Tomorrow morning, Sadie Parker will not only become a Bat Mitzavh, but she will be chanting the final words of the book of Leviticus. And after she does so, all of us present will have the opportunity to observe the Ashkenazic custom and respond to her finishing this book of Torah with the words, "Hizki hizki v'nithazek!" (Note the feminine rendering of "Hazak hazak" since Sadie will be reading). These words resist translation, but might best be rendered as, "Be strong, be strong and we will strengthen one another." The "hazak" declaration is a closure ritual, a performative parallel to the graphic demarcation in the Torah scroll in which after the conclusion of each book we see four blank lines. The largest consecutive white spaces in all of Torah. This is the deep exhale of completion.
This ritual does not stand alone. There is a parallel invocation when one completes a chapter or masechet (volume) of Mishnah or Talmud. In those moments, it is a custom to recite, "Hadran alach v'Hadrach alan," literally "May we return to you and may you return to us." Alternately, the Aramaic word Hadran, like the Hebrew word Hadar, can mean to glorify or beautify. "May our study lift up the light of Torah and may Torah increase our own light." The essence of this double entendre is actually addressed to the sefer, the sacred text itself, and comes as the beginning to a longer concluding prayer. Those of us who completed the four-week Talmud class this past Tuesday had the opportunity to recite these words.
What strikes me about both of these rituals is the explicit mutuality and reflexivity embedded in our relationship to these sacred texts. In the case of the Torah scroll, it is the plural reflexive verb nithazek - we will draw strength. As though the ancient words, the reader, and those present are all bolstered in this intention. And in the case of the Talmudic practice, the intention that we long to return to study the text again, even more so, that the text stays with us beyond our study of it.
As Shavuot approaches and we prepare to begin the book of Numbers, I am touched by the image of Torah as sacred stories that strengthen us, make us more resilient, and call us back to them time and again.
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
In this fourth week of the Omer, we learn in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, "Rabbi Nehorai says, 'Exile yourself to a place of Torah. Don't assume that Torah will follow you or that your friends will hand it to you. Don't just rely on your own perception of things.'"
In a tradition where exile is often positioned as the lesser paradigm, I am struck by the image of this teaching, which imagines exile as a place of learning and possibility. A place we might (and perhaps should) voluntarily choose. And while at first it feels like a distant image, when I stop to think about it, in fact, it is utterly resonant. Throughout my life I have had to consciously choose to make space in my life for Torah. To leave places that I loved living in order to find teachers and study companions. And while on some literal level this is the loss and isolation that Rabbi Nehorai might be referring, on a deeper level, I think he knows that in truth, we must exile ourselves, not for for the sake of learning Torah, but for the sake of becoming ourselves.
There is no greater teacher of the Torah of exile than Dr. Joy Ladin. In her most recent book, The Soul of the Stranger, she writes in excruciating detail about the exile of her own transition, as she lost the right to live with her own children, to set foot on the campus of her own university, to attend her own father's funeral. And from that place of exile, she shares the deep Torah of her life.
"The Torah speaks to transgender lives because so much of it speaks to how hard it is for humanity to recognize and embrace someone - God - who cannot fit human terms. Transgender perspectives illuminate the Torah because we, like God, know what it means to love those who cannot understand us, to dwell in the midst of communities that have no place for us, to present ourselves in human terms that cannot help but misrepresent us. Religious communities that welcome transgender people hear in our voices an echo of the loneliness that haunts the living word of God. Religious communities that treat openly transgender people, even those of us who have lived in those communities all our lives, as strangers, should recall that God repeatedly commands the Israelites to remember their own experiences of being treated as strangers in the land of Egypt: to remember that they know--because God wants communities devoted to God to know--the soul of the stranger" (122).
I am grateful for all the ways that each of us at Kol Tzedek continues to stretch to create a spiritual home for trans and non-binary folks. It, too, is water in the desert.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Every Hebrew word is somehow derived from a two or three letter root, a combination of letters that can be conjugated and transformed to expand its meaning. One of the many reasons why Jewish tradition holds that the letters themselves contain mystical powers is because they are the source of all words of Torah.
Rabbi Mó and I are currently teaching a four-week Talmud class using the SVARA method. Perhaps the most unique pedagogical innovation of SVARA is the instruction to look up every word in the text, even if you think you know what it means. The goal is to understand not just the word, but the root of every word. To understand its essence, and from there, to reimagine its meaning.
This past week, we came across the word Torah in the passage of Talmud. And as you can imagine, most of us, once we decoded it, felt pretty sure we knew what Torah meant. Torah is Torah, after all. But determining its root requires something akin to grammar archeology. And what we discovered is that the root of Torah (ירה, ירי) means to permeate, to penetrate, to throw, to shoot forth. Torah is a path, it is an arrow in motion. This is why the first earth-soaking rain of the season is called yoreh, from the same root, for it shoots forth towards the ground.
When one digs a little deeper (in the dictionary), you can see that Torah means to point out, to direct, to teach and instruct. Which is to say, that Torah is not just any old kind of instruction. It is one that penetrates and permeates our lives, one that directs our actions.
It is a custom during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavout when we are meditating towards the revelation of Torah to study the six chapters of Pirkei Avot. Which is fitting for many reasons, not least of all because the final chapter is about Torah itself.
