Tonight marks the 25th day of the Jewish month of Elul. The new moon is fast approaching. Soon we will be eating round challah with raisins and dipping apples in honey. About this day, Rabbi Eliezer taught: "The world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul...This implies that first person was created on Rosh Hashanah."
This midrash comes as part of a Jewish theological thread that places creation and our relationship with the natural world at the center of our spiritual lives. [*wink*wink* more to come about this on Rosh Hashanah...]
In preparation for the birthday of the world and it could be exciting to think about how we might mark the 25th of Elul. This year the 25th of Elul begins tonight. I offer you the modest ritual proposal of my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader, based on the teachings of the Ben Ish Hai, an Iraqi rabbi:
When setting out candles to mark the arrival of Shabbat, add five candles (or set out a total of five) to signify each of the days of creation that proceeded the emergence of humankind.
Take a moment before or after reciting the blessing over the Sabbath candles to reflect on the wonder of creation, and to recommit to living more consciously as but one part of an amazing and interconnected planet. You are also invited each night leading up to Rosh Hashanah to read one day of creation from Genesis 1.
Praise the light that shines before us, through us, after us. May we have the presence of mind to remember that this planet and all its life precedes us.
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. Hot off the press! We have been dreaming up a year's worth of 5778 Kol Tzedek Adult Education. Registration is now open.
I am not sure how many of you know that I think Teshuva is the best thing about Judaism. The sheer brilliance of asserting that transformation and healing are not only possible, but they are an essential source of holiness. Most of the time when we talk about Teshuva, we list the qualities we want to turn away from; the habits we want to quit and the patterns we want to shift. Now some might think this is the work of turning away. But in my experience, real transformation is possible when we turn towards ourselves and our loved ones. This can feel abstract and hard to grasp. And so towards this end, I offer you one of my personal practices for engaging with this work, in the form of a writing prompt from my dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig:
"I encourage you to write down names of people you need to be in touch with before this month comes to an end. The list can begin with the people who you owe an apology. Perhaps, there are folks you want to express gratitude towards. Or, others that you’d like to reconnect with before the holidays. Maybe you want to forgive someone or offer an overdue congratulations or tell someone that you miss their presence in your life or that you’re holding on to some hurt.
Once you’ve done that, I encourage you to move names onto your calendar. Will a text suffice? An email? Would it be better to speak on the phone? In person? When and how will you carve out the time to turn inward and from that place turn towards wholeness?
Looking forward to being together tonight at 6:30 pm, with leadership from three trans community members (other than myself!) in honor of the Philly Trans Health Conference.
Happy Elul and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. There are so many way to participate in High Holiday services at Kol Tzedek. And it literally takes the community to make it happen. In addition to volunteering, please email me if you want an honor like opening the ark or carrying the Torah or having an Aliyah or sharing a reading. There are easily 100 honors to be had. One for every blast of shofar perhaps. We all deserve to be honored for our work within and beyond the KT Community.
All week I have felt tired. Not just take a nap tired. Tired to the bone. Perhaps more accurately, tired in my heart. Every day seems to hold its own disaster or political mountain to climb. Floods, deportations, white supremacy. Not to mention the challenges we carry personally, divorce, depression, grief, illness. It takes tremendous effort to maintain our own dignity in the midst of so much suffering. This is precisely why shabbat exists, and why I am grateful its time has come.
On this Labor Day weekend, in the midst of Elul, I offer you this vision of rest in five stages that I think captures the essence of the restorative and redemptive powers of shabbat observance. Brought to you by the poet David Whyte:
"Rest is the conversation between what we love to do and how we love to be. Rest is the essence of giving and receiving; an act of remembering, imaginatively and intellectually but also physiologically and physically. To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself through established goals...
In the first state of rest is the sense of stopping, of giving up on what we are have been doing or how we have been doing. In the second, is the sense of slowly coming home, the physical journey into the body's un-coerced and un-bullied self, as if trying to remember the way or even the destination itself. In the third state is a sense of healing and self-forgiveness and of arrival. In the fourth state, deep in the primal exchange of the breath, is the give and the take, the blessing and the being blessed and the ability to delight in both. The fifth stage is a sense of absolute readiness and presence, a delight in and an anticipation of the world and all its forms; a sense of being the meeting itself between the inner and outer, and that receiving and responding occur in one spontaneous moment.
