Everyone I have talked to this week is on edge. And collectively we are walking on eggshells.
I haven’t talked to anyone this week who hasn’t fought with someone they love. In each conversation we are trying to assess one’s political allegiances, to code-switch our language to avoid further conflict. We are perhaps still trying to educate. Or maybe we’re done trying to persuade. It is so hard to say we don’t know. It is scary to say what feels true and it is scary to silence our truth. We are weary and we are nowhere near the end.
What I feel in my bones is that this is not just a war, it is a wedge.
A political wedge that is meant to divide and separate us from each other, for our own families and communities. I feel it in my own heart. And I feel it in my own family.
Last shabbat one of my teachers wrote,
“I know that so many of us are feeling heartsick and unmoored.
In the face of our sense of helplessness,
it is all too easy for us to weaponize our words against each other.
One word to the left
One word to the right
Can feel like a betrayal,
An unbridgeable gulf.”
Her words landed like a mirror.
With each passing day, I fear the bonds of this community will unravel in our hands.
Yet I know with my whole being that we need each other. That we are more powerful together.
We as a community are poised to try to inhabit this unbridgeable gulf.
We are a coalition powerful enough to be part of creating a just peace.
In this week’s Torah portion, Noach, we read the story of Noah and the Flood. But also of the story of what happens after the flood when the people were fruitful and multiplied and began to fill the earth. The Tower of Babel is one Jewish origin story to explain human difference and diversity. Genesis 11 explains that the people grew so powerful and so proud that they decided to build a tower to reach the heavens. In their hubris, they wanted to make it tall enough to reach the Holy One. So the Holy One humbled and thwarted them by turning their speech to babble, causing them to speak all different languages. I imagine a very immature computer programmer wagging their finger, “Take that people, now try to play together!”
Most days I disagree with this rendering of human difference as a punishment. This is not what I feel nor what Jewish tradition in its entirety values. But this week I have experienced this story as less prescriptive and more descriptive. It is so hard to talk across differences. Especially political differences. Especially Israel and Palestine.
We are unique as a synagogue in that we do not default to zionism. And yet we are not decidedly a non-zionist or anti-zionist community. We as a community are diverse in our views, which I know is deeply uncomfortable. We have family in Israel and in Palestine. We have a lot of skin in this game. For many of us our relationship to Israel/Palestine is core to our sense of self, in one way or another. Based on a survey a few years ago, our affiliations include New Israel Fund, If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace, and many views not on any institutional map. And I will continue to insist this is what makes us powerful.
This past Wednesday morning I drove down to Washington D.C. to be part of an action. Around 3 pm hundreds of us gathered in the rotunda of the Capitol building calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza. We spent the better part of the afternoon singing the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Lo yisa goy el goy herev. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” I was joined by hundreds of people in the Capitol building, and bolstered by thousands more outside on Independence Avenue, including dozens of Kol Tzedek members. It was not only peaceful, but prayerful. Over the course of many hours we sang every song for peace we knew. We sang even when our voices were hoarse and thin. We sang while they arrested us and for hours after. We sang until they literally ordered us to stop.
An article in The Nation captured it vividly, “Aided by a melodious shofar, two dozen rabbis spoke about the moral urgency of the moment while thousands of fellow Jews chanted “Cease-fire now!” outside the building. Together, it created a cacophony of righteous trouble in the best tradition of our people.”
It was a proud moment. I shared it with some people I love dearly. And to my heartbreak, they reacted defensively.
As I reflect on my week, I am not sure what I am more proud of, the fact that I, along with so many Kol Tzedek members, was part of an inspiring act of civil disobedience calling for a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza, or the fact that I narrowly managed to avoid fighting about it with my family via text message.
It feels almost impossible to talk about this war with the nuance and compassion it requires. Which is in and of itself scary. Just today I received an email from my kids’ school principal asking for my help because, “Kids are beginning to ask each other, “Whose side are you on?”” This is not only a war, but a wedge.
Last Sunday I gathered with a large group of Torah School parents to share ideas about how to talk to our kids about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. In my tenure as Senior Rabbi of Kol Tzedek, it was the first time I had facilitated a conversation on the subject. I could feel the relief and the openness, as we went around the circle sharing our questions. It was clear that so many of us are personally impacted. It was important to me that I say that no one needs to agree with me as the rabbi. And I apologized for censoring myself to a fault on this subject.
The conversation was full of compassion and curiosity and honored our community’s commitment to having more discussions about our relationship to Palestinian liberation. It was a hopeful and grounding moment in my week. And I hope we will do more of this in the days and weeks ahead.
For those who do feel some openness to learning more about the political context in Israel right now, I urge you to listen to or read Rabbi Sharon Brous’ Yom Kippur Sermon, “This is the moral earthquake.” While I personally would tell the story about the founding of the state and its significance differently, I am very grateful for her brave rendering of this moment. And I hope and imagine it may be easier to hear it from her than from me.
We are made in the image of the one who spoke and called the world into being. The power of our words to build or demolish worlds is at the core of this week’s Torah portion and of our spiritual legacy.
May the Holy Blessed One help us to be courageous, to be clear, to be curious and to be compassionate as we reach for our shared humanity and work towards a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine.
Join us tonight at 6:30 pm in person and online. It can be a great comfort to sing in community and Rabbi Mó will be sharing important words of Torah. And tomorrow at 10 am for shabbat morning services at Calvary.
Shabbat shalom, please god
You can search Rabbi Ari Lev's blog below:
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.