Ukraine: Study War No More

Posted on February 28, 2022

Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis
Temple Shir Tikva, Wayland, MA

Kabbalat Shabbat • February 25, 2022 • 25 Adar I 5782
Ukraine:  Study War No More (Parashat Vayakhel)

When I was in 8th grade, my teacher at Monday Night School—that was the teen program back then at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, CA—gave each of us a project to research a particular place in Jewish history.  Mine was on the Pale of Settlement, that area of the old Russian Empire that encompasses what are now Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, eastern Poland, and most of Ukraine, and the areas around them, where Jews were allowed permanent residency for the hundreds of years when they weren’t permitted to live elsewhere.

It was one of the first independent research projects I was ever assigned, and, honestly, I didn’t realize that other teens in my class weren’t taking a supplementary school assignment quite as seriously as I was, so I went all in, heading to the library (it was long before the invention of Google), photocopying maps, meticulously copying down facts and figures—and figuring out that it’s where most of my family was from. And that, given the makeup of the Jewish community of America, that it’s where most of us here who are Jewishly-descended are from too. That the shtetls of Pale of Settlement were the setting for the Isaac Bashevis Singer stories I grew up reading, and that Ukraine, in particular, is home of the imaginary Anatevka whose songs I grew up singing.

Ukraine may feel very far away from us, here in America—except, I know, for those of you for whom the Former Soviet Union was your first home.  It is your own family and friends who are now at war.  For some of you, it is streets that you have walked that are under attack. I hope that you will tell me your stories about what this war means to you and what it is doing to you and the people and places you love.  I pray for the safety of the people you love and of the places you love.

But, however far away Ukraine may feel for the rest of us, as my colleague Rabbi Joseph Meszler wrote earlier this week:

We live in an increasingly small world. [And] when you are Jewish, the world is smaller…. Everyone is entitled to their opinion about geo-politics. [But] I do, however, feel compelled to talk about the position of the Jewish people in these situations, often caught in the middle, and the misuse of the Holocaust to further persecution.[1]

Jews in Ukraine are particularly vulnerable right now.  As are LGBTQ people, and LGBTQ Jews in particular—as Keshet reminded us today with their statement of concern that LGBTQ Jews will be subject to scapegoating in what may now become a vast humanitarian crisis.  As our history shows, we are personally connected to this crisis on a deeply-rooted level, and the violence of tzars and pogroms of the past that drove so many of our ancestors away from that land to this one echo now, with the statements about de-Nazification regarding what is in fact the only country outside of Israel with a Jewish president and prime minister.

Our tradition gives us a “universal, ethical mandate articulated… that when we are unable to promote peace we should then try to limit suffering”[2] and also articulates the Jewish understanding that as Jews, kol Yisrael avevim zeh ba-zeh: our fates are tangled up in each other’s (BT Sotah 37a).  What happens in Ukraine is happening to us and under our watch.


All of this is to say that I feel deeply connected to the news we are hearing—and, as I often do, I speak tonight not as an expert but as a framer:  as someone who can try to help us see the situation through Jewish lenses, and to understand what our tradition calls on us to do: calls on us to do even when the events we are responding to are on the other side of the world, and especially when those whose lives and independence are at stake are, at the end of the day, family.

In a Facebook post this week, Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, wrote a reminder that there are three main tools that our tradition provides us when it is time to help reclaim power and agency—our agency when we feel helpless here to affect change in a crisis so much bigger than any of us can control—and those tools of our tradition are:  Torah, tzedakah, and prayer. He describes these as “the technologies that our people have developed over time to respond to the anxiety of powerlessness and as tools for the retrieval of our agency,” to be able to do “whatever we can materially do to help” those who are vulnerable[3]—to which I add others in general, and those in our Jewish family and LGBTQ families in particular. These are not the only tools out there in the world, but they are ours.

First, Torah:  This week’s Torah portion, Vayak’hel, gives instructions about the observance of Shabbat as a weekly time of rest, holy to God, and describes the beginning of the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them in the desert Wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.  Before this, the Israelites have thought of God as something that responds to them from a particular, physical place.  Instead, with Shabbat and the Mishkan, they learn:  we are instructed to build communities centered on holy time, not on the sovereignty of land; we are to bring our own gifts to collaborate to construct a sense of holiness that can travel with us wherever we go and to honor what is most Holy as our guide, rather than idolatrously worshiping human power and lusting for material and physical dominance. We learn from Torah here that it is our responsibility to focus on taking care of each other and what is most precious, rather than supporting attempts at conquest and domination.[4]

Second, tzedakah: There are many funds and causes to contribute to, but for those of us looking to support Jewish communities in Ukraine who are struggling to survive or escape, the JDC, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and, locally here, CJP have all set up crisis funds to help.  No one of us can save a whole people through our contributions, but together, we can make an impact.

Third, prayer:  As a rabbi, I will tell you, I cannot tell you how prayer works.  I don’t know what power my words have to sway this universe.  But our tradition teaches that words do have the power to create and influence our reality, and that prayers for peace reach highest of all.

The Chasidic rebbe Rav Nachman of Breslov lived in Ukraine at the turn of the 19th century.  His grave is considered a holy site and thousands of people make pilgrimage there each year to honor his legacy.  He wrote this prayer for peace, translated here by Rabbi Deborah Silver, recalling the words that we sang together at the beginning of our service: Lo yisa goi-el-goi cherev, lo yilm’du od milchamah.

He wrote—

May it be Your will,
Holy One, our God, our ancestors’ God,
that you erase war and bloodshed from the world
and in its place draw down
a great and glorious peace
so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation
neither shall they learn war any more.

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 up, by us, 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.
(Lev. 26:6)
but let justice come in waves like water
and righteousness flow like a river,
(Amos 5:24)
for the earth shall be full
of the knowledge of the Holy One
as the waters cover the sea.
(Isaiah 11:9)

So may it be.
And we say:

[1] Rabbi Joseph Meszler, “What’s Happening in Ukraine and Why the Jewish People Should Care.”

[2] Meszler.

[3]Dr. Yehuda Kurzer, (February 25, 2022).

[4] Based on Kurtzer.