I spent last week in the wilderness of a silent meditation retreat. Much like the Israelites, I too felt it was at once an endless, arduous journey and an extraordinary spiritual experience. I have been sitting meditation retreats for nearly 10 years, and every time, one of the central experiences is eating. Eating three meals that I don't have to prepare, on a set schedule. Eating food that I have not decided on and trusting I will be sated and cared for. One of the things I noticed last week is that in the early days of the retreat I tend to eat too much at meals, for fear that I will be hungry later when food is not available. But as the retreat went on, I was able to trust that I would have what I need, when I needed it. And that if I didn't, that too would be OK. Questions of sustenance and desire, and whether we will have what we need, when we need it, are some of the core struggles of the book of Bamidbar, and this week's parsha, Be'haalotcha, in particular.
Throughout their journey in the wilderness, the Israelites are sustained by מן / manna. For hundreds of years, commentators have been asking the exact same question that the Israelites themselves ask, "Man hu? -- What is it?" the people ask, "for they did not know what it was." To which Moses answers, "It is God's gift of bread." It is the question, and not the answer, that names the unknowable substance. This manna, this "what-stuff," remains enigmatic. Some imagine it be something akin to oily cakes soaked in honey. Others say it tastes like coriander. Some posit it is shaped like little crystals, or a thin layer of frost. Some posit it was actually a physical manifestation of light that could be consumed. My favorite is the midrash that says that it tasted like whatever each person desired. This is the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory version of manna. And it wasn't just the manna that fell; the Talmud suggests that other necessities fell with it, spices for cooking and precious stones for the mishkan, the list goes on.
Avivah Zornberg writes, "The manna is essential wilderness food, unknown, uncanny; but precisely in its unknowability it will open a new kind of knowledge: 'that a person does not live on bread alone, but on what issues from God's mouth.' The sentence communicates the mystery of the manna: it stirs up the question -- What is it that can sustain human life?" (xvii).
So too on retreat. The meals themselves, more than a means of sustenance, are an opportunity for me to see more clearly my own relationship to desire. In the words of one of the teachers, to see how desire is in some sense a micro-aggression against the present moment. To try to imagine how much trust it would require for the Israelites to go to sleep each night in the barren wilderness and trust that in the morning the miracle of manna would once again fall from the sky so they could collect a day's worth of food. Here I was, knowing with certainty that there would be oatmeal at 6am, and I still worried.
What is it that sustains human life?
There is more to interrogate about the source of that worry and the reality of food scarcity in this world. For now I will say that I left retreat with a tender appreciation for every moment of calm that I have worked hard to experience and for the deep web of relationships that sustain our community.
Wishing you all a happy solstice and shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Saturday night begins the Holiday of Shavuot. This festival, which is counted among the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, along with Sukkot and Passover, is unique in many ways. Most interesting to me personally, coming on the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan, means that it is not linked to either the full or the new moon (which would be aligned with the 1st or 15th of any Hebrew month). In the Torah, Shavuot is known by many names which say something of its origins. It is called the Festival of Weeks (חג השבועות, Ḥag ha-Shavuot), Festival of Reaping (חג הקציר, Ḥag ha-Katsir), and Day of the First Fruits (יום הבכורים, Yom ha-Bikkurim).
Shavuot, the plural of a word meaning "week" or "seven," alludes to the fact that this festival happens exactly seven weeks (i.e. "a week of weeks") after Passover. So perhaps one could argue it is most closely tethered to the full moon of Nissan, as one begins counting the 49 days of the Omer on the 2nd night of Passover concluding with this harvest festival. But it still feels rather strange to mark such a significant moment on the rather anticlimactic 6th day.
Upon further reflection, I realized that rather than being connected to a prominent lunar cycle, it is connected to a significant moment in our Torah cycle. Every year we begin the 4th book of the Torah, known in Hebrew as Bamidbar and in English as Numbers, the Shabbat before Shavuot. In her new book, Avivah Zornberg explains,
"The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers is Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of (lit.) In-the-Wilderness. Although the Israelite wilderness experience begins in Exodus and concludes in Deuteronomy, the book of Numbers claims the interior of this world of wilderness as its peculiar territory. It evokes not only geographical terrain, but also an inner landscape, an 'inscape' as it were--a world of imaginative being" (xi).
Every year, beginning this book calls our attention to the fact that Torah was given in the wilderness. And every year it leads me back to the same question, why in the wilderness? This is a question that the rabbis have been asking for hundreds of years. And it is perhaps the only question where every possible answer is resonant. Perhaps my favorite midrash, which many of you have heard me teach, is that Torah was given in the wilderness so that no one could say it was theirs and in this way Torah would belong to everyone.
