Abby Stein is with IfNotNow NYC.
This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim (literally, laws), is one of the most complicated Torah portions to study in depth. It is a wealth of laws as they relate to interpersonal relationships — Bein Adam LeChavero. Growing up I attended an ultra-religious school, and we would joke that on this week we need to wear ‘metal pants’ to school, to avoid being wounded by the wrath of our teachers — if/when we couldn’t keep up with the complicated studies.
This week, it felt like every transgender student has to start wearing metal pants to school — this time the regime is coming for us. The highest office in our country made a not so subtle announcement proclaiming “Trans lives don’t matter” and, wink wink, we will ignore Title IX of 1975’s federal human rights law when it comes to one of the most vulnerable communities in the country, transgender youth.
We are at lost. How do we fight back against a government that is pouring all its resources into undoing all we have accomplished in the past few years? How do we fight regressing, when we are still working on progressing? Once again, we can turn to our ancient tradition, and find inspiration to rise up and resist.
A part of this week’s Torah reading that is perhaps less known to most American Jews, is the special reading of “Shabbat Shekalim” — a special reading about the charity the Israelites ought to donate to the temple. This reading is added every year on the Shabbat leading up to the new month of Adar, the month of happiness, the month of the holiday of Purim.
One of my favorite rabbinical exegeses on this reading, is a interesting conversation between the divine and the Israelite leader, Moshe:
“On Parshat Shekalim Moshe said before the Holy one, Lord of the world, once I die I wouldn’t be remembered? The Holy One responded, I promise you, just like now (while you are alive) you are standing before them and teaching them Parshat Shekalim, and you are raising their heads (raising their spirits), so will it be each and every year when they will read it for me, you will be there at that time, and raise their heads.” (Midrash Tanchuma, 2:9:3)
What’s the significance of ‘reading’ this specific story, that the divine promised Moshe, that this will be how he will be remembered, and that with this he will raise the spirits of the nation?
In the Hasidic teachings of my great ancestor, Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer — Baal Shem Tov, and his disciples, there is a consistent approach to the power of reading biblical stories. Hasidism teaches that “Reading evokes the time” meaning, that reading a specific story, at a specific time, is not simply storytelling, but it is as if the story is happening once again. In that sense we can understand the relationship between the power of charity and the energy to ‘rise up’: it reminds us, and recreates the original deeds; it is teaching us the power of charity — it is what gives up the power to keep our heads up.
This past week we had an opportunity to see the power of charity, and how that helps us to rise our heads up: As we were faced with yet another symptom of the rising tide of hate, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and discrimination against every minority in our country, motivated by the rhetoric of the highest office in land. This time the victims were the living and the dead alike, in the vicious attack on the Jewish Cemetery in St. Louis. Yet at this moment the power of charity and inter-faith solidarity rose in its full glory, with over $110,000 raised by Muslim women, to help rebuilt the cemetery.
This is what this Torah portion of interpersonal relationships, and its added portion of rising up through charity teaches us about current days. When we look on both of these ideas, together, we see that the most effective path to resistance is when the persecuted, whoever they are, gather to fight back, together.
When and if, all the Jews, Muslims, LGBTQIA, People of Color, People of less privileged socio-economic status, and so on, with the help of allies, gather to cry out loud: “WE RESIST” there is nothing we cannot accomplish!
PS: Check out the Sefaria source sheet with some of the sources mentioned here: http://www.sefaria.org/sheets/57914