the way of peace

I gave this d’var Torah on July 1, 2016, in East Jerusalem as part of an Encounter program. 

When Erica called me earlier this week to ask me to give the d’var Torah today, I answered the phone from Nabi Saleh, a small village in the West Bank about 30 minutes northwest of Ramallah. I was standing on the rooftop deck of an unfinished and abandoned mansion, looking out over a vast landscape that included a nearby settlement, while a 20-year-old boy pointed to different houses belonging to friends and family: “This one is under demolition order, and this one, and this one, and this one . . .” When I asked him what he hopes for the future, he said, “A free Palestine,” and then gestured towards the west: “On a clear day you can see Tel Aviv from here. I’d like to go there someday.”

This week’s parshah, Korach, includes the story of the uprising of the eponymous villain against Moshe and Aharon. Korach challenges their leadership: He, too, is a Levite, and their first cousin — and therefore equally entitled to the priesthood. His charge of nepotism and dramatic protest actions are unsuccessful, to say the least, and he and his followers are either swallowed up by the earth or consumed by a fire.

hollyhocks at ocha in east jerusalem; photo by salem pearce

The Netivot Shalom, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, a contemporary Hasidic commentator, offers an interesting diagnosis of Korach. I’ll just note that I am excited to share one of his teachings, as he is a favorite of my mentor and the rabbi at the shul at which I am the rabbinic intern. Our learning each week almost always centers on the Rebbe’s Torah commentary, and I’ve missed it this summer. Netivot Shalom means “ways of peace” — an orientation that feels especially relevant today.

The Netivot Shalom says that Korach has too much yeshut, too much sense of his own existence. He notes:

A person who is in the aspect of yesh, “existence,” who takes up space in his own eyes — it seems to him that his fellow is bothering him and standing in his way. Even if the friend has not done any harm to him in any way, because of his trait of yeshut, he has the feeling that his friend is bothering him and taking up his place, and out of this he comes into conflict.

Korach felt that Moshe and Aharon had what he should have. They were occupying his space, standing in his way, bothering him by their very existence — all because he felt too strongly the importance of his own self.

But the way of peace, the Netivot Shalom says, is the breaking down of the ego and the submission to something greater than oneself. Then we can know that no one is standing in our way, that this other person is not bothering us. Then we are at peace in the world.

The Torah makes clear that Korach’s attitude and action had deadly consequences for himself, his fellow mutineers, and for the whole community of Israel, many of whom are later struck down by a plague. But the Talmud alludes also to a different kind of damage that he did to himself. The rabbis puzzle over the strange grammar of the beginning of the parshah, ויקח קרח, “Korach took,” with no direct object. What? What did he take? the rabbis ask. They end up reading the words as an indication that Korach made a bad “purchase” (מקח) for himself. Refusing to step aside, to push our ego to the side, means becoming stuck. The world keeps moving around us, but we can’t join that movement.

Looking out over that vast landscape from the highest point in Nabi Saleh, a tiny village of 600 people, what flickered across my thoughts was, “There’s enough.” In addition to a problem of ego, Korach seems to me to be, not unrelatedly, reacting to a fear of scarcity, that there wasn’t going to be a place for him. But we know from the beginning of Bemidbar that each person was counted in the census, that the tribes were all arranged around the mishkan, and that there were land provisions made for everyone. Korach’s sense of his own importance, combined with erroneous analysis of his own position, leads to the tragedy described in this week’s parshah.

My hope for us today is an orientation of abundance, that we have enough capacity and compassion to hear what is said. That we can put away our own sense of importance and our fear that there is not enough, in order to be moved, even just a little. And so may we all be blessed with the peace that can result from this shift.

may you be free

Today was Hebron, a place I’ve been hearing about for a long time. It’s cited as one of the worst examples of the effects of the occupation on the Palestinians. And that’s just the everyday conditions: When parshat Hayei Sarah comes around each fall, it is somehow able to get worse, when thousands of right-wing, fanatically religious Jews make pilgrimage to the area and there are inevitably clashes between and among the settlers, visitors, Palestinian residents, and Israeli security forces. In response, a couple of friends started Project Hayei Sarah, using the Torah cycle to raise awareness about what is happening in the city that is the supposed burial place of Avraham, Sarah, and their descendants. 

The trip started with visits to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque. I decided not to enter either: The latter because Jews aren’t allowed inside (I could have entered by lying or under cover of the rest of the delgation, whom the guide identified as “a Christian tour group,” but didn’t want to do either) — and the former because I don’t want to ascribe holiness to a place that has been violently wrest from the Palestinians and used to justify military and settler violence. (Plus, I’m pretty sure that “the patriarchs” aren’t buried there.) I am clear about my reasons, but it was a hard decision to make, and I was feeling overwhelmed with emotion. So while most others visited both places, I sat on a bench in the sun and meditated, doing a blessing practice I learned from one of my teachers. I repeated in my head, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be free,” sending the mantra to all the residents of Hebron. 

It came into my head while I was meditating last week: “There is enough compassion.” So I’ve been trying to remember and to act in ways that illustrate that compassion (particularly in myself) is not a finite resource. Compassion for the occupied does not preclude compassion for the occupier, and vice versa. That’s been hard to hold on to these past eight days.

Then began the walk with Issa, our Palestinian guide, who is from Hebron. He led us through about 10 blocks of what used to be a Palestinian occupied neighborhood. Well, not all 10 blocks: He had to leave us for about 3 or 4, to go around another way to meet us on the other side. As a Palestinian, he is not allowed in this part of the city, where he was born and grew up

The streets were almost completely empty of . . . everything. Empty apartment buildings, shuttered businesses, deserted roads, abandoned mosques and schools. There were only paths of egress blocked with stones and graffiti like מות לערבים, “death to Arabs.” Indeed, the Arab presence has been exterminated. 

