I know I am not alone when I share that yesterday morning, as I sang the psalms of Hallel to mark the new moon of Nissan, I wept.
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ
From this narrow place, I call out to you.
אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא
Please, Our Source, Our Sovereign, save us.
As I sang these words I thought of the compassionate group of KT members who have been calling other community members to check in. I thought of the phone calls we have made to detention centers and arraignment courts and senators, city council, and state representatives, demanding rent, eviction, and foreclosure freezes, widespread prison bailouts, and debt forgiveness.
And all at once, the opening of the book of Vayikra made a lot more sense to me. This week's parsha begins,
וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מועֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃
"The Holy One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…" (Lev 1:1).
Perplexed by the seeming redundancy of The Holy One calling to Moses and then speaking to him, Rashi explains, "Whenever God commanded, instructed, or spoke to Moses, God always called to Moses first. Kriah, 'calling' is an expression of tenderness and affection." I love to imagine The Holy One as the Hesed committee, calling to check in on Moses who has by every measure been through a lot thus far.
Rashi continues, "[Calling] is also an expression used by the ministering angels, as it is written, 'One angel calls another saying: Holy, holy, holy is Hashem, Lord of Hosts, filling the whole world with awareness of the Divine' (Isaiah 6:3)." In fact it is this very passage that becomes the core moment of collective calling out in our kedusha, as we emulate the heavenly hosts and call one to another.
Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, known as the Esh Kodesh, was a chasidic rebbe who ministered to his people in the Warsaw Ghetto. He gave a d'var Torah every week. This week, 80 years ago, Rabbi Shapira explained to his people what it means to "call out" to another.
"There may be another, deeper explanation as well...An ancient Aramaic translation of this verse from Isaiah reads, 'They receive from one another and say Holy holy holy...'" Here, calling is translated as receiving.
Rabbi Shapira explains, "If a Jew hears of the suffering of others and does what they can to help, and if their heart breaks and blood congeals in their veins at the story of their friend's troubles, then angels are empowered...The calling/receiving that comes from sharing suffering is very loud, and so the angels call out to one another in voices loud with compassion for the suffering of [the Jewish] people."
Rabbi Shapira reminds us that our capacity to call is inseparable from our capacity to receive.
And so we are reminded in psalm 118:5:
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽהּ
In distress I called out to the Holy One,
And the Holy One answered me and brought me relief.
Calling and receiving are both holy acts in these times.
Being willing to extend care and a phone call.
And be willing to receive care and groceries and a phone call.
So sacred is this dance of calling/receiving, says Rabbi Shapira, that it is an act that has reverberations in the Heavens, it impacts the cosmos, it allows the angels to call out to one another.
My friend and comrade Rev. Naomi Leapheart-Washington posted on social media this week:
"Things won't be the same after this. I hope one of the things that persists is the way most people seem to be moving more gently, more graciously around each other...the way every conversation begins with 'How ARE you?' and ends with 'Be well.' and we seem to *mean* it. You know?"
May the Holy Blessed One renew this month for us, and for all who dwell on earth, for life and for health, for joy and for peace, for salvation and for comfort. And may we continue to call out to one another and receive from each other with tenderness and affection. And may we continue to really mean it.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Our parsha ironically begins,
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל
And Moses gathered the entire community of Israelites...
So ancient is this desire to gather ourselves in community. And not only us humans, as it turns out this is a rather mammalian instinct. I happened to be reading two books this week, both of which enumerate the various ways that animals refer to themselves in the collective. The first is a book about endangered species that I was reading with my kiddos. The second, entirely unexpectedly, "is a chapter book," in the words of my 5-year-old! A memoir, nonetheless, called The Bright Hour, on loan to me from a KT member (p. 99). And in a rare moment of spiritual synthesis, The Torah, a picture book and a chapter book!, all articulate the discourse of collectivity.
An embarrassment of pandas.
A celebration of polar bears.
An exaltation of skylarks.
A pride of lions.
A congress of orangutans.
And perhaps my favorite, a memory of elephants.
