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.
This configuration rings true to me today. I picture volunteers in my community working shoulder-to-shoulder in the kitchen preparing meals for homeless “tent city” residents or a multigenerational group marching for justice and equality arm-in-arm, like a wall of planks.
In this quiet pause, it's awesome to be able to reflect on the theme of this week's holiday. Thanksgiving isn't celebrated widely in Israel, of course, but it does have a Hebrew name: Chag ha-Hodaya, literally, the Holiday of Gratitude (or thanks or acknowledgement). You might recognize the root word from so many of our Jewish prayers... it's conjugated into forms like "modeh ani" ("I give thanks") or "modim anachnu lach" ("We give thanks to You") or, perhaps most famous of all -- a line repeated during the Hallel service or at a bris -- "hoduladonai ki tov, ki l'olam chasdo" ("Give thanks to Adonai who is good, for God's lovingkindness endures forever.")
Last night, I went to bed with the mixed election results fresh in my mind. This morning, I woke up thinking about a powerful image that appears at the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Toledot. In last week's reading, Abraham's servant had traveled to find a wife for Isaac, and he had selected Rebecca based on her incredible generosity and compassion (as our Moadon students have learned, she offered water not only to him but also to his camels!). This week, we meet Rebecca again, now pregnant and uncomfortable. She seeks divine intervention, and is told that two nations are struggling in her womb. In the pshat (the simple, plain meaning), this means that she is pregnant with a set of twins. On the level of drash (deeper interpretation), these twins, Jacob and Esau, represent two very different modalities of being, and it is these that are struggling within her.