A deep experience of rest is the template of perfection in the human imagination..."
May we all be blessed with ability to pause, come home, heal, forgive, and ultimately delight in this world, which is the true meaning of "Oneg Shabbat." And may trust that deep rest will in fact ready us for the work that lies ahead.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Within this parsha is our community's namesake. We read the powerful instruction, "Justice, justice you shall pursue." Why the repetition? you might be asking. Rest assured, just about every student and teacher of Torah has asked that question too. And perhaps more importantly, they have answered it differently. This repetition calls out to us, "Interpret me!" I would like to share one interpretation by the Yehudi of Przysucha that resonates with me in this moment. He taught that the word "justice" is repeated here to say that even in the pursuit of justice, you have to engage justly.
That second justice comes to remind us that true transformation lies in the how and not just the what. It can be easy to focus on the product -- the march, the rally, the campaign. But this verse reminds us that true justice is bound up in our relationships; in the depth of process that moves us forward. It offers a biblically based vision of social justice in which the ends never justify the means.
This teaching has led me to think about another way to interpret the repetition. First we must pursue justice in the world, beyond ourselves. Knowing that those experiences will ultimately guide us to turn inward, to heal and transform our own souls.
This is the season in our sacred calendar to hear the call of the second justice and turn inwards; to account for and heal from the many ways that we internalize systemic injustice and racism.
This reminds me of the lyrics written by Koach Frazier to his song, "Tzedek tzedek tirdof." In it he sings, "How shall I pursue justice? love, compassion and listening. And how shall I pursue justice? Embracing my own humanity."
May this first Shabbat of Elul be a time when you can offer yourself and those around you love, compassion and listening. And may you have the courage to embrace your own humanity, knowing that too is part of pursuing justice.
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For those looking to experience the daily sound of shofar in this time leading up to Rosh Hashanah, here is a recording of me blowing shofar in the KT office!
I am personally grateful that this raw and painful week is coming to a close. And that it will end with some precious time for us to take refuge in silence, song and community. Wherever you are, I encourage you to shut off the feed and find a way to nourish your soul. While none of this racist violence is new, it is nonetheless exhausting to encounter face to face (or on Facebook as the case may be).
For those who were able to be at The People's Baptist Church last night (and for those of you that did childcare so others could be), thank you. It was a very powerful experience to position ourselves in multiracial, multi-faith community and together denounce white supremacy, antisemitism, islamophobia, sexism and homophobia. More so, it was powerful to meet new people, sing out and receive the powerful insights of the Pastor Isaiah Banks.
If I were bold enough to title his sermon I would call it, "We need to have vision."* Which felt like the fulfillment of Divine grace in the room, knowing two things. First, that he did not know he would be speaking. And secondly, that this week's Torah portion, Re'eh, can literally be translated as "See!"
His call to all of us, whether we were in that room or not, is that we need to behold a vision of transformation and liberation. That peace and justice are not just practices of action but also radical imagination. That we must have the courage to see ourselves and each other more clearly. That we must be able to envision a world free of white supremacy.
I have been sitting with this teaching all day, trying to understand how to make it real and tangible. In this moment, what feels most true is that liberation is a creative act of the imagination. Let me explain.
It is said about our creation story that for each of the plants and animals, they are created min b'mino, with many kinds. Meaning that there are species of plants and animals. But not so with humans. We are all one. We are the only living thing created by the Holy One that is not named as min b'mino. There are not essential "kinds" of people. Said another way. The rabbis ask, Why was it so important that the first human being was created singularly, that there was only one Adam? To which they reply: So that no person could ever say to another, "My ancestors are better than yours!"
A belief in the oneness of all things and the dignity of every human being is at the core of my own theology embodied in these teachings. Creation itself, and our creativity is a product of imagination. How do we see the world? How do we see each other? Pastor Banks made it clear last night, we must have a vision of a world where no human being is better than another. Where all living are one and holy.
It is my prayer as we move into this Shabbat, that each of you find sanctuary. That you connect to your essential wholeness. That you allow yourself to imagine a world that is whole and just and entirely loving. And from that place, may we all emerge better able to envision how to get there.
I offer you all the closing words of a beloved poem by Marge Piercy that I shared last night.
Let us lift each other on our shoulders and carry each other along.
Let holiness move in us.
Let us pay attention to its small voice,
Let us see the light in others and honor that light.