For a much longer list, check this out.
This has been an utterly disorienting week. More than once I have allowed the word na'afochu (reversal) from the megillah to rise before me like a shiviti, a kabbalistic meditation - the world can be flipped on its head at any moment. We practice for it every Purim, but it is a wholly other thing to live it beyond our control. To realize that the randomness of a virus will lead us towards every effort to contain it, and thus reveal the underlying impermanence of our way of life. My most steady moments have been observing the turtles at the Penn BioPond and studying Torah with all of you. I would describe the longing I feel to be in community with all of you and the importance of the physical distance as inseparable tensions in our collective survival instinct.
And I feel it in this week's parsha as well. As soon as Moses descends from Sinai with the second set of tablets, as he and the people are emerging from the uncertainty of that experience, the first, most important thing he does is to invite them literally to congregate. The word vayakhel is directly connected to the word kahal, which is how the rabbis describe Jewish communities, using the acronym ק׳ק which stands for קהלה קדשה/Kehillah Kodesha, a holy congregation.
Moses then instructs the Israelites to bring offerings to the mishkan. The generosity of the community overwhelms him. The people have more than enough. As we live in to this moment, I have been blown away by the collective generosity of this moment. It seems from every sector and community, the sentiment has been, "Take when I have to offer, take it freely." Together we will have more than enough. It is through this spirit of nedivut lev, this flow of hesed, that holiness enters the narrowest of times.
We, beloveds, are an exaltation of interdependence, reaching out to support each other.
A pride of Jews, reestablishing routines that center spiritual practice to sustain us in these uncertain times.
We are an intrusion of neighbors, unwilling to let our fellows go unnoticed and uncared for.
We are a flutter of kindness, reconceiving what is essential in every moment. Asking the most important question, "Does this constitute an act of care towards myself or another?"
In the words of author Mylene Dressler,
"Friends: all day I have been feeling your physical bodies as though they were my own. It's uncanny. I feel you. I feel us. Italy. South Korea. Egypt. Ohio. Like we are all one body. Like I am not the center, like I am a filament among filaments, like we are all twitch fibers in a single, tensed muscle. Call it instinct. Call it love or fear or solidarity or just plain truth. Call it something ancient. The genes, the old knowing. The tribe is in trouble. Fire on the plains. Gather the children. Watch the wind. Listen. The tribe is in trouble. Love the tribe. Feel. There is no other you."
There is no other you.
Whether you join us online for shabbat or take the opportunity to unplug, we are a kahal. We are all twitch fibers in a single, tensed muscle working to stay strong and responsive. Let this shabbat be an opportunity to unfurl, to release and let go. And may we all merit the blessing that comes with finishing the book of Exodus this week: Hazak Hazak v'Nithazek, May we be strengthened.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Biking down my alley this afternoon, the sun was warm and bright, there were birds chirping, and I thought to myself, "What a beautiful day." The two strangest things about this moment of awareness were that I was carrying an otherwise unreasonable amount of groceries and that I had not noticed the glorious spring day earlier.
For the past month or so I have been teaching a class called Chaos & Order. The original idea was to study Megillat Esther and the world of chaos it represents. And then to study the Haggadah, and the seder, or order, it prescribes. What became abundantly clear in the very first class is that chaos and order are inseparable, in the megillah, in the seder, and certainly in our daily lives. This is an extreme moment, when literally we realize that on 12 hours notice the world can be turned upside down, all routine and structure canceled. But it is not unique, in Jewish mythology and in human existence.
While we spent the last two weeks singing, "When Adar enters, joy increases," this Adar what feels more accurate is that uncertainty abounds. Truly, the month of Adar has shown us the power we have to turn the world upside down (na'afochu). As Rabbi Aviva Richman wrote, "This year, ushering in Adar doesn't correlate with ushering in more joy. As we look towards Purim with increased spread of illness and more and more people worldwide, including many American Jews, under quarantine, it doesn't really feel like a time of great joy. But then, the megillah itself isn't monolithically joyful. It is a drama of extremes, and most of the story is about being on the verge of disaster. Fear and uncertainty are right at home in the rhythm of this holiday."
