Welcome to the season of dreams. This dark and cozy month of Kislev opens with the story of Jacob's Ladder and closes with the stories of his son Joseph's dreams. It calls us to pay attention to the subconscious, to cultivate a kind of inner cocoon. And it all begins with Jacob leaving his parents' home. Avivah Zornberg notes, "This is a journey that is pointedly different from his grandfather's originating journey: the lekh lekha wandering to the place yet to be shown, the promise of place and destiny. Jacob does not simply "go" (lekh); he leaves (va-yetzei)" (Genesis of Desire, 180).
And yet, what touches me most this week is the echo, the constant reminder, that we are a people in motion. Migration is encoded in our bodies, our histories, and our mythologies. Jacob's journey in particular may be distinct in that he knows both where he is coming from (Beer Sheva) and where he is going (Padan Aram). But it is unique in that he does not know why he is journeying.
More than once we hear of his encounters in the fields. In Genesis 29, Jacob resumes his journey and comes to the land of the Easterners. And we read:
וַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלֹשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר׃
"There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large."
Now, we know for desert wanderers wells are by nature places imbued with meaning. For the midrashic imagination, the world is but a barren, overgrown wilderness. We live much of our lives in the weeds, in the thick of things, longing for spacious perspective.
And then comes Shabbat. Says the Song of Songs, "Come my beloved, let us go out into the field." Meaning, come meet me in this spacious fertile time. In the words of Art Green, "Shabbat is a magical time, a moment when the world that often seems a barren wilderness is transformed into a field waiting to be planted" (Language of Truth, 46).
About this particular well that Jacob encounters, the Sefat Emet teaches, in the name of Rabbi Isaac Luria, that when it says there is a well in the field, it reminds us that on Shabbat a source of living water is opened to us. To which Green responds, "The well is open. But that magic is still only potential, waiting for us to plant the seed and nurture it to grow. Only we can do that. The true miracle is that of our ability to open in response."
May we choose this Shabbat to leave behind the work of the week and enter into the magic of Shabbat, to drink from the well of connection and community, to quench our thirst for presence and create space for dreaming.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week, there was a debate on a rabbinic listserv. Should one recite Hallel (special joyful psalms) in honor of the new moon when the new moon falls on Thanksgiving, as it did this year? The concern behind this question is that it could appear as though we are reciting Hallel in honor of Thanksgiving itself. And while there is joy to be found in the rituals of family, food, and gratitude, the violent context that this federal holiday conceals is not worthy of celebration. So much so, that each year in Plymouth, MA Indigenous communities gather for a National Day of Mourning.
While not every year Rosh Hodesh falls on Thanksgiving, the tensions are nonetheless present. Last night before my family ate, a series of spontaneous toasts ensued. My brother got choked up, so grateful to be able to host 40+ members across four generations of my family. Then I nervously shared the names of the Indigenous people of Westchester County, including the Lenape tribes that also claim the territory of Philadelphia. And then my father spoke, sharing that his mother's family immigrated to the United States 79 years ago on Thanksgiving Day. Those two minutes worth of emotions and history were in and of themselves a lot to hold.
This week we read parshat Toldot, which chronicles the life of Isaac.
וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק
"And these are the generations of Isaac" (Genesis 25:19).
For me, family gatherings have a way of echoing the dynamics also present in our mythic stories. Stories of sibling rivalry, inheritance disputes, and family favoritism. Family is complicated, says the Torah. That is not new.
Last night, amidst the loud banter of a house full of New York Jews, I looked around and thought to myself, "These are the generations..." I found myself asking, what stories do I want to teach my children about how and why my family came to live on Turtle Island? What are we transmitting from generation to generation about the Thanksgiving? In what new ways can we learn to relate to the land we live on?
My favorite image from this week's parsha is that of Isaac digging wells on his new land. For which we learn that he re-dug the wells of his father Abraham. And he also dug his own new wells.
This year at Thanksgiving dinner, I felt a lot like Isaac, digger for a deeper truth; at once trying to connect to members of my family I rarely see and also trying to invoke the wisdom of Indigenous leaders who understand more fully how to live in sacred relationship to the earth.
Most of the rabbis agreed on Facebook, we should in fact recite Hallel. We live on Jewish time. And while we live in relationship to American holidays, we need not concede our sacred rhythms.
As we enter Shabbat and embrace the new moon of Kislev, I'm sitting with these words from Ohlone leader and activist Corrina Gould: "...Come onto this land in a humble way; this land is alive, there were people before you and there will be people after you. What does it mean for us, humans, to be the bridge between the past and present?"
