Shabbat Nitzavim/VaYelekh: Finding Firm Ground in all this Chaos

In all these years of finding good lessons and food for thought in our shared Torah study, we have faced many challenges together and sought their meaning for our lives as Jews.

This Shabbat is no different. The chaos intensifies around us until we want to scream Dayenu! “It’s enough!” The plagues increase in number and in impact:

*a criminal president whose abetters are dismantling the social supports of our lives
*an economic crisis of unemployment and houselessness
*a worldwide pandemic in which the U.S. response ranks near the bottom of them all
*more people dying each week than died in the September 11 2001 massacre we mourn today
*the unveiling of the police as a force hostile to civil rights and democracy
*the murderous persecution of Black, Indigenous, Trans, Queer, of Color, and other people
*and now, wildfires

Here’s what your Jewish tradition offers you on this Shabbat as you question the meaning of these days for your life: the double parashah whose two words mean “firmly rooted” and “going.” And this is exactly what we need: a way to remain firmly rooted within that which keeps us sane and able to function, while we move, quickly and clearly, to stay safe and aid others in doing so. 

If you are evacuating, reach out to us by email or text. 
If you have a room or unit to offer the displaced, let us know.

What’s the Torah of all this? What’s the learning? How is being and doing Jewish possibly going to help?

You won’t know until you do it. You can’t know until you experience it for yourself: the ritual, the prayer, whatever is our mitzvah, our Jewish obligation, at a given moment.

For this evening, it will be noting that it’s sundown and lighting candles to mark it. How incredibly powerful that moment will be, as we consider both how strange a sunset it is, and how precious and terrifying a candle flame is. Anyone might take a moment to notice sunset or light a candle, but Jews are commanded to, and to recite a blessing at that moment, to ensure that we’ve noticed, and considered, and thought about it.

For tomorrow, it will be joining us for Torah study and/or Tefilah, perhaps while you say “I can’t concentrate on this!” There’s a reason why Torah study and prayer are mitzvot, obligations, and not merely what you do when you feel like it: these obligations are to yourself. They give you a sorely-needed moment to think about something else, to change your perspective to the millennial, and to remember that you are grounded in a deep and rich belonging

For tomorrow evening, it will be joining in our yearly Selikhot prayers. This once a year opportunity to consider our deeds and their impact as human beings is incredibly necessary to us, especially now. The details are below.

And next week, we will find our rootedness in the mitzvah of gathering whenever we can as we move through the emergencies of the days to come, to check on each other through daily minyan, Talmud study, or a quick phone call or email. 

Next erev Shabbat will begin Rosh HaShanah 5781. No matter what happens between now and next Friday, it will be Rosh HaShanah, and Jews will find our security in the familiar rituals. All the details for High Holy Days have been shared in emails and in the Week’s Worth. Please look again at this week’s edition for the Seder details. Maybe we’ll even sing dayenu…

Hold tight to what matters. To your place with us, in Jewish community and history and meaning. To acts that unfold meaning and purpose to us as we do them. To the Presence that we seek through all these acts and words – as the mystics say, the Place of the world, or what the Psalmist calls the Holy One of Being, where we all find our place.

Only one thing I ask of HaShem, only one thing I seek:
to dwell in HaShem’s house all the days of my life,
to gaze at the beauty of the world, and to see its holiness.

(Psalm 29)

Letter from Portland

First published in JewThink

On the day I write this, we have witnessed 60 days of daily demonstrations in the streets of downtown Portland Oregon. After the murder of George Floyd by police, it was awe-inspiring to see myriads of thousands rise up across the US. Horrified by the blatant injustice, peaceful crowds in Portland Oregon, masked, observing safe physical distancing, marched to demand mercy and human decency under the message Black Lives Matter. Walking with those who marched across bridges and filled parks, I  knew I was in the presence of something holy.

Something drew many of us to the Justice Center; perhaps its name. There I have seen young people, and some not so young, create meaningful community around a shared consciousness of urgency. Houseless people came together to create “RiotRibs”, feeding thousands of protesters, grilling all night. Pizza and hand sanitizer are shared, musical instruments accompanying the chants (and my shofar) are played, and signs naming too many dead at the hands of U.S. police, over 1000 in 2019, are raised. After two months, the sense of community is real and comforting, and the outrage is incandescent, and growing. The current numbers estimated to join the nightly gatherings downtown are now more than ten thousand.

The spreading sense of “enough is, finally, enough” has to do with the fact that long before the current administration of the U.S. government sent troops to assault Portlanders with tear gas, flash bang devices, LRAD sound weapons, and “less lethal” munitions in order to “to assist with the protection of Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property,” the very same type of military weapons were already being used by the Portland police.

The police violence regularly wreaked upon our fellow Portland residents is shocking, unjustifiable under any circumstances. And it is an ongoing problem. In December of 2012, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 against the City of Portland based on the conduct of the Portland Police Bureau, because the police were the ones committing the violent crimes.

