In this week's parsha, we get the famous story of Moses ascending Mt. Sinai carrying two stone tablets upon which the Holy One uses a finger (really! check out Ex. 31:18) to inscribe the Ten Commandments. Moses returns down the mountain only to find the people have built a golden calf. Enraged, and probably feeling betrayed, he smashes the tablets and returns up the mountain to plead forgiveness with the Holy One. While on the mountain a second time, Moses has a heart to heart with the Holy One.
The text of Exodus 34:6 reads:
וַיַּֽעֲבֹ֨ר יְהֹוָ֥ה | עַל־פָּנָיו
And God passed before his face...
As if the rabbis pressed pause on this scene and zoomed in close on their smartphones, they ask, what was it that Moses saw when the Holy One passed by? Was it a glowing aura? A long white beard? What's God's profile pic?
In one midrash, the rabbis conclude that Moses saw the back of God's head. Not only that, but he saw the knot of the tefillin shel rosh, the leather straps of God's tefillin. Wait, you might say, God prays? God wears tefillin? Isn't God the one we call Shomea Tefillah, the one who hears our prayers? And if the Shema, which asserts the oneness of the Divine, is written inside of our tefillin, then what is written in God's tefillin?
The Talmud teaches, "These tefillin [that belong to] the Master of the Universe, what is written in them? He said to him, And who is like you Israel? A singular nation on the earth (Divrei HaYamim 1, 17:21)...God said to Israel: You have made Me a singular entity in the world and I will make you a singular entity in the world. You have made Me a singular entity in the world as it says, Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord is One (Devarim 6:4). And I will make you a singular entity in the world, as it says, And who is like you Israel? A singular nation on the earth (Berakhot 6a)."
Just as the tefillin that human beings wear pray for Divine unity, so too the Holy One's tefillin prays for our earthly unity. Just as we long to feel connected to something beyond ourselves, the Source of All Life longs for us to feel connected to each other.
In the words of Marcia Falk,
"Hear, O Israel--
The divine abounds everywhere
and dwells in everything;
the many are One."
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week's parsha takes us deep into the details of the mishkan, the portable sacred dwelling place that the Israelites built in the desert. And amidst the details of the priestly garments and building materials, pure gold, crimson yarn, and fine linens, The Holy Blessed One reminds us what it's all for:
וְשָׁ֣כַנְתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
"I will dwell among the children of Israel" (Ex 30:45).
The message of this week's parsha, which echoes the message of last week's parsha, which essentially is the core Jewish message embodied in the Shema prayer, is that we are all interconnected and we need to live in a way that embodies that truth. That message, in biblical terms, describes the presence of the divine dwelling among and between us.
This was on my mind earlier this week when I got a phone call from NPR. It was very unexpected. I was about to teach a class on prayer and they just had a quick request: Would I be willing to appear on air in the morning to comment on the recent political controversy with Ilhan Omar's tweets? And then the producer continued, more specifically, that they wanted to invite another "more centrist" rabbi onto the show so that we could publicly debate our views. It did not take long for me to realize this was not a good idea. Not because there isn't nuance and difference of opinion in the Jewish world. And not because I don't believe in giving voice to that nuance and finding ways to constructively disagree, even in public. For me, this didn't feel like a good idea because I felt it was playing directly into the strategy of the right. It is my personal sense that the alt-right is trying to divide us from each other, target women of color, and define public discourse on antisemitism. In this case, Ilhan Omar was criticizing the influence of AIPAC. Regardless of our views on Israel, I imagine we are all able to see the negative impact of lobbyists in government and her inherent right to voice criticism as free speech. This is very scary to me, because it censors free speech and uses the rhetoric of antisemitism as a tool to silence women of color in leadership. Censorship is so deep and dangerous, that even as I write this email I fear I may be censoring myself, so worried about how you will interpret it.
The request from NPR also scared me because pitting two rabbis against one another in public debate on this most controversial issue directly does the work of antisemitism for the right, and has us fighting against each other as opposed to actually fighting the forces of true antisemitism in our world. None of this, says my inner compass, would invite holiness into our midst.
In the wake of Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, we are raw. We know in our bones that antisemitism is real and dangerous. The call from the producer at NPR was so startling, because it pointed to a wound in the Jewish psyche which is becoming a deep chasm in the Jewish community. How do we respond to white supremacy with dignity and integrity? What do we need to do to understand the source of real antisemitism? It is my sense that the right wing propaganda machines are using media attacks and political smear campaigns, largely targeting people of color (Linda Sarsour, Marc Lamont Hill, Angela Davis, and now Ilhan Omar), to pit us against each other and to divide us from our natural allies. And as a result, we undermine each other's dignity and ultimately jeopardize each other's safety. Put in Kabbalistic terms, sending the Shekhina, the indwelling presence of the Divine, into exile.
