We so want to contribute; to make a difference; to give expression to our caring, our passion for justice, our worry, our righteous anger, our heartbreak, and our aspirations for the future. Yet it’s so hard to know how! We want to do right and to be part of the solution, but where to begin?! The problems seem so numerous, and vast, and outright overwhelming, it’s hard to know what our first step should be.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — the renowned 20th-century scholar, activist, and philosopher — famously said after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Selma Civil Rights March in 1965: “I felt my legs were praying.”
His words leapt to mind as I read a derashah (Torah interpretation) on this week’s Torah portion of VaEtchanan by another famous activist rabbi from another time and place — Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, a brilliant teacher and active builder of the early Hasidic movement, which in its day was a pretty radical movement. (I often look to R. Levi Yitzchak for inspiration in questions of activism — he was a bold thinker who insisted that God really wants us humans to take an active role in bringing about a better life for people.)
R. Levi says that Moses’s first words in this Torah portion -- "VaEtchanan el adonai b'eit ha-hi leymor," “I beseeched God at that time, saying” -- hint at two kinds of prayer: prayer itself, where there is direct connection, and praying just to be able to pray. Prayer is hard, and although sometimes we hit the nail on the head and are truly praying, a lot more of the time we are really praying just to be able to pray — praying to feel connected, to know what to say and to feel heard, to understand and to be understood, to open ourselves to something bigger and to feel like we really are part of something larger than ourselves.
It strikes me that this is a lot of what I’ve been feeling recently about "praying with my legs" — that is, about social action — and that it resonates with a lot of what I’ve been hearing from Kavana partners recently. We so want to contribute; to make a difference; to give expression to our caring, our passion for justice, our worry, our righteous anger, our heartbreak, and our aspirations for the future. Yet it’s so hard to know how! We want to do right and to be part of the solution, but where to begin?! The problems seem so numerous, and vast, and outright overwhelming, it’s hard to know what our first step should be.
This is where praying with our legs comes in. We want to pray with our legs like Rabbi Heschel did — to take action that will truly make a difference, to accept the invitation that, according to Rabbi Levi, God gives us to change the world. But how can we truly pray with our legs? Where and when to take that first prayerful step, and in what direction? And with whom? So we begin by praying to know how to pray with our legs. And one of the best ways to do that is…. to pray with our legs! That is, through taking initial steps to learn and try and explore, ultimately we hope to discern where we can truly have the impact that our hearts desire.
I think this is some of what we’re up to these days — figuring out what we can contribute. It’s a necessary step; it’s just where we should be. Kavana has already been engaged in this work for a while — taking steps to test out how we can have an impact, and sometimes hitting that nail on the head and truly feeling that we are making a difference! And we’ll continue to take more steps until we feel like we’ve truly hit our stride.
We have one opportunity to try it this Thursday (tomorrow!) with the rally to stop theseparation of families (details below), and more opportunities in the near-term to deepen our interfaith and inter-community partnerships. If you’re interested in this journey, please reach out to me. Together we can take steps to truly praying with our legs.
The Torah is usually terse and concise, but this week's parasha, Chayei Sarah, centers around a long story that is anything but! All 67 verses of Genesis chapter 24 are devoted to a single narrative: the tale of Abraham sending his servant on a journey to find a wife for his son Isaac, and returning with Rebecca, a woman of great agency, strength and generosity.
We Jews know how to wait. That is, we deeply understand humanity's imperfections, and that the presence of injustice or cruelty in our world cannot undermine our steadfast focus on trying to achieve our vision of a more perfect, more just future. We have lots of historical experience to draw on, and much language for this kind of spiritual resilience. One line that's been swimming through my head this week is from the prayer "Ani Maamin": "v'af al pi she-yitmameah, im kol zeh achakeh lo." Translating loosely here (and transposing what we're waiting for from a messianic figure to a time characterized by messianic ideals), this means: despite the fact that it's taking a long time for the world to change in the ways we believe it should, still, we are undeterred; we will wait - and work - until we arrive at an era of peace and justice.
Yesterday was the second anniversary of the violent attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Its memory casts a long shadow for me, and this year, the anniversary feels like a powerful reminder of the very high stakes of next week’s election.