The journey to Shavuot really begins at Passover. There is a custom of counting this 49 day period known as the Omer, from the second night of Passover to the first night of Shavuot. Several commentators link the 49 days of the Omer to the 48 qualities identified in Pirke Avot 6:6 as the attributes a person needs to cultivate in order to acquire Torah. In this practice, each day is dedicated to a different character trait.
The list includes some more intuitive qualities like humility, tranquility, and joy. And some less so, like minimizing pleasure and speech. But what has captured my attention today is the phrase "acquire Torah." Or in the Hebrew "Kinyan Torah - קנין תורה." Kinyan is the same Hebrew root used to describe the act of entering into a partnership. Kinyan is a deeply relational word. It is not something we can do with ourselves alone. The 48 qualities in Pirkei Avot are also deeply relational (learning in order to teach, giving the benefit of the doubt, companionship, asking and answering, etc.).
The Vilna Gaon adds an important observation. No one person can embody all 48 attributes. It is simply not possible; each of us has different strengths, different human qualities, different capacities of heart, mind, and spirit. According to Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, "That is why we learn in hevruta, with study companions. We need each other to reveal Torah in all its fullness, beauty, and complexity. It is through each other that we may merit revelation and truly acquire Torah."
I hope to see many of you at the Center City Kehillah Tikkun on Tuesday Night starting at 7 pm, where I, along with KT members Rabbi Alissa Wise, Hillary Blecker & Jessica Levy, Zoe Cohen and Jules Burnstein will be teaching.
Ramadan Mubarak and Shabbat Shalom!
This week we come to the end of the book of Leviticus. There is an Ashkenazi tradition upon arriving at the end of each book of Torah in which the community says "Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek! Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened!"
“Chazak”, as with most Hebrew words has multiple meanings or connotations which perhaps helps us understand why call upon it three times.
to be bound to
to be attached to
to have courage
to hold fast
to retain / to keep
to prove helpful
I like to imagine that each time we speak it we are calling upon its varied attributes; asking that words of Torah and the lives we have honored in reading them will support and encourage each of us on our own journey's to wholeness and connection. There is a recognition in the repetition that we are bound to them, and they are forever a part of us.
At our congregational meeting this Sunday, we will study words of Torah, welcome new board members and perhaps most profoundly, offer gratitude to those outgoing board members that have been of sacred service during this difficult transition in the life of Kol Tzedek.
I have been reflecting on the nature of synagogue leadership and Rabbi Michelle pointed me towards this article written by Pastor Erin Wathan following Easter. She writes:
"In writing a letter of gratitude my people, I wrote that it takes a whole village of volunteers to make all of this happen…. But then I found myself hitting the backspace button. Because “volunteer” is not quite the right word for what our people do at church... In other words, it’s what you do at a place that is important to you–but not at a place that belongs to you... I’m not sure the word “volunteer” does justice to the depths contained in the work people actually do in their churches..."
This resonates deeply for me. Synagogue leadership is not about volunteering, it is about service. I am extremely grateful to each and every person who has given of their time and skill, and for the service of the outgoing board members. I offer you each the same blessing that we use to mark completion in our Torah cycle:
Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek! Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened! May you each draw courage and strength from your sacred service. And in the spirit of Pastor Wathan, may we all remember that we don’t just belong to Kol Tzedek, it belongs to us!
Rabbi Ari Lev
634 people have raised nearly $30,000 in 4 days to bail out Mama's tomorrow, including upwards of $2,500 from the KT community. WOW! The hesed, the flow of generosity on KTDiscuss has been a joyful pulse to my week. It has felt like a cascading affirmation of our shared humanity.
At the end of this week's Torah portion, Emor, we arrive at a list of injuries and their parallel punishments, famously known as an "eye for an eye" [Lev. 24:20]. This system is referred to as Lex Talionis, or the Law of Retaliation, and was core to biblical law. It was also fodder for the rabbinic imagination. In what I experience as one of the rabbi's boldest moves, they declare that an "eye for an eye" actually means "monetary compensation." They too were interested in questions of justice and dignity. Ultimately they shifted the model from retributive justice to restorative justice, hinging much of their reasoning on this mishnah which articulates 5 impacts of harm: damages, pain, healthcare, unemployment, and shame.
Now whether or not money feels like a good source of reparations for an injury is less interesting to me. What I am more interested in is the agency they felt to directly reinterpret the literal (and frankly obvious!) meaning of Torah because they felt it was unjust. It is a powerful lesson for me that sometimes Torah pushes us to be our best selves and sometimes we push Torah to really embody justice. This is at the heart of torat hayyim, this living wisdom. It is a resource and a reference point. It is meant to be in conversation with our lived experiences and to affirm our shared humanity. It is meant to evolve and so are we.
All are invited to services tonight. As part of our continued exploration of prayer leadership, I am grateful that three different Kol Tzedek folks will be sharing song and Torah, Amit Schwalb, Sam Shain, and Leah Staub.
Happy Mama's Day to all who celebrate. To paraphrase the prophet Malachi, may the hearts of parents and children everywhere turn towards one another.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
One of my teachers suggests that the two most powerful words in the Torah appear as Aaron's response to the death of his two sons: וידם אהרן "VaYidom Aharon". A literal translation might be, "Aaron was stilled" [Lev 10:13]. This was my own personal response to the news that the Healthcare bill passed in the House. The news was chilling, like receiving news that someone has died. Perhaps because data suggests that this bill will cause death, pain and suffering.
And yet the rabbi's are not clear on the meaning of Aaron's overly concise response. It is often translated as "Aaron fell silent," as tho he was stunned into silence, literally speechless perhaps in shock. Yet others suggest it means, "And Aaron held his peace;" a kind of equanimous response to devastating news. And finally, one ancient translation interprets it as, "Aaron praised God." Lest anyone in government forget who in truth is Adon Olam, Sovereign Power of the Universe, the Source of Life and Death. Aaron affirms his connection to his higher power not those in power.
I am keenly aware that this bill if passed into legislation would impact us personally. I can imagine that we as a community encompass all of these responses. And so I want to challenge myself and all of us to move through shock and silence, and to recommit to staying centered and connecting to the good in our lives; to rise out of stillness and into action. There is so much we can and will do to mobilize our community and prevent this bill from gaining further ground in the Senate.
And luckily this is one of those weeks when the Torah portion seems divinely inspired to respond to political reality. We are called to study a double-portion. The first of which is Acharei Mot, literally, "After the death." It begins with Aaron's actions after the death of his two sons. I keep hearing it has "After the death of healthcare in the U.S." And then we read Kedoshim - The Holiness Code. Which speaks to each and every soul, each of us burdened by the condition of being human, and instructs us that we are called to embody holiness; to live a life of dignity, honor and kindness in relationship to ourselves, our family, our community and the land. This too is a kind of peaceful response to suffering and a call to action. Remember that you are holy. Act in a way that honors the holiness in all life.
I invite you tomorrow to join us as we do just that - connect, celebrate and fundraise to build the world we want to see in our community.
Shabbat Shalom To All!
Rabbi Ari Lev