rabbinic writing
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I Want You To Have It All

Can we commit to making schools safer for our children?

Flag at half mast.

Fair warning: this one is personal.

Yesterday, I drove my kids to school for the last time this year. My daughter requested to listen to the song that has been her personal earworm for the last few months: Jason Mraz’s ‘Have it All.’ It’s a sweet, celebratory ditty that is perfectly timed for this season of graduations and vacations:

May you have auspiciousness and causes of success
May you have the confidence to always do your best
May you take no effort in your being generous
Sharing what you can, nothing more nothing less
May you know the meaning of the word happiness
May you always lead from the beating in your chest
May you be treated like an esteemed guest
May you get to rest, may you catch your breath

The song continues it’s adorable rhyming scheme, with Mraz soulfully singing: “May the best of your today’s be the worst of your tomorrows, may the road less paved be the road that you follow…,” ultimately, leading into a boppy refrain punctuated by the words, “I want you to have it all.”

My kids sang joyfully, exuding last-day-of-school excitement from the back of the minivan.

Jason Mraz’s bobby earworm, ‘Have It All’

But instead of singing with them as I usually do, I couldn’t get the words out. For the last few days there has been a lump the size of a softball in my throat. This past Tuesday, nineteen children said goodbye to their parents for the last time at school drop-off, before they were horrifically murdered in their classroom by a teenager with an assault rifle. I blinked back hot tears as my kids jumped out of the car and ran past the armed security guard through the gate that locks them safely inside their school.

As parents, we force a smile and a wave goodbye even when it hurts — because we want our kids to have it all. We want them to have days filled with joy and learning. We want them to grow and thrive, and be challenged in ways that are healthy and meaningful. We want them to have crushes and join clubs and score goals and sing their hearts out — both on stage and in the backseat of the car. And we have made concessions for their safety in exchange for this carefree childhood.

Tell me, those of you who have raised children of your own:
Was your child’s school guarded by an armed officer?

Did your kids ever worry that their light-up shoes might attract a gunman’s attention if they had to run for their lives?

Did you ever get a call from your child’s kindergarten teacher who wanted to let you know that ‘everything is fine’ — but that your daughter was terrified and cried for you during today’s routine lock-down drill. That while class time was being used to practice staying silent in the bathroom with the light off and the door closed, your little one cried out for Mommy?

Were your children ever afraid to go to sleep at night, traumatized — from the drills meant to keep them safe, even though they are still too innocent to comprehend what those drills are even for?

When I first held my babies and imagined their futures, with every hope that they would ‘have it all,’ this was not the ‘all’ that I imagined.

Because I wrongly assumed when I was a senior in high school in 1999, and two students armed with guns and bombs and evil hearts killed 12 of their classmates and one of their teachers at Columbine High School, that it was an anomaly. I assumed, when I was afraid to go to school the next day, that this was a problem that the adults in the world would soon figure out how to solve. I assumed then that adults understood that their job was to protect the children. And surely, one school massacre should have been enough to emphasize our children’s need for protection.

Every single parent whose child died at Columbine High School in 1999 had big dreams for their children. They wished for them all the good things that every parent does — that “the best of their todays would be the worst of their tomorrows.” How is it since that awful day that nothing has improved?

How is it that we didn’t say enough after Columbine, or Virginia Tech, or Stoneman Douglas? How is it possible that now Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas joins the list of schools that have had to clean the blood of children from their classroom floors?

How is it possible, even after Sandy Hook? That day I cried at my desk praying for a better world for my infant son. Now he is ten years old, the exact age of the children who were murdered this week in cold blood — and literally nothing has changed.

This is a sermon, I know.
I am supposed to share wisdom, and comfort.
This bima is not my personal platform to share with you my fears as a parent or frustration with our country. But I’ll be honest, it’s all I can think about this week.

Because our sages teach in the Talmud that: The world only exists because of the breath of schoolchildren (Shabbat 119b). What kind of world are we living in then, when children take their last breath at school?

Unfortunately, this week’s Torah portion doesn’t bring much comfort.