And in truth, they are right at home in this week's parsha as well. Just after Moses ascends the mountain to retrieve the Divine word etched on stone tablets, the Israelites grow anxious. Fear and uncertainty abound. Will Moses return? Why hasn't he returned yet? Is there really a God up there? Why did we leave Egypt anyway? What was so bad about idols - at least I could see and touch them! The well of doubt grows wider and deeper, until the people have pooled all their gold and welded it into a golden calf.
While the soundtrack of fear and doubt sound different for us, surely they are playing on repeat these days. For the Israelites it was the lack of Moses' presence that led people to stray into old habits that otherwise didn't serve them. Meanwhile, we hear Moses in distress, literally begging to see God's face. He goes on to say, "Har'eini na et Kevodecha," "please show me your Presence" (Exodus 33:18). There is a lot of anxiety in our parsha, and in our hearts, about the nature of absence and presence, as it relates to chaos and order.
In our case, there is a lot of anxiety about both presence and absence. We are fearful to come close, lest we unwittingly contract or transmit this virus. And we are fearful to let go of each other, to take the needed social distance, lest we come to feel a larger absence in our lives.
What the students of the Chaos & Order class have taught me (which I think we are all surrogate students of these days) is that just as chaos and order are inseparable, so too are absence and presence. Even as we take physical space from each other, we are extending invisible lines of care and connection. And as we show up virtually, I feel confident we will feel a deep sense of presence and connection.
These are turbulent times and I am in awe of our collective capacity to be reflective, responsive and resilient. I take great comfort in knowing that we are reaching out to our neighbors and creating real systems for mutual aid. Our experience responding to this virus is helping us gain the skills we already need in order to be increasingly responsive to climate crises on the local level.
As we see in our parsha, fear itself is incapacitating, and not as useful as it feels. All of these cancelations are a concrete thing we can do, which makes them both powerful mitigants to both contagions and fear. But let us not let the scale of chaos inflate our fears further. I invite you to create as many opportunities in each day to come back to center, to the moment you are in, to notice the birds and the sun, and respond to that which is within your power.
Joy, ritual, and community are our superpowers.
For the next few weeks, in the absence of school and routine, let's imagine we are on a heightened retreat of sorts, deepening our collective practice and presence.
In the words of poet Jan Richardson,
Let there be
into the quiet
that lies beneath
where you find
you did not think
and see what shimmers
within the storm.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Among my earliest memories is one of a beloved caretaker taking me outside and pointing to the sky, saying, "Up there, up there, is our Creator." I hold this tender moment of spiritual connection close to me most days, as it was the first time anyone ever talked to me about God. While this person is not Jewish, she transmitted a kind of universal faith to me, one surely dependent on a transcendent understanding of the Divine as something above and beyond me.
I see this theology reflected throughout our liturgy and our Torah, as we allude to the Divine through vertical metaphors, singing Shochen ad marom - calling on The One Who Dwells On High and conjuring images of the Isrealites gathering at the foot of Mt. Sinai, awaiting revelation from the heavens above. We see this in our communal practices as well, as we refer to the honor of coming close to Torah as an aliyah, literally an ascent. And while mostly we focus on the elevation gain, in truth our tradition also values the depths. As we learn in the book of Psalms:
מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ יְהוָֽה
"Out of the depths I call to you" (130:1).
It is for this very reason that synagogues used to be built with the bima recessed into the ground. This is why when the Talmud describes the actions of the hazzan or shaliach tzibur (service leader) it will often say "Yored lifnei hatevah - He descends before the ark," because "from the depths we call out."
