We learn in Pirkei Avot (1:18) that the world is sustained by three things: on law (justice), on truth and on peace. Earlier this week, I was teaching this text to a group of Kol Tzedek teens and they noticed the difference between what the world is founded on (Torah, Avodah and Hesed), and what allows it to endure. The teaching ends with a quote from the prophet Zecharia (8:16), "When there is truth and justice, there will be peace in your gates.”
"אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם…"
They noticed that the order of these three things is significant. Suggesting that a just legal system and truth are necessary for shalom, for peace. Or in the words of the protest chant, “No justice, no peace!”
This teaching calls to me as the International Court of Justice begins adjudicating whether Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians.
This teaching leads me to even greater resolve that no military solution will provide peace and safety for Israelis and Palestinans. That we must do everything in our power to hasten a ceasefire, to save the lives of Palestinian civilians, Israeli hostages and soldiers and prevent the possibility of world war.
Which is why I traveled to the United Nations with Rabbis for Ceasefire. On Monday, I was part of a delegation of five rabbis from the U.S. and Israel who met with the Deputy Representative of the United States Mission to the United Nations to implore the U.S. Ambassador to support a permanent and lasting ceasefire.
Then on Tuesday, I joined a group of 36 rabbis on a tour of the United Nations. I was so surprised by the beauty of the building and the incredible art exhibits, including a very moving exhibit about the Palestinian Nakba which lined the walls of the lobby. Our tour group was escorted inside the U.N. Security council, the very room where questions of war and peace are discussed, the very room where the U.S. has consistently used its veto to block a ceasefire resolution. Once inside, we unfurled banners, blew a shofar and began reading from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948.
Not surprisingly, this passionate group of rabbis had planned a yizkor ritual that would easily span more than an hour. Less than 10 minutes in, we were forced to stop because “Demonstrating is forbidden in the United Nations.” We were undoubtedly a prayerful disruption.
I do not share this to communicate conformity or alignment about political strategy or policy. There are many important and needed theories of change and strategies for bringing about change. Please know, I welcome your dissent and disagreement. I value your insights and honor your truths.
That said, since October 7, I have participated in a swell of direct action in D.C., Philly and NYC, all designed to disrupt business as usual. And it has got me thinking about the role of disruption in liberation struggles.
Which is also the theme of this week’s Torah portion. Parashat Vaera includes the narrative of the first seven of ten plagues that Moses and the Holy One inflicted on Pharaoh and the Egyptians to free the Israelite slaves.
Moses and Aaron repeatedly come before Pharaoh to demand in the name of G‑d, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh repeatedly refuses. G‑d then sends a series of plagues upon the Egyptians.
The waters of the Nile turn to blood; swarms of frogs overrun the land; lice infest all people and beasts. Hordes of wild animals invade the cities; a pestilence kills the domestic animals; painful boils afflict the Egyptians. For the seventh plague, fire and ice combine to descend from the skies as a devastating hail. Still, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened and he would not let the children of Israel go, as G‑d had said to Moses.”
Each of these plagues was a divine disruption, causing profound human suffering.
I have personally heard from some angry people who have found themselves in the path of these disruptions. Late to work, late to pick up their children, cab drivers, a person in labor and trying to get to the hospital. The war is not their fault. Just as the Israelite enslavement was not the fault of the ancient Egyptians.
On April 16, 1963, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr, wrote,
"First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action..."
With the death toll in Gaza exceeding 20,000 people including more than 8,000 children, I need to know that I did absolutely everything I could to bring about a lasting peace and stop this war. And that includes talking openly with any and all of you who disagree with me, who are curious, confused and questioning. Please know, I want to sit with you and talk about this.
I feel great pride in seeing how many Kol Tzedek members are organizing. Your devotion is itself a spiritual practice.
The truth is that it has never been popular to be anti-war. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is most famous for having marched in with Dr. King in Selma. It was King who brought Heschel into the Civil Rights movement. But what’s less talked about is that it was Heschel who brought King into the movement to stop the Vietnam War.
On April 4, 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his seminal speech at Riverside Church condemning the Vietnam War. Declaring “my conscience leaves me no other choice,” King described the war’s deleterious effects on both America’s poor and Vietnamese peasants and insisted that it was morally imperative for the United States to take radical steps to halt the war through nonviolent means (King, “Beyond Vietnam,” 139).
And so too must we.
Disruption is a holy tactic of bringing about justice.
Disruption is at the core of our liberation story.
I pray our disruptions bring us closer to “a positive peace which includes the presence of justice.”
May we have the courage to hear the words of the prophets and the rabbis”
“There can be no peace in our gates without justice.”
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.