Accountable and Forgiven: Parshat Shoftim

Beloved community,

We are deep in this season of preparation for the high holy days, logistically and spiritually. Some of us are preparing to send children back to school, or go back to school ourselves, and the timing of the Jewish new year coming in the fall is such a help with that transition.

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, has some of the greatest hits. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof”: Justice, justice, you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20) “ki ha’adam ish hasedeh,” “because man is the tree of the field,” (Deuteronomy 20:19), the establishment of cities of refuge (Deuteronomy 19:2). There is more than lifetimes enough of what to study in our Torah to nourish us.

This year, so deep in thinking about Hinenu’s first High Holy Day season of services together, I’m not thinking about any of those greatest hits. I’m thinking about what our parsha asks us to consider in this season of accountability about washing our hands of responsibility.

Described in depth in chapter 21, after all the encouragement to establish working, just systems of governance and responsibility, we come upon this situation:

כי־ימצא חלל באדמה אשר יהוה אלהיך נתן לך לרשתה נפל בשדה לא נודע מי הכהו
If, in the land that the LORD your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known… (Deut. 21:1)

So it goes like this: a dead body is found in the land between towns, on the outskirts. This person has been forgotten, missing, quite literally the most vulnerable a being can be. They are found, finally, and the leaders need to figure out who is responsible for them. Who has to deal with the burial, who is going to prosecute to find out how they died, who is going to take on the hassle. The Torah describes a process in which we must measure to find the town closest to where the person was found, and a pure, unworked animal (perfect for an offering) is led down to a moving body of water that has similarly never been worked. There the animal is killed, and the priests lead the elders in a process of formulaic declaration while they literally wash their hands of the responsibility.

וענו ואמרו ידינו לא שפכה [שפכו] את־הדם הזה ועינינו לא ראו
And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.

כפר לעמך ישראל אשר־פדית יהוה ואל־תתן דם נקי בקרב עמך ישראל ונכפר להם הדם
Absolve, O LORD, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt.

(Deut 21:8-9)

At first blush, this Torah text can read as overly compassionate to the nearby town that is arguably pretty responsible for the death of an unknown, unclaimed person. But think again--our Torah takes a full chapter to explain what we do in a situation like this. A situation that might happen, that DOES happen, every month, every week, and can go by ignored. No, instead, our Torah describes an elaborate ritual where the elders of the nearest town are compelled to sacrifice a perfect unblemished animal reserved for their personal and communal ritual practice, sacrifice it to God seeking absolution.

This is not washing our hands of responsibility, this is trying to embody accountability, and the desire for absolution. This is a reaching ritual--we are not this way now, but may our prayers be accepted, may we be forgiven, may we forgive each other.

Ibn Ezra, 12th century Spanish commentator, explains the reason the elders have to ask God to כפר the nation: “for we were negligent, and we did not guard the dangerous highways.” Ibn Ezra sees these elders not going through the civic responsibilities to absolve the town of any bad reputation. He sees this as a ritual claiming accountability for what the city did to not protect its borders, highways, and accompany the most vulnerable on the way.

How do we ask for forgiveness when the things we are accountable for are still ongoing? How can we find comfort and connection in services together while the world is full of suffering? How dare we declare a new year, a day of rest, a beloved community, when there is so much brokenness?

I am inspired by the message from the ritual described in Devarim 21. Instead of letting moments of grief and guilt go by, swept under the rug, we are challenged to mark, lift up, look at and investigate from every angle how and why what happened could have happened. Instead of leaving the dead unattended, unaccompanied, unnoticed, we care not only for their bodies, but for the circumstances that led us to this moment. Through ritual, we hold ourselves accountable, and more importantly, through ritual we commit to doing better, find forgiveness, so we can move toward the selves we wish to become.