Parshat Bechukotai is known for its long list of blessings and its even longer list of gruesome curses. Bechukotai teaches that if we don’t follow God’s commandments, our cities will be destroyed and our sanctuaries desecrated. Our land will become so desolate that it won’t even be fit for our enemies. And the most horrific curse of all: parents will consume the flesh of their offspring (Lev 26:29). Parent’s hands will be stained with the blood of their own children.

This list of curses and its counterpart in the book of Deuteronomy are traditionally read in whisper. The world described in this Torah portion is so brutal, so horrible, that we can’t even bear to share it in a full voice.

Every parent had to make a decision this week about horrible curses.
What do we tell our kids about why we are hugging them extra hard?
Should we say the truth about this curse out loud?
Should we tell our children what has happened in a school like theirs, to kids like them? Or do I, do we continue to whisper, unable to give full voice to what has really happened: that we have let our children down?

Just a few weeks ago, we welcomed our students back into our Sanctuary for the first time in two years. Our consecration students stood on the steps of this bima, and we offered them the sweetest shabbat blessing:
Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha. May God bless you and protect you.

We place our hands on the heads of our children as a way of saying: Through me God will care for you. Your safety is here, in my hands.
I want you to have it all.
I want you to live each and every moment of the life that God has in store for you.
I want you to feel God’s presence and protection within you every single day.

This is our job. For those of us who are parents, this is our job.
For those of us who are grandparents, this is our job.
For those of us who are Jews, this is our job.
For those of us who are human, this is our job:
To be God’s hands on earth, and bless our children with a safe and sweet life.

This is not a partisan issue.
This is not about the gun lobby.
This is not about whether we have or haven’t addressed the mental health crises.
It is not about whether Democrats or Republicans have a better plan.
It is time to do all of it.
It is time to put our adult politics and our party lines aside to make our schools safer: because we need the breath of school children to sustain our world.
We need their breath, not their blood.

Is it helpful for me to make a statement about responsible gun laws?
Is it helpful for me to tell you how to vote?
I’m a rabbi, not a politician.
I am a mother who wants to be able to bless her small children, and know that I mean it when I promise to keep them safe.

We may feel powerless. But we are not as powerless as those children.I am not as powerless now as I was in 1999, a high school senior crying in the hallway because kids like me were murdered at school.

Now I come to you as an adult. I ask you now, as mother, as a rabbi, to stop at nothing to keep my children — to keep all children — safe.

It is not only the work of teachers, and parents. And it certainly should not be the work of children.But we have put this burden on them.
They learn to hide in bathrooms.
They worry about the lights on their shoes.
They learn that their choices are to run, hide, or fight.

Does this upset you?
Then I need you to lift your voice above a whisper.

Let’s start by hearing testimonials from survivors of gun violence, and consider what might have changed the course of their story. Remember those high school seniors from Stoneman Douglas High School that begged adults to listen? Let’s do what they have asked of us. Let’s call the offices of our representatives and demand that they speak up for responsible gun laws. Let’s donate money to organizations that provide mental health support to children and teens. And let’s listen to the teachers. Let’s hear from them what they need to feel safe and supported in their work environment.

If we listen intently and follow through with logical action we will be able to seize our power.
Our children need to know that they matter more than any party line.
Our children need to know that they matter more than any possession or collection.
Our children need to know that they matter more than any amendment, more than any budget, and certainly more than our futile thoughts and prayers.
It is our Jewish obligation, our moral obligation, our sacred obligation to do whatever it takes to put them first.

We are all obligated to clean this blood from our hands.
We are all obligated to protect the breath of schoolchildren.

Because we want them to sing their hearts out in the backseat of the minivan. We want them to make mistakes and go to camp and get dirty and smile widely. We want them to sing boppy little dittiesand graduate and have big dreams and think they are smarter than us until they realize that they, like we, still have so much to learn.
We need them to live another day, so they can have it all.

I want them to have it all.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin
Parashat Bechukotai, 5.27.22
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale AZ

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Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, AZ.