We Rise and We Crash: Prayer and Resistance

Parashat Va-etchanen (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

“There’s an active mass shooting, we are fine.” My friend Jordyn and her spouse, Justin, live in El Paso. This text began a series of images from El Paso. Jordyn and Justin are photo-journalists, and so our text thread is often filled with images of concentration camps on our border, of artwork made by children in Tornillo, of families waiting in Ciudad Juarez, of clergy demonstrating, and so on. These images are not unlike the photos of children grappling with the sudden absence of parents after ICE raids at food processing plants in Mississippi. These images are not unlike those of climate refugees seeking shelter and sustenance. The feeling in my heart and body not unlike the feeling I have when I remember that people are marching in the streets yelling “Jews will not replace us” or when I see images of swastikas in dorm rooms.

Day after day the current events of the world call us to respond. What does it mean to be human? What is our connection to other people? What can we do?

As we approached this past weekend’s observance of Tisha B’Av, a holiday commemorating the destruction of the Temple, I wondered what it meant to remember one crash while in the midst of another. The language of crash, learned from my teacher R’ Benay Lappe, describes a moment in which one’s deeply held belief or understanding of how the world works is called into question. As a result of the destruction of the Temple, Judaism as it had been known ceased to exist. Amidst the fear and instability, Rabbinic Judaism, the seeds of which already existed, emerged. The crash of today may be different for each of us—climate change, white supremacy, racism, government policy— but it is happening to all of us.

Tisha B’Av provides one model for responding to crash: a connection to ancestors and lament. This past Sunday was one of public mourning both in our communities and in the streets.

In Parshat Vaetchanan, we find Moses in the midst of his own crash, confronted by the reality that he will not enter the land. Yes, Gd had told Moses that he would not enter the Holy Land and yet, wouldn’t any of us wonder if Gd might relent and forgive? How could it feel real until he stood, feet planted on the edge of the Jordan river, the weight of this truth—that he would never cross—settling onto his shoulders and into his heart? Moses standing on this border, at the edge of a river, evokes images of those standing on our border right now, gazing across the Rio Grande to a different kind of promised land. The Israelites standing at his feet, listening to his words of wisdom, prophecy, and counsel, calls to mind all of us witnessing the inhumanity on our national borders and borders all over the world, listening for the prophecy and the anguish in the words of those assembled.

In this moment of crash, Moses responds (Deut 3:23): “And I pleaded (vaetchanan) with Gd…” Rashi understands “vaetchanan” to be prayer that refers to a gift of free will and notes that pleading is one of the ten names of prayer. Moses’ response to crash is to pray, only then can he continue.

What Moses and Tisha B’Av lift up in responding to a crash moment is the role of emotion and spiritual wellbeing. Part of responding to a crash, to moments of intensity and tragedy, is noting your own emotional response and doing the work to care for it. This step is crucial in allowing us to show up in the greater world with the grounding and conviction and compassion that is deeply necessary.

Prayer can be a powerful modality in attending to our emotions. Midrash Tanchuma (Vaetchanan 1) expands the list of names for prayer that Rashi refers to. Though just a series of Hebrew words that the rabbis understand to mean “prayer”, this list also hints at different modalities. Prayer can be verbal expression—a more general use of words seeking intercession, seeking divine favor, crying out, expressing anguish. Prayer can also be action—meditation, falling, standing.

When faced with a crash, you might respond as Moses does in this moment, pleading with Gd. You might be more like Jacob who, on his journey from Beer Sheva to Haran, “vayifga b’makom,” encountered a place. The Rabbis understand this to mean that he encountered HaMakom, Gd. One midrash teaches that it was as if the ground came up to meet him, forming a wall that Jacob walked into. Perhaps you feel as though the world is physically causing you to stop and confront it. At least two other responses speak to our emotional lives but may not be coded as prayer by our tradition: tears and silence. Both of these have their own sources in our tradition, just like the names of prayer. In Talmud Berakhot 32b, we learn that although the gates of prayer were locked after the destruction of the Temple, the gates of tears are always open. After the death of his sons, the Torah teaches that Aaron was silent.

The call to attend to our own emotions in a moment of crash is not distinct from calls to action. Those who mourned in the streets on Tisha B’Av used the tools of our tradition to speak their fear and grief aloud in an act of resistance. Cultivating a prayer practice can prepare us to act, creating wells of patience and compassion often necessary in the streets. Expressing and confronting our fear together names it, gives us power over it, and connects us so that we can act from a place of intention rather than trauma.

