This week we begin a new book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra, known in English as Leviticus, and known to the rabbis as Torat Kohanim, or Priestly Wisdom. On the surface, the heart of the book of Leviticus is procedural descriptions for temple sacrifices. And for this reason, it is often unappreciated in contemporary liberal circles. However what appears to be a story about blood and guts (quite literally!), is in fact a story about our longing for intimacy.
The Hebrew word Korban קורבן, often translated as sacrifice or offering, in fact comes from the root קרב (kuf resh bet), and the verb לקרב (L'Karev) - meaning to bring near. While it might appear that the chapters of Leviticus are an interruption in the flow of biblical narrative, we are called to look closer at the priestly traditions because within them is revealed a value system that knows we humans crave closeness. We crave connection and community. We crave intimacy, in its many forms - even as we are scared, hurt and healing from it.
In a post on Facebook this week, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz commented:
"So entangled is our liberation and our quest for holiness, that the stories are never, in fact, separated: We read the Hagadah, the Pesach story, in the midst of reading the book of Vayikra. These moments, these holy pursuits, collapse into one another and erupt into Judaism's purpose: To cry out for a life of liberation and holiness, that to be a free people is to reach for heaven and earth in the same instant and try with all our strength and all our compassion and all our spiritual resolve to bring them together in one unified and holy embrace."
The book of Vayikra is the story of our human imperfection, our capacity to forgive and the closeness, the intimacy that comes from real teshuva - transformative healing. When God instructed Moses to cry out unto Pharoah, "Let my people go..." God specified, "...that they may be of service." Our freedom is not a means to an end. It is a call to come closer to each other, to our fragility and our longings, and to know that holiness lies in the space between us if we only have the courage to take a step in.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week I had the awesome opportunity to teach about teshuva and restorative justice from this incredible new resource, Handbook for Jewish Communities Fighting Mass Incarceration. In preparation I reflected on a class I took in rabbinical school about Prison Ministry. One of the guest speakers was a pastor who had dedicated her life to homeless ministry.* This minister came to speak about the connection between incarceration and homelessness, and told me this story:
Every Sunday morning she would pack a backpack with a few granola bars and bottled water. But mostly she put brand new pairs of socks, still in their packaging. Rather than giving them directly to people she would meet who might need them, she would give them to some of her (homeless) parishioners so that they could give them to someone else. She explained so profoundly I can still hear it, "Generosity is a human need; it in fact humanizes us."
Our capacity to be generous is connected to our sense of dignity. This is perhaps why generosity of heart, nedivut halev, is the starting place for the building of the mishkan. This is how we begin to make room for the divine presence in our midst. This is how we claim a life as b'nei horin, liberated people.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Moses instructs all of the generous hearted among the people to bring offerings to the Holy One – gifts of silver, copper, and gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, animal skins, oil, spices, wood, and precious stones. The response from the people is an extraordinary outpouring of creativity. The people respond with such overwhelming generosity that they have more than they need.
This is the truth and magic of community. And I have felt it deeply at Kol Tzedek. Our collective generosity is powerful. In the words of Paul Rogat Loeb (a quote I keep coming back to in my own journey!),
"Abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole and, in return, is sustained by the whole. Community not only creates abundance – community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed."
I am always learning and relearning this. An orientation towards abundance is radical in this world. Generosity is resistance to a culture of scarcity. This shabbat I invite you to cultivate a sense of abundance in an area you perhaps habitually feel scarcity; abundance of time or resources, food or forgiveness. Where might you be able to offer a generosity of heart and how might it transform your connection to the Whole and the Holy?
Ometz Lev tonight will be hearing from a representative from HIAS, talking about how our community can be part of the ecology that sustains and supports refugees in this political moment.
Thank you to everyone who gives generously to Kol Tzedek. We are all sustained by your time, effort and resources.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
*I share this knowing I have personally never been homeless. Yet I have friends who have been and I know that members of our community have been as well. I know we are diverse in our experiences of class and home, and have been taught different messages around what is enough.
The theme of my week has been rest. Mainly, not enough of it. Coming off of our epic Purim festivities, where we raised $5,000 for New Sanctuary Movement, I have felt a bit tired. And I have talked with several of you this week, and I know you too are tired. This administration is relentless. Everything feels urgent. There are literally three important, righteous meetings to go to in every night. And while we can mock it on Purim, we have to actually figure out how to live it sustainably in our lives.
This week's Torah portion includes the refreshing reminder I personally needed. Observe Shabbat...or else! Really rest. Turn off your screens, sit around in your pajamas, have extended conversations, take a long walk, play board games, do a puzzle, go to, not one, but two yoga classes. I know the list is long. But so is the week, not to mention your twitter feed.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his weekly writing shares this beautiful reflection on the relationship between Shabbat and the building of the tabernacle. In it he reminds us that in this lifetime, Shabbat must make it to the top of our to-do list.
