This shabbat marks the fifth anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 beloved community members were murdered while praying. I have been in touch this week with their rabbi, as she has wrestled with how to call for a ceasefire while her community is also so deep in grief and trauma. And I have spoken to members of our community who have shared with me how unsafe they feel as Jews at this moment. We are navigating layers of trauma recessed in our bones and encoded in our DNA. Activated by very real and current anti-Jewish violence and the horrible massacre of 1,400 Israelis on October 7.
At the same time, more than 6,000 Palestinians have been killed, including an unspeakable number of children. One friend, who is also a KT member, received a text last week from a dear Palestinian friend sharing that his entire family had been killed in their sleep in an airstrike. 14 people perished in an instant. And I know that some of us are adding a new layer of fear. That the violence in Gaza will produce more antisemitic violence here in the U.S., in our synagogues and schools.
The song in my heart this week has been the refrain of one of our healing songs at Kol Tzedek, “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well.”
One person I spoke with shared honestly that when they feel this unsafe, they cannot even begin to think about the safety of others. It is perhaps the most core human need and right to feel safe in our own bodies and homes. A need and a right that is unjustly reserved for the privileged in our world. A need and a right that is systematically and routinely threatened by racism, transphobia and state violence.
Of the many articles and videos about this war that I have watched this week, one stands out. It is the moment when Yocheved Lifshitz, an 85 year old Israeli peace activist who was taken hostage on October 7, is being freed near the Egypt border.
“At the precise moment of her deliverance from a hellish ordeal Yocheved Lifshitz paused and turned to grip the hand of one of the masked Hamas militants who had kept her captive. “Shalom,” she said.
You can watch the moment here.
The care and tenderness in her grip is palpable. I feel proud to be part of a Jewish people that includes her. She is an elder who has just survived 16 days of captivity and still she reaches for a shared humanity with her captor. Yocheved is one of many Israelis who do not want revenge. You can read their pleas here.
I have spent many hours this week in honest, painful conversations with teachers, KT members and my own family. I feel in my own heart how hard it is to stay open, caring, connected to people with whom I disagree about the core nature of our safety in the world; what makes us feel safe, and how we can get there.
And yet I believe in the possibility of a world that is whole and just and so far from our reality that it can only be captured in my prayers.
Our healing song continues,
“When the world is sick, can’t no one be whole. Yet I dreamt we were all beautiful and whole.”
In this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, our ancestor Abram, is called upon to find his spiritual purpose in this world. One midrash (Genesis Rabbah 38:13) describes Abraham’s search for his own faith. In it he is wondering what might he worship, since he is abandoning the idol worship of his ancestors.
“His father and his brother suggest, let us worship fire.
To which Abraham counters: Instead let us worship water, for it extinguishes fire.”
We too are called to find our spiritual purpose in this world. For myself at this moment, that includes the unequivocal call for a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza. I know we do not all agree with this call. I do not expect or need our political alignment. I hope we can align on our commitment to reaching for our shared humanity. For the humanity in others.
In his poem Think of Others, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish reminds us,
“As you conduct your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace).”
May the Holy Blessed One who makes people possible in the heavens, bring it here on earth, speedily and in our days.
Everyone I have talked to this week is on edge. And collectively we are walking on eggshells.
I haven’t talked to anyone this week who hasn’t fought with someone they love. In each conversation we are trying to assess one’s political allegiances, to code-switch our language to avoid further conflict. We are perhaps still trying to educate. Or maybe we’re done trying to persuade. It is so hard to say we don’t know. It is scary to say what feels true and it is scary to silence our truth. We are weary and we are nowhere near the end.
What I feel in my bones is that this is not just a war, it is a wedge.
A political wedge that is meant to divide and separate us from each other, for our own families and communities. I feel it in my own heart. And I feel it in my own family.
Last shabbat one of my teachers wrote,
“I know that so many of us are feeling heartsick and unmoored.
In the face of our sense of helplessness,
it is all too easy for us to weaponize our words against each other.
One word to the left
One word to the right
Can feel like a betrayal,
An unbridgeable gulf.”
Her words landed like a mirror.
With each passing day, I fear the bonds of this community will unravel in our hands.
Yet I know with my whole being that we need each other. That we are more powerful together.
We as a community are poised to try to inhabit this unbridgeable gulf.
We are a coalition powerful enough to be part of creating a just peace.
