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Rabbi Appel on Parashat Emor

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Mourners hold candles in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 27. (Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images/JTA)

Tragedy has marred these last six months. Houses of worship have been shattered by hate and murder. For Jews, we think in particular of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life and then, almost unimaginably, again in a Chabad in Poway, Calif. on April 27. I feel overwhelmed. Hate is such a huge opponent. At times, I feel there’s nothing I can do.

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, commands us to count the Omer – the period of seven harvest weeks between Passover and Shavuot, between slavery and revelation. The mystics equated each week of the Omer with one of Kabbalah’s seven lower sefirot (aspects of the Divine). Each day of that week hones in on an aspect of that quality in ourselves. Thus, counting the Omer becomes a ritual of self-transformation, from our narrow places to expansiveness and being ready for revelation, one day at a time.

Last week, I heard an inspirational story of transformation. Facing History and Ourselves, which brings Holocaust and anti-oppression education to high schools, hosted Derek Black and Allison Gornik. Black, godson of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, was a rising star in the white nationalist movement when he arrived at New College of Florida, where Matthew Stevenson, a fellow student, decided to engage with him by inviting him to weekly Shabbat dinners. Stevenson’s roommate, Gornik, reluctantly began talking with Black, hoping to have an impact on him.

Several years and hundreds of conversations later, Black has renounced his white nationalism. He now speaks out and helps others understand its threat. On stage last week, Gornik shared her determination to keep talking with Black, to keep demonstrating evidence that his beliefs were wrong, even when it was upsetting – one day, one conversation at a time.

You’ll be reading this column during the Omer week of netzach, the quality of endurance and determination. Even when faced with hatred in the world that can feel overwhelming, may we find in ourselves the perseverance to bring our little part of the change, one day at a time.