Spiraling Towards Renewal? The New Month, Leviticus, and Democracy

Protest defending democracy blocked from the Knesset on March 19th. (courtesy)

Before getting into my d’var Torah/iyun tefillah, if anybody reading this is one of the many right now struggling to get government assistance for unemployment, rent and other coronavirus related threats, “HaMa’abarah” of which I am a member and for which “Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice” is the fiscal sponsor, is part of a Khmal Khevrati (socioeconomic situation room)  with the help of the legal clinics of universities around the country, to help you actualize your rights, and get what you need.  You can join the facebook group, ask your questions, and somebody from the Khamal  will be in touch:

Like many of those of us who pray, these days I am praying with special intent lines referring to God’s salvation and imploring God to manifest that salvation now.  In addition to praying for healing for those whom I know personally, I am adding those around the world who have contacted the coronavirus.  I also give thanks and ask for the well-being of the medical personnel, including two of my brothers, who risk exposure every day to help others, without sufficient masks and other basic protective equipment.

Yesterday was also Rosh Khodesh-the first of the month of Nissan, and this week we read VaYikra-the first Torah portion in Leviticus.  Do Rosh Khodesh and VaYikra offer us any inspiration for these times?

Firstly, “khodesh,”  (month) not only has the same root as  “khadash,” (new), but “l’khadesh,” to renew.  There is something new happening in Israel and the world. In the the last few days, despite setbacks and bitter disappointment, we have also experienced renewal.

What is new is a feeling of solidarity arising from the understanding that we are all in one boat. There are even places where there is a sort of cease fire of settler and army oppression of Palestinians.

Unfortunately, this is far from everywhere.  Demolitions for the lack of almost impossible to obtain permits continue in the Occupied Territories and in “Unrecognized” Israeli Bedouin villages, even though this poses a health risk that endangers all of us. Near the Rimonim settlement, settlers from a new outpost threatened with knives Bedouin preparing to return to their spring/summer homes.  Some of the fearful Bedouin even dismantled their shanties that served them for many years.  Almost every day these same settlers allow their flocks to enter into planted fields, and eat what the Bedouin are growing. This last week, there were a number of attacks and arrests of shepherds for being in traditional grazing areas that settlers strive to control.  There are even reports of settler attacks on the army near the Yitzhar settlement, and of new outposts being established while everybody is focused on coronavirus.

In the natural world, the new month appears automatically every month, as a part of a Divinely ordained order. Yes, the moon regularly both waxes and wanes. If I had written this a few weeks ago, I would have had been more positive. Apparently, the willingness to continue a cease fire has waned.  However, while the moon’s cycle will presumably continue as long as the world continues to exist, there won’t be another Nissan 5780.  The seasons don’t just go ‘round and ‘round, they spiral.  They return, but something is nevertheless new.  In our case, God gave us free choice.  We need to choose to turn over a leaf and choose a new path.  We may not have total control over our lives or our temperaments, but our choices do make a difference what will be new every time our nature spirals us back to a place similar to where we have been before.

Not everything that waxed must wane. We can choose to allow the new reality imposed upon us by the coronavirus to lead us to a new understanding putting our differences in perspective. Our interdependence, and what unites us, are ultimately much more important.  More of humanity both internalizing and acting on this would be blessedly new.

During yesterday’s Rosh Khodesh prayers I was also meditating on renewal.  In Israel we know that we have been in the throes of an unprecedented threat to our democracy.  After many years in which despair and questions about efficacy led to declining levels of activism, this threat sparked a renewal of active dissent. Hundreds of thousands have been protesting. Most have protested online, but hundreds participated in three convoys to the Knesset over the past week.  Looking around me (from my car, or wearing a mask and keeping the distance required by coronavirus regulations) it was clear from the faces and the signs that this was not just the “usual suspects” who regularly demonstrate.   The attempt to shut down the Knesset, courts and track our movements without Knesset oversite shook many out of their complacency.