We in Portland Oregon are not unique in this, but Portland is well suited to serve as both a microcosm and a flash point because of Oregon’s uniquely racist, overwhelmingly white history. The state was created as a “racist utopia” which enacted a series of exclusionary laws in its founding. And as we might expect, the racism that discriminated against our Black neighbors blocked Jews from full belonging as well; when a new road system destroyed Black neighborhoods, the old Jewish quarter downtown was also eradicated. It’s no surprise to us, if we’ve been paying attention, that the Portland police are a case study in the upholding of white supremacy “values.” That this extends to impunity to murder is a sickening but logical outcome.

Confronted with this evil, how can a Jew do anything other than protest? Yet we see the Jewish response split between what we might call the “court Jew” response and the Torah response. The “court Jew” response arises from the generationally traumatized, fearful stance of those whose safety was very recently gained, and is none too secure. This is understandable, but has never been a basis for ethical action. As our ancestors, who lived  through that trauma, insisted, our response, whatever the consequences to ourselves, must be the Torah response. Otherwise, as Yeshayahu Leibowitz put it so well, we are worshipping nothing but ourselves.

The Torah response is, as the Prophet Isaiah has been reminding us in clarion tones for the past Three Weeks, is to pursue justice for the vulnerable, and not to stop until, like a flash flood, righteous judgment destroys every evil institution in its path. 

As a Jew, I know how to act: justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live (Deut.16.20). I’ve been schooled by brilliant, dedicated Black activists. Teressa Raiford of Don’t Shoot Portland and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the first Black woman to serve in Portland’s City Council, are only two of the powerful Black voices that I seek to center and amplify. As a white person, I am not even aware of the ways in which I float in a sea of white privilege at all times; as a Jew, I’m fully aware that I may drown.

Yet this is no time for measured action. State violence is clear and our answer must be as clear and strong as the alarm call of the shofar. For those Jews who hesitate, pointing out Black anti-Semitism, I challenge you to see that this is a response of selfish fear, not of logic nor empathy. Even if you do regard an anti-Semitic Black person as your enemy, you must nevertheless aid them in raising their life. 

When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it. (Ex. 23.5)

The blood of our Black siblings cries out to us from the ground. With my Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance I’ve been witnessing at protests with Lenny Duncan, a Black activist pastor: 

The long struggle of Black liberation for 400 years has been the canary in the coal mine in the U.S.’s often fickle relationship with its own soul. Our blood has washed the streets of America from Crispus Atticus, Sandra Bland, now George Floyd. Our blood, our pain, our cries, often ignored by the global community as the petulant cries of a privileged minority in the world’s greatest superpower, are the very screams of liberation that echo across a humanity capable of a torn down Berlin Wall and where freedom has found home in Soweto. (Rev Lenny Duncan)

The streets echo with prophecy from Portland Oregon. The Black voices warn that unless their lives matter, no lives matter: the canary sings its warning in housing, in finance, in coronavirus testing. Despite state violence determined to silence us, we will not be silent until justice is done.

Rabbi Ariel Stone of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Portland Oregon leads the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance.

Parashat Ekev: showing up is safer than hiding

A minyan is traditionally defined as ten Jewish men but by Progressive Jews as ten self-identified and committed Jews of any gender; any way you define it, what it means is that we need critical mass. 

What is critical mass? it’s the number you need to get the job done. In order to evoke holiness in Jewish prayer, you need a minyan. In order to study Torah, our tradition teaches, you need at least two students.  Social justice is more tricky: in order to get a possible new law on the Oregon ballot, you need 116,284 names on a petition. I know; I’ve just trained to become a signature collector for a measure on the 2014 ballot to enact marriage equality in the state of Oregon.

This week’s parashah underscores the Jewish emphasis on individual responsibility for the group’s well-being in the very first verse: If you all obey these laws and guard them carefully, God will guard the Covenant established with each of you. (Devarim 7.12) The laws must be obeyed and guarded by all of us, and then God will guard the Covenant made us as it affects us personally, one by one.

The word if in this parasha gives it its name: ekev “on the heels of” in Hebrew. That is how closely act is followed by reaction in Jewish religious belief. Or, as we might say, “what goes around comes around”. It may take a while, but it’s always recognizable when it comes around again, whatever “it” is for you or me. Consider: we see larger social trends, and we can feel, if not always articulate, how we know our acts have been a small part of what has added up to that trend. 

Do you see less litter on the streets? you, because you do not ignore the presence of garbage but take care of it, are a small part of that trend. Do you see more justice in the world? you will if you do not ignore the presence of injustice, and take care of it, in whatever ways you may find to do so. And not only where you happen to notice it –  as the haftarah for this week reminds us, we are called upon to be rodfey tzedek, “pursuers of justice”:

Listen to Me, all who pursue justice, all who seek the Eternal!

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were cut.

Look back to Avraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you.

(Isaiah 50.51.1-2)

It is not enough to quietly be in favor of change, to quietly approve of movements which seek greater justice. We have to show up. Our tradition urges us to show up and to act to guard others if we ourselves would seek to be safe. If we look to the rock of our tradition, let it remind us “to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d” (Micah), and show up in the pursuit of justice, we may suffer and we may not always succeed, but we will know that we are keeping the Covenant, and that it will keep us.

As we come out of hiding, we the quiet ones in support of equality, and act for justice together, may we know justice in our individual lives – and peace in our hearts.