Within this parsha is our community's namesake. We read the powerful instruction, "Justice, justice you shall pursue." Why the repetition? you might be asking. Rest assured, just about every student and teacher of Torah has asked that question too. And perhaps more importantly, they have answered it differently. This repetition calls out to us, "Interpret me!" I would like to share one interpretation by the Yehudi of Przysucha that resonates with me in this moment. He taught that the word "justice" is repeated here to say that even in the pursuit of justice, you have to engage justly.
That second justice comes to remind us that true transformation lies in the how and not just the what. It can be easy to focus on the product -- the march, the rally, the campaign. But this verse reminds us that true justice is bound up in our relationships; in the depth of process that moves us forward. It offers a biblically based vision of social justice in which the ends never justify the means.
This teaching has led me to think about another way to interpret the repetition. First we must pursue justice in the world, beyond ourselves. Knowing that those experiences will ultimately guide us to turn inward, to heal and transform our own souls.
This is the season in our sacred calendar to hear the call of the second justice and turn inwards; to account for and heal from the many ways that we internalize systemic injustice and racism.
This reminds me of the lyrics written by Koach Frazier to his song, "Tzedek tzedek tirdof." In it he sings, "How shall I pursue justice? love, compassion and listening. And how shall I pursue justice? Embracing my own humanity."
May this first Shabbat of Elul be a time when you can offer yourself and those around you love, compassion and listening. And may you have the courage to embrace your own humanity, knowing that too is part of pursuing justice.
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For those looking to experience the daily sound of shofar in this time leading up to Rosh Hashanah, here is a recording of me blowing shofar in the KT office!
I am personally grateful that this raw and painful week is coming to a close. And that it will end with some precious time for us to take refuge in silence, song and community. Wherever you are, I encourage you to shut off the feed and find a way to nourish your soul. While none of this racist violence is new, it is nonetheless exhausting to encounter face to face (or on Facebook as the case may be).
For those who were able to be at The People's Baptist Church last night (and for those of you that did childcare so others could be), thank you. It was a very powerful experience to position ourselves in multiracial, multi-faith community and together denounce white supremacy, antisemitism, islamophobia, sexism and homophobia. More so, it was powerful to meet new people, sing out and receive the powerful insights of the Pastor Isaiah Banks.
If I were bold enough to title his sermon I would call it, "We need to have vision."* Which felt like the fulfillment of Divine grace in the room, knowing two things. First, that he did not know he would be speaking. And secondly, that this week's Torah portion, Re'eh, can literally be translated as "See!"
His call to all of us, whether we were in that room or not, is that we need to behold a vision of transformation and liberation. That peace and justice are not just practices of action but also radical imagination. That we must have the courage to see ourselves and each other more clearly. That we must be able to envision a world free of white supremacy.
I have been sitting with this teaching all day, trying to understand how to make it real and tangible. In this moment, what feels most true is that liberation is a creative act of the imagination. Let me explain.
It is said about our creation story that for each of the plants and animals, they are created min b'mino, with many kinds. Meaning that there are species of plants and animals. But not so with humans. We are all one. We are the only living thing created by the Holy One that is not named as min b'mino. There are not essential "kinds" of people. Said another way. The rabbis ask, Why was it so important that the first human being was created singularly, that there was only one Adam? To which they reply: So that no person could ever say to another, "My ancestors are better than yours!"
A belief in the oneness of all things and the dignity of every human being is at the core of my own theology embodied in these teachings. Creation itself, and our creativity is a product of imagination. How do we see the world? How do we see each other? Pastor Banks made it clear last night, we must have a vision of a world where no human being is better than another. Where all living are one and holy.
It is my prayer as we move into this Shabbat, that each of you find sanctuary. That you connect to your essential wholeness. That you allow yourself to imagine a world that is whole and just and entirely loving. And from that place, may we all emerge better able to envision how to get there.
I offer you all the closing words of a beloved poem by Marge Piercy that I shared last night.
Let us lift each other on our shoulders and carry each other along.
Let holiness move in us.
Let us pay attention to its small voice,
Let us see the light in others and honor that light.
Remember the dead who paid our way here dearly, dearly
and remember the unborn for whom we build our houses.
Praise the light that shines before us, through us, after us, Amen.
Rabbi Ari Lev
*The story the Pastor told from the New Testament was about a blind beggar asking for vision. I want to name the ableist nature of this story and reclaim vision here in the way I think the Pastor intended it - as metaphor - rather than the ability to see, which I do not believe is a prerequisite for our liberation.
Dear Kol Tzedek Community,
I'm back! Thank you to everyone who held the container of the Kol Tzedek community with care and skill. I am very grateful for the time away. And thank you to everyone for your patience as I catch up on email.
During my time away in July we spent a few weeks house-sitting for a family in Western Mass on a vacation that we have entitled "Rivers and Ice Cream." And what stands out as the best part of it all was this feeling of "going with the flow" of each day. I have not always identified as easy-going and often take refuge in structure and schedule. And yet, when given spacious time, I discovered a delight in letting each day unravel on its own.
Perhaps the greatest gift of the past five weeks has been the ability to slow down enough that I am able to pay attention to what otherwise we might call synchronisity, but truly felt like being part of the mystery of existence. Each day seemed to unfoldwith a bit of magic that in normal life I might overlook or call coincidence at best.
In the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, "In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy lives. We have jobs, families, and houses. Our lives seem quite ordinary and undramatic. It is only beneath the surface of this world that the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding."
Rabbi Lew suggests that perhaps "Judaism came into the world to bring news that the invisible is more important than the visible...beneath this appearance of conflict, multiplicity and caprice there is a oneness, a singularity, all-powerful and endlessly compassionate, endlessly just."
We see this reflected in this week's Torah Portion, Eikev, calling our attention to the 2nd paragraph of the Shema, calling our attention to the ongoing interdependence of all all life; calling us to attune our hearts and souls to the unity at heart of creation. This is precisely the political moment, and the moment in the week, when we are called to drop down beneath the surface noise and the posture of fear, and remember that what is real and true is within and between us. It is woven into the truth of all existence. It is humans breathing with the trees. It is a shared longing for justice. It is the great river of time and it is ours to step into.
Very much looking forward to connecting in the coming weeks as we prepare for the High Holidays. Services Tonight @ 6:30 pm
It is so good to be back!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.