The last time I was in Israel and Palestine was in the summer of 2006. It was a very formative time in my life. I have been thinking about it a lot lately. The experience that has been coming back to me this week was the morning I sat with a Palestinian civil rights lawyer. We were asking him questions and one friend asked, “How do you maintain your hope in the face of so many decades of occupation?” To which he seemed to easily respond, “We have no choice. We must be hopeful so that we are ready for freedom when it comes.”
The truth is that this has the potential to feel like a hopeless moment. We are on day 41 of a very violent war that is tearing at the fabrics of family and community. So many people have expressed to me despair about what comes next and how this war ends. In these moments I go back to that conversation in Palestine and remind myself we are each obligated to figure out where our hope comes from.
I spent this past Monday praying for a deescalation of violence and ceasefire at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. We were a weekday pop up shul, complete with a real ark and three Torahs. It was a bright sunny morning and it felt good to pour my whole heart into prayer. I sang so loud for so long that I actually lost my voice. Some of you were there with me and Rabbi Mó. Some of you watched the livestream.
As we were led through the morning psalms by Rabbi Yosef Berman of the New Synagogue Project, I found myself lingering on Psalm 121.
I lift my eyes…to the Capitol.
From where does my help come? …
But rather than help, my mind keeps substituting hope. As this devastating war enters its second month, I am asking myself, From where does my hope come?
Just last week I was teaching the monthly Teen class at KT Torah School. We were studying the famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot that asks, “ I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when?” We were talking about this teaching in the context of the war in Israel and Gaza. And one student remarked, “I think people don’t have enough empathy for people who are different from them.” That gave me hope.
This past Wednesday I joined KTTS+ for tefillah. The students have a rotation and they take turns leading the prayers. As we sang Ufros Aleinu we paused and the kids called out places and people they wanted to send protection. Gaza, Israel, Palestine, the West Bank, the whole world. Their hearts are so wide. I am so grateful to be part of a synagogue where our children are praying for both Israeli and Palestinian safety. They give me hope.
And just yesterday I led a text study with Molly Sand and her fellow organizers of the Penn Freedom school on the Torah of Lo Yisa Goy. Molly dedicated her learning to her grandfather’s memory. It was a brave and gentle multi faith space. After I taught, the Muslim chaplain recounted the story of Moses and Pharoah. I was honored to be there. They give me hope.
My favorite image from this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, is about the wells that Isaac digs.
Genesis 26:19 reads,
“Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.”
Hope is an act of resistance. It is a spiritual practice. Jewish author and poet Grace Paley is famous for having said, “The only recognizable feature of hope is action.”
If the only recognizable feature of hope is action, I see a reason to believe Isaac was hopeful. Despite a life of trauma and familial trouble, despite the despair one might feel when traveling in the desert with no reliable source of water, he redug the wells. And the Torah goes on to say that he found in each one a well spring of water.
Tomorrow is our final Bar Mitzvah of the fall season and our last regularly scheduled B’nei Mitzvah at Calvary. The young people in our community are kind, empathetic, curious, critical thinkers. They are equally passionate about playing games and pursuing justice.
I have the privilege of working with each and every B’nei Mitzvah student one on one. I imagine that when we first sit down to write their divrei Torah, they look at the Torah and think, I have to find water here?! But without fail or complaint they find a way to redig the well and draw forth their own unique wisdom. They give me hope.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.