In truth, the deep has been calling my attention all year. For those of you who are new to Kol Tzedek, let me share a bit of necessary context. Way back in Tishrei, I had the rather absurd instinct to give a sermon on the High Holidays about the sinkhole on Baltimore Avenue. And then on Yom Kippur afternoon, we as a community continued our custom of diving deep into the connections between Yom Kippur and Purim (Yom k'Purim, the day that is like Purim). Now, in the spirit of na'afochu (the reversals and inversions of Purim), the Purim planning committee has flipped the script and brought us back to that sacred time of year, writing a shpil that prominently features a rabbi who falls into a sinkhole only to discover the magical world of resilient creatures.
This year, for me, sinkhole is the new Sinai. The mountain flipped on its head, the earth hollowed out by a rushing river of resilient life surging beneath us, diverting our attention (and our public transit), calling us to see what we can learn from the decay and the chaos; reminding us to not only look up, but to turn our gaze into the abyss. The revelatory joy of Purim invites us to connect a joy that comes not from on high, but from deep within us.
The sinkhole in our neighborhood revealed the buried river, powerful rushing waters of the Mill Creek and the ecosystems it sustains. When the bottom gives out, we too need to find the courage to yored lifnei hatevah, to descend courageously to the deepest of places, to call out to and from those depths, and allow the chaos and the injustice to reveal a deeper truth, a fuller joy, a flowing river that connects us to our Source.
משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה
The month of Adar obligates each of us to cultivate more joy.
Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Now on the other side of the mountain, we enter the series of parshiyot that call our attention to the intricacies of building community. From the laws of kashrut to the timing of festivals, parashat Mishpatim reveals 53 mitzvot, inspiring us to ask: Who are we to each other? What binds us together? Where will we find holiness?
And in a moment of spiritual synchronicity, Kol Tzedek is asking these questions, too. The next two weekends we have two big community forums planned. This Sunday the congregational meeting will include a special training called "Building Trauma Awareness & Relational Healing." And next week's Shabbat there will be an important forum about accessibility at Kol Tzedek. Lest one think these are distinct opportunities for community engagement, my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Elliot Kukla published an inspired piece of Torah this week entitled The Holiness of Being Broken: Trauma and Disability Justice. While I have excerpted a taste of his wisdom below, I really encourage you to read it in its fullness as he expresses deep truths with clarity and compassion.
In it he writes, "Most of us will experience some form of trauma or wounding in our lifetime. Trauma and disability are essential parts of what make us human and what connects us to one another...Trauma is central to who we are as a Jewish people, and impacts so many of our individual stories. Disability Justice can guide us in thinking more holistically about the holiness of our brokenness."
Reading this, I was reminded of a passage from masechet Brachot that I studied some weeks ago. "Even the old man who has forgotten his learning must be treated tenderly, for were not the broken tablets placed in the Ark of the Covenant side by side with the whole ones?" (8b). Jewish tradition has such deep reverence for our vulnerability, which is utterly inseparable from our humanity. This teaching links the two versions we receive of the giving of Torah at Sinai. One, which we read last week in parashat Yitro, and the other we will read in a few weeks when Moses returns from the mountain and finds the people have built a golden calf, prompting him to shatter the original set.
Rabbi Kukla concludes, "L'dor v'dor—'from generation to generation,' from teacher to student, from friend to friend, when we share our wounding and our healing, we share ourselves."
In preparation for these two weeks of communal sharing, and in honor of Jewish Disability, Awareness, and Inclusion Month, I encourage you to read Rabbi Kukla's teaching in its fullness.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Perhaps one of the campiest Jewish songs from my childhood proclaims, "It is a tree of life to those that hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy." This is followed by a series of fast-paced arhythmic claps. You can get a feel for it here. As I kid I never really stopped to wonder what the profound "it" of this song was really about. On some level, I think I thought it referred to being Jewish. As a grown up, I have come to understand that this kitschy song is in fact a translation of a line from Proverbs (3:18) speaking poetically about Torah. This piece of liturgy is sung in Jewish communities around the world, across every denomination, as we close the ark at the end of the Torah service.
