Peace and Justice

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

We packed a lunch, and snacks, and set off for Alabama. Why? Glad you asked. The Peace and Justice Memorial Center and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama had been calling my name for quite some time.

From the New York Times, April 25, 2018:

“In a plain brown building sits an office run by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, a place for people who have been held accountable for their crimes and duly expressed remorse. Just a few yards up the street lies a different kind of rehabilitation center, for a country that has not been held to nearly the same standard.”

The Center, which opened in April of 2018, is a small building in the city that was the center of the slave trade in the United States and was itself a slave warehouse for those brought by river and train.

The old brick wall at the entry to the warehouse building reverberates with the chains of the imported, calling out for justice. The center is a museum that is overwhelming with the physical evidence of the cruelty and evil that is part of the American heritage. Glass jars filled with sand from the known sites of lynchings, some with names, some unknown. And so much more.

The signs collected from everywhere segregation and hatred were overt were startling but not unexpected in retrospect. One sign in particular I will never forget:

“No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs”

You will forgive the word, but it is what the sign said and it would be cowardly to edit it. As a Jew, this resonated in a more personal way. My thought was this – of the three, the dogs had experienced the least oppression.

The Memorial itself is both beautiful and grim, a field of 800 hanging metal coffin shaped boxes in a roofed area that includes fountains and quotes. The metal coffins hang at varying heights, at first at eye level, like a grave monument and finally above, as the lynched would be hanging. Each is inscribed with a county, and the names of those lynched in that place, some simply marked as unknown, most not. It is stunning and horrifying and important.

The Memorial stands in a rolling green field, quite beautiful in stark contrast. Just as the lynched might have, and did, hang from a beautiful tree in bloom in a green field. You cannot help but cry, and feel shame at what this represents, and pride that it is memorialized now in a way that cannot be ignored.

Bryan Stevenson said:

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is Justice.”

In that field, aside from the structure of the Memorial, are enormous “tables”. These are raised areas that hold duplicate metal bars, exactly like those that hang. They are not affixed, they are just lain in these beds. The point is that each and every county has been invited to take the one marked with their name and erect it as a memorial in that county.

My hope is that I will visit there again someday, and all the bars in that beautiful green field will be gone, raised against racism, bigotry and intolerance.

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Devarim – Last Week and the beginning of the end

Devarim is the beginning of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Moses, the Torah, and the beginning of the end of the cycle, bringing us again to the High Holy days and the joy of Simchas Torah and beginning all over again.

I am not sure being a Temple President is doing G-d’s work, but I like to think it is as it keeps me from doing this.

Most people who think of it at all, think of Deuteronomy as the lawyer’s book, the book of laws – all those gift prints for lawyers offices – “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” and so on. Being a word geek I was happy to learn that the root words are deuteros for second and nomos for law (yes, Greek). So Dueteronomy is the book of “second” laws. It is the book in which Moses re-iterates and review the laws of the Torah as he rebukes the people for their failing during their 40 years in the desert.

What spoke to me this time around was that this parsha is about wars. And there is lots of commentary, oddly, about “good wars and “bad wars” and the price of war generally. Obviously this resonates presently. It is in this parsha that Moses tells his successor, who will lead the people into Israel and into battle “Fear them not, for the Lord your G-d, He shall fight for you.” As I understand it, more than 7,000 rockets have fallen on Israel and the physical destruction of so many places, In Israel and in Gaza is horrifying. For the frightened children on either side, there is no “good war” no “bad war”, just fear and destruction. So save a place in your prayers for all the innocents. But I digress.