L'dor v'dor, from generation to generation, may we have the courage to both pass on family traditions and instigate new ones. And may the stories we tell connect us more fully to each other, to the Earth, and to a deeper truth.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past Wednesday marked Trans Day of Remembrance/Resilience. That night I was teaching the Judaism for Everyone class and many of us dedicated our learning to the memory of trans people who have been killed or who have taken their own lives. We said a prayer that ends with "Blessed are they, who have allowed their divine image to shine in the world. Blessed is God, in Whom no light is extinguished." And then we closed class with the Mourner's Kaddish.
Of the many gifts that being trans has given me, developing a dynamic relationship with grief and loss is top of the list. When I first began to come out to myself as trans, grief - or, more specifically, my fear of loss - was my greatest internal obstacle. I had this idea that a liberated life did not include loss; that in fact, the "right decisions" by nature avoided loss, on all counts. Oh, you can imagine, it was a tearful realization to understand in the core of my being that there is loss in everything. There is no choice that does not involve loss. This truth is at once devastating and freeing. And has required me to make space in myself to grieve; to wrestle with and feel fully the loss.
Frances Weller writes, "We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled...There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive" (The Wild Edge of Sorrow, 1).
In recent years people have reframed and renamed Trans Day of Remembrance, calling it Trans Day of Resilience. This lifts up precisely this sacred exchange between grief and aliveness. We are called to honor our losses and live fully in their light.
This week's parsha, Hayei Sarah/The Life of Sarah, is itself an extended journey into our ancestral grief. It begins by honoring the life of Sarah. Dayenu, that would be enough. To wrestle with what it means to honor a life. But Rashi presses deeper, and claims that her death is a result of the grief she feels when she learns that Abraham nearly sacrificed her only son Isaac. She died of grief, claims a least three midrashim. And then Abraham grieves for Sarah.
In the words of Oscar Wilde, "Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground."
In the words of trans poet SA Smythe,
"To be righteously unashamed of this grief until the otherwise comes
Until that time when we may name ourselves whole, if not holy”
The less I fear loss, the more I am able to choose life.
Tomorrow morning we will be exploring our relationship to grief in the parsha and our own lives, deepening our capacity to embrace grief with grace and resilience.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Who among us has not wanted to yell at the heavens for the injustice in our world?
Who among us has not questioned their faith in the Divine who created the heavens and the earth, and along with it so much suffering?
This week's parsha, Vayera, captures Abraham shaking some proverbial sense into G?D. In short, G?D sees the transgressions of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and threatens to destroy the entire city. And Abraham engages in holy protest, a moment so important that the rabbis use it as a model for prayer, of crying out to the Holy One. He argues: "Are you really willing to sweep about the innocent with the guilty? Will you not save the city if I can find 50 righteous people? Will you not save it for 40 righteous people? 30? 20? 10?" At which point Abraham explodes in holy outrage:
חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט
"Shame on you! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly!?" (Gen. 18:25).
The midrashic imagination transforms Abraham's cry into a profound ultimatum: "The judge of the whole earth shall not do justice. As if to say, God, if it is a world You want, then strict justice is impossible. And if it is strict justice You want, then a world is impossible" (Bereishit Rabbah 49:9).
About which Avivah Zornberg clarifies, "Absolute standards of justice cannot be realized in this world as God has created it. To adhere to such standards is to destroy the world; in order to build the world, hesed, the generous perception of alternative possibilities, is necessary" (Desire, 110).
In my own heart, I feel so much compassion for both renditions of Abraham's plea. On the one hand, I want to believe in a forgiving God who would do anything to save the lives of the people of Sodom. And I am willing to beg God to remember that we are all made in the image of the Divine. And on the other hand, I am ever frustrated with the limitations of human beings and the injustice we perpetuate. I, like Abraham, wonder if we are compatible with a world that is just and whole. Underneath both readings is a desire to live in a world full of love and justice. And the question trembles, is it possible? And how do we get there?
Rabbi Ari Lev
I am a lover of names. Names are portals into connection, to people and places, across time and space. Names tell stories about who we are, who we've been, and who we might become. One of my favorite parts of being a rabbi at Kol Tzedek is helping people choose the right name, for themselves and their babies. As someone who has changed my name more than once, I can relate to the power of our names to call our truest selves into existence. For a long time I have understood the names I no longer go by as "dead names." But that has felt like a microaggression against my younger selves. I recently learned that we can instead say they are our "caterpillar names" - the names that invoke our molted lives.
