Every Wednesday the Kol Tzedek office is home to an afterschool program called KTTS+. With 15 kids and 3 teachers, it is a raucous time in a small space. So much so that the rest of the staff has learned to clear out and work from home. I, on the other hand, love sticking around so I can waft in their Torah learning.
This past Wednesday I had the joy of joining their closing prayer circle. Together they weave incredible harmonies as they make their way through the Ma’ariv service in their home-made prayerbook. But the highlight is undoubtedly the last song “Towards Justice”, which made it into the standard matbeah (service structure) at the students’ insistence. Written by Eliana Light, the lyrics are an adaptation of the famous words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” To hear these young people singing with all their hearts, “Lord give me the strength to bend the arc of the universe towards justice…with love” buoyed my spirit.
Around the Jewish world, this shabbat is referred to as Shabbat Shira because it is the week in which the Israelites sing the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 as the cross from slavery to freedom. This week’s parsha includes within it one of my favorite verses in all of Torah, describing how it is that the Israelites made it across the sea, it says (three times!) that they crossed b’toch hayam b’yabasha, in the midst of the sea on dry ground. The water swells up and a path emerges. We too are called again and again to find a way forward even when it feels impossible.
It is fair to say that this week’s Torah portion is the foundation for all of liberation theology. After hundreds of years of enslavement, the Israelites actually crossed the sea. They found their way to dignity and divinity as free people. This is the story that creates a shared mythology across human time and religious traditions, in more than 70 languages. The message of this week’s Torah portion is echoed in the words of Dr. King and sung in the harmonies of Kol Tzedek Torah School students.
Yesterday I had the incredible honor of meeting with the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal. It was incredible to shake his hand (twice) and thank His Excellency for his time and courage to call for a humanitarian ceasefire. I was part of a delegation of 10 rabbis. We were on his official schedule as “American Rabbis” sandwiched between his meetings with Japan and Montenegro. We came to express our support for his remarks at the G77 supporting a humanitarian ceasefire, to ask him what we can do to make it a reality and to understand his vision for arriving at a lasting peace through diplomacy.
In trying to describe his presence, my best adjectives lead me to Yoda. His presence was tender, clear, generous, gracious and honest. I never imagined that there could be life-long politicians who remained so soft and open-hearted. He opened by recounting and apologizing for the painful history of the Inquisition in Portugal and making clear that one his proudest accomplishments was revoking that edict as prime minister. He shared a clear and compelling understanding of antisemitism, including the pernicious role that Evangelical Christians play worldwide in supporting the state of Israel at the expense of Jewish safety. He was so grateful and gracious and told us that “our meeting would help him reconcile his day.” He was flanked by a team of aides who wept as we offered him the priestly blessing:
May the Holy One bless you and protect you.
May the Holy One shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May you feel empowered to work for peace, Shalom.
I have been to the United Nations twice this month and have been consistently inspired by its vision and potential.. I am very much still learning about its history, purpose and power which is intertwined with World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.
I was relieved this morning when the International Court of Justice, which is part of the United Nations, voted nearly unanimously to demand that Israel do everything in its power to prevent the plausible genocide of the Palestinian people in Gaza. The provisions all but call for an immediate ceasefire. To understand their implications and enforcement I recommend this segment on Democracy Now, including KT member Raz Segal.
The ruling of the ICJ has significant symbolic impact. I must say it is spiritually devastating to have the highest court of justice rule that the State of Israel, which imagines itself as light among nations, is on the path to committing genocide in the name of Jewish safety and security. If you are in need of space to process this decision, I invite you to join a virtual gathering hosted by Rabbis for Ceasefire Sunday night at 8 pm EST. This will be an opportunity to reflect on the ICJ decision to order provisional measures to prevent genocide in Gaza hosted by beloved and trusted colleagues, Rabbis Dev Noily and Margaret Holub. You can register at bit.ly/ICJGathering.
Even after 400 years of slavery, even after 75 years of brutal occupation, the arc of the universe does bend towards justice. May we have the courage, clarity and stamina to partner with the holy one and do our part.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.