Although this is the week of Devarim, it was also Tisha B’av, about which I am sad to say, I knew nothing. It is characterized as the “saddest day in the Jewish calendar”. The 9th of Av is the day on which the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed approximately 2000 years ago. In looing further, I found that our “mythology”, or “history” goes that many things have happened on this fateful day:
1. The spies slandered the land and decree to wander the desert for 40 years resulted;
2. The destruction of the First Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 423 BCE;
3. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE;
4. The fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans 65 years later in 135 CE (look it up!);
5. Pope Urban II declares the First Crusade; tens of thousand of Jews are killed and communities obliterated;
6. the Jews of England are expelled in 1290;
7. The Jews of Spain are expelled in 1492;
8. World War 1 breaks out in 1914 when Russia declares war on Germany; the German resentment of the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for WWII and the holocaust;
9. On Tisha B’Av, the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto begins.

So, indeed, the saddest day of the year – the 9th of Av has much to answer for. For the orthodox it is a three week period of mourning and a fast of one day. It is a day of spiritual reflection and accounting, foreshadowing the coming of Yom Kippur.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life and identity, much as Israel is the center of identity for us today and why it’s perilous position feels so real and emotional to us. In this country we are in a war of words. We are a people of words, people of the book and we know the destructive power of words; politically socially and emotionally. This of “juden” printed on a yellow star to be worn on the chest. Think of “never again” and Am Israel Chai. it is why the words of the press, accounting war in bodies and not peril or fear are so hurtful.

In this parsha, Moses reminds the people that the ways of the book are everything, they are the laws by which we strive to live. And, really, he is reminding us to learn from our mistakes. As Deuteronomy urges us to pursue justice, so to the Qu’ran, verse 5:8 “O Believers, be steadfast for God with justice. Do not let hatred of the people make you act unjustly. Be just for justice is next to piety. AS we pray for peace and justice, take your Shabbat with you out into the world and carry shalom with you everywhere you go.

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Naso ~ The Blessing Is In The Music

We are at Naso, the Book of Numbers roughly 4-7.  Reading this portion, which I do always before I read commentary (although I cheat and read it on the Chabad website in the Rashi commentary version just so I can have a little more understanding), it seemed to go on forever. 

There were some very compelling themes.  The first one that interested me were the rules of restitution; a fundamental idea of justice.  The second that struck me (yes, o.k., I am a lawyer) was the notion of presuming innocence (in the adulterous women section).  The third theme that made me think was the theme of abstinence for G-d, of choosing a period of offering and abstinence to show faith.  And then I came to the priestly benediction.  It is beautiful and somehow very comforting.  The commentary makes it clear that this is one of the most ancient texts in Torah and is clearly one of the most ancient in continuous use by humanity.  Then I read a commentary that talked about all the things we humans do in the name of our need for blessing.  This too is a very compelling idea.  But once I read the words of the benediction I was stuck.

I did not grow up in a religious home.  We did not go to Temple except for special occasions and I did not learn much about religious ritual until my now husband and I decided to enter into a covenant to create a Jewish home and raise a Jewish child and we both became involved in formal Judaism.  At that time we went to a very tiny synagogue congregation in Massachusetts where my husband converted and that had its own kind of magic.  But soon after we moved to New Mexico.  Our congregation there was filled with music.  I wrote about music in another blog this week. 

Music for me is the place I am most able to express myself, it speaks to me and for me.  I love other art forms but music is inside me.  So what I got stuck on was the sound of the priestly benediction as my then Rabbi and Cantor sang/chanted it.  They never recited it, they sang it, one speaking, one singing.  That is how I think of that ancient benediction.  It became almost like a lullaby for me, like the Hashkivenu melody that I love, it calms me.  As I settle into Shabbat and become quiet, these melodies speak for me, quiet me, fill me with prayer and reverence.  That is what I think about music and that is what this week’s Torah portion brought me to.  It hasn’t much to do with Naso but for me each week it is what the portion makes me think of.  The quote I posted elsewhere this week follows:

“Bach gave us G-d’s word, Mozart gave us G-d’s laughter, Beethoven gave us G-d’s fire and G-d gave us music so we might pray without words.”

I can’t attribute it because I don’t know where it came from.  But it says what I mean.  The priestly benediction brings us the joy of knowing that G-d loves us, it spreads itself over us and says that we can be happy and at peace.  And the music, well, it is peace.  Shabbat Shalom.

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