This year, I am captivated by a powerful midrash that teaches "...Wilderness [midbar] is, in essence, language [dibbur]. [Ein midbar ela dibbur.]" (Shemot Rabbah 2:5). And it is not just any language, but the Aseret HaDibbrot, the 10 Utterances of Sinai, known as the 10 Commandments. Which begin with the silent, ineffable aleph of "Anochi - I am." So say that from this place of vast uncertainty we call ourselves into existence. This is what it means to experience revelation. Lest we think our deepest teachings are in our control, Torah was given to us in the wilderness. Torah itself is a wilderness.
May we have the courage to journey to the wilderness this Shabbat and Shavuot, whether the landscape or the inscape. And to listen for the still small voice that is eager to reveal to us the Torah that is uniquely ours.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Tomorrow morning, Sadie Parker will not only become a Bat Mitzavh, but she will be chanting the final words of the book of Leviticus. And after she does so, all of us present will have the opportunity to observe the Ashkenazic custom and respond to her finishing this book of Torah with the words, "Hizki hizki v'nithazek!" (Note the feminine rendering of "Hazak hazak" since Sadie will be reading). These words resist translation, but might best be rendered as, "Be strong, be strong and we will strengthen one another." The "hazak" declaration is a closure ritual, a performative parallel to the graphic demarcation in the Torah scroll in which after the conclusion of each book we see four blank lines. The largest consecutive white spaces in all of Torah. This is the deep exhale of completion.
This ritual does not stand alone. There is a parallel invocation when one completes a chapter or masechet (volume) of Mishnah or Talmud. In those moments, it is a custom to recite, "Hadran alach v'Hadrach alan," literally "May we return to you and may you return to us." Alternately, the Aramaic word Hadran, like the Hebrew word Hadar, can mean to glorify or beautify. "May our study lift up the light of Torah and may Torah increase our own light." The essence of this double entendre is actually addressed to the sefer, the sacred text itself, and comes as the beginning to a longer concluding prayer. Those of us who completed the four-week Talmud class this past Tuesday had the opportunity to recite these words.
What strikes me about both of these rituals is the explicit mutuality and reflexivity embedded in our relationship to these sacred texts. In the case of the Torah scroll, it is the plural reflexive verb nithazek - we will draw strength. As though the ancient words, the reader, and those present are all bolstered in this intention. And in the case of the Talmudic practice, the intention that we long to return to study the text again, even more so, that the text stays with us beyond our study of it.
As Shavuot approaches and we prepare to begin the book of Numbers, I am touched by the image of Torah as sacred stories that strengthen us, make us more resilient, and call us back to them time and again.
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
In this fourth week of the Omer, we learn in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, "Rabbi Nehorai says, 'Exile yourself to a place of Torah. Don't assume that Torah will follow you or that your friends will hand it to you. Don't just rely on your own perception of things.'"
In a tradition where exile is often positioned as the lesser paradigm, I am struck by the image of this teaching, which imagines exile as a place of learning and possibility. A place we might (and perhaps should) voluntarily choose. And while at first it feels like a distant image, when I stop to think about it, in fact, it is utterly resonant. Throughout my life I have had to consciously choose to make space in my life for Torah. To leave places that I loved living in order to find teachers and study companions. And while on some literal level this is the loss and isolation that Rabbi Nehorai might be referring, on a deeper level, I think he knows that in truth, we must exile ourselves, not for for the sake of learning Torah, but for the sake of becoming ourselves.
There is no greater teacher of the Torah of exile than Dr. Joy Ladin. In her most recent book, The Soul of the Stranger, she writes in excruciating detail about the exile of her own transition, as she lost the right to live with her own children, to set foot on the campus of her own university, to attend her own father's funeral. And from that place of exile, she shares the deep Torah of her life.
"The Torah speaks to transgender lives because so much of it speaks to how hard it is for humanity to recognize and embrace someone - God - who cannot fit human terms. Transgender perspectives illuminate the Torah because we, like God, know what it means to love those who cannot understand us, to dwell in the midst of communities that have no place for us, to present ourselves in human terms that cannot help but misrepresent us. Religious communities that welcome transgender people hear in our voices an echo of the loneliness that haunts the living word of God. Religious communities that treat openly transgender people, even those of us who have lived in those communities all our lives, as strangers, should recall that God repeatedly commands the Israelites to remember their own experiences of being treated as strangers in the land of Egypt: to remember that they know--because God wants communities devoted to God to know--the soul of the stranger" (122).
