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.