Remember the dead who paid our way here dearly, dearly
and remember the unborn for whom we build our houses.
Praise the light that shines before us, through us, after us, Amen.
Rabbi Ari Lev
*The story the Pastor told from the New Testament was about a blind beggar asking for vision. I want to name the ableist nature of this story and reclaim vision here in the way I think the Pastor intended it - as metaphor - rather than the ability to see, which I do not believe is a prerequisite for our liberation.
Dear Kol Tzedek Community,
I'm back! Thank you to everyone who held the container of the Kol Tzedek community with care and skill. I am very grateful for the time away. And thank you to everyone for your patience as I catch up on email.
During my time away in July we spent a few weeks house-sitting for a family in Western Mass on a vacation that we have entitled "Rivers and Ice Cream." And what stands out as the best part of it all was this feeling of "going with the flow" of each day. I have not always identified as easy-going and often take refuge in structure and schedule. And yet, when given spacious time, I discovered a delight in letting each day unravel on its own.
Perhaps the greatest gift of the past five weeks has been the ability to slow down enough that I am able to pay attention to what otherwise we might call synchronisity, but truly felt like being part of the mystery of existence. Each day seemed to unfoldwith a bit of magic that in normal life I might overlook or call coincidence at best.
In the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, "In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy lives. We have jobs, families, and houses. Our lives seem quite ordinary and undramatic. It is only beneath the surface of this world that the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding."
Rabbi Lew suggests that perhaps "Judaism came into the world to bring news that the invisible is more important than the visible...beneath this appearance of conflict, multiplicity and caprice there is a oneness, a singularity, all-powerful and endlessly compassionate, endlessly just."
We see this reflected in this week's Torah Portion, Eikev, calling our attention to the 2nd paragraph of the Shema, calling our attention to the ongoing interdependence of all all life; calling us to attune our hearts and souls to the unity at heart of creation. This is precisely the political moment, and the moment in the week, when we are called to drop down beneath the surface noise and the posture of fear, and remember that what is real and true is within and between us. It is woven into the truth of all existence. It is humans breathing with the trees. It is a shared longing for justice. It is the great river of time and it is ours to step into.
Very much looking forward to connecting in the coming weeks as we prepare for the High Holidays. Services Tonight @ 6:30 pm
It is so good to be back!
Rabbi Ari Lev
On my first day back in August, just about 11 months ago, I said that I wanted to sit down with each and every one of you, to hear your story. And I meant it! This afternoon I flipped back through my calendar and realized that as of today I have sat down and had a 1:1 conversation with 150 members of the KT community. Thank you for taking this time to build trust with me. This immediately made me think of the book of Psalms which has 150 chapters. Each of you a psalm unto yourself. Each of you a story, a song, a poem. Each of you asking different questions, carrying different struggles, sharing different concerns. Each of you vulnerable and beautiful. In the words of Psalm 150, Halleluyah!
In my experience, there is a desire to homogenize community; to either take refuge in feeling like everyone is like you; or to justify rejection by claiming difference as a reason to not belong. What stands out most from these conversations, is how much difference our community contains. I know from sitting with so many of you that our distinctions are not only what define us, they are our greatest strength. I am eager to keep cultivating our personal and collective heart of many rooms.
At this weekend's board retreat, we closed with a contemplative exercise in which each of us had to go around the room and fill in the following formula:
I offer you...
You offer me...
May we all go from strength to strength.
All week I have been filling in those blanks...and I invite you as we come to the end of my first you as your rabbi to take a moment to do the same.
Please know that I offer each of you gratitude.
And you offer me wholeness.
May we all go from strength to strength!
And if you are not among the 150, let's find each other in August. I am eager to connect with you in Year 2 of KT 2.0.
Rabbi Ari Lev
As many of you know I was away this past week at Queer Talmud Camp, a program that Rabbi Benay Lappe and SVARA organize. (I am excited that there will be some KT people at the July QTC in California!) The concept of svara comes from the Talmud itself. It is one of those words that takes an essay to define. It is often understood to mean "informed moral intuition." It is a term from Jewish law that reflects the 2,000-year-old rabbinic notion that the most powerful source of truth is insight which grows out of the experience of our own lives informed by Jewish learning. In fact, in the Talmud, when one's svara and a verse in the Torah conflict, svara has the power to trump even Torah, when that svara is understood to more accurately reflect the deepest foundational principles of Jewish tradition. This notion of svara has been instrumental in my own spiritual life as a queer and trans person. Over and over again, it teaches us to truly trust ourselves and to remember that there is Torah within us.
