In a famous midrash we are told that the original Torah was a scroll made of white fire and its writing was black fire. It was itself fire, hewn out of fire, completely formed in fire and given through fire (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:15).
For me, the fact that Torah is fire and not iron, which is formed and finished in fire, says everything about how we are called to relate to sacred wisdom and to ourselves. This midrash highlights the belief that Torah is both a Divine gift and inherently broken. There is perhaps no greater visual for this than that of Moses actually smashing the tablets with the ten commandments upon learning about the Golden Calf. Of course we learn that Moses goes back up the mountain and returns with a new set. And without skipping a beat, the rabbi's explain in another midrash that the Israelites carried both the whole and the broken tablets in the mishkan as they wandered in the wilderness. I can almost imagine the rabbi's excitement when Moses breaks the first set of tablets. Because for them, this makes manifest what they already believed, Torah is inherently, intentionally broken.
Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, one of the great living Talmud scholars, writes of the maculate nature of Torah. That Torah is intentionally full of ambiguity and contradiction. And it is calling us to wrestle with it, interpret it, make meaning from it. This is precisely why it is called Torat Hayyim, a living tradition. Because our engagement with it makes it relevant; quite literally, gives it life.
The maculate conception of Torah is at the heart of the Talmud, which values the proliferation of ideas and the process of debate over clarity and correctness. The value of debate (makhloket) is part of what defines Judaism's relationship to sacred text. In fact, the entire rabbinic project is built upon the indefinite nature of Torah; and perhaps more profoundly, Torah's imperfections.
There are two reasons why these ideas are so present for me this week. About two months ago while teaching a class on Torah Trope, it came to Rabbi Michelle's attention that our Torah's were in need of repair. Many letters had smudged and the parchment was damaged. With the help of Ariana Katz, we were able to connect to Soferet Linda Coppleson, who is part of a movement of Jewish female scribal artists. She was able to repair our Torah and we will be reading from it for the first time tomorrow morning. Here a few images of the repair process, including a before/after shot of the same columns. I am excited for us to gather close tomorrow and let the light of the parchment shine through the light of the letters.
Secondly, for the past 6 weeks a brave group of us have been studying Talmud on Tuesdays nights. And tomorrow, two students who have been study pairs, Beth and Gabby, will be sharing reflections on the text we have been learning about verbal exploitation.
For so many painful and hopeful reasons, I am looking forward to being together tomorrow. May we all have the courage, humility and freedom to see ourselves through the light of Torah, as both imperfect and holy all at once.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Lunar New Year to those that celebrate,
Rabbi Ari Lev
It is usually right around now, mid February, when I start to complain about winter. I complain about the lack of sunlight. I complain about the cold. I complain about the short days and the long nights. I actually enjoy snow, so that is one less thing to complain about. By February, I have forgotten what it feels like to wear shorts and a t-shirt. I have forgotten the sweetness of local peaches and spaciousness of long summer nights.
In The Jewish Book of Days, Rabbi Jill Hammer describes this time of year as the season of sap. She writes, “The sap in the trees begins to rise, and life runs through all the veins of the trees. The blood of the living creatures also begins to move faster as they awaken to seek food. Ice cracks and melts; water disperses over the land. Though there still may be a chill on the earth, it is an invigorating cold, one that inspires us to move.” Just when we hit our winter rut, nature propels us forward.
Tonight marks the first of 4 special Shabbatot preparing us for Passover (Wait, It's not even Purim yet!?). I will be offering a Dvar Torah on generosity as a tool of liberation and debt as a model for interconnectedness. We will be looking to the Torah and to nature for inspiration.
In the words of the Sufi mystic Hafiz:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
Rabbi Ari Lev
Every year as we read the story of the Israelites crossing the sea, we lift up the role of song as a source of inspiration and celebration. In fact, we refer to this very parsha, Beshalach, by a secondary name, Shabbat Shirah - a shabbat dedicated to the power of song. And in every morning service, we remember this moment from which comes the famous Shefa Gold chant "Ozi v'Zimrat Yah, vayehi li lishuah - My strength and God's song will be what saves me" (Ex. 15:2).
While the image Miriam and the Israelites singing and dancing with their timbrels is core to our liberation narrative, so is the image that follows. That of the Egyptians and their horses drowning in the sea as the Israelites pass over to the other shore. In a world where we believe that none of us are free until all of us are free, it is hard to reconcile this theological moment.
And not just for us postmodern folk. But for the ancient sages as well. The Talmud tells the story of the angels who wanted to sing a song of praise as the Israelites crossed over to the safety, while the Egyptians drowned. But God scolds them saying: "The work of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?!" (B.T. Megillah 10b). There is inevitably tremendous loss in even the most liberating of choices. The rabbis make clear that we are not meant to derive joy in the suffering of others.
