violent reality where a synagogue shooting no longer has the power to stop us in our tracks.


I don’t care that his gun jammed and he didn’t get as many victims as he wanted  – we went back to “business as usual” in my opinion way too fast.


And now I think we are at the heart of the matter.

I am worried we have started to see this reality as inevitable. 


And if you think I am making too much of this, I ask you, just, in your heads

Can you name the last ten public shootings in this country?

Then ask yourself: Could the idea of ten public shootings have even been conceivable to you even a couple decades ago?


We have surely acclimated.

And I want to tell you on this Shabbat, seeing this violent reality as inevitable is asur / it is forbidden.


We would then become like Jonah, the prophet who was so bad at his job that he makes all the other morally dubious biblical characters look great by comparison.


In case you don’t remember,

When God asks Jonah to go and tell the people of Nineveh to repent, to change their ways so they could be saved,

pretty much dead center in the prophet job description,

not a stretch --


Jonah not only denies God, he literally runs in the other direction.

He runs onto a ship and, even though God sends a violent storm,


Jonah goes down the hold of the ship and falls fast, fast asleep, deep asleep (“vayeradim”).[2]

Closing off possibility, taking himself out of the equation.


The rabbis teach: Jonah thought he already “knew” everything, he even prays in the past tense, as if what he is asking for already happened,[3]

His eyes are closed, he is closed.

It is quiet in the hold of the ship

He convinces himself he has nothing to do with it, nothing to do with anything

His view is so close to a kind of death

No wonder he falls asleep in the storm.


Suddenly the captain wakes him up and yells,

“We are standing between life and death and you are asleep?! Get up! Call out to your God! Do something!”[4]


What is wrong with Jonah?

My teacher Avivah Zornberg offers that Jonah’s knowingness, his know-it-all-ness, his commitment to “what is”

without any room for possibility,

without personal responsibility, (all that lets him sleep in the storm)

This a camouflage for his deep fear.[5]


I wonder, maybe Jonah is really afraid of how desperate the world has become. Maybe he is really afraid that nothing he will do will matter.


We live in the time of Jonah.

We too are frightened that the world is beyond repair

so we have acclimated, and convinced ourselves that things are what they are, and they will not change anytime soon.

We tell ourselves all sorts of lies.

We too, have to shake ourselves out of our stupor.


This country is not going to magically become decent and whole,

This country is not going to magically fix itself.

And I cannot bring back the high school students and the doctors and the business people and the children and the mothers and the government officials and teachers and Jews in prayer who have been killed

I cannot make R. Yisroel Goldstein’s hand whole again

This country will not magically give up guns

But if we wake ourselves up

If we have courage and try to tell each other the truth and we don’t pretend we know how the story will end

We might help to make a new end

An end we can offer to our children  

Or at least we can teach them about how we tried.


And it turns out

At the end of the Jonah story

In comparison to all the other prophets who prophesize for books on end and get nowhere,

Jonah says one line, one measly line,

And all of Nineveh repents instantly and is saved

And the rabbis, one of my favorite turns of all

They say that King of Nineveh was none other than the Pharaoh himself.[6]

Yes, the very Pharaoh, the worst of the worst, somehow made it through the splitting of the sea

And became king of Nineveh

And he of all people, makes t’shuvah, repents and lives a decent life

As if the rabbis are saying,

“You never know”

as if the rabbis are shaking us by the shoulders and saying

“You never know”

As if they are saying to us, “wake up sleepers!

Don’t you dare sleep

We are standing between life and death here

The story has not been written

Wake up

Call out to your God

Do Something.

Get. up.”

[1] I am grateful to my friend R. Tamar Elad-Applebaum of Kehillat Zion for offering this teaching to me last week.

[2] Judith Klitsner, Subversive Sequels in the Bible, (Maggid Books: Jerusalem, 2011) p. 84 where she is quoting a lecture by Nehama Leibowitz on the Book of Jonah.

[3] See Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, (Shocken Books: NY, 2009) p. 91-3.

[4] See Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, 10. Also Zornberg, ibid., p. 84.

[5] Zornberg, ibid., pp. 89-90.

[6] Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, 43:8.