Power With IYAR
We have all been touched in someway by the COVID-19 pandemic. In my own life, we have close friends who are front-line health-care workers, family members who are particularly vulnerable to the illness and people in our wider networks who are suffering economically. This is in addition to having a son who is graduating high school in six weeks and transitioning into a very uncertain future.
In this time of physical and social illness, the month of Iyar comes with a promise of healing. This promise is subtle, as it i
s embedded in an acronym in a Torah passage just after the Israelites cross the Red Sea after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 15:26). There God says to Moses, “I am God your healer” in Hebrew – “Ani Adonai Rofechah,” a phrase whose first letters spell, אייר/ Iyar, the name of this Hebrew month.
What kind of healing is promised here? We don’t know for sure, but a look at the events that transpired during this month throughout history may give us a hint.
Iyar is completely consumed by the period in the Hebrew calendar known as the Sefira – the counting of 49 days from the liberation of Passover to receiving the Torah on Shavuot. Each day has its own essence and is a step on the path from slavery to being able to enter into covenant with God. This period took on a flavor of mourning after the plague struck Rabbi Akiva’s students, killing 24,000 people during this time of the year two millennium ago in the Land of Israel. To honor their memory, it is traditional not to get haircuts or celebrate weddings during this time. In an attempt to find meaning in this major loss of life, the Talmud states these students did not honor each other, leading later rabbis to establish regular study of Jewish ethical texts (Pirkei Avot) as a feature of these weeks.
Fast forward 1800 years, to the past century, and this season saw acts of incredible bravery (the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943), and the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in Israel and Jerusalem (5 Iyyar and 28 Iyyar). In the midst of this period of semi-mourning are these moments. Iyar is a month of contradictions and paradox.
The healing aspect of this month may be understood by looking at these two major events – the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty as bookends on Jewish power. Rabbi Avika helped lead the last Jewish rebellion against Roman domination, only to be defeated terribly. This defeat in 135 C.E. marked the end of Jewish sovereignty until the events of the 20th century. While we don’t know the connection between the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students and their defeat by the Romans, we know from the Talmud that ethical behavior was a serious issue among these students in what must have been a powerful institution with tens of thousands of students.
The establishment of the State of Israel put the question of Jewish ethics and power back on the front-burner of the Jewish world. As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has written, power in itself is an ethical value, particularly in a world where tyrants have the ability to act out genocide. It is ethical to have power to confront this cruelty. However, it is how power is used that makes it ethical or unethical. Power over and domination will tend to be ethically corrosive, while using “power with” will tend to bring out the better angels of human nature.
The healing of Iyar may be found in how we use power. The reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel provides an opportunity to heal our ancient trauma and live in power “with” and not power “over,” particularly regarding the Palestinian People. At the present moment, this feels like a distant hope, but we are people with a long history and a long horizon. Much incredible and determined activism is taking place to change power “over” to power “with.” Some organizations working towards an ethical expression of power include Roots/Judur and Kehilat Tzion, which was founded by Rabba Tamar Elad Appelbaum, a dear friend and guest teacher with IOWA's Ovdim cohort.
Regarding this Pandemic and the U.S., will we use our power to create new social and economic arrangements that honor the working class people who are putting their lives on the line daily to keep society running? Will we finally end the perverse economic arrangement that enables the few to amass huge fortunes while gutting the social systems that create conditions for the vast majority to live healthy and prosperous lives? These are questions about how we use our power and we will have the chance to exercise this power over the coming months and years.
As we continue with the stay-at-home phase of the pandemic, may this Iyyar be a time of reflection, vision and resolve for how we will heal ourselves and our society through the ethical exercise of power.
Chodesh Tov/Wishing you all a healthy and safe month,