Two Israeli soldiers asked to look at our passports as we continued. There’s no official checkpoint — just two kids with enormous guns blocking the street. As the delegate in front of me passed by, the soldier, recognizing his typical Jewish name and seeing that he was born in Ohio, asked him in perfect, American-accented English, where he grew up. He explained, “I’m from Columbus.” As he handed the passport back he added softly, “Don’t believe everything you hear.”

When we met up with our guide after walking down the three empty blocks that merited a passport check, the soldiers who just stood and listened as we began the tour were replaced by soldiers who followed us as we walked. They were a few feet behind, guns at the ready, talking on the phone or writing on their hands (?). I did not feel safer — which I guess was the point.

hebron: four jews, two very different purposes; photo by david kerr


Also following us were small kids (and not-so-small kids), begging for money and trying to sell “Palestine” bracelets and small embroidered bags. This hasn’t happened anywhere else we’ve traveled in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Our guide noted, “I don’t approve of what they are doing, but families rely on them for income. The unemployment rate for Palestinians in Hebron is over 70%.” This was the first time in a really long while that I actually didn’t give change when asked for money on the street. I always give at least something when asked in the U.S. But I didn’t have any coins, and I was scared that I would be overwhelmed by kids. I sure didn’t hold on to that compassion for very long.

After our guide was harassed by the police and we were all turned away from continuing up the street, we entered the Old City of Hebron through a huge grey metal gate structure with turnstiles controlled by a guard. It completely filled the tight space that was the entrance to the narrow paths and low ceilings of the Old City, and it was completely incongruous with the dirt road that led us into it and the smooth cobblestones that met us as we exited. And that’s when the permanence of the occupation — and my complicitness in it — really hit me. It felt like walking into a prison in the U.S., and those seem to me immoveable. They only expand, never contract. For the first time on this trip, I began to despair about whether any of this can be undone. I think it’s a bell that can’t be unrung; for me it’s certainly something I can’t unsee. The destruction seems irrevocable. I heard in my head the question full of anguish: How can we ever make this right?

And what I’m terrified of is the possibility that Hebron, in all its extremity, is actually the logical result of the occupation. If Zionism is about the displacement of one people with another, then Hebron is a success story (albeit an incohate one). It is not an aberration. In Hebron, the state is doing exactly what its ideology dictates.

When we met with the IDF refusniks on Friday afternoon, the woman who spoke to us said something that was so revelatory and also so obvious: “The point of having a Jewish state,” she said, “is to have a Jewish army.” And so we do. And so here we are.

palace in time

On Friday evening, I left the delegation on for Shabbat: The group was traveling and spending money the next day, neither of which fits into my practice. Plus, to be honest, I felt like I needed Shabbat (even more than I normally do). This past week has been so, so hard

I took a cab from our East Jerusalem hotel into West Jerusalem, to the neighborhood of Baka, where I’ll be living for the rest of the summer with two other rabbinical students. Before I joyfully reunited with them (I hadn’t seen either in about a year, since they’ve been in Jerusalem these past two semesters), I watched the scenery change outside of the window. The tight, crowded streets with buildings and business smashed up against one another gave way to wide roads with white stone buildings, tall green trees, and freestanding restaurants and coffee shops. 

After dropping off my suitcase, I ran a few blocks to meet a friend I also hadn’t seen in a long time (from another rabbinical school). We then walked just a few more blocks to the Baka Community Center, where the independent minyan Zion was meeting for Kabbalat Shabbat services. Later, after services, we walked about 15 minutes to dinner at the apartment of a friend of hers on the top of the hill in Talpiot. The next morning, I went to morning services at Sod Siach, another independent minyan about 15 minutes away from my apartment. Afterwards I went to lunch in Talpiot at the apartment of another rabbinical school classmate, and then it was back home for a havdallah/melavah malkah celebration at my apartment. 

photo by salem pearce

This is pretty similar to how I would spend my Shabbat in Boston — except I would be leading services or reading Torah, so it was pretty nice to have a break in that way. I give all of these details to underscore how those 25 hours really drove home for me my American Jewish privilege: With almost no effort, I was able to come to Israel/Palestine and find safe, welcoming, familiar, desirable, accessible community. As an example, a friend claims that this summer I am “living in the neighborhood with the single highest concentration of interesting davvening options . . . in the world.” 

It was a mad dash to my apartment on Friday evening: The group was meeting with two Israelis doing work with IDF refusniks, and I wanted to hear as much of that presentation as possible. And earlier in the day, we’d protested in Paris Square, near the prime minister’s home, with Women in Black (a longtime anti-war-cum-anti-occupation organization). Then the cab driver and I had some trouble finding my apartment, making me late to meet my friend before services. So by the time I sat down in the community center for Kabbalat Shabbat, it was the first time I had caught my breath all day. 

There was absolutely beautiful singing happening when we entered: A chanting of the first two chapters of Shir HaShirim, one of my favorite texts, to a sublime melody I had never heard before. But it was all I could do to just sit there: I wasn’t in a joyful, restful place. The moment and the music seemed discordant in comparison with the rest of my day. It just didn’t seem right to sing. All I could think was: “It wasn’t enough that you occupied the land? Now you are singing happily in it?”

I eventually found my voice, but the discordance came back a few hours later at dinner. My friend’s friend lives in a gorgeous apartment with a terrace twice the size of it. There was a view of the Old City, and you could actually see Al-Aksa Mosque. As I stuffed myself with delicious food and enjoyed interesting conversation, I remembered that a little over 24 hours before I had been walking in the Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem. Established in 1950, shortly after the declaration of the Israeli state, this dwelling place of 6,000 Palestinians defies the definition of “camp” — which, to me, implies a temporary structure. Aida is now a conglomerate of concrete buildings and narrow roads along the separation wall. As my dinner hosts talked about their son and daughter, I kept flashing back to earlier in the day when our refugee camp host told us about his daughter. She once said to him, “I only want daughters. If I have sons they will just be jailed or killed.”