In my own experience, singing itself opens me to the possibility of transforming anger into compassion. In the words of Joey Weisenberg, "Music reminds us that even as we must sometimes fight, we can still urge ourselves to consider the essential humanity of even our worst enemies" (The Torah of Music, 91). If not for their sake, then for ours.
I wish you all a Shabbat Shirah Shalom.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week, Rabbi Michelle and I (and I am sure many of you) watched from afar as our teachers, friends, and rabbis occupied the Senate, sitting on the floor and singing the song of the sea in support of the 800,000 Dreamers. Many of them were arrested as they demanded that congress pass a clean Dream Act.
In the weeks when we read the story of Moses repeatedly begging Pharaoh for for our freedom, the calls are coming out from immigrant organizations and Jewish coalitions to "Let my people stay." In precisely this moment when give voice to our mythic story of liberation, our government is conducting mass deportations.
This week I also have been following the journey of Carmela Libre, currently taking sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate in North Philly. Many KT members have been gathering supplies to sustain her in sanctuary.
In this week's Parsha, Bo, Pharoah says, "Rise up, leave...Go! קומו צאו...לכו" (Ex 12:31). Sometimes freedom and safety look like an exodus. And sometimes staying in sanctuary. One way or another, we too must create our own momentum to claim our liberation and leave this narrow place.
Tomorrow, we at Kol Tzedek will not hold our regular Shabbat for Everyone servcices. Instead, many of us will join the Women's March tomorrow. You are invited to gather (whether or not you are planning to march!) with Rabbi Michelle 9:00-10:0 at the new Kol Tzedek space (707 S. 50th Street) to sing and pray together or for a contemplative service with Rabbi Ari Lev at BZBI (300 S. 18th Street).
I also fully support everyone who is honoring the boycott of the march because of its collaboration with the police. And pray that the march leaders revoke the call for surveillance and checkpoints. And that no harm comes to anyone, especially (trans)women of color, from this collective organizing.
May we all find our way through this narrow place to a redeemed world free of borders and oppression.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I spent the morning reading through the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and commentary on this week's Torah portion, Vayera. Every year I am stunned by the intertextual resonance as we delve into the book of Exodus and honor the legacy of such a tremendous spiritual leader in the liberation movements of our own time.
This morning, I was struck by a particular echo. In response to Moses' pleas to free the Israelites, Pharaoh's heart repeatedly hardens (Ex. 9:12, 35).
וַֽיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃
It is precisely this dangerous contraction that Dr. King spoke to when he delivered this sermon, A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart (circa August 1959, Alabama). I invite you to read his wisdom in full.
In his sermon, Dr. King cautions us against the dangers of the soft mind which he characterizes as guided by fear -- fear of change and of difference. With an eery resonance to our own political moment, he writes: "We do not need to look far to detect the dangers of soft mindedness. Dictators, capitalizing on soft mindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society.”
But we must not stop with the cultivation of a tough mind. He preaches: "Tough mindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached...The hardhearted person never truly loves...[and] lacks the capacity for genuine compassion...There are hardhearted and bitter individuals among us who would combat the opponent with physical violence and corroding hatred."
By way of conclusion, Dr. King writes: "[There is a way in] our quest for freedom, namely, nonviolent resistance, that combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft-minded and the violence and the bitterness of the hard-hearted."
We learn from this week's parsha, that hardheartedness is the defining response of a Pharoah. We also know from personal experience, that hard-heartedness can be a protective measure in the face of so much suffering. While it serves us in some ways, the story of Exodus makes clear, it ultimately stands in the way of liberation.
In our own lifetimes, we too are called to cultivate a tough mind, seeking truth with clarity and discernment. And a tender heart, pursuing justice with love and compassion. May we each find the courage to look inside and discern where our work lies. And may have the wisdom to approach ourselves and each other with a spirit of nonviolence. In this way, may we continue the work of leaving the narrow places.
Looking forward to singing and learning with you this Shabbat.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I have spent much of this week sorting through boxes of books. When the library is complete, it will likely fill 6 full bookshelves, spanning large swaths of time and space. The shelves are full of books on Biblical Torah commentary, Feminist thought, Jewish Philosophy, midrash, dictionaries, spirituality and much more.
We learn in Pirkei Avot, "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it" (5:22). And for sure I felt that this week. So many voices lifting up spiritual truths. And so many voices still yet to be heard. While on the one hand all of these books could lead to spiritual overwhelm. How will I ever learn enough? What do I need to know to feel Jewish enough? They also point to a more profound teaching about Talmud Torah, the practice of text study. But in fact, the teaching continues, "Reflect on it and grow gray with it..."
