Bulletproof Backpacks

Parshat Tetzaveh — Shabbat Zachor
February 24, 2018 — 9 Adar 5778

Throughout her years under our roof, our daughter Jordana always went to school with a pink backpack.  Her pink backpack was jammed so full of books you could hardly zip it shut.  It was incredibly heavy.  I would insist on carrying it whenever I could, to and from the car, and when I couldn’t, I would worry, how can she carry such a heavy pink backpack?  Her pink backpack was always graced with stickers and causes.  She came out of the womb a natural ally to the LGBTQ community.  Her pink backpack always had a rainbow flag and stickers about a women’s right to choose, my progressive budding feminist daughter.

I was walking down memory lane this week, lifting up her old, worn, retired pink backpacks.  In part I did that because she is now a second semester college senior.  She graduates in May.   Thinking about her finishing her education and starting her job later this summer as she moves out to Los Angeles, I can hear the language of Sunrise, Sunset.  Where is the little girl whose heavy pink backpack I once carried?

But in part I was moved to go back to her pink backpack because today, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, her pink backpack is not only old and worn, but also dated and quaint. Today the hottest selling pink backpacks are bulletproof.

Manufactured by a company in Lowell, Mass. called Bullet Blocker, these backpacks are lined with a material used by law enforcement in creating bulletproof vests.   I visited their website and discovered that they sell bulletproof backpacks in an attractive array of colors and styles, ranging in price from $200 to $500.  My eye was drawn to the backpack called “My Child’s Pack.”   It was pink, cute, and sweet, and it contains an anti-ballistic panel which stops bullets fired at close range from killing a child.  In one afternoon last week, this company sold 500 bulletproof backpacks.  Parents are sending their children to school with firearm protection once reserved for law enforcement and military.  But it’s even more troubling.

For this bulletproof backpack to be effective, there has to be a conversation, a sober conversation.  “Honey, if a bad person with a gun comes to your school to start shooting, take your backpack, and shield yourself with it, and you will be protected.”   Such a conversation would shatter the innocence of childhood.  Such a conversation would fundamentally reorder how a child sees their school and classroom. But without that conversation, how would your child know what to do?  But here we are.

How should we think about this?  Is this a tragic thing? Or is this an okay thing?

The case that this is tragic is easy to make.  Has it come to this?  Is this the world we want to pass down to our children, a world where adults have given up on the possibility of creating schools where there are not mass shootings?  The teens who went to the Florida legislature with optimism and hope in search of common sense gun regulation left without optimism and hope.  They ran into a brick wall. Is a bulletproof backpack the best thing we can offer these teens?  How about: instead of a bulletproof backpack, we have schools without school shootings?  How about: instead of your 7-year old daughter going to school wearing a backpack made of the same material as an FBI agent’s bulletproof vest we create a classroom where she would not know of such things?  How about: solving the problem at its roots?   How about: getting guns out of our schools?  The ascent of bulletproof backpacks means the decline of decency in our tormented country.  We are ratifying the madness instead of ending it.  That’s one narrative.

But here is another.  The bulletproof backpack is just dealing with the world as it is.  One sad sign of the times is that there is a debate over the number of school shootings.  Has it been 18 school shootings since January of 2018? Or “only” 8 school shootings since January of 2018?  There seems to be a consensus that since Sandy Hook, there have been 200 school shootings with more than 400 people shot.  While people may debate the numbers, there is no debating the fact that school shootings happen, and have been happening with increasing frequency.  Would we like to solve the problem? Of course. Would we prefer a world where there were no school shootings? Of course. But until that better world happens, shouldn’t we be dealing with the world as it is? That means that in a world where bullets are fired, any child or adult is better off with bulletproof protection.  Dream of a better world. Work towards a better world. But in the meantime, take a bulletproof backpack to school.

This tension—do we keep working for the world that we want, or do we accept a workaround solution that effectively admits that the world we want is not the world we’ve got but we are making do as best we can—this tension intersects with our lives in so many ways.

We all have an ideal of how we would want our life to be.  And we all have the real version of what our life is.  There is almost always a gap between the ideal and the real.  The ideal, safe schools.  The real, bulletproof backpacks.  That happens in so many areas.

The ideal, a meaningful job where we love what we do and where we earn a good living.  The real, a job that falls short in satisfaction or pay or both.

The ideal, all our children happy and thriving.  The real, all our children are not happy and thriving. There are issues.

The ideal, our health is clicking on all cylinders.  Health concerns don’t limit us.  The real, they do.

The ideal, we are present for all the people we love whenever they need us.  The real, we’re not.  Life gets in the way.

How do we understand the version of the bulletproof backpack we are wearing at any given moment?

Do we insist on holding onto the ideal? Or are we supposed to be okay with settling for less than the ideal?  The Torah has a lot to say here.

We are in the midst of 5 Torah portions, the second half of the book of Exodus, that deal with building the wilderness tabernacle, the mishkan, perfect sacred space.  Portion after portion details what a perfect holy space would look like: gold, silver, copper, blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, lapis lazuli and other fine stones and gems, ram skins and dolphin skins.  Don’t ask me how they got dolphin skins in the middle of the desert, but that’s how perfect this was supposed to be.

The Israelites were not settling.  The Israelites were going after perfect.

If that is all we had, the moral of the story would be: don’t settle. Don’t accept less than

the ideal.  Don’t get a bulletproof backpack.  Demand the ideal, schools where shootings don’t happen, work that is ideal, relationships that are ideal, health that is ideal.

There is only one problem.  In the middle of these mishkan portions there is mess. While the Israelites were building the perfect sacred space, in the middle of their quest for perfection, they worship the golden calf, saying that it was the golden calf that brought them out of Egypt.

In the real world, even if you reach for the ideal, the ideal is seldom achieved. Mess happens.

Which is why the Torah also contains a whole other model of achieving sacred space.  Our ancestor Jacob is running away from his brother Esau.  Exhausted, Jacob falls asleep resting his head on a stone.  He has his famous dream, with the angels going up and down a ladder to heaven.   He wakes up and exclaims: Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it.  The next morning he pours oil on the stone that had served as his pillow and calls it Bethel, the house of God.

Jacob did not have any precious gems, gold, silver, copper or dolphin skins.  He had a stone.  And that was enough.  Do the best you can with what you’ve got.

There is a creative tension here. The mishkan portions teach us: build towards an ideal.

The Jacob story teaches us: do the best you can with what you’ve got.  If what you’ve got is a stone, use a stone.

The Torah holds both.  Hold onto your ideal. Mishkan.  And settle for imperfect. Jacob’s stone.  At the same time. The question is can we?

Can we do the job we have, and prepare ourselves for the work we dream of?

Can we love and support our children for who they are, even and especially when they are not yet where they want to be?

Can we accept our health for what it is without giving up our aspiration that one day our life will not know these health challenges?

Can we be present for the people in our lives as best we can, even when it is not as much as we would like it to be?

Can we hold onto our ideal, and deal with the real, at the same time?

Which brings me back to Jordy’s pink backpack.  May we one day live in a world where pink backpacks can be just backpacks, heavy, full of life and books and decals and stickers that speak to a budding personality.  May we one day live in that world because our messy democracy can figure out how to take guns out of our schools.  Until that fine day, may practical measures like bulletproof backpacks keep our children safe so that, one day, their parents can wonder, where is the little girl, where is the little boy, whose heavy backpack I once carried?