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Parashat Re'eh: 118 Goats in Boise, Idaho

After our silent Amidah, we closed with words of peace - Oseh Shalom. This is a week for prayers for peace. As we come together on Shabbat, our day of rest and peace, our hearts and thoughts turn to the Ukrainian people, who are under attack from Russian aggression that built to a boiling point this week.

Here, on the other side of the world, we may be scared, unsure, or concerned about this war, the first military engagement in Europe in decades. We may also be struggling to connect to something that feels far away. But the conflict in Ukraine is much closer to us than we might think.

As a first-year rabbinical student living in Israel, I participated in an initiative to travel to the Former Soviet Union during Passover. The goal of the project was to support progressive Jewish communities in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, many of which were small, under-resourced, without clergy, and in some cases, facing discrimination or oppression in their own countries.

During that Passover week, my assignment was to visit Russia. My classmate and I asked to be assigned to Russia since both of us traced our family roots there. The stories of war and violence this week are inextricably linked to the narrative of many of our families and ancestors, who fled violence in Russia, Ukraine, and other areas of Eastern Europe.

That week, I visited and led seders for Jewish communities in Moscow, Chelyabinsk, and Tver. I was amazed by the vibrancy of some of the larger synagogues in Moscow and heartened by the dedication of the smaller communities in the more remote cities and towns. One conversation stays with me, with a small group of young people at a mid-size congregation in Moscow. We asked them if they planned to raise their families in Moscow. “Our parents want what’s best for us,” they said. “They’ve all told us, the minute we can, that we’re going to make Aliyah, to move to Israel. Things are fine for us here now, but we don’t know how they will be tomorrow.” I kept in touch with a few of those young adults, and one by one, each of them did move to Israel, leaving behind an authoritarian country that did not want them to fully express their faith.

Perhaps some of you were involved, here in the Berkshires, or elsewhere, in efforts to support refugees from the Former Soviet Union, fleeing that same oppression. That commitment to refugees of war and conflict carries through to our support of our Afghan family, the Mangals, to this day.

The same Passover week I was in Russia, and each successive year after, many first-year seminary students travel to Ukraine as well, to visit some of the 40 liberal communities that are active there, supported by the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

There are 40 Jewish communities in Ukraine, and many of us trace back through the generations to this area of the world. Many of us are from there, from this exact part of the world where borders changed and Jews were left in the middle, and we are a part of this story now, too. Ukraine is an area of rich Jewish history and tradition, where Jewish communities thrived, even as they faced persecution.

Beyond any personal connections to this region, we unequivocally declare that war and military aggression are wrong, that there is no justification for this war, fighting, loss of life. For all the Ukrainian people who have and will become refugees, losing their homes and their livelihood, if not their lives, we demand an end to fighting and violence.

Our prophet, Isaiah, issued a clear call for an end to war and violence, for a vision of an eternal future of peace:

Lo yisa goi el goi cherev
Lo yilm’du od milchamaNation shall not lift up sword against nation
They shall not study war anymore

That vision requires all of us to make it so. This isn’t a time to sit back and think, this isn’t about me. There are ways we can support the Jewish communities of Ukraine, which we’ll share with you in next week’s email communications. I’ll paste a link in the chat tonight as well.

We are a part of this story. Echoing Isaiah’s words, I share this blessing of Rabbi Nachman, one of our great teachers, himself from the area of the world that would become Ukraine:

May it be Your will,
Holy One, our God,
That you erase war and bloodshed from the world
And in its place drawdown
A great and glorious peace
So that nation shall not lift up sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore.

Rather, may all the inhabitants of the earth
Recognize and deeply know
This great truth:
That we have not come into this world for strife and division
Nor for hatred and rage
Nor provocation and bloodshed

We have come here only to encounter You
Eternally Blessed One

And so, we ask your compassion upon us
Raise us up, by what is written:

I shall place peace upon the earth
And you shall lie down safe and undisturbed
And I shall banish evil beasts from the earth
And the sword shall not pass through your land
But let justice come in waves like water
And righteousness flow like a river
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Holy One
As the waters cover the sea

May it be so!
(Translation by Rabbi Deborah Silver)

Shabbat shalom - a Shabbat of peace for all.

Sat, March 25 2023 3 Nisan 5783