“Comfort, comfort, my people, says your Gd. (Isaiah 40:1)” These are the opening lines to this week’s haftarah, the first in a series of seven haftarot of consolation that follow Tisha B’Av and bring us through Elul to Rosh Hashanah. May this year’s journey include the reflection and introspection necessary to move from destruction to potential, crash to resistance.

On Parshat Nitzavim and the Boston Primary...

This past Tuesday night, I hit refresh on my internet browser every five minutes.  Even though Nika Elguardo had been declared a winner in her race, the numbers were not adding up for me.  So I hit refresh and refresh and refresh. I watched her numbers rise and felt my heart beat faster. High on the election of Ayanna Pressley and Rachael Rollins, I hoped that Nika would also win.  

This week, in synagogues around the world, people will read Parshat Nitzavim.  Here you are, Moses begins, all of you, and I’m going to tell you something: “Surely this mitzvah that I command you on this day is not too wondrous for you, it is not distant from you.  It is not in the heavens… it is not across the sea… it is in your mouth and in your heart. (Deut 30:11)” Ramban (Nachmanides, 13th c, Spain) understands the words “surely this mitzvah” to mean the Torah.  Moses declares to the Israelites: “this Torah that I’ve been serving as the moderator of for the last 40 years, it is for you and you can handle it. This Torah is yours.” Rambam also understands “this mitzvah” to mean teshuva, the act of returning, of repair, of healing.  And so Moses is adjuring all present, “you who stand here this day, all of you (Deut 29:9), you have the capacity to return to their best selves, to heal the wounds they have caused, to repair the trauma of the past.

“This day,” says Moses.  This day in the narrative of the text and this day in the narrative of our lives.  On this day, the set of guidelines that you, that we, are going to live your life by and the capacity to make mistakes and repent, to wander off and to return, are things you, things we, have.  

Torah that I have chosen to live my life by is following the leadership of those who are most impacted by the systems of oppression.  I understand this both as an imperative in its own right and as part of a system of reparations that can heal our world from the racism and other oppressions that has torn it apart.  In Boston this week, we witnessed this Torah in action and, I hope, a small tikkun (healing) take place.  The elections of Ayana Pressley, Rachael Rollins, Nika Elaguardo, and Liz Miranda are evidence that the Torah of racial equity is not to far from us, that the mitzvah of repair and healing is in fact within our grasp.

The Mevassar Tzedek (Rabbi Yissachar Dov Ber of Zlotchov, 18th c, Ukraine) brings a teaching on the words “this day” from the same verse.  He teaches (translation R’ Art Green):

R’Yehoshua ben Levi teaches:  Why does Moses specify on this day?  To teach that mitzvot should be done today, not tomorrow.  Do them today even though you receive no immediate reward (b. Eruvin 22a). It is further taught that you should taste from the food cooking for Shabbat on Friday (Shibboley ha-Leket 82).

To understand this, remember that this world is the Sabbath Eve that prepares for [the ultimate]    Shabbat.   

    ....

That is the meaning of the mitzvah that I command you on this day.  This day indeed means that although you must fulfill the commandments today, you will only benefit from them in the future.  Still, it is not too wondrous for you, the reward is not hidden from you, and even in this world you can experience in fulfilling the commandment some of the world to come.  

The verse continues:  it is not distant from you.  The pleasure from mitzvot is not unattainable.  

We should put this Torah into practice today, because this world we live in is the preparation for the ultimate Shabbat, the world to come.  And even more so, by doing these mitzvot we experience the pleasure of them, a taste of the world to come.

My vision of the world to come is one in which every person is able to live their lives in a way that expresses the inherent dignity of their being, in harmony with the earth we live in, and with those who we live with.  The excitement folks around me expressed on Tuesday night, the tears we have wept watching Ayana Pressley find out she won her primary, the thrill of being part of something that is unprecedented and huge -- these are all tastes of the world to come.

Zeh hayom asa Adonai, nagilah v’nismecha bo.  This is the day that Gd has made, rejoice and be joyful in it.  

But we are still not living in the world to come.  These amazing women are not the messiah.  They are smart and passionate and equipped to address the systemic oppression that exists in Boston and in our world.  They are also human.  And so, we must continue to do our part - to elect more progressives, to organize for social change, to raise our own consciousness,  to figure out our role in holding our elected officials accountable - to enact the Torah of justice that is not across the sea, rather in the mouths and hearts of organizers around the world, and in our mouths and our hearts, if we want it to be.  We must continue to walk the path of teshuva, of return, of tikkun, of repair and healing.

