Staying Whole in the Face of Unbelievable Brokenness

by Ari Lev Fornari, Faculty

A Zoom whiteboard, covered in colorful squiggles and snippets of text in English and Hebrew.

There is no question we are living through a crash. We are undoubtedly living through many crashes. The collapse of public education; the murder of George Flloyd and Breonna Taylor; the fear and uncertainty of this uncontained deadly virus, rising sea levels and tropical storms. And we are called to respond to the many crashes. To be unbelievably responsive. The question arises: Where does our strength come from? What will sustain us as we are called to be ever responsive and responsible?

As it turns out, our spiritual ancestors were also living through a seemingly endless series of crashes and they recorded both their questions and their answers to the same overarching big question: How do we stay whole in the face of unbelievable brokenness?

This past week, I gathered (online!) with 160 fellow queer Talmud nerds at the first-ever Queer Talmud Camp: Diaspora Edition, to ask these kinds of big questions and to see what insights might arise from our learning. We began our learning with a mishnah (found on Kiddushin 40b in the Talmud Bavli) that suggests that a person who is steeped in mikra / scripture, mishnah / oral teachings, and derekh eretz / ethical living, will be slow to miss the mark and cause harm. How do we know this? the text asks. Because it says in Tanakh, “A braided (literally 3-ply) cord does not easily fray” (Kohelet 4:12).

I was struck by this image because it is the opposite of how I have been feeling. These past five months, I have felt utterly frayed. Between parenting, protesting, and working as a congregational rabbi, there have been few moments when I have been able to offer my dedicated attention to any one thing. I have felt pulled in every direction, utterly distracted by the competing needs for my attention and the endless hours staring at my computer. And that takes a toll. That, in and of itself, is unsustainable. And has led me in many moments to miss the mark. And so it begs the question, What can I do to center and ground myself? What can we do to bolster ourselves?

The mishnah not only provides the image but also the answer. We need to focus our attention and dedicate our time and energy in three ways. First, spend time learning our inherited tradition—mikra. Second, cultivate our relationship to an interpretive tradition—mishnah. And lastly, engage deeply with the world around us—derekh eretz. And in this way, we will stay more deeply connected to ourselves, our Source, and our purpose.

In this time when we are called to take action, let us not think that what is needed is activism instead of dedicated contemplative spiritual practices. But rather, activism born out of our spiritual practice. We need to be in deep relationship with mikra and mishnah in order to be in right relationship with derekh eretz.

This is what we are to aspire to. To see ourselves, like the braided cord, woven together at our core, so that we can live lives of meaning and purpose.

May we have the strength of mind to continue to cultivate our relationship to mikra and mishnah. Which is what at SVARA we call Talmud study a spiritual practice. And may it sustain us as we work to transform this utterly broken world.

Ken yehi ratzon.

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