For anyone who lives in West Philly, Wednesday was quite a scene in the Cedar Park neighborhood as Mike Pence's motorcade strolled into town. As I walked down Windsor Terrace, approaching the St. Frances DeSales school where Pence was scheduled for a school choice photo op, I was taken by the visual image. The crowd was big and proud. And at first glance I thought to myself, what an incredible cross section of the neighborhood flooding the streets in protest. But as I got closer, I realized that what I was looking at was not one unified protest, but protest and counter-protest. The street itself was full of large burly, cis-men representing the Boilermakers Union with signs about power. They were there in support of Pence, asking him to reopen the oil refinery in South Philly. And across from them on the porches and sidewalks was a large gaggle of colorful queers and their allies waving signs about queer and trans rights, public education, black lives matter and the like. What at first look had appeared like an incredible multiracial, cross-class protest, revealed itself to be two sides of a deep rift in our economy, one that rarely appears in full dimension on the streets of West Philly.
The scene conjured the featured image of this week's parsha, Beshallach. This is the week when we get the amazing story of the sea parting and the Israelites walking in the midst of the sea on dry ground. So much of my love for this story is about imagining the sea walls miraculously separating, creating an otherwise unimaginable path forward. But this week, I saw it differently. Each of us protesting on behalf of our dignity and basic rights, on opposite sides of the streets, seemingly opposite sides of the political spectrum, we were the sea separated from itself.
I spent some time talking with KT members before walking across the street to talk with some of the refinery workers. Most of them expressed that it was a well paying job and they were now out of work with no health insurance. We all agreed that in an ideal world closing the refinery would guarantee new jobs in renewable energy. But in the absence of that, they were here to beg Pence to reopen the refinery. They need jobs.
And here we are, as a community, actively organizing to keep the refinery closed. In fact our upcoming Purim party is co-sponsored by Philly Thrive, a group specifically organizing against the refinery. And for good reason. The refinery itself is responsible for 50% of the pollution in Philadelphia. It is at once a modern day plague and a source of people's survival. I keep thinking about the Egyptians and their horses who drown in the sea when the walls close in on them.
סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם (Ex. 15:1).
This Shabbat, as we rise in body or spirit to hear the song of the sea, let us all heed the words of one of my teachers, Aurora Levins Morales:
"They say that other country over there, dim blue in the twilight, farther than the orange stars exploding over our roofs, is called peace, but who can find the way?
"This time we cannot cross until we carry each other. All of us refugees, all of us prophets. No more taking turns on history's wheel, trying to collect old debts no one can pay. The sea will not open that way.
"This time that country is what we promise each other, our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between, until there are no enemies left, because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it's all of us or none."
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For those interested in a taste of daf yomi, here are my reflections on today's page of Talmud, inspired by the students in this year's Judaism for Everyone class.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.