This song has come back to me this week, as we find ourselves steeped in Torah and tree imagery. This week marks both the holiday of Tu B'svhat and parashat Yitro, in which we read the story of the Israelites receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai. For the rabbis, there is no limit to their metaphorical relationship to Torah. Torah is fire and water; it is a prism and a multi-faceted jewel; it is a graceful gazelle and a nursing breast. But perhaps most famously, Torah is a tree of life, eitz hayyim hi. And we call upon this particular metaphor every time we read from the Torah itself.
This week, even more than trees, I have been studying the wisdom of forests, which are essentially cooperative communities of trees. In his incredible book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben explains:
"In such a cooperative system, it is not possible for the trees to grow too close to each other. Huddling together is desirable and the trunks are often spaced no more than three feet apart... If you 'help' individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send out messages to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own... This is because a tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it...
"'But isn't that how evolution works?' you ask. 'The survival of the fittest?' Trees would just shake their heads - or rather their crowns. Their well being depends on their community..." (26-27).
So too with us.
Like trees in a forest, the closer we grow together, the more we are able to sustain and protect each other amidst the changing weather patterns over which we otherwise have no control.
Wohlleben concludes, "'A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.' Because trees know this intuitively, they do not hesitate to help each other out."
Which is why the rabbis count, among the things that have no limit in this lifetime, gemilut hasadim, acts of generosity and kindness. Hesed is our mycelium, our fiber-optic underground web of connection.
עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃
She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her - me'ushar - has the capacity to thrive.
As we prepare to receive the Torah that is uniquely and collectively ours, may we remember to hold fast not only to its teachings, but to each other. It is through community that we have the capacity to thrive.
Rabbi Ari Lev
For anyone who lives in West Philly, Wednesday was quite a scene in the Cedar Park neighborhood as Mike Pence's motorcade strolled into town. As I walked down Windsor Terrace, approaching the St. Frances DeSales school where Pence was scheduled for a school choice photo op, I was taken by the visual image. The crowd was big and proud. And at first glance I thought to myself, what an incredible cross section of the neighborhood flooding the streets in protest. But as I got closer, I realized that what I was looking at was not one unified protest, but protest and counter-protest. The street itself was full of large burly, cis-men representing the Boilermakers Union with signs about power. They were there in support of Pence, asking him to reopen the oil refinery in South Philly. And across from them on the porches and sidewalks was a large gaggle of colorful queers and their allies waving signs about queer and trans rights, public education, black lives matter and the like. What at first look had appeared like an incredible multiracial, cross-class protest, revealed itself to be two sides of a deep rift in our economy, one that rarely appears in full dimension on the streets of West Philly.
The scene conjured the featured image of this week's parsha, Beshallach. This is the week when we get the amazing story of the sea parting and the Israelites walking in the midst of the sea on dry ground. So much of my love for this story is about imagining the sea walls miraculously separating, creating an otherwise unimaginable path forward. But this week, I saw it differently. Each of us protesting on behalf of our dignity and basic rights, on opposite sides of the streets, seemingly opposite sides of the political spectrum, we were the sea separated from itself.
I spent some time talking with KT members before walking across the street to talk with some of the refinery workers. Most of them expressed that it was a well paying job and they were now out of work with no health insurance. We all agreed that in an ideal world closing the refinery would guarantee new jobs in renewable energy. But in the absence of that, they were here to beg Pence to reopen the refinery. They need jobs.
And here we are, as a community, actively organizing to keep the refinery closed. In fact our upcoming Purim party is co-sponsored by Philly Thrive, a group specifically organizing against the refinery. And for good reason. The refinery itself is responsible for 50% of the pollution in Philadelphia. It is at once a modern day plague and a source of people's survival. I keep thinking about the Egyptians and their horses who drown in the sea when the walls close in on them.
סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם (Ex. 15:1).
This Shabbat, as we rise in body or spirit to hear the song of the sea, let us all heed the words of one of my teachers, Aurora Levins Morales:
"They say that other country over there, dim blue in the twilight, farther than the orange stars exploding over our roofs, is called peace, but who can find the way?