I rejoined my group in the village of Nabi Saleh after Shabbat ended. They’d had an incredibly hard day hearing from its residents about their clashes with the IDF, which enters the village with impunity even though it is designated as “Area A” and therefore ostensibly under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The power of Shabbat, and especially Shabbat in this land, came became to clear to me. For those 25 hours I had been in another world, one which, comparatively, Jewish Israelis inhabit all the time. Shabbat, what Heschel described so poetically with the metaphor of “a palace in time,” has been concretized. It seem that the palace exists now in time and space, and the Palestinians are not allowed in.

one of them

I step back into my hotel room from the balcony and turn around to put away my tallit and tefillin. I’ve just davenned Shacharit, the morning service, and ended my prayers with the traditional refrain: oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom, alienu v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teveyl, “may the one who makes peace above make peace for us, for all of Israel, and for all of the earth’s inhabitants.” As I turn I catch a glance of myself in the mirror, the thought flashes through my head: “I look like one of them.”

I’m in East Jerusalem, traveling with Interfaith Peace-Builders on a delegation to the West Bank, with a special focus on the effects of incarceration and detention on Palestinian society. This hotel is our home base for the 10 days we’ll spend learning about the occupation. There are 27 of us, mostly non-Jews from the States (with a Scot thrown in for good measure), plus a handful of Jews. 

For me the difficulty started as soon as our bus drove out of the airport: “This is the Jewish neighborhood of [x],” the guide intoned, “built on the Palestinian town of [y]. It was called [a], but now it’s called [b].” This has been a constant refrain over the past three days.

“One of them,” of course, has become Jewish Israelis, and specifically religious Jewish Israelis, whose racist government continues to systematically oppress the native Palestinian population. As has been said more than once, the Nakba, the Palestinians’ word for what Israelis call Independence Day — May 15, 1948, the day the state of Israel was established — is ongoing.

photo by Asher Emmanuel


I identify as a religious Jew. But what really brought me into my Jewish practice was social justice. I understand Judaism as requiring that I act in pursuit of the liberation of all people. All of my social justice work is rooted in Jewish values. And those values are antithetical to destruction of homes, and building of walls, and detention of children, and forcible removal of peoples, and use of Biblical names as a signal of colonization. To witness the devastation that religious Judaism has wreaked in this land has been . . . well, devastating. For the first time in my life, I have felt ashamed of being Jewish.

Yesterday, we visited the Palestinian town of Yaffa, now annexed to the city of Tel Aviv. (The latter is officially called Tel Aviv-Yafo.) Our guide told us about the private construction of an apartment building on municipal land: The religious Jew who won the bid declined to rent units to non-Jews, with the excuse that they would not “respect Shabbat.” When asked whether apartments would be let to secular Jewish Israelis who would respect Shabbat, the answer was affirmative. Just not to Palestinians — even if they agreed to “respect Shabbat.” The extensive litigation process by a Palestinian activist group was unsuccessful in preventing this discrimination.

Shabbat is sacred to me, essential to my survival as a Jewish seeker of peace and justice in this painful world. As Heschel said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” To hear about the use of Shabbat as a tool of racism is heartbreaking. More than once I’ve felt like I literally cannot hear anymore the onslaught of the catalogue of Israeli crimes. And then I feel guilty, because Palestinians live this reality every day, and they cannot opt out of it.

I know this is part of my process of learning and of integregrating that new knowledge into my identity: What does it mean that these human rights violations are perpetrated in my name, as a Jew, and what is my responsibility in responding? How do I deal with the internalized anti-Semitism that I’ve been experiencing? I feel confident that I’ll eventually work it out. It’s been hugely helpful to have two Jewish leaders who have gone through this process — as well as being able to get and give support to and from the other Jewish participants on the trip.

I will note that this is just part of my experience. I have criticisms of this delegation and its speakers as well. There are things that aren’t being talked about (as there are in a Zionist narrative), but I also think this is not the trip for me to point that out. My job here is to listen to what Palestinian civil society has to say.

wendy’s serves the bread of affliction

salem at ciw rally

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers rally in New York City on March 3, 2016.

 

 

My fellow Hebrew College rabbinical student Mimi Micner and I wrote this OpEd for the Huffington Post about Passover and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers‘ boycott of Wendy’s. Chag sameach!

of superheroes and soothsayers

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on December 11, 2015.

Over Thanksgiving I was able to go home, to Texas, where all of my family lives. The most precious time was with my two nephews and my niece. The day after Thanksgiving, Archer, the four-year-old, pulled me upstairs to play. He decided he wanted to wear his Halloween costume, and so he showed me the basket for his dress-up clothes. He begin pulling out his pink tutu, cowboy hat, green dress, etc. He finally got to his firefighter costume. He carefully donned the hat and coat and asked me what I thought. When I suggested he might need shoes to be a firefighter, he obligingly strapped on his pink sandals. Ready? I said. Not yet, he replied. He pulled out of the pocket of his coat a laminated card with four illustrations. Okay, he announced. This is what we have to do. These are the different things that can happen, he said, pointing to the card. And so we went from room to room, first putting out a house fire; then a forest fire that spread from a campfire; and finally a kitchen fire that started from a pot left on the stove. And then we rescued a cat in a tree. What else can we do?, I asked. That’s all there is, he replied. Let’s do them again!

My brother is an engineer — and my grandfather was an engineer — and Archer has certainly inherited their exactitude and penchant for following directions precisely. So I know that it’s not just a child’s assurance of safety that encompasses his approach to make-believe. For Archer, the card that comes with the jacket tells you what to do. These, and only these, are the threats that firefighters face. They are circumscribed, and they are predictable.