I am grateful for all the ways that each of us at Kol Tzedek continues to stretch to create a spiritual home for trans and non-binary folks. It, too, is water in the desert.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Every Hebrew word is somehow derived from a two or three letter root, a combination of letters that can be conjugated and transformed to expand its meaning. One of the many reasons why Jewish tradition holds that the letters themselves contain mystical powers is because they are the source of all words of Torah.
Rabbi Mó and I are currently teaching a four-week Talmud class using the SVARA method. Perhaps the most unique pedagogical innovation of SVARA is the instruction to look up every word in the text, even if you think you know what it means. The goal is to understand not just the word, but the root of every word. To understand its essence, and from there, to reimagine its meaning.
This past week, we came across the word Torah in the passage of Talmud. And as you can imagine, most of us, once we decoded it, felt pretty sure we knew what Torah meant. Torah is Torah, after all. But determining its root requires something akin to grammar archeology. And what we discovered is that the root of Torah (ירה, ירי) means to permeate, to penetrate, to throw, to shoot forth. Torah is a path, it is an arrow in motion. This is why the first earth-soaking rain of the season is called yoreh, from the same root, for it shoots forth towards the ground.
When one digs a little deeper (in the dictionary), you can see that Torah means to point out, to direct, to teach and instruct. Which is to say, that Torah is not just any old kind of instruction. It is one that penetrates and permeates our lives, one that directs our actions.
It is a custom during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavout when we are meditating towards the revelation of Torah to study the six chapters of Pirkei Avot. Which is fitting for many reasons, not least of all because the final chapter is about Torah itself.
About the tablets that Moses received on Sinai upon which were engraved the 10 Commandments, it teaches, "Don't read the world חרות (charut, which means engraved), rather read it as חרות (cherut, which means freedom), because there is no freer person than someone who is busy studying Torah and all who study Torah will be raised up" (Pirkei Avot 6:2).
In this broken world (which contains our broken tablets), Torah is meant to be that which permeates within us a feeling of freedom, that which reconnects us to our instincts and our insights. It is from this sense of penetrating ease and purposeful direction that revelation is possible; in which we are reminded, again and again, we were all at Sinai. None of us are more or less entitled to Torah or truth.
This week in particular, as we have spent the past several weeks reading about the purity and impurity of women's bodies in the book of Leviticus, I want to direct our learning towards a world built on a foundation of reproductive justice. May we have the courage to reveal a Torah that manifests dignity and agency for all people, במהרה בימינו, speedily and in our days.
Rabbi Ari Lev
As my teacher Rabbi Art Green tells the story, two rabbis were having an argument some nineteen hundred years ago. The topic: What is Judaism's most important teaching? Rabbi Akiva, perhaps most famously, had a ready answer which just so happens to have come from this week's parsha: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) is the basic rule of Torah. This teaching is at the core of what our tradition describes as the Holiness Code, which is read this week and again on Yom Kippur afternoon in my many synagogues.
Not surprisingly, his friend Simeon ben Azzai lovingly disagreed. "I know a more basic rule than that and he quoted from the book of Genesis, "This is the book of human generations: On the day that the Holy One created humans, they were created in the image of the Divine (b'tzelem elohim)..." (Gen. 5:1).
This debate is both ancient and ever relevant. And in truth it didn't begin with Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai. Almost two hundred years earlier Hillel famously taught, when asked to summarize Judaism on one foot for a potential convert, "Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary; now go and learn" (B.T. Shabbat 31a). Akiva transforms Hillel's wisdom into the affirmative and roots it in biblical language.
I don't need to split hairs and choose the more righteous essence of Judaism. It is however worth noting that Ben Azzai has two worthwhile concerns. The first is about love. How can I be commanded to love someone? In these political times it does not take much imagination to conjure a person we consider so hateful that we cannot authentically muster love for them. Is that a violation of the essence of Judaism? To which Ben Azzai responds, no, love is not required as the most basic rule of Torah. But remember that they are still human beings, created in the image of God. That they are worthy of compassion and dignity. Treat them that way.
His second problem with Akiva's teaching hinges on the word "neighbor." Who does that include? Is that people with whom we live in proximity? Is that people like us? Is that only Jews? Or only Jews like us? Does Judaism not call us to extend our circles of concern to nishmat kol hai, the breath of all of creation?
Rabbi Green concludes, "The faith that every human being is created in God's image is the part of Judaism that has taken the deepest root in what may be culturally characterized as the 'Jewish soul.' Ironically it continues to exist even in Jews who are not sure if they can still use the word God or soul in any other part of their vocabulary. But they still affirm the lesson of tzelem elohim, the truth that every human life is sacred. It calls us to boundless respect for each human life, a valuing of human difference and individuality, and a commitment to fair and decent treatment for each person" (Judaisms 10 Best Ideas, p. 15).
Personally the question is still alive in my mind, what is the essence of Judaism? And I hope it always is.
Wishing you all a shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
There are weeks when it takes effort to knit our lives to the Torah portion. And there are weeks like this one, when the ancient words feel as though they were written for this very moment. This week's parsha, Acharei Mot, literally "After death," requires no introduction. We find ourselves in both real time and mythic time in the space that follows death. In the Torah's case, after the death of Aaron's two sons. And in our case, after the death of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, z”l in Poway, California. Who was in synagogue to recite Yizkor prayers on the eighth day of Passover.
In four places the Torah mentions the death of Aaron's sons. And in each of those places it mentions the supposed cause of their death. Aaron's children died attempting to reach God. Much like Lori, they were trying to draw close to the Divine. How can we reconcile the possibility of death as a possible consequence of Jewish practice or Shabbat observance? Is that not at odds with our core understanding of Jewish tradition? As we sing on Shabbat morning, "It is a tree of life to those who draw near to it" (Proverbs 3:17).
It is a tree of life. It is meant to be sustaining and nurturing. Which is affirmed a few chapters later in this week's parsha when the text teaches that a person is meant to observe Jewish teachings וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם "and live by them." For which the Talmud clarifies, "live by them, and not die by them" וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם (B.T. Avodah Zara 27b).
It is because of this core value that the rabbis explain that one is permitted to violate a mitzvah (i.e., Shabbat) in order to save a life. It is this core value that undermines for me the homophobic reading of Leviticus 18:21, which appears only a few verses later. Because Torah and mitzvot in their essence, should be life giving. Jewish practices should animate us; give our lives meaning; renew our life-force. Judaism is meant to make us feel more alive. Any interpretation of Torah that suggests otherwise, say the rabbis, has strayed too far. Because we should live by them and not die by them.
This Shabbat embodies our resistance and our resilience. It is profound to affirm life in this moment and welcome three little ones into community and covenant. May our commitment to our traditions and our community be strengthened. And may we experience the joy, calm, and peace that Shabbat offers us. "For it is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it, all who uphold it may be be counted as fortunate. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace."
Rabbi Ari Lev
Last Friday night, amidst the charades, spilled grape juice, and joyful chaos that is seder with toddlers, the group of us gathered managed to have one relatively grown up conversation. It was, rather ironically, about the Four Children. The Haggadah reads: "The Torah alludes to Four Children: One wise, One wicked, One simple and One who doesn't know how to ask." At our seder, we were each prompted to reflect on the roles we play in our families of origin relative to the archetypal children presented in the Haggadah.
On some level we all resisted categorization until the resident psychologist at the table led us through a conversation about internal family systems. Then we took a closer look at text of the Haggadah and saw with renewed clarity that in fact the wise child and the wicked child ask essentially the same question: What does this ritual (and its rules and laws) mean to you? One question ends with lachem/לכם and the other etchem/אתכם. In both questions the child is asking their grown up what this means to them. The distinction really comes in the parental response, which supposes a difference of tone or intention. The wise one is heard as precocious and curious, and the parent wants to teach them. And the wicked one is heard as judgmental or alienated, and the parent is shaming.
In different moments in my life, I find myself feeling more or less like both the wicked and the wise child. Sometimes it is about how I approach a situation and sometimes it is about what is projected on to me. Sometimes I want to be one or the other, and sometimes I feel stuck in a bad pattern. Because we know for sure that these paradigms are not value-neutral. To be the wise one is to be identified with the rabbis of old, the sages of Jewish tradition, the authors of the Haggadah itself. To be the wise one is to be seen as a source of authority. But then again, as we learn in Pirkei Avot,
"Who is wise? One who learns from everyone."
As we enter the final day(s) of Passover, may we linger in the seder's teachings. May we be inspired to extend kindness and compassion to the many children in our lives and to ourselves for the genuinely curious, imperfect questions we ask.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
In just one week, many of us will find ourselves sitting around a seder table reading from our respective haggadot. In one way or another, we will all be fulfilling our obligation to telling the Passover story. At the very beginning of a traditional Haggadah we are told "All that extend the Exodus story are praiseworthy--Harei zeh meshubach." Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch (15th c. law code) tells us that we should speak about it all night – "until sleep overtakes us" (OC 481:2). I don't know about you, but there is no way for it to take me all night to read through my haggadah. So what is really intended by this instruction?
I think the answer comes later in the haggadah, when we say, "In every generation each of us must see ourselves as if we have personally gone out of Egypt." We are called to extend the story to our time, to our lives. We are not separate from this retelling. The Sefat Emet explains that when the Torah says, "You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day (be'etsem hayom) I brought you out of mitzrayim," what it really means is be'atsmo (from within yourself) you came out of a narrow place. What story is uniquely yours to tell this year, be'atsmo, from your own experience?
In truth, the Haggadah is, was, and will be a still life, an imperfect prompt for our own searching. And the rabbis knew this to be true. Take for example the fact that in the Torah women are central to the Exodus story. From the midwives who save the Hebrew babies to the prophet Miriam and her wandering well. And yet women are absent from the Haggadah. We learn in the Talmud, Rav Avira teaches, "In the merit of righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt." While women may be absent from the pages of our haggadah, here is Rav Avira giving full credit to women for the redemption of the entire Jewish people of that generation. What was it that they did that merited God's saving hand in Egypt?
Get a load of this midrash, as retold by Rabbi Avi Strausberg. "Rav Avira explains in the continuation of that passage that at that time, the men, backs broken from oppressive labor, would come home defeated and tired. One can imagine that in situations of such desperation, the focus would be on surviving in the now rather than looking to producing future generations. But, the women were able to look toward the future. They'd go to the river and come away with pots filled with water and fish. They'd bathe their husbands, rub them with oils, feed them the fish and ultimately through their loving, rejuvenating actions, these couples would come to have sex, and the women would become pregnant. Once pregnant, these strong women would continue to take matters into their own hands. When it came time to give birth, they would give birth under the apple tree, and the Holy One would join them, sending a midwife to care for the newborn. These babies were resilient like their parents. When the Egyptians would come for them, a miracle would occur, the earth would absorb them, holding them safe until the threat had passed. They would then emerge from the ground, like grass of the field. As they grew, they would return home, like flocks of sheep, healthy, numerous and whole.”
Wow, now that’s a story! While the editors of the haggadah may not have seen fit to include these stories of feminist resilience, it is on us to give these women, and ourselves, the proper place in the Passover story. To tell the story of our going out from a narrow place all night, until sleep overtakes us.
As you prepare for Passover, may you search out not only your chametz, but also your personal Exodus story, which is praiseworthy to tell.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, marking the new moon of Nissan and announcing the Passover is approaching. Tomorrow morning Jews around the world, including us right here in West Philly, will be singing a bonus set of songs known as Hallel. Hallel, comprising Psalms 113-118, is a collection of psalms of celebration, recited on joyous occasions including Rosh Hodesh, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Hanukkah. It is also included in the Passover seder, where it is divided into two parts that surround the meal. Notably for tomorrow, on Rosh Hodesh and the last six days of Passover, a partial "Hatzi Hallel" is recited omitting the first half of psalm 115 and psalm 116.
The connection between Hallel and Passover is not incidental. For starters, we recite Hallel on Passover and at Seder. And Psalm 114 begins by declaring, "B'zeit yisrael...When Israel went out from Egypt." But it goes deeper than that. The psalms of Hallel draw on the theme of exodus as a metaphor for celebratory moments, both moments of leaving behind oppression and also moments of overcoming personal or communal struggle. And verses from these psalms, like Ozi v'Zimrat Yah, also appear liturgically in key moments like the Song at the Sea. Through spirited song, Hallel invites us to imagine a world of freedom and renewal.
In just two weeks we will read in the Haggadah that each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we personally went out from a narrow place. This is not just a story we remember, but a sacred practice we embody. And tomorrow is our warm up.
Tomorrow when we recite Hallel, I will invite everyone to rise in body or spirit. And while this may seem incidental, it speaks to how the rabbis understood the power of these psalms.
"The Sages taught: Who initially recited Hallel?
Rabbi Eliezer says: Moses and the Jewish people recited it when they stood by the sea...
Rabbi Yehuda says: Joshua and the Jewish people recited it when they defeated the kings of Canaan who stood against them...
Rabbi Yosi HaGelili says: Mordecai and Esther recited it when the wicked Haman stood against them..." (B.T. Pesachim 117a)
The list goes on and on.
As I have learned from my preschooler, according to the rabbis, Hallel is about being an upstander. The Talmud continues, "And the Rabbis say that Hallel was not established for any specific event, but the Prophets among them instituted that the Jewish people should recite it on every appropriate occasion, and for every trouble, may it not come upon them. When they are redeemed, they recite it over their redemption."
Hallel is both an affirmation of the world as it is and the world as it could be. It calls us to remember the moments when our people took a stand. And it invites us to do the same in our time. Hallel is an extra boost of faith and joy that propels us to believe that the renewal of the new moon ushers in the renewal in our own lives.
כן יהי רצון
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.