In Jewish tradition, taking on a new name is an act of teshuva (B.T. Rosh Hashanah 16b). It has the power to call us home. It is at once an evolution and an act of return in the spiral of time. In this week's parsha, Lech Lecha, our mythic ancestors experience the power of being renamed as Abram sheds his caterpillar name and becomes Abraham and Sarai, Sarah.
God says to Abraham:
אֲנִי הִנֵּה בְרִיתִי אִתָּךְ וְהָיִיתָ לְאַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם: וְלֹא־יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת־שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָם וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם כִּי אַב־הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ:
Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
In fact, says Torah, names have the power to call us into sacred relationship, into covenant itself. [It is worth noting that according to the rabbis, we are to refer to Sarah and Abraham by their new names even when referring to events that precede these names (B.T. Brachot 13a).]
And it is not just us humans that are known by many names. Early on in God's relationship with Abraham, God introduces Godself saying, "I am El Shaddai," and later, when Moses asks God how he should refer to God when convincing the people of his holy mission, God says, "ehyeh asher ehyeh, I will be what I will be." Rabbi Avi Strausberg writes, "When asked for God's name, it's as if God refuses to be defined by any one name. Instead, God insists on the ability to continue to reinvent Godself, to be a God called by many names with many identities that cannot be defined by just one. I will be what I will be. I will keep defining and redefining myself. I cannot be limited by one name."
As we each hear the call of Lech Lecha and go forth in our own lives, extending beyond our comfort zones, in search of our purpose and our path, may we each have the courage to be who we will be. To allow ourselves to contain multitudes. And to honor the names others ask to be called by. In this way, may we merit to see others as they really are and be seen for who we really are.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week I was doing my least favorite chore - washing used plastic bags and hanging them to dry. I called a friend in California to keep me company. She was hiding out in her kitchen, venting about her inability to go outside because the air is not fit for breathing. We shared an uncomfortable laugh about living through the end times. The earth is burning, the earth is flooding, people are suffering - and here I am washing plastic bags.
Later in the week, I went for a walk in the woods with one of my mentors who was recounting an article in the New York Times, which suggests that by 2050 the land that 150 million people live on will be underwater during high tide. We similarly shared an uncomfortable sigh about living through Noah's flood. I asked her (kidding, not kidding): Might we really not have great-grandchildren?
What we know is that estimates continue to worsen. Even if we were to cut carbon emissions in half, we might be in irreversible trouble. And instead emissions are just increasing. It is at once hard to believe and also hard not to believe, as I am talking to a dear friend who for the second time this year doesn't have safe air to breathe.
In a D'var Torah she published this week, my hevruta, Rabbi Avi Killip, points us to wisdom from this week's parsha. "In Genesis chapter 7, verse 7, we are told that Noah and his family enter the ark 'מפני מי המבול - because of the flood waters.' Rashi lingers on the word 'because.' Noah shouldn't be boarding the ark because of the falling rain pooling at his ankles, maybe even his knees. He should have entered the ark 'because God said so.' If Noah had really believed, if he were a man of greater faith, Rashi implies, he would already be inside the ark when the rain begins."
And so Rashi tells us:
מפני מי המבול אַף נֹחַ מִקְּטַנֵּי אֲמָנָה הָיָה, מַאֲמִין וְאֵינוֹ מַאֲמִין שֶׁיָבֹא הַמַבּוּל, וְלֹא נִכְנַס לַתֵּיבָה עַד שְׁדְּחָקוּהוּ הַמָּיִם
Because of the flood waters Noah, also, was of little faith: he believed and did not believe that the Flood would come, and he would not enter the Ark until the waters forced him to.
Increasingly I feel a lot like Noah. I believe it and I don't believe it. I can't believe it. It is unbelievable. And yet how could I not believe it. Could it be that Noah is a man of little faith because he is hopeful? Perhaps Rashi is wrong. Perhaps Noah had so much faith in God that he too couldn't believe it was the end times. And we, too, have so much faith in our planet, in its resilience, that we can't believe it either.
Rabbi Killip concludes, "We must each find the balance between hope and fear, between belief and disbelief, that will allow us the strength and courage to move forward." May we be granted the courage and wisdom to know when to believe and and when not to believe, so that we, and our children's children, may live. May it be so!
Rabbi Ari Lev
The first and second Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah remind us that the month of Tishrei is the new year as it relates to land and food. The next Mishnah teaches that on the holiday of Sukkot the world water balance is determined.
וּבֶחָג נִדּוֹנִין עַל הַמָּיִם
"And on Sukkot, we are judged by water" (1:2).
Sukkot is at once a celebration of the Fall harvest and the time in which we pray for the winter rains, so that the wheat and barley we are planting will grow throughout the winter and be ready for their spring harvests. Sukkot is fundamentally a communal rain dance. We can hear in the echoes of the lulav the sounds of rain. And rain is no small thing. In a world of rising waters, melting ice caps, and toxic drinking waters, we know that our lives rest in the balance of water. We learn elsewhere in the Talmud, that a day of rain is greater than the giving of Torah (B.T. Taanit 7a). As we have learned over and over again from indigenous communities, water is life.
In the Jewish mystical imagination, water is associated with the quality of hesed. It is that which flows between us, that which nourishes and sustains us. This Sukkot, I invite us to imagine that we will be judged not by how productive we are, or even how much we have changed from one year to the next, but by our capacity for kindness. In this threadbare, broken world, I keep coming back to the words of Naomi Shihab Nye, "Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore." This is emerging as my motto for 5780. May it be what nourishes and sustains us as we begin this next journey around the sun.
Shabbat shalom and Moadim L'Simcha,
Rabbi Ari Lev
On this Fall Friday, I find myself at once empty and full, the echo of those words still resonating from our High Holiday services. I am so full of gratitude to be the rabbi of this community, a community that cares so deeply about our spiritual lives, about holiness, about pursuing wholeness. For most of the Neilah service, I just closed my eyes and listened to all of us singing together, to the fullness of our final shema. It was such a nourishing experience. Thank you for making it so.
And I also feel emptied out. There are no longer any words, there are no longer any promises. Lucky for us, our amazing Music Director, Rabbi Mónica Gomery, has much to say about the power of poetry in this week's parsha, Ha'azinu, and published a dvar Torah about it this week on Hebrew College's blog.
"In this week's parsha, Moshe's book-length speech switches genres--from prose oration to a shira, an epic poem--and Moshe takes up the project of poetic un-truth. In the first verse, he begins to twist our sense of what is real, proclaiming 'הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי-פִי' 'Listen, heavens, and I will speak. And let the earth hear the words of my mouth.' Even if we could say that the heavens contain the ears of God, Moshe here describes the land and soil itself as bearing witness by listening - consciously, actively. Newly a poet, and one verse in, Moshe teaches us, the Israelites gathered before him, to listen for something other than logic, to stop making sense.
God is a rock, Moshe tells us, God is a warrior. My words are dew, my words are rain. You are a blemish, you are God's child. God is an eagle, God is a mother. God wounds, God heals. God's wrath is fire, arrows, pestilence. God fed you honey from stone, God fed you the cream of a cow. The litany goes on...
...The journey through the un-truth of poetry can take us to the truth of it all, to the bright face of the shamayim that Moshe calls upon in the opening verse of Ha'azinu, to the color of the sky. As we stand, or perhaps scramble and tremble, as we march, as we build resilient communities, as we live into this foreboding new reality, let's remember to take along with us the illogical, the emotional, the intuitive and figurative--the truth that lives beyond truth, the poetry of our tradition and the poetry of our lives. Just as the Israelites stood hearing Moshe's final poem, shimmering with possibility, and transformation, becoming something new."
As you prepare for Shabbat, I invite you to read her beautiful dvar Torah in its entirety here.
In the wake of the utterly terrifying shooting in Germany on Yom Kippur, we will continue to pray for peace and safety for all of Yisrael, for all of Yishmael, and for all who dwell on earth.
Shabbat Shalom, May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I continue to feel the effervescent joy and vibrations of Rosh Hashanah. So full of gratitude for everyone who made that possible, which is everyone!
Yesterday I sent a draft of my Kol Nidre sermon to a friend to edit. When I opened it a few hours later I received a notification I never noticed before. There was a little blue box that read "Wow! This document has changed a lot. Do you want to reload?" I laughed and thought to myself, why yes I do! Here we are in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I keep wanting to look inside my soul and say, "Wow! This person has changed a lot." Alas, it is easier to reload a google doc than transform our well-worn habits.
For this reason, I draw most of my inspiration for transformation from the natural world. This past July I spent a few weeks swimming in the rivers of New England. At each new swimming hole, one of the things I learned to look for was signs of a healthy water supply. I learned that tracking the presence of macro-invertebrates (dragonflies, crayfish, stoneflies, etc.) is used in New Zealand to measure the water quality of fresh water.
