Grappling with Embarrassment and Shame

I'm writing this letter coming off of a Shavuot chag that barely felt like a chag to me. I tried to focus on Torah and Sinai and revelation, but in truth, my mind was stuck half a world away. I know I'm not the only one in this community whose heart feels raw and broken and whose mind feels on overdrive, because the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the topic that has continued to bubble up all week...

I'm writing this letter coming off of a Shavuot chag that barely felt like a chag to me. I tried to focus on Torah and Sinai and revelation, but in truth, my mind was stuck half a world away. I know I'm not the only one in this community whose heart feels raw and broken and whose mind feels on overdrive, because the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the topic that has continued to bubble up all week... in quick hallway conversations with our Israeli Gan teachers, during Traci's Friday night service and in conversation after the Shabbat Minyan, over ice cream sandwiches in the park on Sunday afternoon and on Zoom with our High School students that evening, throughout the days of Shavuot in my own head and during walks with my husband, and in song last night at Chava's Singing Circle.

I don't have political solutions to offer right now... just musings on how spiritual values and Torah connect to the matzav (situation) at hand. Two pieces of liturgy have been my internal soundtrack this week, and I want to share them with you, explore a few threads of connection, and offer them to you as potentially helpful tools during this fraught time.

The first is V'haer Eineinu, which comes from the morning liturgy for both weekday and Shabbat, where it's embedded inside the Ahavah Rabbah prayer that leads us into Shema. The words are:

"V'ha-er eineinu b'toratecha v'dabek libeinu b'mitzvotecha, v'yached l'vaveinu l'ahavah ul'yirah et sh'mecha. V'lo neivosh v'lo nikalem v'lo nikashel l'olam va'ed." "Light up our eyes with Your Torah, cause our hearts to cling to Your mitzvot, and unify all of our hearts for love and in awe of Your name, so we shall never be embarrassed or ashamed or abashed, for ever and ever."

(For whatever it's worth, the melody that was playing on repeat loop in my head this week is not the upbeat that folks are likeliest to have heard, but rather one I learned from songleader Michael Harlow at Camp Ramah in the Rockies - if you're interested in listening to the version I'm thinking of, click here and scroll down to the "Weekday Tefillot" section and look for the track labeled "Ve'haer (group).")

Although V'haer Eineinu is recited daily throughout the year, I think it was on my mind so much this week because its words resonate so strongly with the themes of Shavuot. In this beautiful prayer, we pray for the ability to be inspired and enlightened by Torah. We express our desire for our hearts to cling to the commandments, echoing the language by which Ruth clung to Naomi ("v'rut davkah bah") and how Jewish mystics aim to cling to God (d'veikut). The idea of a unified heart ("v'yached l'vaveinu") reminds me of Rashi's commentary on the Mount Sinai story: that the Israelites stood at the base of the mountain as "one people with one heart."

In contrast to all of that positive aspirational language, though, stands the second line of the prayer, where three different Hebrew words express what we don't want Torah to lead us to. "V'lo neivosh v'lo nikalem" -- "may we not be embarrassed and may we not be ashamed" -- is a sentiment we also express regularly in our Blessing of the New Month, when we ask God for "chayim she'ein bahem busha u'chlimah," "a life that doesn't contain embarrassment or shame." And the third clause, "v'lo nikashel," shares a root with the Hebrew word "michshol" (an obstacle or stumbling block). Together the triple language functions as a strong warning, as though the liturgy is yelling at us to pay attention to the fact that if we are not careful, we might employ Torah in the wrong ways, such that it will lead us to shame and embarrassment or actually cause us to stumble.

Over the past week, hearing from Israeli friends and reading accounts of the terror and trauma they (Jews... my people!) are experiencing in Israel has led me to feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and sometimes despair. In addition to reading news reports and lots of political analysis, I've also been trying to tap into first-hand accounts of what the situation feels like to Israelis on the ground. (For example, here's a blog-post from a cousin of a friend that captured my heart, with its description of this mother running her children into a bomb shelter to find protection from Hamas rockets.) Grounded in the value of ahavat yisrael -- a love of the Jewish people -- as a starting point, my heart goes out to my fellow Jews in Israel who are suffering.