May this season of teshuva, returning, be one where you treat yourself with compassion, to find your mistakes, be accountable to them, and allow them to be forgiven.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ariana

Chazak vya’ametz libecha: Be strong and courageous

Beloved community,

This weekend brings with it the sweet reward of Shabbat, but it also carries with it palpable and familiar fear, in response to Sunday’s rally in DC, where nazis and white supremacists plan to march. To even write these words brings up waves of fear and electricity in my body, feelings of despair at having to plan for such things in such times, memories of last year’s violence in Charlottesville, memories and fears much older than my lifetime but in my Jewish memory. I fear for the safety of the protestors who will stand in opposition to the rally, I fear for the safety of collective all-of-us: Black, Brown, indigenous, queer, trans, Jewish, Muslim, disabled, undocumented, workers, sex workers, and all other identities that white supremacy seeks to destroy. But I am bolstered by the powerful response from DC organizers, our own organizers in Baltimore, and the collective power and trust in our Hinenu community.

Tonight when we welcome in Shabbat, we’ll also be welcoming in the period of Rosh Hodesh, the start of the new month. Sunday will be the first of the month of Elul, a month dedicated to deep self examination, reflection, and preparation ahead of Rosh Hashanah. The beginning of the month of Elul shouts “hey, there’s a month to go before you have to account for who you are! Get busy!” The month of Elul whispers “did you forget about how you are an agent in your own existence?” We know what work and accounting is ahead of us during the High Holy Days, we’re about to get called out, and called in. Here are two key practices I want to share with you about Elul:

Every morning this month we can hear the call of the shofar. The first time we hear the call of the shofar is not in services on Rosh Hashanah, not a dramatic introduction to the pomp and grandeur of the holiday, but a month earlier. Because Elul reminds us--the risks we take at this time of preparing to account for ourselves are much greater.

The call of the shofar is many things all at once:

A battle cry, of an army ready to attack
An artifact, of the primordial sound of the whole world being created
A call of warning, for incoming danger
A synesthetic reminder, the sound of receiving Torah at Mount Sinai
An announcement, on the arrival of the new moon
An invitation, to go deeper into ourselves

In Elul Jews from Ashkenazi tradition begin reciting Psalm 27 every day. This one may be familiar to you as the psalm recited at funerals, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.” This psalm so fully describes the hemmed in feeling, the no way out feeling, the fear of enemy feeling. The end of Psalm 27 proclaims:

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃
Look to the LORD; be strong and of good courage! O look to the LORD! (Psalm 27:14)

The enemy feels like it is closing in, but we can look to each other, look to God or Godliness in the world, and be made courageous.

There are many ways to stand up to this oncoming threat. On Sunday, Hinenu is co-sponsoring a rally and speakout at Penn Station in response to the Unite the Right nazi rally in DC. Hinenu member Zachary Berger will offer a misheberach blessing. Following the rally, all who are able will take the train to DC together. For more information about marching with the group, contact Jonah or Evan. For more information about the rally and related events, click here.

Opposing and stamping out fascism and white supremacy from our midst does not require marching--many of us cannot physically make the trip, or emotionally withstand the proximity and potential for violence. Many of us might not want to bring children, or cannot find care providers for children or sick family, or have work obligations.

In the season of the high holy days, which we’re now in, some people wish one another “a gut kvitl,” Yiddish for “a good note.” As in, may you be written in the book of life for good. So if you care to offer blessing, your outrage, your protection to those of our community who will be going down, please send me an email with a word or short sentence. I will write these blessings out, and bring them to the rally Sunday morning for the marchers to take with them. There are many, many ways to show up.

May you be blessed with a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace and wholeness,
Rabbi Ariana

The 36 Righteous Ones!

Dear Hinenu community,

When I was a child, I learned about a group of people that without them, the entire world, all of existence would collapse. They're called the Lamed Vavnikim, a group of people who's name translates roughly to the "36'ers." These 36 humans are first discussed in the Talmud, and they're fundamental to the continued presence of human life on this planet, in every generation.

But--and here's the kicker, we have no idea who they are. And here's the double kicker--they don't even know who they are. Could the person sitting next to you on the bus be a Lamed Vavnik? Could you even be one? 

dfcd9cd8-f7a5-4fba-ace4-8de68a5cd9a4.jpg



I love this teaching about the 36 anonymous beings that hold aloft the world because it tells us of the ultimate cosmic importance of every human being. That we cannot know who holds this role as one of the 36, and so instead we treat every being like the entire future of the world hangs on their well being. The Lamed Vavnikim teach us that we all matter to the whole, that all of us can only exists when each of us are counted.

