Over the last few weeks, many of you have confided in me that you don't really like Purim. Or that it makes you uncomfortable (for all sorts of valid reasons). There are even those among you who feel it is your least favorite holiday. And you are not alone. I too have felt this. So much so, that for the first few years of rabbinical school, I intentionally sat a meditation retreat during Purim. I saw Purim as yet another opportunity for the habits of Jewish fraternities to unleash itself themselves community. I felt unsafe in the presence of drunken peers. And even more so, I felt unsafe in a costume. Because in truth, I was working so hard to be seen as myself, it felt too vulnerable to dress up and risk losing it all. Which is precisely what Purim seems to be asking us to do. To loosen our grip, to blur boundaries, to invert truth. But why?
For me the answer comes towards the end of chapter 4 in the Megillah. Mordechai sends a message to Esther, saying:
“Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. If you keep silent in this crisis, release and liberation (רוח והצלה) will come some other way...And who knows (ומי יודע) if it wasn't for just such a time that you became queen?” (Esther 4:13-14).
The entire purpose of Purim is release and liberation. Purim calls us to live into our deepest longings, knowing that things are not as they should be. Purim reminds us that our struggles must be rooted in a vision of the world full of light, joy and delight (אורה ושמחה וששן).
Because who knows?
In the words of my teacher Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld,
"In this remarkable exchange between Mordechai and Esther, "Who knows?” becomes not an excuse but an invitation:
Consider the possibility, says Mordechai, that you are here for a purpose.
Consider the possibility that there is something bigger and more important than your fear.
Consider the possibility that you have more power than you imagine.
Consider the possibility that it is up to us to act out of love and responsibility for each other."
It was only when I understood this greater purpose, that I had the courage to look inside and discern what in me needed to be released. Where was I taking myself too seriously? Who/what else did I long to be? And perhaps most profoundly, what hidden joy might be possible in this difficult moment?
For the rabbis, Yom Kippur and Purim are two sides of the same coin. If Yom Kippur is characterized by an earnest pursuit of teshuva, Purim opens the space for an ironic vulnerability. In my experience, it is only when we lean into this spirit of release that we have the power to be transformed by it.
Who knows? Perhaps Purim might just become your favorite holiday yet.
Looking forward to seeing you all weekend long!
Rabbi Ari Lev
In a famous midrash we are told that the original Torah was a scroll made of white fire and its writing was black fire. It was itself fire, hewn out of fire, completely formed in fire and given through fire (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:15).
For me, the fact that Torah is fire and not iron, which is formed and finished in fire, says everything about how we are called to relate to sacred wisdom and to ourselves. This midrash highlights the belief that Torah is both a Divine gift and inherently broken. There is perhaps no greater visual for this than that of Moses actually smashing the tablets with the ten commandments upon learning about the Golden Calf. Of course we learn that Moses goes back up the mountain and returns with a new set. And without skipping a beat, the rabbi's explain in another midrash that the Israelites carried both the whole and the broken tablets in the mishkan as they wandered in the wilderness. I can almost imagine the rabbi's excitement when Moses breaks the first set of tablets. Because for them, this makes manifest what they already believed, Torah is inherently, intentionally broken.
Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, one of the great living Talmud scholars, writes of the maculate nature of Torah. That Torah is intentionally full of ambiguity and contradiction. And it is calling us to wrestle with it, interpret it, make meaning from it. This is precisely why it is called Torat Hayyim, a living tradition. Because our engagement with it makes it relevant; quite literally, gives it life.
The maculate conception of Torah is at the heart of the Talmud, which values the proliferation of ideas and the process of debate over clarity and correctness. The value of debate (makhloket) is part of what defines Judaism's relationship to sacred text. In fact, the entire rabbinic project is built upon the indefinite nature of Torah; and perhaps more profoundly, Torah's imperfections.
There are two reasons why these ideas are so present for me this week. About two months ago while teaching a class on Torah Trope, it came to Rabbi Michelle's attention that our Torah's were in need of repair. Many letters had smudged and the parchment was damaged. With the help of Ariana Katz, we were able to connect to Soferet Linda Coppleson, who is part of a movement of Jewish female scribal artists. She was able to repair our Torah and we will be reading from it for the first time tomorrow morning. Here a few images of the repair process, including a before/after shot of the same columns. I am excited for us to gather close tomorrow and let the light of the parchment shine through the light of the letters.
Secondly, for the past 6 weeks a brave group of us have been studying Talmud on Tuesdays nights. And tomorrow, two students who have been study pairs, Beth and Gabby, will be sharing reflections on the text we have been learning about verbal exploitation.
For so many painful and hopeful reasons, I am looking forward to being together tomorrow. May we all have the courage, humility and freedom to see ourselves through the light of Torah, as both imperfect and holy all at once.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Lunar New Year to those that celebrate,
Rabbi Ari Lev
It is usually right around now, mid February, when I start to complain about winter. I complain about the lack of sunlight. I complain about the cold. I complain about the short days and the long nights. I actually enjoy snow, so that is one less thing to complain about. By February, I have forgotten what it feels like to wear shorts and a t-shirt. I have forgotten the sweetness of local peaches and spaciousness of long summer nights.
In The Jewish Book of Days, Rabbi Jill Hammer describes this time of year as the season of sap. She writes, “The sap in the trees begins to rise, and life runs through all the veins of the trees. The blood of the living creatures also begins to move faster as they awaken to seek food. Ice cracks and melts; water disperses over the land. Though there still may be a chill on the earth, it is an invigorating cold, one that inspires us to move.” Just when we hit our winter rut, nature propels us forward.
Tonight marks the first of 4 special Shabbatot preparing us for Passover (Wait, It's not even Purim yet!?). I will be offering a Dvar Torah on generosity as a tool of liberation and debt as a model for interconnectedness. We will be looking to the Torah and to nature for inspiration.
In the words of the Sufi mystic Hafiz:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
Rabbi Ari Lev
As we read parashat Yitro this week and celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, I am reminded of a midrash that I shared almost a year ago, that teaches, "When the Jews left Egypt, almost all of them were disabled" (Numbers Rabbah, Naso 7:1). I have been revisiting the image of this community of Israelites who gathered at Sinai to receive Torah. A community that honors the unique insights of each and every one of us in our varied bodies and abilities.
The emphasis of that midrash is on the receiving of Torah from up above. But from my own experience with illness and disability, there is so much Torah that comes from within. As Jewish feminists have reminded us for decades, every year we are called to stand again at Sinai. Sometimes we are at the foot of the mountain gazing upward. And sometimes we are peering into the deep mountain of our own experiences.
I invite you to join me tomorrow as we explore both the written and oral Torah of disability and chronic illness. For those who can't join us, I offer you three Divrei Torah by Rabbi Elliot Kukla, Jessica Belasco, and Lauren Tuchman.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.