Thank you for your words of support in response to my email last week. I am grateful for this community of care and encouragement.
Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became one of the most charismatic and forceful leaders of the American abolition movement. At the age of 20 he made his daring escape, saying “Praying for freedom never did me any good til I started praying with my feet.”
We invoked his name on Wednesday morning at Mother Bethel Church, the birthplace of the African Methodist tradition, before stepping off on our Pilgrimage for Peace. It would have been his 206th Birthday. I recited Tefilat HaDerech and Rabbi Alissa Wise gave voice to the famous words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel which echo the Douglass’:
“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Growing up, the spirit and image of Rabbi Heschel marching with Dr. King was almost a logo for the kind of Judaism I was being raised to embody and aspire to. I am so grateful to the organizers from Faith for Black Lives for their vision, faith and commitment. It was a deeply multifaith experience, bringing together Christians, Jews and Muslim Arabs, as well as representative Hindus, Buddhists, Unitarians, Quakers and a deeply spiritual agnostic. I was so moved by the Kol Tzedek members who joined and those who plan to join. Know that we have all been part of it. We hosted lunch on the first day at the Calvary Center and sponsored lunch on the second day at a church in Claymont, Delaware.
I spent the last two days on the Pilgrimage of Peace, clocking more than 48,120 steps across some 24 miles. It was sunny and brisk, and unexpectedly restorative. Needless to say, my feet are sore. But my soul is renewed. In a world of automobiles and Amtrak, we are so accustomed to moving at the pace of engines. It was so soothing and connecting to be walking at the pace of diversely-abled human beings.
Time slowed. We walked two by two. Sometimes we sang. Most of the time we talked. It was regulating and grounding to move our bodies together, purposefully. We walked through the city, into residential neighborhoods and vast miles of strip mall sprawl. It wasn’t particularly glamorous or green. We stopped at city and state lines to pose for a picture and mark milestones. We found a park with a statue of Dr. King. We knocked on a church and asked if we could come in for lunch. In the evenings, local mosques fed us family style. There was grace and hospitality in abundance.
At one point yesterday, I was marching with Rev. Stephen Green. We were holding the pilgrimage banner and he looked at me and earnestly asked, “Do you do long walks often?” I kinda chuckled, thinking he was kidding. When I think of long walks, I think of 2 hours in the Wissahickon or the Woodlands. I shared that this was my first “long walk” so to speak - if by long walk, you mean interstate pilgrimage. He shared a litany of walks he had been part of, most longer than this 150 mile stretch. It was a spiritual practice of his to make pilgrimage.
In the Torah, pilgrimage, known as a regel from the root meeting leg, was a central spiritual practice, focusing on the Shalosh Regalim, the three Pilgrimage Festivals of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. But then the temple was destroyed, twice, and we remade those festivals to center around our local temples. So much has been possible because of our decentralized diasporic traditions. And yet this long walk connected me to what was when we let go of the practice of making a pilgrimage by foot.
The truth is that I actually have done one other long walk. When I was 16 years old I participated in the March of the Living, which involved a foot pilgrimage from the labor camp of Auschwitz to the death camp Birkenau. It was springtime and I took my shoes off to feel the pavement. I remember the birds and the bleak landscape. It too was a very formative long walk. Bringing my young soul to witness a place of so much death and destruction.
In addition to the March of the Living, I spent many miles thinking about the people of Gaza. The many videos I have seen of their pilgrimages over the past 4 months, in search of safety. Families barefoot, carrying mattresses and a cooking pot, pulling babies barely clothed. Their faces frightened. Their destination unknown. The ground bombed into rubble and the season turned to winter. The survivors have made these foot pilgrimages many times. From the north to the south. From Khan Yunis to Gaza City to Rafah and back again. Nowhere is safe. Everyone is hungry. There is no fuel so cars can’t drive and people must walk long distances.
What a privilege to walk for peace on their behalf. With the spirit of Douglass and Tubman, King and Heschel in our hearts. With the memory of 13 million people in my DNA. And the call of our sacred ancestors who made pilgrimage to the city of peace over and over again. May we merit to bring about a ceasefire and a lasting just peace for everyone in Israel/Palestine.
For those who are available this weekend, I encourage you to join the pilgrimage for any amount of time, and especially for the final stretch next Wednesday into D.C. People of all ages and abilities are welcome. There is a wheelchair accessible minibus that follows behind that is available to ride in, carrying snacks, water and willing pilgrims. I hope to join in the coming days with my kids.
It is devastating that another week is passing without a ceasefire in Gaza. It feels impossible not to write to you about it. The scale of destruction and starvation is worse than anything we have known since World War II. I want to invite you to take 10 minutes to listen to the personal story of Dr. Tariq Haddad, who has lost more than 100 family members. He is a Cardiologist who grew up in Gaza and recently declined an invitation to meet with Secretary of State Blinken.
My desperate desire for a lasting peace brought me back to a question that Israeli Journalist Gideon Levy asked in an interview in January. He sits on the editorial board of the newspaper Ha’aretz. On January 17, he asked:
“The question which bothers me more than anything else…having said what happened on the 7th, as barbaric as it was…Does this give us Israelis the right to do anything we want after the 7th forever, without any limits, no legal limits, no moral limits? We can just go and kill and destroy and destruct as much as we wish? That’s the main question right now.”
There are many ways that I have heard Jews and Israelis justify the mass destruction of Gaza. For some it is about safety, for others settlement. But what scares me the most, is the desire for revenge.