Much like Jewish concepts of the Divine, Torah is a deep well whose bottom is intentionally beyond our grasp. And the deeper we journey, the greater clarity and wisdom we encounter.
And in truth this is not just true of Torah at large, but also of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Shemot. We begin the book of Exodus with a parsha packed with so many greatest hits that even this one section of Torah could lead to a lifetime of study. For this reason, we will dedicate tomorrow morning's beit midrash to an in depth study of the parsha using the many books in the newly forming KT library as resources for deeper insight. Please bring your own Tanakh or Chumash if you have one.
Together we will learn to follow the path of our own questions. To seek and search and turn the pages, to grow old and wise with these books as witness and guide. We cannot become a master of Torah. We can only become Talmidei Torah, students of Torah.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Last Shabbat, we deviated from the norm, and chanted from the Haftarah, the prophetic reading from Zechariah paired with Hanukkah. The slight change in practice and the abundant blessings that surround the reading, called my attention.
These days I have been reflecting on the role of the prophetic tradition in our lives. On the one hand there is this idea that we are all prophets. We are called to speak truth and pursue justice, to remember that our words bear witness and instigate change. And on the other hand there is an idea that we see reflected at the very end of the book of Deuteronomy, that Moses was the last prophet to have a direct (face to face) encounter with the Divine (34:10). Which would suggest that prophecy was once alive but is now contained to the written words of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).
According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "The prophet was an individual who said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism" (The Prophets, xiii). But in this political moment, when our culture could easily turn to despair, prophets must do more than speak truth to power. Prophecy must be a source of relentless hope. Theologian Kenyatta Gilbert explains, "Prophets conjure up possibilities of another reality when the king declares that only one reality exists" (Sojourners, Jan 2018). And perhaps most profoundly, "Prophetic consciousness seeks to free people from the royal consciousness" (Brueggemann).
As we depart from the darkest days of the year, I offer you this vision of spiritual tradition and community that calls us to cultivate this alternative consciousness. Through creative speech and clarity of vision, through song and poetry, we are called to nurture in each other a spirit of relentless hope.
In the words of the poet Grace Paley, "The only recognizable feature of hope is action." May we move into the days of growing light, with the words of the Prophet Micah in our hearts: "To enact justice, to love kindness and to embody humility" (6:8).
Wishing all who celebrate a Happy Kwanzaa and a Merry Christmas!
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past weekend I sat a silent meditation retreat. It was a time to let things settle and create more internal spaciousness. One of the reasons I am drawn to this practice is it unequivocal commitment to the liberation of all beings and the deep knowing that liberation is possible. The practice, in all its simplicity, is full of both anguish and delight, and every emotion under the sun. And the goal is presence, or more precisely a collectedness of mind often translated as mindful awareness.
On the train coming home from the retreat, transitioning back into reality (or further from it, depending on the view), I found myself immersed in a new memoir about the Talmud (geeky Rabbi thing to do!). The following passage jumped out at me:
The Mishnah in Tractate Hagigah cautions against looking into four things:
"What is above, what is below, what is in front, and what is behind" (11b).
Having spent 5 days trying to cultivate an awareness of what is, I was caught by this caution to seek out what is beyond or behind us (which is the deepest pattern of my mind and the cause of much suffering]. I have always been taught that one reason we anchor our meditation in our breath is because we can only breath in the present moment. We can't breath in the present or the past, in what is above or below, in front or behind.
And yet the Jew in me knows that our liberation is so deeply bound with how we reconcile, honor and transform the past. We see this tension and teaching in the second blessing we recite while lighting the Hanukkah candles:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמָן הַזֶּה
Barukh Atah Adonay Elohaynu Melekh Ha'olam she'asah nisim l'imoteynu vela'avoteynu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.
Blessed is the Source of Life...who made miracles for our ancestors in their days, in this time.
What does it mean to make miracles in their days, in this time? Thankfully the grammar is unclear, as it allows us to seek the meaning for ourselves.
Hanukkah calls us, over and over again, to be present bazman hazeh - in this moment. Perhaps because the miraculous cannot be experienced in the past or in the future, above or below, in front or behind. The awe and wonder, the surprise, the unexpected, the experience of collectedness that we attribute to the Divine (which may also be deeply connected to our human power as we saw in Alabama this week!), is itself tied to zman hazeh - this present moment. It is precisely this collectedness of mind and collective power, that I believe leads to liberation. And we do so inspired by, in the spirit of, on the shoulders of all who came before us.
So looking forward to celebrating Shabbat and Hanukkah with you this weekend, and cultivating our collectedness!
Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev