We enter yet another Shabbat steeped in the grief of racist state violence, as Jacob Blake, now paralyzed, is handcuffed to his hospital bed fighting for his life in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Shot in the back seven times by police last Sunday. Only made worse by the horror of a young white supremacist murdering two protestors. Both violent acts praised by Trump himself. Law and order politics are revealed for what they have always been, a code-name to enslave, imprison, impoverish, and murder Black people in this country.
This same week we mark the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, and prepare for the Black National Convention tonight. This same week we read these words in parashat Ki Teitzei:
"You shall not turn over to their master an escaped slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. They shall live with you in your midst, in any place they choose that is good for them. You shall not oppress them." (Deut. 23:16-17)
About these verses Rabbi Shai Held writes, "It is hard to overstate the revolutionary implications of these verses. As a contemporary Bible scholar puts it, for the Torah 'to legislate so contrary to the universally accepted norms for the treatment of slaves indicates an intentional critique of the very nature of the institution itself.'"
For me, one of the great awakenings of the last six months has been coming to understand that the institution of policing in America, which as a white person I was taught to trust and venerate, began as a group of white people out to catch runaway slaves. Over time its practices were institutionalized and professionalized which has perpetuated the legal lynching of Black people in America. I am holding this truth with devastating clarity.
Understood as the biblical imperative to grant refuge to a runaway slave, I am beginning to understand this week's parsha as the biblical imperative to defund the police. And I am hearing the fiery voice of Torah call out, any institution whose foundational purpose was to capture runaway slaves must be defunded, dismantled, and transformed. I am not an expert on the how. But many are. For those of us who are not Black, what I know in my bones is that it is not enough to proclaim that Black Lives Matter. We must actually work to enact their vision by organizing to meet the demands of a movement whose express purpose is preserving life. This is our spiritual obligation.
To quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke these words 57 years ago:
"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality."
This week in our daily study of the Laws of Teshuvah, we learned that the first three steps of teshuvah are as follows:
I arrive to this Shabbat with a deepening awareness of my own complicity with policing and its crucial role in the murder and oppression of Black lives. I arrive resolved to divest from policing.
In the prophetic words of Martin Espada,
"If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year..."
May this be the year.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This time of year I am a glutton for fresh fruit. I try to eat my year's worth in the month of August. This week I felt we had finally arrived as I sliced fresh peaches into my granola, froze peaches 'n' cream popsicles, and canned peaches with maple bourbon syrup. By every measure I am grateful to the sun's generosity, as I fill my fridge (and my belly) with a bumper crop of peaches.
The Talmud teaches us that the months of Tammuz, Av, and Elul are the season of fruit ripening (B.T. Pesachim 94b). Rabbi Jill Hammer explains, "The harvest may contain loss, yet it also contains peaches, plums, and cherries...In this season, according to legend, the sun makes a special effort to travel over places where humans live to ripen the harvest" (The Jewish Book of Days, 379). In the early summer days of Tammuz, the fruit was not quite ready. Now in the latter half of Av, we savor the saturated sweetness of summer fruit and take in the spirit of blessing.
This week's parsha, Re'eh, speaks of precisely this blessing from the land. Its words an invitation to consider the blessings in our own lives as we wind our way through the book of Deuteronomy and approach the end of another spiritual cycle. Hammer continues, "The fruit of the spirit always prepares us for another journey. At this season we not only devour the fruit but begin to notice the seeds, the hints of the future that will guide us towards the new year."
This Shabbat is Shabbat Mevarchim, the Shabbat that blesses the arrival of the new moon of Elul next Thursday and Friday. The hints of the new year are quite literally just around the corner. Beneath the heat of the sun, we ask for renewal, for long life, for sustenance; a life in which our heart's longings are fulfilled. And we are called to ask, What is mine to harvest? What growth can I honor? What is mine to let go of with the waning moon?
In her poem "Coming Up on September," Marge Piercy writes:
"Now is the time to let the mind
search backwards like the raven loosed
to see what can feed us. Now,
the time to cast the mind forward
to chart an aerial map of the months."
May the path of the sun inspire us to chart our own with integrity and discernment, free from shame and full of awe.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past week I gathered (online!) with 160 fellow queer Talmud nerds at the first-ever Queer Talmud Camp: Diaspora Edition. It is our practice to begin every camp with what is known as The CRASH talk, in which Rabbi Benay Lappe gives over her core theology. (If you have never heard it, I highly recommend it.)
Crash begins with the premise that all human beings share the same basic big questions of life. [Insert your own!] Benay then goes on to explain that every religion comes into being to answer those core questions by developing a master story. But every master story will eventually and inevitably crash. Which births an even bigger question: How do we respond to the crisis of a crash?
There is no question we are living through a crash. We are undoubtedly living through many crashes. The collapse of public education; the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; the fear and uncertainty of this uncontained, deadly virus; rising sea levels and tropical storms. And we are called to respond to the many crashes. To be unbelievably responsive. I entered my time off with one primary question: What will it take to center and ground myself for the year ahead? I had a few goals -- daily yoga, limited screen time, lots of ice cream, and very few time-bound obligations.
As it turns out, our spiritual ancestors were also living through a seemingly endless series of crashes and they recorded both their questions and their answers to the same overarching big question: How do we stay whole in the face of unbelievable brokenness?
At Queer Talmud Camp, we began our learning with a mishnah (found on Kiddushin 40b in the Talmud Bavli) that suggests that a person who is steeped in mikra / scripture, mishnah / oral teachings, and derekh eretz / ethical living will be slow to miss the mark and cause harm. How do we know this? the text asks. Because it says in Tanakh, "A braided (literally 3-ply) cord does not easily fray" (Kohelet 4:12).
I was struck by this image because it is the opposite of how I have been feeling. These past five months, I have felt utterly frayed. Between parenting, protesting, and working (not to mention worrying!), there have been few moments when I have been able to offer my dedicated attention to any one thing. I have felt pulled in every direction, utterly distracted by the competing needs for my attention and the endless hours staring at my computer. And that takes a toll. And has led me in many moments to miss the mark. And so it begs the question, What can I do to center and ground myself? What can we do to bolster ourselves?
As it turns out, the Mishnah not only provides the image but also the answer. According to the Mishnah, we need to focus our attention and dedicate our time and energy in three ways. First, spend time learning our inherited tradition -- mikra. Second, cultivate our relationship to an interpretive tradition -- mishnah. And lastly, engage deeply with the world around us -- derekh eretz. And in this way, we will stay more deeply connected to ourselves, our Source, and our purpose.
In this time when we are called to take action, let us not think that what is needed is activism instead of dedicated contemplative spiritual practices. But rather, activism born out of our spiritual practice. We need to be in deep relationship with mikra and mishnah in order to be in right relationship with derekh eretz.
This is what we are to aspire to. To see ourselves, like the braided cord, woven together at our core, so that we can live lives of meaning and purpose. As we prepare to enter this new year together, I am very much looking forward to tightening our weave by deepening our personal and collective practices.
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.