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.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.