On my first day back in August, just about 11 months ago, I said that I wanted to sit down with each and every one of you, to hear your story. And I meant it! This afternoon I flipped back through my calendar and realized that as of today I have sat down and had a 1:1 conversation with 150 members of the KT community. Thank you for taking this time to build trust with me. This immediately made me think of the book of Psalms which has 150 chapters. Each of you a psalm unto yourself. Each of you a story, a song, a poem. Each of you asking different questions, carrying different struggles, sharing different concerns. Each of you vulnerable and beautiful. In the words of Psalm 150, Halleluyah!
In my experience, there is a desire to homogenize community; to either take refuge in feeling like everyone is like you; or to justify rejection by claiming difference as a reason to not belong. What stands out most from these conversations, is how much difference our community contains. I know from sitting with so many of you that our distinctions are not only what define us, they are our greatest strength. I am eager to keep cultivating our personal and collective heart of many rooms.
At this weekend's board retreat, we closed with a contemplative exercise in which each of us had to go around the room and fill in the following formula:
I offer you...
You offer me...
May we all go from strength to strength.
All week I have been filling in those blanks...and I invite you as we come to the end of my first you as your rabbi to take a moment to do the same.
Please know that I offer each of you gratitude.
And you offer me wholeness.
May we all go from strength to strength!
And if you are not among the 150, let's find each other in August. I am eager to connect with you in Year 2 of KT 2.0.
Rabbi Ari Lev
As many of you know I was away this past week at Queer Talmud Camp, a program that Rabbi Benay Lappe and SVARA organize. (I am excited that there will be some KT people at the July QTC in California!) The concept of svara comes from the Talmud itself. It is one of those words that takes an essay to define. It is often understood to mean "informed moral intuition." It is a term from Jewish law that reflects the 2,000-year-old rabbinic notion that the most powerful source of truth is insight which grows out of the experience of our own lives informed by Jewish learning. In fact, in the Talmud, when one's svara and a verse in the Torah conflict, svara has the power to trump even Torah, when that svara is understood to more accurately reflect the deepest foundational principles of Jewish tradition. This notion of svara has been instrumental in my own spiritual life as a queer and trans person. Over and over again, it teaches us to truly trust ourselves and to remember that there is Torah within us.
This week I learned yet another layer to the meaning of svara. It turns out it has a secondary meaning of hope. While on the one hand this changes its meaning altogether. There is a big difference between reason or intuition and hope. Yet somehow, I found the connection fitting. In the month of Pride and the week when we honor the memories of those lost in the Pulse Massacre, in a week full of violence, I am reminded that we must not only pursue truth and trust in our moral intuition, but we must also cultivate hope. Perhaps, the rabbis of the Talmud seem to be suggesting, they are inextricably linked.
What do you make of that?
Holding Ernie Steiner close in our hearts after the lost of her husband Andrew Stiller. Looking forward to celebrating the marriage of Jon and Henry and the Bat Mitzvah of Maddie Church tomorrow at 10 am!
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week in the Torah we receive the final instruction to install the intricate menorah which is at the heart of our portable sacred space. And by install I mean simultaneously mount and kindle the light. This is both practical and utterly symbolic. Light is one of our core Jewish metaphors. Torah is light. Human beings are light. God is light.
The instructions [see Ex. 37:17-24] are complicated and opaque. Branches, calyxes and petals in the shape of almond blossoms, all somehow made of one piece of hammered gold.
It turns out that Moses was indeed confused by the details of this building project. A midrash [from Midrash Tanhuma, Bhaalotcha 3] has him returning to God not once, not twice, but three times – completely baffled by how he was supposed to construct the intricate gold lampstand. Each time God explains and each time Moses returns and says, “I still don’t get it.” Finally, God says give me your hand, and draws the blueprint on Moshe’s finger.
And Moshe still doesn’t get it.
There is no "Aha!" moment for Moses in the midrash. No moment in which he finally gets it and can carry out the instructions that God has given. The midrash ends instead with a sacred act of letting go. God tells Moses to throw the block of gold into the fire, and the menorah emerges fully formed – in the shape of a blossoming almond tree.
The midrash evokes for me the words of Kazanzakis: “I said to the almond tree, 'Sister, speak to me of God.' And the almond tree blossomed.”
To what degree is our understanding of the divine cognitive or experiential?
Does logic interfere with our ability to experience the divine?
Is revelation or insight always born out of chaos?
What if God is the force of transformation in your life?
What are you letting go of?
Who knows what might blossom if you have the courage to do so!
This email is hardly a blueprint for kindling a relationship with the divine. I offer you some of my own questions as fodder for your quest. Perhaps you can write one on the palm of your hand and allow it to guide you through shabbat.
Rabbi Ari Lev
In this week's parsha, Naso, we receive the words of the ancient priestly blessing, known in Hebrew as Birkat Kohanim.
May God bless you and protect you –
יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
(Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā ...)
May God shine light upon you and be gracious unto you –
יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
("Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viḥunnékkā ...)
May God lift up Their face unto you and place within you peace –
יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
("Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm.")
There is a custom of parents placing their hands on their children's head and blessing them with these words on Friday evening. I was not personally raised with this practice, but have been endeared to the idea that we have the power to blessing one another. If God is Mekor HaBracha, the Source of Blessing, then we are the vessels, the conduits. For some years, I have invited anyone present at the shabbat table (between candle lighting and the blessing over the wine) regardless of age or relationship, to participate in blessing each other. As part of this moment, I have added a feminist prelude written by Marcia Falk:
"Be who you are — and may you be blessed in all that you are."
This is perhaps the most we can hope to be blessed with, the courage to be ourselves and feel whole. We live in a world full of senseless violence and destruction. Afghanistan, Portland, Syria, Maryland. I offer you this ritual as medicine as you enter Shabbat. Particularly for those of us who are forever re-parenting ourselves, for those of us longing for children, for those in the midst of transition. I invite each of you to imagine for a moment that you are held in the hands of our entire community, and we are blessing you personally: "Be who you are — and may you be blessed in all that you are." [Deep inhale.]
For which the response is, "Ken Yehi Ratzon, May it be so."
May Kol Tzedek continue to be a place where we are each able to grow into the fullest versions of ourselves and connect to an inner point of truth which is itself wholeness.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.