This week we read Parashat Yitro, in which the Holy One reveals the Torah through Moses at Mt. Sinai. As you can imagine, many stories are told about this mythic moment, and even more about the nature of Torah itself. One of my favorite midrashim creates an unexpected portal in time.
Rabbi Yehudah taught in the name of Rav:
When Moses went up Mt. Sinai he saw the Holy Blessed One sitting and putting small crowns on the letters of Torah. Moses inquires: Why are you spending so much time doing this tedious work? To which the Holy Blessed One explains, in a future generation there will come a person by the name of Rabbi Akiva who will interpret each and every one of these crowns and create piles and piles of Jewish practices based on them. With a bit of incredulity, Moses demands that God reveal such a person. Wayne's World-style, The Holy One turns Moses around and he is all of a sudden sitting in the back row of Rabbi Akiva's Beit Midrash. Rabbi Akiva is teaching Torah but Moses doesn't recognize the teachings. Moses is very upset. And then at one point, a student asks Rabbi Akiva: "Teacher, how do you know it is so?" To which he replies: "It is halacha that was given to Moses at Mount Sinai." And Moses was comforted. (B.T. Menachot 29b)
Here the rabbis foreground their deep belief that Torah is expansive and ever-changing. And their insistence that there is a thread of continuity between that which Moses received at Mt. Sinai and that which we come to understand as the meaning of Torah in our time. This is what my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe refers to as an unrecognizable future. We are inheritors of a tradition whose resilience is based on reinterpretation in every generation. The rabbis are saying, that is what The Holy One intended, which is why there are so many little beautiful details awaiting your meaning-making.
If any of you have ever studied a passage of Talmud, you will know that one of the first challenges is pronouncing any series of names that precedes many teachings. Often these attributions come as linguistic stumbling blocks and patriarchal reminders. And yet they also allow us to place ourselves in an ancient lineage.
I like imagining Moses sitting in the Kol Tzedek Beit Midrash (newly catalogued!), utterly perplexed and also completely at home as we transmit Torah from Sinai, as we claim and reclaim our roots and our reasoning. If Rabbi Akiva represented an unrecognizable future for Moses, you can only imagine what we represent. Another Torah, another world, is not only possible, she is on her way.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week, I was picking up my kids from school and one of them pointed to the sky and said, "Look, the moon is almost full." I looked on in shared awe at the bright light shining in the winter night sky. It feels to me that this particular full moon is overflowing with power.
This is the full moon of Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the trees. This is the full moon of MLK Jr. Day. This is the full moon of the Women's March. This is the full moon when we recount the mythic exodus of our people as they crossed the sea in search of safety and freedom. And as if that was not enough, apparently, there will also be a total lunar eclipse on this full moon.
This week I keep thinking about cosmic crossings and interconnected liberation journeys. Earlier this afternoon a group of KT members welcomed the Delgado family into our community; we are sponsoring them as they seek asylum from El Salvador. It was an emotional, joyful arrival. They expressed an ineffable amount of gratitude and shared snippets of what sounds like an unbearably painful journey to this moment. That this is the full moon when the Delgado family arrives in Philly, in the exact parsha when we recount the mythic exodus of our people and sing of their crossing of the sea; it leaves me relatively speechless.
I am awed by our community's open hearts. To welcome this family is one of the most profound embodiments of Torah, as we are directly and repeatedly instructed to care for the sojourners in our midst.
This is also the week that the great poet Mary Oliver died. And she too was a lover of many moons. Tomorrow morning will be infused with her poetry in honor of her life and her recent death. She writes in her poem "Strawberry Moon,"
"Now the women are gathering
in smoke-filled rooms,
rough as politicians,
scrappy as club fighters.
And should anyone be surprised
if sometimes, when the white moon rises,
women want to lash out
with a cutting edge?"
