There are currently thousands of Philadelphians without gas to heat their homes. As we all know, this has been one of the coldest winters in a long time. Yesterday I spoke at a powerful call to action organized by POWER declaring that access to energy is a human right. Clergy, leaders, and organizers from around the city gathered at City Hall with members of City Council to demand that Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) turn on the heat. PGW is a publicly-owned gas utility that has received government assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and yet has neglected to restore service to people who had lapsed payments.
As with all well organized actions, I wasn't just invited to speak. I was given a script with clear goals and a tight timeline. I was asked to publicly lament the reality of living in a city that denies heat to people who are poor and low income. And then I was asked to invite everyone present to turn to someone near them and share what brought them out to this vigil.
In reading this week’s parsha, Terumah, I have been reflecting on the wise instructions I received from seasoned community organizers. In Terumah, we receive very detailed instructions regarding the building of the mishkan. It was the work of metal-workers and weavers, artists and builders. And we are taught that when everyone offered their unique gifts and skills, the holiness overflowed.
One of the key design elements was the instruction to place two keruvim, winged angel creatures, to watch over the kaporet, the covering to the ark. Commentators note how important it is that there are two of them, lest a single angelic being be confused for a Divine idol. And they work very hard to reconcile two seemingly contradictory instructions. The first being that the angels face the kaporet, watching over it. And the second that these angels face one another.
The rabbis of the Talmud attempt to reconcile this discrepancy by teaching that the keruvim faced each other when b'nei Yisrael followed the mitzvot, and turned away from each other when they did not. Which I understand to mean that they face each other when we take responsibility for our obligations to one another.
I thought about this teaching as I invited the people gathered in the freezing rain to take a moment and turn towards one another. So grateful someone else had gifted me this instruction. The white noise of a city block was replaced with the alive hum of people sharing their stories. The Torah teaches that the Holy One actually spoke from the empty space between the keruvim, often likened to the space between two people engaged in Torah study. It is precisely this relational moment that fortifies our humanity in the face of so much injustice.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes about the space between the keruvim,
"We can choose to act in ways which create the space within which that voice speaks, or we can choose to act in ways which will negate that possibility. The voice of the Infinite issued forth not from the golden statues themselves, not even from the holy text which was contained in the ark then and is contained in our scroll now, but from the dynamic space between the keruvim. God speaks to us from emptiness -- but not just any emptiness. God speaks from the spiritually charged space of relationship."
May we draw on the power of these winged-creatures and the courage in our own hearts, to have the strength to keep turning towards another, despite the physical and social distancing of our times -- to engage the spiritually charged space of relationship to make our lives, our city, and this world more whole.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.