More jarring to me, though -- less familiar, and more complex to process -- has been the strong emotional response of embarrassment and shame that I've experienced when reading first-hand accounts from Palestinians this week. Through an Israeli friend, I came to read the story of one Palestinian woman who lives in Mt. of Olives (a neighborhood in East Jerusalem), where, she explained, for the past week, the police have been spraying skunk water throughout her family's neighborhood, onto and into their homes, until she finally had to go to the hospital because she had vomited so much from the smell that she had become dehydrated. She also described an earlier episode -- toward the beginning of Ramadan -- when a tear gas grenade was thrown into her home through a window, and a more recent episode when her husband, who owns a small shop downtown, was attacked by a gang of Jews. Her stories paint a picture of marauding bands of Jews seeking to harass and commit violence against their Palestinian neighbors, and Israeli police who protect the Jewish attackers. The idea feels so warped to me... that Jews are participating in state-condoned violence -- in essence, pogroms, against non-Jewish neighbors, inside Israel which aspires to be a democratic state. These Jews believe, as they commit these despicable acts of violence, that they are upholding Torah; I feel ashamed.

Returning to the liturgy, I think "V'haer Eineinu" addresses this situation precisely. If some collective understanding of Torah is bringing the Jewish people to a situation of shame and embarrassment, we must understand that we are getting it wrong! If the prayer could come off the page and speak to us directly, I believe it would instruct us to back up a step and ensure that we are employing Torah and mitzvot only in the service of love and awe (God-fearing behavior), and never in the service of hate and terror. I am sympathetic to the hashtags that I've seen a lot of in the last couple weeks -- for example #notmyjudaism and #notinmyname -- but like it or not, as both Jews and as Americans, I'm afraid we have to take more responsibility than that for the violence, the bad policy decisions, and the abuses that other Jews are carrying out precisely in our names. Coming off of this Shavuot, my prayer is that these feelings of embarrassment and shame will motivate us to work harder from our corner of the American Jewish community to push the Jewish people worldwide -- and our American nation as well -- to re-center our understanding of Torah on ahavah and yirah, love and awe.

I promised you two pieces of liturgy. The second one I want to share actually derives from the Torah portion we read this week: Parashat Nasso; it is the Priestly Blessing with which Aaron blesses the Israelites. These famous lines go like this:

"Yevarechecha adonai v'yishmerecha. Ya'er adonai panav eilecha vichuneka. Yisa adonai panav eilecha v'yasem l'cha shalom." "May God bless you and keep you. May God's face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God lift up God's face towards you and grant you peace."

Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno, a 16th century Italian rabbi, interpreted this three-fold blessing as pointing to an almost Maslow-ian hierarchy. As he explains it, the first line refers to material blessing and protection, the second line to the spiritual gift of appreciating God's blessings, and the third line offers "the serenity of peace which is equivalent to an infinite, unbroken and undisturbed existence... something which is a feature of life in the world to come" (click here to read both the biblical text of Numbers 6:23-26 and the Sforno commentary).

This week, I am hoping and praying for a cease-fire -- that would constitute material protection -- and also a stop to the fear-inducing and shame-inducing violence, which might constitute a spiritual gift. But even more deeply, I am praying that when the dust settles from this latest round of gruesome warfare, we will have the courage to do what it takes to move the dial towards true shalom, true peace. Although Sforno may be right that a peace which is wholly infinite, unbroken, and undisturbed can only exist in some other realm, I have to believe that we can use this vision of an unbroken peace -- a peace based on wholeness and justice -- as a model for what we can aspire to build here in this world.

Kein yehi ratzon, may it be the Divine will. And may we find the strength and courage to make it so,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum

P.S. - If you are interested in hearing Palestinian perspectives directly, two opportunities I'd recommend are this Voices from Gaza program on Sunday 5/23 at 12noon PDT, featuring a speaker from Combatants for Peace, Ahmed Helou, alongside Gazan Writer, Author and Activist Haneen Abualsoud, or this Discussion and Book Talk with co-authors Sulaiman Khatib and Penina Eilberg-Schwartz (and facilitated by our friend Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR) about their new book In This Place Together: A Palestinian's Journey to Collective Liberation next Thursday 5/27 at 10am PDT.

P.P.S. - I know from conversations this week that many of you are wrestling with complex thoughts and emotions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am certain that our community holds a broad spectrum of views (one state vs. two state, more centrist and more progressive leanings, etc.), and yet I know that everyone in the Kavana community shares a commitment to certain core values, including a commitment to the Jewish people and belief that human dignity, compassion, justice and freedom are due to all. If there is sufficient interest in putting together a Kavana discussion group about current events -- whether to cover basic context you wish you had already learned about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, or to push ourselves deeper in respectful and open conversation with one another -- please let us know.