In this week’s Torah portion, Noach, we read the story of Noah and the Flood. But also of the story of what happens after the flood when the people were fruitful and multiplied and began to fill the earth. The Tower of Babel is one Jewish origin story to explain human difference and diversity. Genesis 11 explains that the people grew so powerful and so proud that they decided to build a tower to reach the heavens. In their hubris, they wanted to make it tall enough to reach the Holy One. So the Holy One humbled and thwarted them by turning their speech to babble, causing them to speak all different languages. I imagine a very immature computer programmer wagging their finger, “Take that people, now try to play together!”
Most days I disagree with this rendering of human difference as a punishment. This is not what I feel nor what Jewish tradition in its entirety values. But this week I have experienced this story as less prescriptive and more descriptive. It is so hard to talk across differences. Especially political differences. Especially Israel and Palestine.
We are unique as a synagogue in that we do not default to zionism. And yet we are not decidedly a non-zionist or anti-zionist community. We as a community are diverse in our views, which I know is deeply uncomfortable. We have family in Israel and in Palestine. We have a lot of skin in this game. For many of us our relationship to Israel/Palestine is core to our sense of self, in one way or another. Based on a survey a few years ago, our affiliations include New Israel Fund, If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace, and many views not on any institutional map. And I will continue to insist this is what makes us powerful.
This past Wednesday morning I drove down to Washington D.C. to be part of an action. Around 3 pm hundreds of us gathered in the rotunda of the Capitol building calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza. We spent the better part of the afternoon singing the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Lo yisa goy el goy herev. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” I was joined by hundreds of people in the Capitol building, and bolstered by thousands more outside on Independence Avenue, including dozens of Kol Tzedek members. It was not only peaceful, but prayerful. Over the course of many hours we sang every song for peace we knew. We sang even when our voices were hoarse and thin. We sang while they arrested us and for hours after. We sang until they literally ordered us to stop.
An article in The Nation captured it vividly, “Aided by a melodious shofar, two dozen rabbis spoke about the moral urgency of the moment while thousands of fellow Jews chanted “Cease-fire now!” outside the building. Together, it created a cacophony of righteous trouble in the best tradition of our people.”
It was a proud moment. I shared it with some people I love dearly. And to my heartbreak, they reacted defensively.
As I reflect on my week, I am not sure what I am more proud of, the fact that I, along with so many Kol Tzedek members, was part of an inspiring act of civil disobedience calling for a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza, or the fact that I narrowly managed to avoid fighting about it with my family via text message.
It feels almost impossible to talk about this war with the nuance and compassion it requires. Which is in and of itself scary. Just today I received an email from my kids’ school principal asking for my help because, “Kids are beginning to ask each other, “Whose side are you on?”” This is not only a war, but a wedge.
Last Sunday I gathered with a large group of Torah School parents to share ideas about how to talk to our kids about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. In my tenure as Senior Rabbi of Kol Tzedek, it was the first time I had facilitated a conversation on the subject. I could feel the relief and the openness, as we went around the circle sharing our questions. It was clear that so many of us are personally impacted. It was important to me that I say that no one needs to agree with me as the rabbi. And I apologized for censoring myself to a fault on this subject.
The conversation was full of compassion and curiosity and honored our community’s commitment to having more discussions about our relationship to Palestinian liberation. It was a hopeful and grounding moment in my week. And I hope we will do more of this in the days and weeks ahead.
For those who do feel some openness to learning more about the political context in Israel right now, I urge you to listen to or read Rabbi Sharon Brous’ Yom Kippur Sermon, “This is the moral earthquake.” While I personally would tell the story about the founding of the state and its significance differently, I am very grateful for her brave rendering of this moment. And I hope and imagine it may be easier to hear it from her than from me.
We are made in the image of the one who spoke and called the world into being. The power of our words to build or demolish worlds is at the core of this week’s Torah portion and of our spiritual legacy.
May the Holy Blessed One help us to be courageous, to be clear, to be curious and to be compassionate as we reach for our shared humanity and work towards a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine.
Join us tonight at 6:30 pm in person and online. It can be a great comfort to sing in community and Rabbi Mó will be sharing important words of Torah. And tomorrow at 10 am for shabbat morning services at Calvary.
Shabbat shalom, please god
This is the week when the Torah takes us all the way back to the beginning. And so it feels right to begin again our weekly conversation with my Friday emails. I have missed sharing these tidbits of Torah and receiving your reflections. I even started a fresh google doc for drafting this next 7-year cycle.
Torah begins again. And so do we.
And this year, Torah will be different because we are different.
Of the many words that we mumble through every Shabbat morning, there are a few that are my favorites.
“U’vtuvo mechadesh b’khol yom Tamid ma’aseh v’reishit.
The Holy One generously renews all of creation every single day.”
