Last Shabbat afternoon, members of our kehilla sat in the sanctuary at JCC Camp Hoover. All around us, wherever we gazed, the bright sunlight danced across strong tree trunks as their green leaves fluttered in the gentle breeze of a “picture perfect” Shabbat afternoon in central Ohio. A full congregation of attentive people populated the benches of this glorious sanctuary, having gathered to celebrate the efforts of a young man ~ a bright light in our kehilla for more than a decade ~ who was affirming his commitment to his inheritance as a link in the chain of Jewish wisdom tradition.
As a member of b’nei Yisrael (children of Israel), a term used to describe our People repeatedly throughout Torah, I blessed Max to always take seriously his birthright as a “God-wrestler” (the meaning of the name Yisra-El, given to Jacob and his descendants) ~ one who wrestles with what it means to have a connection with the Sacred; one who studies the texts and thoughts of Judaism and all writings and ideas with a curious, imaginative, and discerning intellect and an open heart.
When Max read from Parashat Re’eh (at a Shabbat mincha/afternoon service we get a taste of Torah of the week to come), he began with these words:
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: – Dev. 11:26
At that moment, few, if any, of us had on our minds the unfolding events that were occurring in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some of us (myself included) were so deeply inside of Shabbat that the news had not yet reached us … However, I suspect none of us were prepared for what we would see (re’eh) unfold in our country this week.
It is important to note that the events in Charlottesville, heinous and vile, are not unusual in our country where people of color are more likely to be shot by police, Muslims and Sikhs are targeted in their places of worship and on the streets, Jews in Montana and elsewhere are leafleted by neo-Nazis, trans students are bullied and don’t have a safe place to use the toilet, immigrants are beaten in parking lots, and migrant workers are held in trucks. Charlottesville is NOT worse or more shocking than the long history of racist, homo- and trans-phobic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim speech and violence that has been the ugly underbelly of our American democracy. Charlottesville IS a manifestation of White Supremacist ideology emboldened by those who hold positions of great power in our government and who were elected as a result of a toxic combination of anger and apathy.
My work as a Jewish spiritual leader with a multi-faith agenda of serving ALL people teaches me that the “Oppression Olympics” has no place in a world where we need to build broad coalitions to bring justice, hope, compassion, civility, and even love to the fore. And, we cannot forget that the oppression in this country includes those we currently see as our enemies – those who join in with the hate-mongering of White Supremacist ideology because they don’t see other ways toward empowerment, voice, and a sense of hope.
This Shabbat, as we really settle into the words of Parshat Re’eh, I encourage us take the opening words of this parsha into our hearts in a bit more creative way than your TaNaKh or Bible might show them. I offer this:
Behold … there is before us blessing and curse. When we turn away from that which is sacred, from ways that are just, from ways of living in right relationship with one another, we turn away from the Source of Blessing, from that sacredness within us that is our connection to the One. In so doing, we choose curse.
Let us choose blessing.
May we each find the Shalom ~ the peace, and self-care, and nourishment, and light, and love we need to move forward to SEE the blessing and to find the Holy in our lives. May we be blessed, this Shabbat, to find ourselves a sanctuary ~ in our homes, our yards, in a synagogue, church, mosque, park, or in the woods … And from there, may we connect with the Sacred and begin the difficult and important work of turning curses into blessings.
Working as part of the 8-student chevre (team of friends) that crafted the letter signed by an ever-growing number of our student body was a time-consuming and extremely cathartic process in a week where communal process, thoughtfulness, passion, compassionate disagreement, kindness, and deep caring were the perfect balm to dismay, disgust, deep sadness, and the work of providing spiritual support to those in need. I encourage you to reach out to others in our community and in other communities and find processes that provide your antidote to despair and I remind you that I am available to provide pastoral care and presence as we move forward.