"This time we cannot cross until we carry each other. All of us refugees, all of us prophets. No more taking turns on history's wheel, trying to collect old debts no one can pay. The sea will not open that way.
"This time that country is what we promise each other, our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between, until there are no enemies left, because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it's all of us or none."
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For those interested in a taste of daf yomi, here are my reflections on today's page of Talmud, inspired by the students in this year's Judaism for Everyone class.
"Bo el Pharaoh," begins our parsha. Go tell Pharaoh, to let my people go!
On Shabbat Shuva I began a conversation about reparations for Black Americans and teshuva. In his 2018 article "The Torah Case for Reparations" Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein eloquently writes, "Slavery and its aftermath sit at the heart of the mythic consciousness of any religion or culture that descends from the Hebrew Bible." Bernstein goes on to summarize the contemporary Jewish voices making a case for reparations. Most compelling, in my opinion, is the Rosh Hashanah 5778 sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous calling for Jewish support for reparations to Black Americans. In it she summons a famous, early Talmudic teaching in which the Schools of Hillel and Shammai dispute the method of making restitution when a stolen beam is built into the foundation of a house but agree that restitution must be made (B.T. Gittin 55a). "Our country was built on a stolen beam," preached Rabbi Brous. "Except it was several million stolen beams. And they weren't beams; they were human beings."
For Bernstein, the Jewish vision of reparations begins in this week's parshah. Parshat Bo includes the final three devastating plagues—locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn—which finally lead Pharaoh to insist the Israelites must go. But there is a brief but important interlude between the 9th and 10th plague. God says to Moses:
"Tell the people to request (v'yishalu), each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold" (Exodus 11:2).
And they did just that. So that when it was time to go,
"The Israelites had done Moses' bidding and borrowed (v'yishalu) from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing...And they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians" (Exodus 12:35-6).
As I was studying these ideas with Betsy, in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah tomorrow, I repeatedly felt that these verses present an insufficient model of reparations. In this case, the use of the Hebrew root sha'al--often translated as request, ask, or borrow--conveys tentative permanence and is uncertain in its willfulness. The very concept of reparations as described by the Movement for Black Lives asserts, "The government, responsible corporations and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people—from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance—must repair the harm done." In this demand I see an essential aspect of the nature of reparations. Those who have profited are responsible for the process of repair. In Jewish tradition, we would call this teshuvah—a process of reparations and restorative justice. However, what we see in the parshah is the Israelites reclaiming, some might even say stealing back, wealth they feel was due to them. While this might have allowed them to leave Egypt with something of value, it did nothing to actually restore the humanity of the slaves or slave owners. Which is what I feel is at stake when we talk about reparations in the United States.
What we know is that the concept of teshuvah, the possibility of restorative justice, is woven into the fabric of the universe. The world cannot exist without it. According to Maimonides, the first step in teshuva is to stop causing harm. This is actually where we find ourselves as a country.
In the words of Bryan Stevenson, "I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved." We must end slavery in every context it exists, including in prisons. Then we must acknowledge, take responsibility for, and repair the harm we have caused. This will require radical imagination. Whatever we imagine as real democracy, real teshuva, must be part of it. The Movement for Black Lives is calling for reparations for African Americans. I think it is upon each of us individually and us as a community to wonder what role we can play.
At the end of the first chapter of Just Mercy, Stevenson compassionately says, "Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done." In this election season, I am trying to believe that this country can be more than the worst things it has perpetrated. A real process of teshuva and reparations is essential to living into that potential.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I often joke my favorite room in my house is the bathroom. For the past few years, it has arguably been the room I spent the most waking hours, as I journeyed through potty training both of my kids. Just last week I entered a new milestone as I was teaching my five-year-old the blessing Asher Yatzar, which one can say after "going potty." As a trans person, I take particular joy in this blessing as it reclaims the daily stresses of navigating public bathrooms. And I am aware that for many of us these digestive functions can also be the source or symptom of tremendous suffering. There is something healing about the act of blessing the ins and outs of our many orifices - this vital function that marks and maintains our aliveness.