Which is to say that the very creation story we will read this shabbat morning, which recounts “ma’aseh v’reishit,” how the world went from tohu va’vohu, from unformed chaos, into light and form, didn’t just happen once long ago. It is actually an act of cosmic grace every single day. The world and we wake up new every single morning. In a world aching with violence, and full of petrified people, this is perhaps the most hopeful relationship I have with creation. The remembrance that it is ongoing. That everything is possible every single day.
But Torah is not just a record of what happened, it is also the blueprint for creation. One early midrash describes it this way,
כָּךְ הָיָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַבִּיט בַּתּוֹרָה וּבוֹרֵא אֶת הָעוֹלָם,
And thus the Holy Blessed One gazed into the Torah and created the World. (Bereishit Rabbah 1:1)
If the Torah is the blueprint for creation and if creation happens every day, something very powerful becomes possible. When the Holy One looks into the Torah tomorrow, she will not only see the Torah we inherited from Moses at Sinai, but she will also see our Torah, our new ideas in the margins, our white fire reflections, and they too will become part of the blueprint and have the capacity to shape the world.
This is one of the most powerful things about Torah. It is alive. Our tradition is not stagnant. We are empowered, each and every day, to look into the Torah and make meaning.
And one of the really complicated things about Torah is that Jewish people everywhere can gaze into this wide wisdom tradition and draw out contradictory insights.
One of the really painful things in this political moment, is that some Jewish people are gazing into the Torah and seeing a justification for escalated violence and revenge in Gaza and the West Bank.
One of the really hopeful things about this political moment is that other people are gazing into the Torah and seeing a call to value every single human life and end this cycle of violence.
What’s challenging to me about this is that no one is lying or manipulating Torah.
It is all in there.
Torah is not one thing. And that is both its power and its vulnerability. Like any sacred text, Torah can call for an end to suffering and violence. And Torah can be used to justify violence and extremism. This scares me.
Seventy-five years of occupation in Palestine has made everyone unsafe.
I am scared for the 2 million people of Gaza who are being told to leave their home, but have nowhere to go and no way to get there.
I am scared for the Israeli civilians being held hostage by Hamas.
I am scared for Palestinians and Israelis throughout the region, bracing for further attacks.
And, not but, but and, I am also scared for the soul of Am Yisrael, the spiritual center of the Jewish people. I am aware that grief of the magnitude we’ve experienced and seen this week can unleash a powerful drive for revenge. I am also aware that for many of us, our very real present and past Jewish traumas are activated at this moment. I am afraid that Israel’s extremist government is weaponizing Jewish loss and Jewish grief into unthinkable mass violence.
In moments of such overwhelming emotions, it is important to remember that we have agency in our spiritual lives. I cannot control the meaning others will make of Torah. But I can choose to make my own meaning of it, and make meaning in my own life.
As we begin this new Torah reading cycle, we get to choose how we relate to Torah and which teachings from Torah we choose to guide our response to this brutal moment.
Here is what I am choosing.
I am holding fast to the very beginning, to Genesis 1:26, to the essential idea that every single human being is made in the image of the Divine. According to the Jerusalem Talmud and the teachings of Ben Azzai, this is the singular most important idea in all of Torah. Every life has inherent dignity, purpose, and worth. This idea, that we are each created B’tselem Elohim, is where our humanity begins. It is the foundation of our spiritual tradition.
I am holding fast to the words of the prophet Isaiah (2:4).
“Lo yisa goy el goy herev.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.”
We should instead be transforming our weapons into harvesting tools.
I am holding fast to the knowledge that the book of Exodus (21:23-27) actually says we should take a life for a life. But our rabbis, thousands of years ago, rejected that idea. The Talmud asserts that a life cannot be literally taken for a life. We must find another way to restore what is lost.
Tomorrow morning when we open the Ark and sing Bei Ana Rachetz, I will be praying with all my soul that our study of Torah make it possible for us to open our hearts more fully; to open our hearts wide enough to grieve the violent murder of over 1000 Israelis; to grieve the vengeful murder and displacement of many more thousands of Palestinians, who are themselves survivors of decades of occupation. Torah asks us to open our hearts wide enough to have Ahavat Yisrael, to care for and about our fellow Jews, while also being in solidarity with Palestinians and their demands for dignity, equality, and freedom as part of the present day struggle to leave the narrow place.
עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ וְתוֹמְ֒כֶֽיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר: דְּרָכֶֽיהָ דַּרְכֵי נֹֽעַם וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶֽיהָ שָׁלוֹם:
Torah is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it.
May our study of it this year expand the horizons of our hearts and bring closer to a world that is just and peaceful. For her paths are meant to lead us to shalom.
I am holding fast to Torah this year and I invite you to join me.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.