You may not agree with me about any of this. That is welcome. Kol Tzedek is still your community. I welcome disagreement, feedback, and respectful debate in our community. I share all of this with you, hoping we as a community can deepen our capacity for real connection. In the weeks and months to come, I invite you to pay attention to this with me so that we can together develop our collective consciousness and find ways to speak with compassion, clarity, and integrity about antisemitism, holiness, and the chasm between.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Last shabbat we blessed the coming of the new moon of Adar. I shared that this year we are welcoming Adar 1, because it is a Jewish leap year. Unlike the Gregorian calendar which adds a day to the end of February, the Jewish calendar doubles an entire month. This is what allows us to follow the lunar cycles and also stay in rhythm with the solar seasons such that Passover will always be in the spring time. However, when I shared this, I misspoke and said that Jewish leap years happen every four years. That, in fact, is not true. That is when Gregorian leap years happen. The Jewish calendar follows a much more idiosyncratic (or perhaps natural) rhythm. Here is what I learned this week, with huge gratitude to Rachel and Nati Katz Passow for being my teachers.
In the days before the calendar was codified (and climate change was happening), the rabbis would go out into the fields at the end of the month of Shvat (say, around last week) to inspect the barley. According to the biblical calendar, Passover is a barley harvest and so the spring festival must be timed with the crop. If the barley looked like it would be ready six weeks later, it wasn't a leap year. And if it needed more time, it was a leap year. (This is the ancient Hebrew groundhog day!) In this way they were able to align the festivals with both the harvest and the seasons. Put another way, the harvest defined the seasons for them.
In our times, Jewish leap years occur seven out of every 19 years. Which is actually a lot more frequently than Gregorian leap years. Now you might ask, how did they come up with a 19-year cycle. That is hardly a familiar Jewish number. I don't quite know. But somehow, though, the number 19 is at once completely random and naturally attuned. As it turns out, it corresponds to the pattern of the keys on a piano, which are divided into 19 equal temperaments. (You can actually use the spacing of black and white keys to know whether it's a leap year!) Now I am certainly not a music theorist. But while many people call it coincidence, it seems to me there is a resonant echo between the natural world, music, and math that defies logic and alludes to a deeper truth.
In the words of Rami Shapiro, "Nature is God's niggun, a wordless melody of unfolding Life."
But still, how do I know what year it is? The Hebrew Leap Year follows a 19-year cycle. The years of the 19-year cycle that are leap years are: 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19. For the brave of heart, there are amazing mathematical equations that line up with a Hebrew mnemonic (גוחאדז"ט), which you can explore and play with to figure out which year it is. I personally am sticking to Hebcal for this information.
As we begin this first month of Adar, I invite you to marinate in the patient joy it brings as we journey towards the expanse of spring.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I am currently in the midst of teaching a 7-week class on prayer. One of the most challenging aspects has been figuring out, "Do I teach how to do it or why we do it first." The how and the why have their own multilayered histories that intersect but are still distinct. Several of the students are interested in learning to wear a Tallit and wrap Tefillin. And their first questions are inevitably and understandably, "Why do we do this?" I am deeply empathetic to this question, and yet I find myself sounding a lot like Moses in this week's Torah portion when he famously declares, "Na'aseh v'Nishmah / We will do and we will hear" (Ex. 24:7). In other words, "Try it and then let's talk."
Now, to us post-modern critical thinkers, this does not come easy. In fact, when I suggested to one student that he might just want to try on Tefillin before reading a book about it, he responded, "I prefer to understand it first." That's reasonable. I am much more comfortable doing something that I understand. It is hard to trust that which we don't understand. And yet! I have found it important to remember that there are things we can only understand by way of experience. There is learning that happens beyond language and insight that is deeply personal, none of which can be prescribed to you.
Sometimes we need to Na'aseh v'Nishmah - sometimes we need to experience something in order to really hear it. Because, in truth, sometimes the reasons why we do things are not nearly as compelling as the doing itself. This is my own experience for example with wearing Tefillin. The fact that the Torah says I should make "a sign upon by arm and upon my forehead" is not what compels my practice. It is the fact that I inherited a pair of never-worn Tefillin from my father who received them for his Bar Mitzvah and I get to be the generation that reclaims them; It is the visceral acupressure-like feeling; It is the gender subversion; It is the ancient unknown.
In a midrash about this verse, the rabbis imagine Moses asking: Is doing something possible without understanding? Understanding leads one to doing. And then the rabbis reread the line in our Torah to mean, "Na'aseh v'Nishmah - We will do what we understand" (Mechilta 24:7).
While I appreciate and agree with this rational rendering, it is not the whole truth. This Shabbat I invite you to dwell in the discomfort and wisdom that sometimes we do things irrationally and only later understand why. Not in some naive, "You'll understand when you are older" kind of way. But in a, "Revelation takes many forms" kind of way.
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.