About the tablets that Moses received on Sinai upon which were engraved the 10 Commandments, it teaches, "Don't read the world חרות (charut, which means engraved), rather read it as חרות (cherut, which means freedom), because there is no freer person than someone who is busy studying Torah and all who study Torah will be raised up" (Pirkei Avot 6:2).
In this broken world (which contains our broken tablets), Torah is meant to be that which permeates within us a feeling of freedom, that which reconnects us to our instincts and our insights. It is from this sense of penetrating ease and purposeful direction that revelation is possible; in which we are reminded, again and again, we were all at Sinai. None of us are more or less entitled to Torah or truth.
This week in particular, as we have spent the past several weeks reading about the purity and impurity of women's bodies in the book of Leviticus, I want to direct our learning towards a world built on a foundation of reproductive justice. May we have the courage to reveal a Torah that manifests dignity and agency for all people, במהרה בימינו, speedily and in our days.
Rabbi Ari Lev
As my teacher Rabbi Art Green tells the story, two rabbis were having an argument some nineteen hundred years ago. The topic: What is Judaism's most important teaching? Rabbi Akiva, perhaps most famously, had a ready answer which just so happens to have come from this week's parsha: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) is the basic rule of Torah. This teaching is at the core of what our tradition describes as the Holiness Code, which is read this week and again on Yom Kippur afternoon in my many synagogues.
Not surprisingly, his friend Simeon ben Azzai lovingly disagreed. "I know a more basic rule than that and he quoted from the book of Genesis, "This is the book of human generations: On the day that the Holy One created humans, they were created in the image of the Divine (b'tzelem elohim)..." (Gen. 5:1).
This debate is both ancient and ever relevant. And in truth it didn't begin with Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai. Almost two hundred years earlier Hillel famously taught, when asked to summarize Judaism on one foot for a potential convert, "Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary; now go and learn" (B.T. Shabbat 31a). Akiva transforms Hillel's wisdom into the affirmative and roots it in biblical language.
I don't need to split hairs and choose the more righteous essence of Judaism. It is however worth noting that Ben Azzai has two worthwhile concerns. The first is about love. How can I be commanded to love someone? In these political times it does not take much imagination to conjure a person we consider so hateful that we cannot authentically muster love for them. Is that a violation of the essence of Judaism? To which Ben Azzai responds, no, love is not required as the most basic rule of Torah. But remember that they are still human beings, created in the image of God. That they are worthy of compassion and dignity. Treat them that way.
His second problem with Akiva's teaching hinges on the word "neighbor." Who does that include? Is that people with whom we live in proximity? Is that people like us? Is that only Jews? Or only Jews like us? Does Judaism not call us to extend our circles of concern to nishmat kol hai, the breath of all of creation?
Rabbi Green concludes, "The faith that every human being is created in God's image is the part of Judaism that has taken the deepest root in what may be culturally characterized as the 'Jewish soul.' Ironically it continues to exist even in Jews who are not sure if they can still use the word God or soul in any other part of their vocabulary. But they still affirm the lesson of tzelem elohim, the truth that every human life is sacred. It calls us to boundless respect for each human life, a valuing of human difference and individuality, and a commitment to fair and decent treatment for each person" (Judaisms 10 Best Ideas, p. 15).
Personally the question is still alive in my mind, what is the essence of Judaism? And I hope it always is.
Wishing you all a shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
There are weeks when it takes effort to knit our lives to the Torah portion. And there are weeks like this one, when the ancient words feel as though they were written for this very moment. This week's parsha, Acharei Mot, literally "After death," requires no introduction. We find ourselves in both real time and mythic time in the space that follows death. In the Torah's case, after the death of Aaron's two sons. And in our case, after the death of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, z”l in Poway, California. Who was in synagogue to recite Yizkor prayers on the eighth day of Passover.
In four places the Torah mentions the death of Aaron's sons. And in each of those places it mentions the supposed cause of their death. Aaron's children died attempting to reach God. Much like Lori, they were trying to draw close to the Divine. How can we reconcile the possibility of death as a possible consequence of Jewish practice or Shabbat observance? Is that not at odds with our core understanding of Jewish tradition? As we sing on Shabbat morning, "It is a tree of life to those who draw near to it" (Proverbs 3:17).
It is a tree of life. It is meant to be sustaining and nurturing. Which is affirmed a few chapters later in this week's parsha when the text teaches that a person is meant to observe Jewish teachings וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם "and live by them." For which the Talmud clarifies, "live by them, and not die by them" וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם (B.T. Avodah Zara 27b).
It is because of this core value that the rabbis explain that one is permitted to violate a mitzvah (i.e., Shabbat) in order to save a life. It is this core value that undermines for me the homophobic reading of Leviticus 18:21, which appears only a few verses later. Because Torah and mitzvot in their essence, should be life giving. Jewish practices should animate us; give our lives meaning; renew our life-force. Judaism is meant to make us feel more alive. Any interpretation of Torah that suggests otherwise, say the rabbis, has strayed too far. Because we should live by them and not die by them.
This Shabbat embodies our resistance and our resilience. It is profound to affirm life in this moment and welcome three little ones into community and covenant. May our commitment to our traditions and our community be strengthened. And may we experience the joy, calm, and peace that Shabbat offers us. "For it is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it, all who uphold it may be be counted as fortunate. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace."
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.