"The Sabbath is a full dress rehearsal for an ideal society that has not yet come to pass, but will do, because we know what we are aiming for – because we experienced it at the beginning...The building of the Tabernacle was a symbolic prototype of the building of a society...The ultimate end of such a society is the harmony of existence that we have not yet experienced, living as we do in a world of work and striving, conflict and competition. God, however, wanted us to know what we were aiming at, so that we would not lose our way in the wilderness of time."
As we move into Shabbat, wherever you are, you have clear instruction and full permission from the Torah (and the Holy One!) to let go, relax and rejuvenate, because your health, your happiness and your life depends on it.
And if you are able to come to Kol Tzedek tomorrow, I invite you to sing and dance it out as we celebrate three simchas, including the Bar Mitzvah of Dayan Parker, the taking of a new name with Jessica Levine and milestone of becoming a grandparent with Carol Daniels.
Rabbi Ari Lev
...in the world to come the only holiday that we will continue to celebrate is Purim!
As many of us studied together last Shabbat, there is an obligation to get drunk on Purim. The Slonimer Rebbe understands this text to mean that we should get intoxicated from the experience of Purim itself. I so look forward to dissolving binaries, softening our judgements and having a gay ol' time together at Adult Purim on Saturday night at 7:30 (Get your tickets to avoid the line at the door!) and Family Purim at 3:15 on Sunday.
But first, this Shabbat, known as Shabbat Zachor or the Sabbath of Rememberence, is the second in a series of four shabbatot that lead up to Purim -- known affectionately as the "Arba Parshiyot - 4 Torah Portions," named for the additional portions of Torah read on these Shabbat mornings.
Communities around the world will read:
"Remember what Amalek did to you as you were leaving Egypt…and when YHVH your God brings you to a place of rest from your surrounding enemies in the land YHVH your God is giving you as your portion, blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens — do not forget. (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
According to some commentaries, Parashat Zachor is the only Torah reading that every individual is required to hear. There is a tradition from the Talmud that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, descended from Amalek.
On this Shabbat Zachor, we are instructed explicitly to remember to forget the memory of Amalek. Amalek has come to be known as the force of evil in our mythology. Why evil? Because they exploited the most vulnerable among us. The parallels to this political moment are all too clear. What do we do with the concept of evil? What do we really believe and what does Jewish tradition offer as models for spiritual reconciliation? Are people inherently wicked? Come to services and join in this Dvar Torah Discussion tonight. And for more insight into Shabbat Zachor and how it relates to Purim and Passover, read this teaching from my teacher, Rabbi Ebn Leader.
May this Purim be a time when we, as the Slonimer teaches, are able to experience and move towards greater wholeness with ourselves, with each other and with the Holy Blessed One.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim!
Last night I walked to Kol Tzedek under the sliver of the new moon of the month of Adar. I spent a few precious hours with a creative group of KT members to put the finishing touches on our upcoming Purim Party/Fundraiser. First of all, get your tickets! Because we need to laugh and dance it out right now!
About Purim, the Talmud teaches, "Each person is obligated to get drunk on Purim until they cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’" (Megillah 7b). For a moment, let's put aside our relationship to alcohol, so that we can focus on our relationship to blessing and curses. And perhaps more precisely, good and evil, right and wrong, left and right, love and hate, us and them, self and other. In a moment when this administration is obsessed with division and fear, Purim comes to teach us that binaries are not constructive. Purim comes to teach us that we are all connected. And frankly, this year, Purim is coming just in time. Just when there might be an urge to isolate out of fear, Purim reminds us that all is one. That we must draw each other close. That we must lift up hope and solidarity, and resist a narrative that demeans or demonizes other human beings. Purim teaches us that the path of compassion and empathy is itself the path of redemption.
Needless to say, this week has been surreal. As I shared with many of you on Monday night, I have been comforted by the image in psalm 42, "Tehom el Tehom korei." Translated by Scholar Avivah Zornberg, "Deep calls unto Deep." There is place beyond language, beyond binaries and judgement, a place of knowing from which we can rise in grounded action and compassionate clarity. I believe it is our work as people of conscience and faith, to connect to our deepest longings and truths, and work to build relationships that will guide us towards strength, courage, resilience and collective justice. Standing Against Hate at Independence Hall yesterday bolstered my commitment to resisting antisemitism and Islamophobia together, and building stronger relationships with our Muslim neighbors. To quote a letter we just received from The Islamic Education School:
"We know that there are beacons of light in trying times and that we are able to lean on one another to weather these storms...Together we can show the meaning of being neighbors, of being empathetic and peacefully living as members of the human race."
Please join me and Rabbi Michelle tomorrow for a morning of sacred song and learning.
10 am Beit Midrash: Come learn more the spiritual powers of Purim and the commandment to blur boundaries for the sake of wholeness. (downstairs)
10:30 am Family Service (upstairs)
And stay tuned for more ways to get involved, so that we can amplify our voice for justice and our vision of solidarity and interconnection.
Shabbat Shalom - May you find the replenishment you seek!
You can search Rabbi Ari Lev's blog below:
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.