There is an amazing midrash on this week's parsha, for which the punchline is essentially "everyone poops" - even the most stubborn and hard-hearted of rulers. We read in parashat Vaera:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה כָּבֵ֖ד לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה מֵאֵ֖ן לְשַׁלַּ֥ח הָעָֽם׃
And the Holy One said to Moses, "Pharaoh is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go.
לֵ֣ךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֞ה בַּבֹּ֗קֶר הִנֵּה֙ יֹצֵ֣א הַמַּ֔יְמָה וְנִצַּבְתָּ֥ לִקְרָאת֖וֹ עַל־שְׂפַ֣ת הַיְאֹ֑ר וְהַמַּטֶּ֛ה אֲשֶׁר־נֶהְפַּ֥ךְ לְנָחָ֖שׁ תִּקַּ֥ח בְּיָדֶֽךָ׃
Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake (Ex. 7:14-15)."
About this moment, the midrash teaches:
"Look, he goes out to the water," to perform his bodily needs. For Pharaoh would like to think he was a god, claiming that he had no bodily needs; so he would rise early in the morning, and go out to the Nile to ease himself in secret (Midrash Tanchuma, Vaera 14; Exodus Rabbah 9:8)."
In the words of Avivah Zornberg, "Pharaoh constructs himself as a god, without needs...as if he neither eats nor eliminates matter. That cycle, depending on the vital traffic through the orifices of the body, is denied by one who claims to be above change, beyond the cycles of in and out, hunger and fullness...What Pharaoh denies is the unbearable lightness of being: the meaningless movement of fluids and solids that marks human life (Rapture, 100)."
But in truth, it is hardly meaningless. And so we bless our Source, "who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings and orifices." Lest we forget the daily miracles of our bodies. Even the most powerful of rulers (bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in their days and in our time) are but flesh and blood. They, too, are vulnerable, even if they choose to expend energy hiding their humanity so as to protect the facade of their omnipotence.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past Sunday a beloved teacher of mine was burying her father as my sister (by love) was birthing my newest nibling. For a few minutes amidst it all, I was talking with her midwife recounting the births of my own children. What always arises for me when I journey back to the birth of my two kids is the way in which the line between life and death seemed to dissolve. Birth and death mark our tenuous and mysterious transitions into and out of this world. And in that moment her midwife responded, "That's why they say midwives stand at the gates."
This week in the Torah we begin the book of Exodus and read parashat Shemot. In this one parsha we move through so much of what is known as the Exodus story. We could spend all year just studying this parsha. What stands out for me this week, not surprisingly, are the Hebrew midwives (note: it is unclear if they are Egyptian midwives who serve the Hebrews or Hebrews themselves). The midwives defy Pharaoh's orders to kill the male babies. They stand at the gates and pursue justice.
In fact, this parsha is full of fierce women. Given the deep roots of patriarchy in Torah, it is astonishing to take note of the many women who are essentially the primary protagonists in the early Exodus narrative. The presence and density of these women is made even more amazing by the fact that they are all mentioned by name. Shifra and Puah, the midwives. Miriam, Moses's sister, who watches from afar, strategizing as her brother floats down the Nile. Pharaoh's daughter (whom the rabbis call Batya) who adopts Moses and enlists Moses's mother Yocheved as her wet nurse. Not to mention Tzipporah, Yitro's daughter, whom Moses marries.
Earlier this week I was remembering that three years ago, just before Trump's inauguration and the first Women's March we read parashat Shemot. And again this year, as people are organizing in every city across the country for the Women's March, Jews all over the world, including us at Calvary, will be reading the story of these mythic women. Reminding us that lifting up and making visible reproductive labor is core to building successful liberation movements. This was true in the days of abolition, in the civil rights movement, and it is certainly true today.
While we are not canceling Shabbat services to attend the march as a community, please know that whether you are in the streets or at shul (and everywhere else!), we are in this together, prying open the gates of justice. May we merit to experience a taste of the world to come, that is whole and just.
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.