This is what becoming a member at Hinenu represents to me--the unique importance of each of the members of our community, and the profound power that we have when we come together as a group. 

In our first week of membership we welcomed our first 20 members. Become a member today and help us get to 36 this week!

Since our very beginning it has been clear we are making something special together-- meeting 1-1 in cafes all over the city, cramming together on hot porches in the August heat, or studying Torah about bodies, desire, and fear at Red Emma's. 

I am humbled every day to serve this community as your rabbi, to be graduating from rabbinical school this Sunday and knowing that our community in Baltimore is my calling and work on the other side of that diploma. That as much as I have been dreaming of this shul, so have all of you working and waiting to see our community take shape.

Which is why it is so exciting to watch our first membership drive launch, and formally cement our commitments to one another. In the past week, 20 people have joined as founding members to nurture and shape this fierce community committed to expansive and welcoming Jewish space, creative and passionate ritual, and interdependent community.

Our voluntary dues structure reminds us that every person matters to the well being of this community, regardless of financial contribution. Knowing that there is an abundance in our community, we ask members to pay what they can to support the financial future of Hinenu. I look forward to continuing this work in the years ahead with your support.

Become a founding member of Hinenu as our community grows!

Bivracha, with blessing,
Rabbi Ariana

Why Tyler is Here for Hinenu

Dear Hinenu Community,

My journey with Hinenu starts in the latter half of 2016, when, spellbound by Rabbi Ariana Katz’s podcast Kaddish, I reached out to tell her just how much her words meant to me. As we started talking, she told me about a dream she had for a small shul filled with spiritual reverence and radical compassion that could possibly take root in my hometown of Baltimore. My whole life, I’ve had that same dream. She told me that she was looking for her Jews, and I told her that she’d at least found one.
 
When we first met in person in January of 2017, I felt what could only be described as platonic love at first sight. As our conversation buzzed with hope for the future and brimmed with passion for our faith, our communities, and the issues that we held dear, I said to myself, “This is my rabbi, this is what we’re building together, and we’re in this for the long haul.”

In our first week of membership, we welcomed our first 20 members. Become a member today and help us more than double that number!

 
In the months that followed, I deepened my connections with not only Rabbi Ariana, but other passionate, justice-minded Jewish friends who I’d met throughout the years in Baltimore. In April of 2017, during the week of Passover, I met with a handful of Jewish agitators for good to plan a potluck seder at 2640 Space for the last night of Passover. Leading that seder for a packed house full of Jews and non-Jews of all ages and backgrounds cemented for me my place in a new, vibrant, and hungry community, sometimes a leader, sometimes an organizer, always a nice Jewish girl.
 
The summer of 2017 saw the formation of the provisional board of our yet-to-be-named Baltimore Justice Shtiebel. Rabbi Ariana invited me to join and I enthusiastically accepted. Roughly a year in, I can see that Hinenu is already becoming the shelter that I prayed for trembling under the covers in the abusive household that I grew up in. It’s the spiritual home I yearned for when I felt too disabled, too gay, too transgender, and too outspoken for even the most liberal of synagogues. 
 
Our commitment to financial and physical accessibility means that anyone can become a member and every member counts. As someone living on disability benefits, I know that it’s not about the amount I pay in dues or the hours of work that I’ve put in, it’s about a greater sense of belonging and a culture of mutual aid.
 
 
As we steer the ship of Hinenu forward and prepare to hand over the wheel, I have faith that what started as several separate twinkles in several separate eyes will continue to manifest itself as a cohesive, communal vision and grow to sustain generations of Jews.


Become a founding member of Hinenu as our community grows!

B'shalom,

Tyler Vile
 

Celebrating Rabbi Ariana's ordination on June 10!

Celebrating Rabbi Ariana's ordination on June 10!

