Parasha VaYigash

Further Thoughts About Newtown Connecticut
The Shulchan Arukh is the standard legal code for all of Jewry. It was published in 1575, and ever since that time it has been studied and mastered by rabbis who needed to guide their communities in all manner of daily life.  It is divided into four volumes that cover all of the laws, big and small, that govern Jewish living. The first volume is called Orech Hayyim, or “The Way of Life” which deals with prayers and holiday observance. The second volume is Yoreh Deah, which covers diverse subjects such as tsedaka, torah study, and dietary laws. The third volume, Even Ha-Ezer, deals with family law. The fourth volume, Khoshen Mishpat, deals with civil law. One day, a story goes, a young rabbinic student appeared before a prominent rabbi to be tested on his knowledge of the Shulkhan Arukh – the entire legal code for all of Jewry –as he prepared for his ordination. The rabbis first question to the student was, “Name the five volumes of the Shukhan Arukh.” The student, thinking the rabbi made a slip of the tongue, named the four volumes of the Shulkhan Arukh. “Please name the fifth volume,” said the rabbi. “There is no fifth volume,” answered the student. “There is indeed,” replied the rabbi. “The fifth volume is common sense, and if you do not have it, all of your rulings will be of no use, even if you know all four volumes by heart.” I tell this story on the one week anniversary of the deadly attack on 20 schoolchildren and six school staff members in Newtown, Connecticut.  This week we have all been through the wrenching disbelief that such an event could happen in our country.  We have experienced the outrage and the tremendous sadness that the entire nation feels at the slaughter of innocent schoolchildren and their teachers.  Our focus now turns toward, “What can we do to prevent another Newtown.”  The answer, both for us as individuals, as families, as a congregation and for our nation as a whole, is “let’s use common sense.” This week in our Torah portion we continue the story of Joseph. When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming toward then at a distance, they said to each other, “Here comes that master of dreams. Let us kill him and throw him into one of these pits and say, ‘A wild animal devoured him.’ Then we will see what comes of his dreams.” But we all know that they did not kill him. They allowed themselves to be talked out of it by Reuven. Joseph’s life was saved, and he was sold to a passing caravan instead. I read a fascinating article that helps explain why the brothers did not kill Joseph, as they had planned. It also helps explain the violence that has seized our society.  It is by David Grossman, a military psychologist with the US Army.  Grossman travels the world training medical, law enforcement, and U.S. military personnel about the realities of warfare.  He points out that the murder rate has doubled in our country since 1957, but the aggravated assault rate – attempted murder – has increased by a factor of eight.  Were it not for our increased use of prisons – a quadrupling of the prison population since the 1970’s – and medical technology that saves lives, our murder rate would be ten times what it was in 1957.  It is not only in the United States – in England, Scotland, Wales, France, Belgium , Australia, New Zealand – the murder and assault rates have risen dramatically in all of these countries. Yet, points out Grossman, killing one another does not come naturally to people.  Human beings, like all other species, have a natural inhibition to killing one of its own kind. He points to research carried out on the battlefield of the American Civil War. This research demonstrated that civil war soldiers were willing to go into battle and bravely stand shoulder to shoulder with their comrades, but they were reluctant to fire at enemy soldiers. Many died with their firearms not discharged. They either would not fire or fired over the heads of the enemy. In WWII a study was done where they asked soldiers what they actually did in battle. They discovered that only 15-20 percent of rifleman could actually bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier.  Now that represents a problem on the battlefield. And it could explain why Joseph’s brothers would never have been able to kill him, threaten as they might.  They could not overcome their natural inhibition to kill. If you are the United States Armed Forces, that study uncovered a huge problem. The US army overcame that problem. By the Korean War, 55 percent of soldiers would shoot at an enemy to kill, and by Vietnam the number rose to 90%.  The army accomplished this through a program of systematic de-sensitization during military training. Grossman argues that the very kind of de-sensitization to killing that the army uses to train its soldiers is going on in our homes today through the exposure to violence on television and the use of video games for children.  Grossman argues that video games teach weapons handling skills and simulate the wanton destruction of human beings, making it far easier for people to kill one another. “Every time a child plays an interactive video game, he is learning the exact same conditioned reflex skills as a soldier or police officer in training,” writes Grossman.  As part of the conditioning that goes on, video producers make the simulated killing fun and rewarding. Points get added up for hitting the target, usually a human being.  Kids get social approval when playing in groups.  “Our children are learning to kill and learning to like it;” writes Grossman, “and then we have the audacity to say, ‘Oh my goodness, what's wrong?'” Now of course we would want to turn to the wisdom of the Jewish tradition to seek guidance as to what we should do. But there are precious few texts that deal with the problem of violence in a society. One that comes to mind is the saying of Rabbi Chanina in Pirke Avot –”Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for it, people would swallow each other alive.” The government does have a role in keeping us safe from one another.  We need to use common sense when it comes to what our children watch on television, what kinds of video games they watch, what kind of weapons we keep in our homes and how we store them.  And as a country we need to develop common sense laws to protect ourselves from our fellow citizens who do not use common sense.  Shabbat Shalom