One morning we arrived to the bend of a beautiful river. As we were hopping from rock to rock, we noticed the rocks were covered in what looked like dried skeletons of prehistoric lizards. I later came to learn they were in fact the exuvius skeletons of nymph stoneflies. In biology, exuviae are the remains of an exoskeleton and related structures that are left after ecdysozoans (including insects, crustaceans, and arachnids) have molted. This is true of all animals that grow by ecdysis, molting their exoskeleton. In fact, stoneflies can molt as many as 20-30 times in their lifetimes.
On that summer day, as I ventured upstream with my kids, we hopped from rock to rock. We came across a nymph stonefly that was actually mid-molt. We sat and watched as the shell cracked down the center spine, its body was in the process of breaking through, preparing to let go and emerge anew. It seemed simultaneously possible and impossible. Kind of like this moment. We too are called to molt and transform, hopefully hundreds of times in our lifetimes. And this moment in the calendar, we are trying to break through.
May we each have the courage to carve out some time before Yom Kippur for reflection, forgiveness, and letting go.
Gmar Hatimah Tova and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. Here is a copy of my sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It was an honor to share these words of Torah with our extended community. We are also working to get lay leaders vorts and Divrei Torah on our website as well.
In the last few months, my older kid has become thoroughly obsessed with baseball. I was once upon a time a jock, so I am no stranger to sports. But baseball never quite did it for me. A bit too much waiting around and patriotic fervor. Nonetheless, I have been to many a baseball game this summer. Major leagues, minor leagues, collegiate leagues, even a few dyke softball games. For the most part it has been a journey of sympathetic joy, delighting in my kid's delight. So you can imagine my surprise when this year as I was re-reading my beloved High Holidays book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, and I found many a baseball reference. Turns out he was quite a fan!
Rabbi Alan Lew z"l, writes:
"The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams. Certainly it is the most ancient dream of the Jewish people...And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases" (23).
Teshuva is the Jewish home run, Jewish tradition's most prized possession. There's this amazing moment in the Talmud when the rabbis try to make this point crystal clear:
So great is teshuva, says Rebbe Hama bar Hanina, that it brings healing to the whole world.
I can top that, Rebbe Yonatan says. Teshuva is so great that it brings redemption closer.
Rebbe Shmuel Bar Nachmani weighs in: You wanna know how amazing teshuva is? Teshuva elongates the years of a person's life!
Rebbe Meir concludes: Listen. I'll tell you what teshuva's capable of. When one individual makes teshuva, the whole world is forgiven (Yoma 86ab).
And in my experience, it is true, that teshuva makes the world possible and more whole. And it's also true that it's really hard to do. My friend and teacher, Rabbi Jordan Braunig, recently directed my attention to a tale that can be found in S.Y. Agnon's Days of Awe. The story, which I will retell, is of a poor country woman who finds an egg. As it happens, she has many hungry children at home and little food to feed them. Yet, when she gathers her little ones to announce the good news about the egg she tells them that, being a woman of purpose, she will not foolishly cook the egg but will take it to a neighbor's setting hen and wait for it to hatch. Then, instead of simply allowing the chicken to grow for slaughter, she will set it on eggs and they will all hatch and there will be many chicks. And, instead of feasting on chicken and eggs, she tells her children that she will sell them in the market in order to purchase a cow. As you might have guessed, she doesn’t plan to settle for steak dinner at this point but will wait for the cow to produce calves and then will sell calves and buy a field. In the end, they’ll have fields and chickens and cows and won’t want for anything. As the woman speaks to her children, engrossed in fantasy and playing with the egg, it falls from her hands and cracks on the floor.
Agnon's telling ends with this moral: Said our master: "That is how we are. When the Holy Days arrive, every person resolves to do teshuvah, thinking in their heart, 'I'll do this, and I'll do that.' But the days slip by in mere deliberation, and thought doesn't lead to action, and what is worse, a person who made the resolution may fall even lower."
It is easy to get ahead of ourselves, to imagine the finished product, but to forget the immediate task at hand. What are a few "first steps" that you want to make in the coming days? Let's be patient with ourselves, and at the same time be aware of how precious time is.
As we enter the quiet of Shabbat before the joy of the new moon of Tishrei is upon us, I would like to begin by asking each of you for your forgiveness, for any ways I may have missed the mark this past year. Please know I am available to make a repair.
Wherever and however you are marking this Rosh Hashanah, may it be sweet as honey and may you be written in for a year of goodness.
May this be the year...L'Shana Tova!
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.