Gideon Levy’s question raises an ethical question about retaliation. The earliest version of this question is begged in this week's parsha, Mishpatim. Quite (in)famously Exodus 21:23-24 asserts a vision of retributive justice known in shorthand as “an eye for an eye”,
וְאִם־אָסוֹן יִהְיֶה וְנָתַתָּה נֶפֶשׁ תַּחַת נָפֶשׁ׃
However if there is a fatal injury, you shall take a life for a life.
עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן יָד תַּחַת יָד רֶגֶל תַּחַת רָגֶל׃
an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.
It is always dissonant to read a section of Torah that we decidedly think is unethical or unjust. Most of us were taught from a young age that two wrongs do not make a right. That we do not take an eye for an eye, nevermind a life for a life. And certainly not 30,000 Palestinian lives for 1,200 Israeli lives. Of course we can’t because each human life is irredeemably holy and unique. Because the value of one’s eye or one’s hand cannot be equated. What is the value of a painter’s hand or a bus driver’s eyes?
But it's not surprising that the far right wing settler movement is so focused on corporal revenge. Lest we forget they read the bible as both Divine prophecy and instruction manual. Just as I do not believe in a life for a life, I also do not believe that gay sex is an abomination or that we are called to embody the teachings of the book of Joshua and resettle Judea and Samaria.
While I have deep love and reverence for Torah, we are the descendents of rabbinic Judaism. For nearly 2,000 years we have understood that when the Torah says take an eye for an eye, what it means is to compensate the person for what they have lost. Try to make them feel whole again. Post-temple Judaism does not believe in revenge wars.
The reason I feel so able to wholeheartedly read this passage of Torah, and so many others, is because we are empowered to update it. The rabbis made clear that there are five ways to determine Jewish law. Of course one of them is, “Because it says so in the Torah!” But there is in fact something more powerful, our Svara. Svara is our informed moral intuition and it actually takes precedence over the words of the written Torah because it is a means of making Torah more just.
In every generation we are called to make Torah more ethical and more whole. To ensure all its paths are paths of peace
A few weeks ago, we began another cohort of our Adult B’nei Mitzvah class. In the second class I unwrapped the Torah and invited the students to come close and ask questions. It is one of my favorite things to do. Whether I am showing the Torah to kids or adults, someone always asks some version of this question: “Does it have the vowels in it?” Or “Does it have the trope marks? If not, how do you know how to read it?” The answer is always no, no matter which Torah you are looking at. Which is why reading Torah is not merely reading, it is revelation. I experience the way a leyner lifts the words off the scroll and sings them into the room as pure magic.
Thank you to everyone who reads Torah at Kol Tzedek. You are of incredible service to this community. And to Char Hersh, for coordinating leyning and make sure Torah can be revealed each week. I do not take any of this for granted.
The Torah service is meant to return us to Sinai, week after week, as many as three times a week! Which is a bit ironic, because from what I can tell, Sinai wasn’t much of a Torah service. Sinai was thunder and lightning, shofar blasts and looming clouds. It was Moses on the mountain for what felt like forever. And the people gathered at the foot of Mt Sinai, eager and terrified. Exodus 19:16 reads,
וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיֹת הַבֹּקֶר וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל־הָהָר וְקֹל שֹׁפָר חָזָק מְאֹד וַיֶּחֱרַד כׇּל־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּחֲנֶה׃
On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.
Based on the description in this week’s Torah portion Yitro, one might expect, or at least imagine, fireworks and a laser light show each week. Meanwhile the Torah service is all pomp and circumstance. It is highly scripted, ceremonial, and sometimes staid. The proscriptive calls and responses followed are by a sea of Hebrew few can understand. How did this become our weekly opportunity to stand again at Sinai?
We read in the 8th chapter of the book of Nehemiah (at the very back of a Tanakh),
“The entire people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which the LORD had charged Israel…
They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading. Nehemiah the Tirshatha, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were explaining to the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching.”
This is the very first Torah service. It probably took place a few thousand years after Sinai, likely around 300 years before the common era. Which was itself some 2300 years ago. The echoes of similarity, as Ezra opens the scroll and the people rise (in body or spirit), is eerily familiar. The continuity of practice that spans exile and diaspora is striking. As is the depth of emotion, the people prostrate and weep.
But perhaps what is most familiar is the fact that there were Levites working the crowd translating the text. The emphasis on understanding is core to learning Torah. In Nehemiah 8:2 it specifies, וְכֹל מֵבִין לִשְׁמֹעַ, everyone who could listen with understanding, was present. By the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people were speaking Aramaic and very few understood Biblical hebrew. It required translators. When I first learned this text, it was a relief to realize that the problem of translation is not merely a postmodern, assimilationist dilemma.
We live in a time when listening with understanding is feeling increasingly impossible and urgently needed. It is meaningful for me to imagine that listening in a way that increases our understanding is core to what it has always meant to receive Torah.Torah was never meant to be inaccessible. In fact, it has always required translation and interpretation.
There is a midrash that imagines that in the moment when the Holy Blessed One revealed the Torah, it was whispered into the heart of every Israelite so that each person could uniquely understand and receive it.
Each week, with hearts full of longing, we sing Bei ana rachetz - דְּתִפְתַּח לִבָּאִי בְּאוֹרַיְתָא - Please open our hearts through your Torah.
May we merit to channel the drama of Sinai into our Torah service each week, as Torah is revealed to each of us anew.
And may our study of Torah allow us to listen in ways that increase understanding and bring us closer לְטַב וּלְחַיִּין וְלִשְׁלָם, to goodness, to life and to peace.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.