A Dvar Torah for AJWS Global Justice Fellows’ Commencement – SF
We need only look into the Torah portions we read last week and in the week to come for past echoes of our currently troubled world. We may also find, waiting in our sacred texts, hints of the way forward.
Parshat VaYishlach to parshat VaYeshev, from wrestling matches between men and angels, from gender based violence in the rape of Dinah, to a tentative reconciliation of between warring parts of a family represented by Jacob and Esau… from the transformative encounter of people with the Divine and the degradation of human trafficking when brothers would sell one another for silver coins.
Limping, wrestling… woundedness, vulnerability.
And we remember all this in a current context, here in the United States and in the world, where grassroots activism is so often confronted by corruption and greed, callousness that manifests as a readiness to see “the other” as “less than,” where biblical patriarchy seems to have evolved only somewhat into shows of military force on neighborhood streets and weaponry is wielded to suppress minority groups, where justice is far from realized on a daily basis.
How can we breathe in a world where the words “I can’t breathe” are met by human indifference? How can we transform our world into one in which authority relearns that it must earn the people’s trust, where protest is no longer confused for anarchy and criminality, where extending human rights is actually furthered by those with power?
Let’s call to mind, embed in our hearts, and commit with our bodies the words our limping ancestor Jacob offers his long-estranged brother. Remember that their relationship, which reaches a tentative reconciliation comes after lifetimes of hurt and deceit perpetrated by Jacob at Esau. The Torah might want us to see the stealing of birthright that Jacob commits as desirable, but it is clear from the text that he took it. Esau’s hurt spans decades, and until we see how the reunion goes, it is intense and frightening. It is rooted in a tragic misperception that God’s love and human blessings are of limited quantity. Esau runs toward Jacob, and the brothers fall on each other’s shoulders and weep. Hear what Jacob says. Let’s even imagine saying it to each other, specifically those who look at all different from you.
Ki Al Kein Ra’iti Fanecha Kriot Pnei Elohim vaTirtzeini – for to see your face is like seeing the face of God. (Gen. 33:10)
To those who might wonder the sincerity of Jacob’s words, remember that he himself stood with God by a heavenly ladder years before and wrestled with God face-to-face in a wrestling match the previous night. He knows what it is to encounter God.
Jacob’s words remind us of our obligation to see the Divine in each and every human face, those that look different, those who we’ve harmed, those who frighten us.
And then we come to opening of this week’s Torah portion, in which we read that “Jacob settled in the land where his ancestors dwelled,” which prompts many questions for commentators, such as why the words “settled (vayeshev)” and “dwelled (megurei)” occur in the same verse. Rashi, the most famous of all commentators, suggests that:
Jacob has had a hard life. He wished for more stability, to just rest, after all the heavy work of his life. But that’s not how it is for righteous people, for people who pursue justice. It is enough that they catch a glimpse of the world to come. There is no rest for the righteous. (adapted)
Our AJWS San Francisco Global Justice Fellows know this lesson well, and are bringing this message wherever they go, amplified by their extraordinary experiences and training which we celebrate today.
And so, in their honor, and in solidarity with the many images of God around our fragile planet who we call to mind as our teachers and partners in the holy work of Tikkun Olam, healing the world, we pray:
Nishmat Kol Chai – Soul of All that Lives,
Remind us to use our voices, our means, our bodies in service of the world.
Open our eyes to see You in every human being. Open our hearts to remember that dignity is not ours to grant but to recognize.
May we be worthy of the work ahead, knowing that our commitment to Tzedek, to Justice, means that we will never truly feel settled, and that unsettledness is a sacred state of being we are called to embrace, as we limp forward into a more hopeful future.
- help us figure out where to look. It’s hard to know where not to look when so many people are suffering in so many places. Help us realize that it is Your Breath that feels so tight in our lungs when the world writhes.
- give us the strength to keep feeling alive in our souls. Empathy can be exhausting, and we can feel shut down by the weight of the world, a burden we are blessed to share.
- Remind us of our holy power to feel fiercely and act in solidarity with every one of Your infinite human reflections, locally and globally.
May we be part of a world reborn, where human rights are realized and poverty is forgotten.
And, as Mahatma Ghandi himself once prayed, we ask You, O God,
…abode of happiness and peace, ocean of mercy, friend of the poor, destroyer of the pangs of want, everlasting, whole, unending, beginningless, perfect, ancient of days, refuge of people, beloved of the heart, and guardian and mainstay of life, grant us peace in our time.