Earlier this week I was in a training called Jewish Pathways to Abolition. It began with this question:
"When was the last time you felt safe?"
The question was provocative and stirred both emotional and physical responses in me. Ironically, rather than thinking of when I last felt safe, my mind raced to all the moments when I have felt unsafe. Some more recent and others in my past. I could feel my shoulders tense, my breathing grew shallow, my mind fogged. After a few beats I reconnected to my feet on the ground and encouraged a long slow inhale and exhale.
A longing for safety, for my own and for all people, has been front and center in my own heart these days. Any moment spent reading the news or scrolling through social media sends the message to my own nervous system that this world is an unsafe place. Certainly the news that QAnon is now as popular in the U.S. as some major religions is reason to be existentially concerned. The violence in Palestine continues. And so do the antisemitic chants, memes, and violent attacks in the U.S. and Europe.
The longing for safety is not just mine and not just modern, it is also mythic. There is a magical moment in this week's Torah portion, Beha'alotcha. The very last two verses of chapter ten of the Book of Numbers are punctuated (wait, the Torah doesn't have punctuation!?) by the presence of two inverted nuns.
It is thought that these backwards, misplaced letters are Greek or Masoretic markings intended to delineate this text in some special way. Many regard the two verses as the remnant of an entire missing book of the Torah.
For this reason the rabbinic tradition lifts up these verses and uses them to open and close the liturgical Torah service. (Since it has been a while, you can hear the tune here.) Numbers 10:35 reads:
׆ וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ׀ יְהֹוָ֗ה וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃
When the Ark would travel, Moses would say: Rise Up, Holy One! May those who wish to cause You harm be dispersed. And may those who hate You flee from Your presence!
It is incredible to imagine this moment when our ancestors would set out in the wilderness carrying the mishkan on their shoulders. This week, the words landed more tenderly. The desert wanderings of our ancestors and our sacred teachings, the ark itself and those who journeyed with it, were afraid, lest those who hated them cause them harm while they were on their way.
Now in the Torah service, after singing these words, we read from the sacred scroll. Then we lift up the Torah, re-dress it, and just as we place it back in the ark we sing the very next verse in our Torah portion, Numbers 10:36:
וּבְנֻחֹ֖ה יֹאמַ֑ר שׁוּבָ֣ה יְהֹוָ֔ה רִֽבְב֖וֹת אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ ׆
And when it came to a halt, he would say: Return, Holy One, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands!
Following these words, we sing Eitz Chayyim Hi:
"It is a tree of life to those who strengthen themselves in it" (Proverbs 3:18).
In this way these two verses have become the portable ark with the entire Torah service nestled within it, a container to hold our ancient stories, the rhythms of our own life and the world around us.
Like our ancestors, I too long for those who wish to cause us harm to be dispersed and disempowered. In this moment, I am holding three important personal truths alongside this longing.
First, it is possible and necessary for us to condemn antisemitism and be in solidarity with Palestinian liberation. Contrary to the Anti-Defamation League's definition, anti-Zionism is not a form of antisemitism. I feel acutely aware that antisemitic violence and hate speech are strategically used to divert and distract from what is happening in Israel/Palestine. The ADL actually counts critique of Zionism in its "uptick" of antisemitism (more here on that).
Second, we experience the prevalence of antisemitic hate speech and violence differently depending on the many identities we hold, including our proximity to state violence and white supremacist violence.
And third, I don't just pray that those who wish to cause us harm would disperse on our behalf as Jews, but on behalf of the many identities we hold, the communities we hold dear and everyone to whom they wish to cause harm. The same people and movements that are antisemitic are also anti-Muslim, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-queer and anti-trans.
Just as our ancestors trusted the Torah to guide them in the wilderness, we too continually remind ourselves to hold fast to its teachings. We are the descendants of brave, vulnerable, and fearful people.
But unlike our ancestors, we are not all alone in the desert. We have the capacity to cultivate lives full of interconnection and interdependence. Our sense of safety is not dependent on scattering our enemies, but on building relationships with our allies. I invite you to consider what is one thing you can do to connect to your community, your neighbors, or yourself to deepen your internal sense of safety.
It is a tree of life to those who strengthen themselves in it.
May our relationship to Torah, to this community, and to our wide web of interdependence help us stay connected to a vision of solidarity that makes real safety possible.
Ken yehi ratzon, may it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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