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.
In weeks like this one, with the climate crisis and political crises in full view, I struggle with the question of agency. Do I have any power at all to effect change? If I cannot control the "big" things that are happening in real time all around me, do my actions matter? It's easy to become dispirited and believe that we don't have much power.
A few weeks ago, Noam and I decided to introduce our kids to the movie Fiddler on the Roof. They were excited to sing along to some already-familiar songs like "Matchmaker" and "Tradition," and thought the wedding scene was beautiful. However, I had forgotten just how dark the end of the movie is. As we watched the Jews being expelled from their village of Anatevka, trudging down the road together, and pausing at the crossroads before going their own separate ways, my 10-year-old asked whether something like that could ever happen to us here in America.
Close your eyes and imagine: a hot bowl of soup simmering on the stove, crisp latkes frying in a pan, or a steaming cup of tea or hot chocolate. Can you almost smell it?! As the weather gets colder and the days darker, it's human nature to turn to "comfort foods" for warmth, satisfaction, nourishment and, well, comfort.