I started writing this yesterday, but wisely decided to hold off to see what the day would bring. Many of those among the protesters who didn’t differentiate between the battle for democracy and the battle to depose PM Netanyahu, feel betrayed because of Benny Gantz’s decision to break up his party, and enter a Netanyahu lead government. They may be discouraged from protesting in the future.  While I try not to focus on individual politicians or parties, but rather on issues, I too am concerned.  I believe that the Prime Minister was behind the attempt to prevent the Knesset from functioning, and supported many of the measures threatening our democracy.  Time will tell whether the apparently forming government will prevent the further undermining of our judicial system, whether Israel will unilaterally perpetuate the Occupation by annexing territories, whether the Prime Minister’s trial will take place, whether the delegitimization of human rights defenders will cease, and whether democracy will be strengthened.  The jury is still out, as to whether we have simply returned to a government just like the previous one, or whether we will spiral to something at least incrementally new and different.   I see some cause for hanging on to a measure of optimism because it seems that the Ministry of Justice will not be in the hands of those determined to undermine our justice system.

Will the renewal of activism and determination now wither, or grow? Will those who returned to the streets, or were stirred to protest for the first time, only remember yesterday’s shock? Or, will they also recall that their efforts helped thwart the shutting down of the Knesset? Even before Thursday’s events, I was wondering whether the protests were an indication of something that would prove to be lasting, or ephemeral.  We must hope that the protesters will not be discouraged because the outcome was not what they had wanted. Perhaps some will come out of this less naïve, and even more determined.

Back in 2011, the government succeeded in bringing about “death by committee” to most of the initiatives of the social protest movement.  But, not entirely.  I am proud that our work on behalf of public housing is a major exception. In some ways, we spiraled forward.

I also admit that sometimes, as somebody who has been combatting human rights violations and threats to democracy for most of my life, I too need to resist a bit of cynicism. People only woke up when the threat hit too close to home?  When doing a Facebook live broadcast from one of the demonstrations I saw that some of my Palestinian friends were watching. I had to wonder what they, who have never known democracy, were thinking.

When I get over my cynicism, disappointment, and worry, I am still overwhelmed and encouraged by the fact that so many Israelis stood up in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis in defense of democracy.  It is now the responsibility of those of us who have been in this for the long run to help others to also find hope and meaning in what they accomplished.

Finally, a few thoughts about our Torah portion Va’Yikrah.  Whenever I work with bar and bat mitzvah students on Torah portions related to the sacrifices (including both of my children), I teach them of the midrashim that, despite the fact that the sin of the golden calf appears in the middle of the instructions we just concluded about building the tabernacle, the sin actually took place first.  God then decides that the Israelites are not yet ready for cerebral prayer. They need the pageantry of the sacrificial cult. I share with them the speculation that Maimonides felt that the sacrificial cult ended when we no longer needed it, and that someday we will progress from prayer to pure meditation.  I then teach of the connection in Hebrew between “korban,” (sacrifice) and “karov” (close).  I ask what does or could bring them/us closer to God today.

In our coronavirus reality, we might also recall that the golden calf was created when the people were afraid because Moses had disappeared.  Rather than sacrifices, what else could help calm our fears because of the virus and because of the threats to democracy? In chapter three of Leviticus we read of the “zevakh shleimim,” translated as the “peace offering” or the “offering of wellbeing.”  What might contribute today to our feelings of wellbeing, wholeness, and being at peace with ourselves, our world and with God?

I would argue that when we come closer to our fellow human beings, we also come closer to God.  I also have more of a sense of well-being when I am struggling for human rights and democracy. I believe that there is meaning to what I do and that they are part of God’s plan for the universe, even though I don’t know if and when I will personally experience the world I struggle to build.  We have another portion full of sacrifices next week, so perhaps I will have an opportunity to expound upon this.

For now, let us remember that yesterday wasn’t just any new month. Nissan is the month in which our people experienced a liberation that most believed to be impossible, and that they certainly would never see.

With renewed faith, energy and determination, may we put aside disappointments, and continue working to spiral us closer a new and different closeness to God and humanity that will grant us peace, wholeness and wellbeing.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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