I came to Texas for Thanksgiving with the heavy weight of the brokenness of the world. I continue to be sickened by the terrorist attacks at home and abroad, whether by knife-wielders in Jerusalem — where many of my classmates are now studying — or gun-toters here. The sense of insecurity that I feel on a daily basis is profound, and as I took part in Archer’s highly circumscribed set of crises, I wondered whether I will be able to give him — and my other nephew and niece — anything other than a world of out-of-control unpredictability.

I felt this again on Wednesday night, when a small group of us from Nehar Shalom went together to the Boston Candlelight Vigil Against Gun Violence, part of a week of similar events nationwide. The event took place in what I assume was the small sanctuary of the very large First Church of Boston in Back Bay.

There was a modest crowd, at least in comparison to my expectations — which provided a marked contrast to the number of victims of gun violence who were remembered. A candle was lit for each of the victims of gun violence this year in the Boston area. And then attendees were invited to light candles for their own loved ones who had been victims of gun violence. And then the pastor lit a candle for each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia while the number of victims of gun violence in each place were read aloud. I worried we might burn the church down with all of that fire. (And this was not one of the scenarios on Archer’s card!) Even the presence of the large Boston police officer who spoke briefly was diminished in the shadow of the flames. Before and after the service, on a large screen at the front of the sanctuary, a tribute video played, with pictures of victims of gun violence — a name, date, and location with each. The dates ranged back as far as 1990, with the dead all over the country. The enormity of what we face overwhelmed me, and I felt helpless and scared. I don’t mean to criticize the organizers of this important event — I mean only to share my experience.

In that moment, sitting in a small chapel memorializing the victims of this seemingly unending, volatile scourge, what we call “Gun Violence in the United States,” I flashed to an episode of my favorite TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Yes, you can laugh. What, you thought I was going to say the parshah? Themes of Chanukah? Words from our venerable rabbinic tradition? In my world, there are at least two Torahs, and one of them is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show is about a superhero in Southern California who fights the forces of darkness — but on a metaphorical level, it’s also about what we do as human beings when the monsters come. In Buffy’s world, as in ours, the monsters always come. Of course, in Buffy’s case, it’s because the town of Sunnydale also happens to sit on the hellmouth.

The episode “The Wish” explores an alternate reality: What would the town be like if Buffy weren’t there? The vampires have taken over, but most of its human residents have adjusted to the constant fear. They have curfews, avoid the bright clothing that attracts vampires, and have weekly memorial services for the ever-accumulating dead. They can’t take on the vampires directly. Horrific death is a matter of when, not if. This is just how things are.

Throughout the episode, we see Buffy’s would-be mentor begin to realize that they’re living in an parallel universe. He came to the town to help Buffy, but she never showed up. And in the meantime, the town of Sunnydale surrendered to the darkness. He finally figures out that this reality is the result of a magical spell — and that he can break the spell by destroying the amulet that was used to cast it. As he prepares to smash it, the demon who cast the spell taunts him: How does he know the other world is any better than this one? “Because it has to be,” he says. With that leap of faith, he rights the world — monsters still exist, but does the person who fights those monsters.

Sitting in that sanctuary, I felt like the residents of Sunnydale. I don’t want for us Americans to accept gun violence as they do vampires — but we don’t have a superhero, and we don’t have a magic amulet. We do, however, have an example in the Jewish tradition. (Yes, now we’re getting to that Torah!)

Parshat Miketz also contains a looming menace that threatens death. In this part of Genesis we see the long-forgotten Yosef finally remembered by Paro’s cupbearer and called to interpret Paro’s dreams of fat and lean cows and of full and withered ears of grain. Like Archer’s firefighter card that precisely delineates scenarios, Yosef accurately predicts seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. And then he recommends preparation. The job is given to Yosef himself, who successfully executes his task — and then some, as he’s ultimately able during the famine to feed more than just the people of Egypt because of his careful planning.

As an activist, there is so much that I like about this story. I think we can see it as the beginning of community organizing in Jewish tradition. After the cosmology of the story of creation at the beginning of Genesis, the Torah focuses narrowly on family narrative: Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya’akov, Rachel, Leah. When Yosef’s brothers sell him into slavery down into Egypt, the scope begins to widen. With Yosef’s eventual rise to power, the actions of our ancestors begin to have national and historical implications. What we do matters to others.

Importantly, Yosef doesn’t just tell Paro what his dreams predict: He proposes a solution. And the solution, significantly, does not assume deliverance: Gd may have enabled Yosef to know what was coming, but Yosef suggests what to do about it.  The text attributes the idea for action to Yosef — not Gd. לֵאלֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים, “interpretations belong to Gd,” Yosef says — but the story shows that action belongs to human beings.

I imagine that the prospect of famine, of the potential starvation of the people of Egypt, was quite frightening. Knowing the threat is coming doesn’t blunt fear. The famine looms, but Yosef isn’t cowered by it. He doesn’t accept it. He sees a different world, and he works to bring it into being.

Like Archer’s fires, and Buffy’s monsters, and Joseph’s famine, there are and will continue be destructive forces in the world. We create them in these fictional forms to manage our fear. We can also do it in this world. We can and we must end gun violence. Let’s change this era of daily gun deaths so radically as to make it seem like it was an alternate universe. I want our moral imagination in this area to be as vibrant as our creative imagination.

Like the Maccabees of old, who defied the culture of their time that said that destiny could not be changed and instead, jumped in to write a new story, my hope for us is that we dare to dream of a different world — and then work together to bring it about. It’s not a superhero or a soothsayer — we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

fight for 15

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on November 13, 2015.

