One of the gifts of Jewish tradition is that it gives us incredible structure and clarity about how to create sacred time. But the lived experience is up to us, to make it our own, to embody it and give it life. The way we live out Jewish tradition is called minhag, often translated as customs.
I want to share with you one of my family's most beloved Friday night minhagim. Every week, after we light the candles and send light out into the world, we dance a full-on hora while we sing "Shalom Aleichem." It started by accident when Zeev was a toddler. We were waiting for guests to arrive and it was taking forever. The food was ready, the table was set, but our friends were still not here. We needed a distraction. So we took out a tiny chair and started dancing, hoisting Zeev into the air like it was a wedding or a B'nei Mitzvah. And as you can imagine, it stuck. Week after week for more than half a decade we have danced a hora, chair and all. Sometimes Shosh and I joke that by the time a big simcha rolls around our kids will say, going up in a chair, "What's the big deal?" But in truth, I don't think that's true. They love it every time. They ask for a second lift as we run out of words and switch to a nigun to keep the dancing going for a few more minutes. And that's all it is - a few minutes - but it's so good and I look forward to it as much as they do. I wonder how old they will be when they are too embarrassed or will we simply need many more adults to lift them year after year?
This peak moment is often followed by what I experience as its spiritual corollary, which might best be called "ritual refusal" or perhaps "blessing resistance." Each week I long to extend my arms towards my kids and everyone present, and for us to offer each other what is traditionally referred to as birkat yeladim - the children's blessing. And each week it has been met with a very whiny, "No blessing!" As both the children and grandchildren of rabbis, I'd say my kids have more than earned their right to refuse a blessing. A very reasonable expression of differentiation. To be honest, at this point I have stopped trying, lest they start to refuse any more of the rituals. I settle for the whispers of my own heart, "Be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are." And then we move on to juice and challah, the sensory experiences that make Shabbat taste like Shabbat.
This week, as we watched the unending death toll of human life in Palestine, including a horrific number of children in Gaza, my primal instinct to bless all children with protection and shalom has grown urgent. As of today, more than 230 people have been killed in Gaza, including 63 children, 11 of whom were taking part in a program to help them heal from the trauma of living under occupation. 1,500 Palestinians have been injured and 72,000 Gazans have been displaced from their homes. Twelve Israelis have been killed, including two children. Where is the forcefield of protection for all of these vulnerable people?
Earlier this week I watched the video (minute 26:30) of Nadeen Abed Al Lateef, a 10-year-old girl, speaking in front of a bombed out section of Gaza. In her own words: "Do you see all of this? What do you want me to do? Fix it? I'm only 10. I can't even deal any more. I just want to be a doctor or anything to help my people. But I can't. I’m just a kid. I don't even know what to do. I get scared, but not really that much. I'd do anything for my people but I don't know what to do. I'm just 10. I literally cry every day saying to myself, 'Why do we deserve this? You see all of them [pointing to the other kids gathered] we are just kids. Why would you send a missile to kill them?'"
Nadeen Abed Al Lateef's words returned me to the words of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American member of Congress, who courageously spoke these words on the house floor last Thursday:
"If our own State Department can't even bring itself to acknowledge the killing of Palestinian children is wrong, well, I will say it for the millions of Americans who stand with me against the killing of innocent children, no matter their ethnicity or faith. I weep for all the lives lost under the unbearable status quo, every single one, no matter their faith, their background. We all deserve freedom, liberty, peace, and justice, and it should never be denied because of our faith or ethnic background. No child, Palestinian or Israeli, whoever they are, should ever have to worry that death will rain from the sky..."
This touches the most core longing I have as a parent and human being, and the most ancient and urgent expression of Jewish prayer - the need to pray for peace and protection. A need as old as words.
In this week's Torah portion, Naso, we receive the words of the Birkat Kohanim, known in English as the Priestly Blessing (Num 6:22-26). It is considered the oldest blessing in Jewish tradition. (It predates what we now consider our blessing formula of Baruch Atah Adonai... by centuries.) At the heart of the blessing are the words with which the High Priest Aaron is instructed to bless b'nei yisrael, the children of Israel. The Priestly Blessing is a three-fold expression of our greatest longings. A blessing of protection and connection, that culminates in the deep wish for the Holy One to place upon and within each person shalom - wholeness and peace.
These past few weeks I have been asking, what is it to pray for shalom/peace?
I have received poetic renderings of prayers for peace, written by beloved teachers and colleagues. My real-time response has been a mixture of appreciation, envy, and distrust. I've wondered, why can't I sit and write a prayer for peace? One poem entitled, "It is possible to pray for peace" led me not to my own prayers but to skepticism. "But is it helpful? Does praying for peace get us closer to it?"
I do not consider myself so naive as to think that "thoughts and prayers" are a sufficient response to violence and death. (Even CNN thinks that "thoughts and prayers" has reached full semantic satiation, the phenomenon in which a word or phrase is repeated so often it loses its meaning.) But I also fear the moments when I have grown so calloused that there is not a place in my psyche to connect to my deepest longings and the full humanity of all people.
The need to pray for peace is so primal that it is the culmination of every single Amidah. It punctuates every Jewish ritual and prayer service. Is it the final declaration of the Mourner's Kaddish. I pray for peace all the time, if not every day. And every time I arrive at the words,
"Oseh Shalom bimromav, hi ta'ash shalom -
May the wholeness in the sky above, permeate here on earth."
I pause and collect my every hopeful, angry, aching dream for shalom and let it radiate and be true and possible, for a moment.
But this week it stung with disappointment, and rage, and grief.
Many of you have studied with me one my most beloved midrashim, in which the rabbis pontificate about the seven things that were created before the world was created. A version of that midrash exists in this week's parsha (Tanhuma, Naso 11). In this version the list includes "the throne of glory, the Torah, the Holy Temple, the ancestors of the world, Israel, the name of the messiah, and Teshuvah." Much of my own theology has developed from the idea that Teshuvah was created before the world was created. It is the energy of change and transformation in the world. It is what makes healing possible. The creation of Teshuvah is the antidote to a culture of perfectionism that plagues white supremacy culture.
Yet this week as I was studying this midrash, I got angry. Like heated, a knot in my stomach, angry. Where is Shalom on this list? Why is that not a necessary mechanism for the world to exist? Yes, we need to be able to transform but we also need to feel whole. We also need to know that death will not rain from the sky.
It is not enough to keep Palestine and Israel in our thoughts and prayers. And it is also necessary. Political transformation requires our spiritual imagination. We can't imagine a world that is whole if we cannot connect to it in ourselves.
In the words of Marcia Falk,
"It is ours to praise the beauty of the world, even as we discern the torn world. For nothing is whole that is not first rent, and out of the torn, we make whole again. May we live with promise
in creation's lap, redemption budding in our hands."
So this week, I extend my proverbial hands out beyond reasonable or rational reach, to the far corners of the earth, to the deep crevices of my own heart, to anyone willing to receive a blessing (don't tell my kids!).
יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהֹוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
May the Holy One bless you and keep you safe.
יָאֵ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
May you feel a pervasive sense of connection and know that you are not alone in this world.
יִשָּׂ֨א יְהֹוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
May we experience within us the wholeness and peace that is possible from living in a world that is entirely just.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.