This week I learned yet another layer to the meaning of svara. It turns out it has a secondary meaning of hope. While on the one hand this changes its meaning altogether. There is a big difference between reason or intuition and hope. Yet somehow, I found the connection fitting. In the month of Pride and the week when we honor the memories of those lost in the Pulse Massacre, in a week full of violence, I am reminded that we must not only pursue truth and trust in our moral intuition, but we must also cultivate hope. Perhaps, the rabbis of the Talmud seem to be suggesting, they are inextricably linked.
What do you make of that?
Holding Ernie Steiner close in our hearts after the lost of her husband Andrew Stiller. Looking forward to celebrating the marriage of Jon and Henry and the Bat Mitzvah of Maddie Church tomorrow at 10 am!
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week in the Torah we receive the final instruction to install the intricate menorah which is at the heart of our portable sacred space. And by install I mean simultaneously mount and kindle the light. This is both practical and utterly symbolic. Light is one of our core Jewish metaphors. Torah is light. Human beings are light. God is light.
The instructions [see Ex. 37:17-24] are complicated and opaque. Branches, calyxes and petals in the shape of almond blossoms, all somehow made of one piece of hammered gold.
It turns out that Moses was indeed confused by the details of this building project. A midrash [from Midrash Tanhuma, Bhaalotcha 3] has him returning to God not once, not twice, but three times – completely baffled by how he was supposed to construct the intricate gold lampstand. Each time God explains and each time Moses returns and says, “I still don’t get it.” Finally, God says give me your hand, and draws the blueprint on Moshe’s finger.
And Moshe still doesn’t get it.
There is no "Aha!" moment for Moses in the midrash. No moment in which he finally gets it and can carry out the instructions that God has given. The midrash ends instead with a sacred act of letting go. God tells Moses to throw the block of gold into the fire, and the menorah emerges fully formed – in the shape of a blossoming almond tree.
The midrash evokes for me the words of Kazanzakis: “I said to the almond tree, 'Sister, speak to me of God.' And the almond tree blossomed.”
To what degree is our understanding of the divine cognitive or experiential?
Does logic interfere with our ability to experience the divine?
Is revelation or insight always born out of chaos?
What if God is the force of transformation in your life?
What are you letting go of?
Who knows what might blossom if you have the courage to do so!
This email is hardly a blueprint for kindling a relationship with the divine. I offer you some of my own questions as fodder for your quest. Perhaps you can write one on the palm of your hand and allow it to guide you through shabbat.
Rabbi Ari Lev
In this week's parsha, Naso, we receive the words of the ancient priestly blessing, known in Hebrew as Birkat Kohanim.
May God bless you and protect you –
יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
(Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā ...)
May God shine light upon you and be gracious unto you –
יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
("Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viḥunnékkā ...)
May God lift up Their face unto you and place within you peace –
יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
("Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm.")
There is a custom of parents placing their hands on their children's head and blessing them with these words on Friday evening. I was not personally raised with this practice, but have been endeared to the idea that we have the power to blessing one another. If God is Mekor HaBracha, the Source of Blessing, then we are the vessels, the conduits. For some years, I have invited anyone present at the shabbat table (between candle lighting and the blessing over the wine) regardless of age or relationship, to participate in blessing each other. As part of this moment, I have added a feminist prelude written by Marcia Falk:
"Be who you are — and may you be blessed in all that you are."
This is perhaps the most we can hope to be blessed with, the courage to be ourselves and feel whole. We live in a world full of senseless violence and destruction. Afghanistan, Portland, Syria, Maryland. I offer you this ritual as medicine as you enter Shabbat. Particularly for those of us who are forever re-parenting ourselves, for those of us longing for children, for those in the midst of transition. I invite each of you to imagine for a moment that you are held in the hands of our entire community, and we are blessing you personally: "Be who you are — and may you be blessed in all that you are." [Deep inhale.]
For which the response is, "Ken Yehi Ratzon, May it be so."
May Kol Tzedek continue to be a place where we are each able to grow into the fullest versions of ourselves and connect to an inner point of truth which is itself wholeness.
Rabbi Ari Lev