On Tuesday afternoon, I skipped my halakha class in order to attend a “Fight for 15” rally downtown. This local effort was part of a nationwide day of action, a “March for Racial and Economic Justice,” aimed at increasing the minimum wage in our state to $15/hour. Outside of Faneuil Hall, we listened to a dozen plus speakers, and then we marched with our signs about a quarter of a mile to the state house, where we heard from state Sen. Dan Wolf about a bill that would mandate a $15/hour wage for fast food and big box store employees. The bill has moved out of committee and now heads to the full Senate. If implemented, the policy would effect more than 200,000 workers in the state, many of whom now make less than $10/hour.

My friend and classmate Ben and I at the "Fight for 15" rally in downtown Boston. photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

my friend and classmate ben and i at the “fight for 15” rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I learned about the event through an organizing class that I’m taking this semester: The local group JOIN for Justice is pioneering an online course called “Don’t Kvetch! Organize!” The class has participants from all over the country. At the rally I met up with several of my Boston-area classmates, as well as a few JOIN staff members. The action was meant to be a way to put into practice, or at least witness, some of what we’ve learned so far.

The speakers at the rally represented a wide variety of workers: All people of color — and more than a few undocumented immigrants — they included students, home health care workers, fast food employees, adjunct college professors, and child care providers. One woman spoke about her eldest daughter, the first in the family to get into college — and then told of her sadness at the family’s not being able to afford that college. A fast food employee testified that he was striking that day — for the 11th time in three years — for $15/hour and the right to unionize at the McDonald’s where he works. The adjunct compared her insufficient full-time salary, and the paltry wages of the university’s staff, to that of her college president, who makes $3 million/year. They had in common long hours, exhausting work, job insecurity, lack of benefits, and painful choices around spending because of their paltry compensation.

I am proud to report the robust Jewish presence at the rally. Besides the JOIN students and staff, also represented were the New England Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, Moishe Kavod House, and the Boston Workmen’s Circle, plus just some individual, good old fashioned Jewish activists — some of whom are part our community here in JP and at Nehar Shalom. And this is just here in Boston: All over our country, from L.A. to Chicago to Miami, on Tuesday Jews marched for racial and economic justice.

This demonstration of our commitment to justice as Jews got me started thinking about the Jewish values that underpin that commitment. I’ve learned — and will teach as a rabbi — lots of texts that speak directly to those values and that commitment. But this week, as I learned part of our parshah to chant tomorrow morning, I wondered about workers’ issues in relation to Toledot.

This week’s parshah, as so many in Genesis, is filled with the continuing family drama of the Abrahamic line. Rivka gives birth to twins Esav and Ya’akov, who spend their lives at odds with each other, starting in utero. The tension between them, the text explains, stems from their differences.

Esav is a character derided by the Jewish tradition. Depicted as a brute, unintelligent, and powerful man of the field, Esav is often seen as the opposite of the rabbinic ideal of his brother Ya’akov. Rashi even sees a religious difference between them: He claims that at bar mitzvah age, Ya’akov went to yeshiva, and Esav turned to idol worship. But before being swindled out of his birthright over a bowl of lentil stew, Esav comes home from working in the field all day. The Torah makes a point of noting that he was עָיֵ֖ף, “tired.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains the significance of this verse: “Esau came tired from all his accomplishments and all his conquests. He was exhausted and disappointed . . . [And so the verse says], Esau came from the field and he was tired . . . Focused solely on physical success, Esau finished his day existentially exhausted: unfulfilled, demoralized, and disappointed.”

Before I explore this further, I want to note that this interpretation of Ya’akov and Esav is uniquely Jewish. Growing up a Protestant, I learned the story of the warring twin sons of Yitzhak quite differently: I was taught to strive to be like Esav, not Ya’akov, who in my tradition was regarded with great suspicion because of his dishonesty. The difference in Jewish and Christian traditions in their interpretations of this story continues to be one of my most surprising experiences as a convert.

emily and helen, with signs from interfath worker justice, at "fight for 15" rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce

emily and helen, with signs from interfaith worker justice, at the “fight for 15” rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce

As a Christian I learned to valorize Esav’s unvarnished physicality, and I saw a bit of this value in the clergy invocation offered at the beginning of the rally on Tuesday. The Christian pastor prayed for workers’ continued mobility and physical stamina, that with Gd’s help they might have the strength to get up each day and run, and that we at the march might continue the walk to justice. I have to say — as a future rabbi who hopes someday to be asked to give an invocation at the beginning of a rally — I was disappointed at the ableist language that he used. And yet asking Gd for vigor wasn’t totally out of place. It’s physically draining to be a fast food worker, or a child care provider, or a home health aide in way that it’s just not to be, say, a rabbinical student. The pastor recognized that and prayed for the need he saw in the workers at the rally. To bring the metaphor back to our parshah, he identified them with Esav.

As I mentioned earlier, tomorrow morning I’ll be chanting Torah here, and since we’re in the third year of the triennial cycle of Torah reading, we’ll be looking at the end of parshat Toledot. As I practiced the leyning, I found myself quite moved by Esav’s distress at the discovery Ya’akov’s deception of their father Yitzchak. Incredulous, he wails, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” And then וַיִּשָּׂ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְךְּ: “Esav raised his voice and wept.” We’re also told that he cried a great and bitter cry, וַיִּצְעַ֣ק צְעָקָ֔ה גְּדֹלָ֥ה וּמָרָ֖ה. Much of this vocabulary will later appear at the beginning of the book of Exodus, when the pain of the Israelites reaches Gd’s ears. It’s hard not to see some anticipation of the slavery in Egypt in Esav’s reaction. So even though traditional commentators have been quite harsh with Esav, I see points of strong poignancy in the text with regard to him.

What I hope for us is that seeing the story of Esav through the lens of the struggles today of hourly workers might engender some understanding — and maybe even some righteous indignation — about the situation of both. The vitriol that I see directed at Esav by traditional sources is quite troublesome to me: He is almost universally condemned as wicked, a adulterer, and a despiser of Gd — predicted to be — and later accused of being — a murderer. I see in the rabbis’ attitudes toward Esav a parallel to some of the unflattering narratives that our society creates around the working poor.

But I think the Torah actually creates sympathy for Esav’s plight by comparing his pain to that of the later, enslaved Israelites. And like many workers today, Esav is completely depleted by his work. Like many workers today, Esav suffers because of others’ perception of scarce resources. Like many workers today, Esav is forced into painful tradeoffs for basic necessities. We can and should feel compassion for people in these situations. The jobs that the workers at the rally describe are generally not ones that we do want or would want for ourselves and our loved ones.

I marched on Tuesday because I believe that low pay is not worthy of the dignity of human beings. I see the racism that underpins the fact that low-paying hourly jobs in service industries are often filled by people of color. It’s not good for our communities when families struggle to make ends meet. And even though as a rabbi I don’t expect to make a comparable hourly wage, I think that our obligation as Jews is to act boldly for the common good — and that our real birthright — available to us all, not just the firstborn or his trickster younger brother — is our commitment to this kind of everyday revolution.

prison psych

“I can think of one thing that is worse than being sick and in the prison ward here at the hospital. Being well and at Riker’s.” – CPE supervisor

“The midnight shift here on the prison ward is way better than working during the day at the 23-hour lock-up on the island.” – NYC corrections officer

“I would rather try to kill myself than have to go back to Riker’s.” – prison ward psych patient

Working at the prison psych ward this summer has confirmed for me just how bad Riker’s Island is. And the prison psych ward at Bellevue Hospital, where I am interning this summer as a chaplain, is pretty damn bad.

Almost every day I go through airport-like security to reach the floor. Armed corrections officers abound. Often there are folks in the hideous orange jumpsuits, and in leg chains and handcuffs, and the lucky ones shuffle towards an elevator that will get them to their transportation to court, to Riker’s, upstate to Sing-Sing. The less fortunate are pushed in hospital beds. I wait for one mechanized gate, with its once-white, peeling paint, to slowly slide open. I enter a holding area and wait for it to close. At the end of the hallway, another officer unlocks a door. I enter and wait for her to lock it again. She walks to another white metal gate, with yet another officer sitting on the other side, and opens it. I am finally on one of two prison psych wards.

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

I walk past men — they are all men, and the vast majority men of color — in faded blue scrub tops and gray sweatpants. Milling around the hall. Walking deliberately around the hall, because some days that’s all the exercise they can get. Shouting in the hall. About using the telephone. About getting a clean shirt. About talking to a doctor. About . . . something unintelligible. Sleeping in their rooms. Using the bathrooms that abut the halls with huge picture windows.

There are tons of corrections officers here, too, as many as there are patients. During my first visit to the floor, the chief psychiatrist warns me, “They are not here for your protection.” They sit in chairs, as do staff who are assigned to the patients under “constant watch.” There is a lot of sitting. There is nowhere to go.

I check in at the nurse’s station: Is there any patient I need to avoid today? I walk around the hall — only the main hall; the second hall, ironically with absolutely no corrections officers, is too dangerous — and ask if anyone wants to talk to the chaplain. Sometimes I knock on doors, where there are two to three patients per room. I usually don’t have to walk long to get a taker.

We walk to an interview room. The patient enters first and sits on the opposite side of the table; I am closest to the door. If he is under constant watch, the staff member sits outside. And then the patient and I talk.

Some of them have committed the kinds of crimes that you read about in the Post: Man tries to kill girlfriend and then himself. Man takes [unusual weapon] to co-workers. Man assaults officers on the subway during rush hour. But some of them are simply folks with mental illness whose behavior has been criminalized. Man shouts in an unruly manner on street. Man violates probation. Man pandhandles. And yet others are the result of decompensation in isolation, or not, on Riker’s.

What I have been struck by most is the detail of care afforded patients by the system — and its simultaneous profound inhumaneness.

Several mornings a week I attend a meeting of the unit’s principle staff: psychiatrists, psychiatry interns, social workers, social work interns, nurses, and clerks. The meeting starts with a report from the head night watch clerk. He goes through what happened with each patient the night before in minute detail. Who got what medications, who refused medication, who slept when, who was awake when, who ate what, who was in what mood.

Then they go over new admissions. They discuss discharges (which always means back into some part of the criminal justice system). And then one of the doctors presents presents her patients in detail. She talks about medications, psychological state, progress. The social worker adds information about the criminal case, family, records at Riker’s or other institutions, contact with lawyer. (A different doctor will go the next day.) Then the daily lists are created collaboratively: Who is at what “level” (and therefore has more or fewer privileges); who can get a haircut; who is going to court; who can attend groups. The information is mostly in these professionals’ heads: They are very familiar with their charges. And everyone refers to each as “Mr. So-and-so.”

There are groups: art therapy, music therapy, spirituality, community meetings. I run what’s called a “Healing Circle” once a week. Almost every day there is recreation on the roof. General freedom of movement on the unit. Three meals a day, plus snacks. Several televisions.

And yet.

There are no personal possessions, which is helpful since the patients are (inexplicably, to me) moved almost every day. The lists created include who needs to be forced to shower. The walls echo with clinical phrases like, “irritable upon approach”; “responds to redirection”; “sexually preoccupied”; “displays suicidal ideation”; “exhibits disorganized thinking.” The view of the East River is almost completely obscured behind feet of thick wire screens. There is an almost uniform schedule for their movement through the criminal justice system (“Arraignment on Wednesday means a court date on Monday”). Most of the men can’t tell you why they were arrested, much less how they ended up on a prison psych ward. Very few of them will ever experience life outside of an institution.

Adding to the feeling that these men are utterly lost to us is the fact that they almost all have the most common American names. Johnson, Smith, Brown, Williams. John, Michael, Jeffrey, Kevin. Pick a combination, and they’re probably there.

And then the most crushingly heartbreaking of all: Occasionally there is a patient called simply “Unknown Male.”

We know so much and yet virtually nothing about them.

I don’t doubt the motivations of the staff of the unit. I’ve never heard anyone speak about the men under their care with anything but respect and sympathy (okay, sometimes tinged with frustration, but I think that’s reasonable). But the truth is that this care can only go so far. It inevitably runs up against the fundamental philosophy of a system of mass incarceration: that it is acceptable, even preferable, to put certain human beings in cages. The cages in prison psych encompass the entire unit, instead of individual cells, but that doesn’t make them any less inhumane. And all the pastoral care in the world isn’t going to change that.

forfeiting the right to worship gd

I originally gave a version of this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on January 18, 2015, on the Shabbat of MLK Weekend. It also appeared on jewschool.

“We forfeit the right to worship Gd as long as we continue to humiliate Negros.”

Using the language of his time, so said Abraham Joshua Heschel in a telegram to Pres. John F. Kennedy, just before their meeting. Heschel was talking about the structural racism of the 1960s: He had just met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King at a conference and was getting more involved in the civil rights movement. With this message, he signaled his desire to move the religious community to take action and make personal sacrifice in solidarity with the black community. “Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent . . .The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spirituality audacity.”

Heschel was a poet as well as a rabbi and a scholar, and even though — or maybe because — his medium was a telegram, I know he chose his words carefully when he made this radical statement.

On the one hand, “forfeit” can have an active connotation of relinquishing, or letting go. In this sense, “forfeiting” means you surrender a claim: When you plead guilty to a crime, you forfeit trial by jury.

On the other hand, “forfeit” can have a more passive connotation, of something being taken. In this sense, you are deprived without your assent: When you are convicted of a crime, you forfeit your freedom.

I think Heschel wanted to say both. Moral action is a prerequisite to relationship with Gd. For Heschel, racism means that we are saying no to Gd. And it also means that Gd is saying no to us.

Parshat Vaera, which we just read, is dominated by the story of the many plagues on Egypt and the grand confrontation between Gd and Pharaoh. It’s easy to overlook that what sets the stage for the high drama is actually the Israelites. Gd promises to Moshe the people’s liberation and its inheritance of land, but when Moshe tells the Israelites of the promise, he is rebuffed (Exodus 6:9):

.וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

This is usually translated as something like: “And Moses said so to the children of Israel, and they did not listen to Moses, from anguish of spirit and from cruel oppression.”

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

Literally, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, translated above as “anguish of spirit”, means “shortness of breath.” It’s the only such occurrence of the phrase in Tanakh. Everett Fox renders it “shortness of spirit.” Ramban wants to suggest that that the Israelites were “impatient” for their salvation. It is no doubt hard to hear a promise of redemption while waiting for freedom. We can hardly look to the future while we’re focused on the present.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה: What we learn is the Israelites were weary in soul and body. But it’s the spiritual bondage מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ that is forefronted. It is the principle problem.

Alternatively, we can understand רוּחַ – spirit, breath — as the divine, as in the primordial force of creation, the רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים/spirit of God that hovered over the chaotic universe (Genesis 1:2).

So the Torah then is making a very specific theological statement here: Gd is in short supply. Gd is as limited a resource as the straw that the Israelites no longer have to make the bricks that they are still expected to produce. That in fact the Israelites are cut off from Gd.

In the Exodus story, it’s a given that Pharaoh and the Egyptians aren’t in relationship with Gd. Indeed, Gd says on more than one occasion that what is happening is so that Egypt will know that Gd is Gd. But it turns out that the Israelites are in no better of a state.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ: The Israelites are cut off from Gd. The Israelites have forfeited their relationship with Gd.

Both King and Heschel would appreciate the coincidence of this parshah and this holiday. They both saw the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt as powerful metaphor for the civil rights struggle. Sometimes we celebrate this holiday as if the work is done. We like to think that we abolished slavery in this country in 1863. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with Jim Crow laws that established systemic segregation in public resources. And we like to think that we struck down Jim Crow in this country in 1965. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with a criminal justice system that functions to enact racialized social control.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, there has been a call in this country for recognition of the fact that black lives matter. The killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the nearly 1,000 other black people since then have only intensified the call for an end to the state violence that seeks to control black bodies and souls.

This summer I worked at an organization that was part of several coalitions working to end the use of solitary confinement in New York jails and prisons. As if our penal institutions aren’t bad enough. We put human beings in cages. And then within those cages, we put those human beings into other, smaller cages.

I had the privilege this summer of working with two formerly incarcerated men who spent time in solitary confinement. They survived, and and they now spend their days trying to make sure no one else has to. The other, who was a teenager behind bars: “I felt isolated, sad, helpless. I remember crying a lot. When I was 16, I couldn’t identify these emotions a lot of times. My default emotion was anger, which led to aggressive behavior like lashing out, overcompensating, and violence. Prison itself, not just solitary confinement, is an attack on your soul.”

We, they, the free, the incarcerated, the criminals, the police, the oppressors, the oppressed, the Israelites, the Egyptians, everyone. We are all “cut off from Gd.” We have forfeited the right to worship Gd.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hold in state control — behind bars, on probation, or on parole — seven million Americans, or one in every 31 adults today.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we disproportionately incarcerate black folks, when 13% of the population constitutes 40% of people behind bars.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we kill a black person every 28 hours.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fail to hold accountable a man who kills a teenage boy walking home from the grocery store with Skittles and iced tea in his hoodie.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we sentence a black woman to 20 years for availing herself of the same Stand Your Ground laws that excused the killer of that teenage boy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we leave a black man’s body in the street for 4.5 hours after we kill him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we can offer black transgender women an average life expectancy of only 35 years.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fatally shoot a 12-year-old black kid with a BB gun in a park seconds after spotting him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we text a union representative after a police shooting instead of calling an ambulance.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that require a 24-year-old to spend life in prison for three marijuana sales, a decision that the sentencing judge calls “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we have been so derelict in indigent defense that our American Bar Association says, “The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hide behind a slogan of “tough on crime” a system that can only be described as a tool to maintain white supremacy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when, for selling loose cigarettes, we strangulate a black man on the street, his last words, “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner was מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ.

When we can’t breathe, we forfeit the right to worship Gd.

Every year on this Shabbat, we talk about Heschel and King. We tell how Heschel marched with King in Selma. We show the picture of the wild haired, bearded rabbi linking arms with the cooly quaffed reverend, the whole group festooned with leis. And we reflect on Heschel’s words: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Heschel is our way into the work that King did. We can celebrate the extraordinary impact that King had on this country because we were part of it. Heschel’s commitment to King’s work is illustrative of the Jewish community’s solidarity with people of color.

We’ve got to stop telling that story. That was half a century ago. If after 50 years, we don’t have anything else, we’ve forfeited the right to tell that story.

I think we may have something else. I see it in the arrests of Jews on New York’s Upper West Side last month in response to a call to action by communities of color with whom Jewish racial justice organizations are in relationship. I see it in the active participation by young Jews last month in a meeting in Boston’s Jamaica Plain for white racial justice organizers, following black leadership. I see it in the Chanukah action organized last month by the Boston Jewish community, which many in my community attended. I see it in the fact that you are reading this now.

Today, I want us to begin a new story, a story of how we recognized this moment in history for what it is, and we could not be silent, and we could not be still; a story in which we bore witness to the degradation and violence that we sanction every day; a story in which we acknowledged that until we are right with each other, we cannot be right with Gd.

I want us to tell that story to our children.

solitary confinement is not worthy of us

This is a cross-post from Torah by T’ruah, in which rabbis (and in some cases, rabbinical students!) connect the weekly parashah to human rights issue of our day. I wrote about last week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech.

Parshat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parshah, speaks powerfully to our fundamental human need for connection to each other and to Gd —and therefore to the isolation that is an anathema to it.

The covenant of Torah that began with the distant and dramatic display of Gd’s power at Mount Sinai is sealed here as Israel stands before (nitzavim lifnei) Gd. This immediacy of acceptance of Torah is in sharp contrast with the fear and trembling of receiving of Torah.

Indeed, part of that covenant, Moses says, is the ingathering of those who are dispersed, on earth and in heaven —underscoring the importance of physical proximity for this final step. For their part, the Israelites are to love Gd bchol lvavecha uvchol nafshecha, “with all your heart and with all your soul”—a spiritual proximity.

Most vividly of all, the parshah ends with a poetic description of the location of Torah: It is not in heaven, and it is not across the sea. Lo rekhokah hi . . . ki carov eilecha . . . meod: “It is not far off . . . but very close to you.”Torah is inside us, in our mouths and in our hearts.

Significantly, the Israelites stand together “to cleave”to Gd (uldavka bo). A list is actually enumerated: chiefs, elders, men, women, children, strangers. The breadth is staggering, as Gd promises this covenant with those present and with those absent (veit asher einenu bo). This is no individual teshuva: This is a community, everyone and everywhere, reaching out and hanging on to Gd.

And this is the capstone of Gd’s relationship with Gd’s people, whom Gd has been preparing since Abraham heard the call generations earlier. Covenant means relationship, and relationship means intimacy.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA's office, demanding accountability for the death of a man -- ruled a homicide -- held in solitary at Rikers Island.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA’s office, demanding accountability for the death of a man — ruled a homicide — held in solitary at Rikers Island.

This summer, as part of my participation in T’ruah’s Rabbinical and Cantorial Fellowship in Human Rights, I interned at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, working on its coalition for prison and jail reform in New York.

Currently, one of the main issues for advocates is the use of solitary confinement behind bars. The situation is bleak in New York, where isolation is regularly used as a punitive measure, and at rates above the national average —but the state is not unique in this practice.

Nationwide, there are estimated to be more than 100,000 people in segregation in prisons, jails, detention centers, juvenile facilities, and military installations. Terms can be days, weeks, months, years, or decades.

The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has decried solitary confinement in the U.S. as such, and for good reason. People in solitary confinement are usually held in cells the size of a parking space —with no windows and doors with only food slots, through which communication with guards, therapists, and doctors is conducted —for 22 to 24 hours a day. Visits are severely curtailed, and TVs, radios, and books might not be allowed. As a punishment, solitary may be meted out for the most minor of infractions, and there is little oversight or accountability in the process.

Every study of the subject tells us that solitary confinement is an affront to humanity. In isolation, human beings suffer “irreparable emotional damage and extreme mental anguish,”in the words of one expert. After 12 years in solitary, one prisoner noted: “I lost the will to live. I lost hope . . . Day after day all I saw was gray walls, and over time my world became the gray box.”

What we learn in our parshah is that intimacy is required for relationship with Gd and community. What we learn in our prison system is that intimacy with either is impossible in solitary confinement.

Isolation of human beings for extended periods of time is an abomination, with heartbreaking emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects. The Torah calls us, in its final, poignant moments, to move close to Gd and to others. As a community, we must ensure that all of us are able to do so.

Solitary confinement is not worthy of us as a people in relationship with Gd.

Access resources to become involved in the response to solitary confinement through T’ruah or the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

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