May this Shabbat and the coming Days of Awe, return us to our true selves, connect us to community, ground us in holiness, and prepare us to do the holy work of building a more just world. 

 

 

 

Grateful

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Grateful for so much of the past five days, the past two weeks. I did not imagine that my rabbinate would include chairing the boards of The Jewish Studio Project and SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.

Yet it is work that I find deeply meaningful and filled with Torah. I am working diligently to learn the new skills required for this role and to embrace the role itself. There is, as always, potential for more reflection. I’ll leave you with these words which were sung in beautiful harmony no matter whose voices were in the room.

Cosi revaya ... cosi revaya 
(my cup overflows)

We give thanks for the unknown blessings already on their way
We give thanks for the unknown blessings already on their way

I will not
Look back in anger
Or forward in fear
But around in awareness

Adapted from Batya Levine’s adaption of Haudenosaunee saying.

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And I promise a short break from posts about these two transformational organizations. Fair warning: I have two Keshet LGBTQ & Ally Teens Shabbatonim in March.

"Welcome to Mitzvahland!"

"Welcome to Mitzvahland!" Rabbi Benay Lappe, Rosh Yeshiva at SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, exclaimed these words each morning after we recited the blessing for Torah study. For me, it was an explicit reminder that we were entering a specific place, a land that can exist anywhere but might not exist everywhere.  

Studying Talmud can be conversation at its deepest. Learners are in conversation with the text, with each other, with other folks who are learning, and with the divine. The text inspires questions and conversation sparks of all kinds, some involving the more mundane aspects of living on earth and others the interplay between divinity and our lives.  

The daily morning liturgy includes an allusion to the creation of the world, Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam, Blessed is the One who spoke, and the world came into being. 

The world was created through speech; we enter "mitzvahland" through the uttering of a blessing. We build worlds through our words and conversation with each other. This is at the center of what we can build through Beyn Kodesh l'Chol.

Words alone don't build worlds; we need action as well. Yet, words can announce our entry into mitzvah land, sanctify time, tie us to the very creation of the world, and connect us deeply to each other. Words and conversation create relationships that create worlds.

The Arc of Liberation (D'var Torah, Parshat Bo)

The Exodus from Egypt began with a groan (Exodus 2:23), was punctuated with a scream (Exodus 12:30), and will conclude in song (Exodus 15:1,20).  The arc of liberation begins with the acknowledgement that one is oppressed, moves through the pain of that acknowledgement and the work to become free, and ends with the deep joy that can only be expressed through song.  

I watched in awe on Wednesday as 84 of my colleagues at on the Capitol rotunda floor, singing songs of liberation and waiting for their arrests.  I can imagine the screams of parents and children who are separated each day by ICE, and I hear the collective groan that reverberates through Facebook each time a new affront to human dignity is announced.  This, too, is Torah.   

We read in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Bo, that an erev rav, a mixed multitude, came out of Egypt with the Israelites (Exodus 12:38).  Nahum Sarna explains that "varied groups of forced laborers seem to have taken advantage of the confused situation and fled the country with the Israelites (Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, pg 62)."  Our redemption enabled other to attain their freedom.  I imagine Israelites looking at this mixed multitude and deciding that in this moment, their priority was freedom and all those who wanted to join them in this pivotal moment were welcome.   

There are sources in our tradition who identify the mixed multitude with as the instigators of the Golden Calf (Tanhuma, Ki Tissa, 19) and those who complained about the lack of meat (Ibn Ezra, Numbers 11:4).  These are serious obstacles in the Israelites development as a nation, as a people.  Once past the adrenaline of the initial escape, there is more room for fear of the other and assigning blame in the face of the unknown.    

These days Jews are both fighting for our own liberation and in the position to be freed by the liberation of others.  Perhaps it is useful to ask where we are in our journey to freedom and where are others.  As Nelson Mandela said, "to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."  We can focus on the pivotal moment that the Dreamers are in or preference the fear of the unknown of our own status in the world.  We can act to enhance the freedom of others, knowing that it increases our own freedom.  The work of liberation is not a binary proposition; rather, it is a messy journey along an unknown path not so different than the one our ancestors found in the desert.  

May all those who live on this earth find a path to freedom and peace.  

Photo Credit:  Bend the Arc Jewish Action

Photo Credit:  Bend the Arc Jewish Action