Why Owen's Here for Hinenu

Dear Hinenu community,

Today as we launch our membership drive, I am reflecting on what joyful membership in our nascent, blooming congregation means to me. In looking forward to putting in the work and resources required to make our collective dreams a reality, I'm also looking back at why I felt compelled to be a part of this exciting project to begin with. 
 

f49b6abb-42d6-40e2-b5cd-2852551f36e7.jpg

Before I get to all that, please click this link, fill out the membership form, and pledge as generously as you're ablebecome a member today!
 

What was missing in my Jewish life before Hinenu was born? Why-- like a few of you, I'm guessing-- hadn't I been active in a synagogue since my bar mitzvah at Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack, NY 18 years ago? As if my parents' shul's name doesn't say it all... While I was showing up in Jewish spaces like JVP and JUFJ, I wasn't showing up to services because two of my values, two parts of my identity, weren't reflected in any of the temples I wandered into. I couldn't find a shtiebel that equally valued Palestinian lives; nor could I find one that truly celebrated interfaith couples. That's why I'm elated to have worked with all of you over the last year to fill that space by building Hinenu!

Still reading? Did you hit the link, become a member, and set up a recurring contribution yet? 
 

Laying Hinenu's foundation on radical inclusion-- and working through the process, language, and values that give meaning to that concept-- with all of you has been heart warming, empowering, vulnerability-inducing experience. I love hanging out, davening, and noshing with y'all! 


Let's build on that foundation. Let's continue the adventure of realizing why and how we need to be here for each other and for our larger community. A big part of building our little house is claiming membership-- and furnishing it with our communal resources as well as our collective vision. Please join me in becoming a member of Hinenu: the Baltimore Justice Shtiebl today!

Peace/shalom,

Owen Avram Silverman Andrews

Let the waves wash over me

Beloved community,

A meditation for those of us feeling rocked by the news the past few weeks:

Join me in the ocean. We're in the warm water right on the shore, the sand is squishy below you, and your whole self is being rocked by the tides. You smell of salt and sweat and sunscreen. You close your eyes, and feel the next wave lap your ankles. Your face is warmed by the sun, and you are able to anticipate the next wave as it comes. Your bend at the knees, or shift your weight, to brace against the tide as it rolls in.

This is the heartbeat of the world, this ocean.

You notice the sound of gulls, or children running and playing, and wave by wave, the tide rolls in. Not so powerful you are knocked over, not so weak it dies out before it reaches us as we stand at the shore.

Beloved community, the ocean waves are getting stronger. In the past week, we have mobilized, organized, shown up, and been bereft reading the terrifying news coming out of the Supreme Court, orchestrated by the president of this country, enacted by border patrol, ICE, the police.

Beloved community, with each day we fear that what we see ahead of us is a great big wave. One that won't just lap our ankles, but will crash upon us, all who we love, all who are most vulnerable.

Let the waves wash over me/
let the waves wash over me/

I am already under/
Let the waves wash over me.

My dear friend taught me the words of this song by the band Miner as a chant, and we'll sing it this Friday at Shabbat services. I invite you to listen to this song, to let the wave of this music be the one that crashes down upon you.

We are braced for another giant ocean wave, and we know that waves have come through that have hurt and destroyed and separated families with borders, jail, travel bans. We see how the rising tide is all connected. We feel it in our bodies.

Come back to the calm ocean with me. The sun is warm, the water is too. A cool breeze comes by and ripples across the sand. You are free. You are safe. The people near you on the beach are free and safe. The water is calm again.

In these times we are not sure what is ahead, but we fear the worst. In these times the only way we see out is to split the entire sea, or something just as miraculous. 

In these times when our whole bodies are anticipating the next wave, when we're unsure what comes next, what we have is each other, the communities we are a part of, the kinship that buoys us. Look around, see who else is standing on the shore with you. We will keep organizing, keep fighting, keep keeping each other as safe as we can.

Let the waves wash over me/
let the waves wash over me/

I am already under/
Let the waves wash over me.

 

If you are feeling alone on the shore, seeing these waves rush in, please reach out.

With love,
Rabbi Ariana