For all who will be marching tomorrow, please know that I am unequivocally in solidarity with you and I am particularly grateful for the leadership of JWOC who have modeled wholeness and resistance in one breath. However you choose to embody prayer this Shabbat, whether in the streets or at Calvary, and everything in between, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Amidst the magic of the Exodus story, we must also reckon with the suffering. Not just our own, but that of the other. This week's parsha asserts yet again:
"Then God said to Moses, 'Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your grandchildren how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them - in order that you may know that I am God.'"
As someone who takes refuge in Divine Justice, I primarily identify it with the aspects of kindness and mercy. But here we have it, front and center, God as punishing judge. And on the one hand, I want to say, that is not the God I believe in. (To which many of you might be thinking, if I even believe in God.) But on the other hand, it would be dishonest to say that I have not at times (even recent times) wished ill in my heart for those in power perpetuating evil, true evil.
Would I not want God to send plagues to the greedy racist powers that be if I knew it would both cause them suffering and cause them to change?
In a well known midrash that flashes forward to the end of the plagues, when the Israelites have crossed the sea, we learn the following: That night, while the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea and the ministering angels in heaven wanted to sing their established song, the Holy Blessed One said, "The works of my hands drown in the sea, and you want to sing?" And so, on that day, the angels were forbidden to sing, because God does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked (B.T. Megillah 10b).
About this contradiction, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, also known as the Esh Kodesh, asks the following question, "So how can it be that in our text God is saying, 'You will tell your children and your grandchildren how I made a mockery of Egypt, and laughed at their downfall'?!"
If the Esh Kodesh in the midst of the Nazi Holocaust is working to wish his oppressors well, all the more so, must we! For we, all of us, including them, whomever we deem other to us, is the work of the One's hands. In the words of Isaiah, which we recite on Yom Kippur,
וּמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָדְךָ֖ כֻּלָּֽנוּ
"We are all the work of your hands (64:7)."
In particular, I am sending love to everyone who is not receiving a federal paycheck today. And hoping that the Pharaohs of our times will soften their hearts without further suffering.
Shabbat Shalom to all,
Rabbi Ari Lev
One of my favorite things I learned when I was farming is that one plants garlic in the late Fall and then it somehow knows when it's time to grow in the spring. It reminded me that the winter is a time of gestational growth. There is a deep aliveness within the frozen earth. I have been reflecting on this as we come to the end of the Hebrew month of Tevet.
This week is what is referred to as Shabbat Mevarchim/The Blessed Shabbat, by which we mean the shabbat when we bless the coming month. In the Jewish calendar, the increments of time keep track of one another such that the six days of the week are for the sake of shabbat. And shabbat tracks the new moon and in that way the months. And the months are what track our sacred times and ultimately our years. In many ways, how we do time is a model for how we are instructed to live in community. That we keep track of each other, pay attention to the cycles of our lives, and mark transitions in our lives with blessings.
There are two reasons I feel called to teach about Shabbat Mevachim in the month of Tevet. The first is because the blessing one says explicitly references the Exodus story. And it has increased resonance to say it as we read the story itself this week in parashat Va'era.
And the second is because the Tanakh only mentions the month of Tevet once. It is in the month of Tevet that Esther approaches King Ahasuerus and he makes her his queen (2:16). There is no explicit divine intervention in the book of Esther. Yet the Talmud comments that there is a hidden reason for the date of Esther's arrival in the palace. Why did she enter the king's house in Tevet? Tevet is a season when one body benefits from the warmth of another (B.T. Megillah 13a). Sexual innuendos aside, this is a cozy time of year.
The story of Esther is the garlic seed in our holiday cycle. Even as the days begin to lengthen, it would be too much to look ahead to spring and the Passover story. But the cathartic release of Purim, the humor and the creativity, that is all gestating within us all winter long, waiting to sprout. And this is not just true in the Talmudic imagination, but in our community, too. Stay tuned for an invitation to help plan this year's Purim party and be part of the shpil magic!
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom U'Mevorakh,
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.