This week’s Torah portion comes on the heels of a heartbreaking week of state-sanctioned violence. Deep exhale. And it contains within it one of the more famous verses from the Torah, "How good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israel/mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkanotekha Yisrael".
The context for the verse is the unusual tale of Balaam. Balaam is a foreign prophet whom the fearful King Balak calls to curse Israel. But every time Balaam comes to curse Israel, blessings come out. In his final curse/blessing, he looks out over Israel and says the famous line that has become a standard part of Jewish liturgy.
This is a story transformation in which curses turn into blessings. A kind of transformation we need in this moment. Where our leaders look out at the great expanse of Turtle Island and spread the tent wide to all who seek refuge. In the words of another great prophet Isaiah, "Enlarge the place (makom/מקום) of your tent" (54:2). In the streets, in our sanctuary cities, in our places of worship, we are called to widen the horizon of our heart, our circle of concern and the site of our tent. We are called to be part of the prophetic voice that will transform these curses into blessings.
Rabbis Annie Lewis and Yosef Goldman composed this new melody for Mah Tovu in honor of this parsha in the spirit of transforming our political curses into blessings.
With some healthy ambivalence in the midst of these cursed times, I will be signing off after this email for a restorative month. Thank you all for the opportunity for deep rest and play. In my absence, members of the KT Board will be sending out their own inspired words of Torah each Friday. Additionally, Rabbi Michelle is available for all pastoral emergencies. For all other KT matters, email email@example.com.
For those who will spend tomorrow in prayeful protest, I offer you the words of one of my teachers and mentors, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld who shared this prayer during an Interfaith Vigil at the Tornillo Detention Camp earlier this week:
"...Because we are parents ourselves
Because we are teachers
Because we are witnesses
Because we are weavers
Because we are threads
in the tapestry of Your creation.
We will stitch together what has been torn apart.
Dear God, please give us strength. Give us wisdom. Give us courage.
Gather us all in the embrace of your unending love.
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
Listen, you who struggle,
And bear witness to the One God who holds us all."
May we all gather resilience from the Source of Transformation, the One that is, was, will be, be that Carl Marx or the Kadosh Barechu / Holy Blessed One.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Summer!
Rabbi Ari Lev
The Israelites journey through the desert continues this week in Parashat Chukat. Along the way, the Israelites come to a place called Be’er (meaning “well” in Hebrew).
There, in the middle of the desert, they discover a well, an unexpected source of water. An unexpected source of hope, sustenance, and healing. The moment awakens a song, “Then Israel sang this song: “Spring up, O well, sing to it!” [Numbers 21:17]
Water was vital to the Israelites survival and as a result is a primary metaphor for the rabbinic imagination. About this well, the Sefat Emet, an 18th century Hasidic master, quotes Proverbs 5:15: “Drink water from your cistern (bor) and flowing water from your well (be’er). And he asks, “What is the difference between a cistern and a well? What is the difference between a bor and a be’er?”
The difference, on some level, is grammatical. It is the letter aleph. It barely even punctuates a soundless syllable. But for the rabbis, aleph is not just a letter. Just as The Holy One added the letter hey / ה to the names of Sarai and Abram, as part of their spiritual journey to become themselves, Sarah and Abraham. Aleph is the grammatical embodiment of Divinity which signifies the difference between a pool of water and a flowing well.
The Sefat Emet explains, “This is the difference between bor and be’er: the cistern just contains gathered water; its contents are limited by the size of the vessel that contains them.The well, on the other hand, is joined directly to the source of an ever-flowing spring.” Add an aleph to the word bor, and the cistern is transformed into a living well.
We too are living in desert times. This week we have seen the perpetuation of despicable violence and continued implementation of inhumane immigration policy. To maintain both our dignity and our stamina, we must find a way to become porous with our source so that the waters of justice can rise up and overflow.
When we open ourselves to the mystery, to something beyond language, to a force or a presence we might call Holiness, we have the potential to connect to the ever-flowing spring that lies at the heart of all life, to the deep waters that connect and sustain all.
In the words of the poet W.H. Auden,
In the deserts of the heart,
Let the healing fountain start.
This shabbat I invite you to join me in sending prayers of love and compassion to every hard-hearted person in government and on the border. May we all have the courage to (re)connect to the truth of our shared humanity, and may it nourish and sustain us through these trying years.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week I was talking to one of my Muslim neighbors. I was asking him about his plans for Eid on Friday. And he remarked, well that depends on when we see the new moon.
There was something revelatory for me in this simple reminder that we are not in fact in control of time, and especially not sacred time. While the Jewish calendar is now seemingly set for all time on Hebcal.com, the Mishnah describes the way the announcement of the new moon worked in ancient Jerusalem.
It began when two witnesses came before the Beit Din and testified that they had seen the first sliver of moon. Once their testimony was accepted, a signal was sent out. A messenger—waiting on a mountaintop in Jerusalem—would light a bonfire. Another messenger—waiting on the next mountaintop—would see the light of the first fire and kindle his own. And so on—from mountaintop to mountaintop—all the way from Jerusalem to Babylonia.
Pirke Avot teaches: Eyzeh hu chacham. Haroeh et hanolad. Who is wise? The one who sees what is being born. Hanolad is a term for a newborn child. And it is also a term for that first sliver of the new moon.
As it turns out, when I saw my neighbors last night, they shared the moon had been sighted one night early. I wished them an Eid Mubarak, we shared some tasty dessert and I noted that it was also the new moon by the Jewish calendar as well, having just celebrated Rosh Hodesh Tammuz.
While I appreciate the convenience and confidence we place in our predetermined calendar, I am also feeling some nostalgia for the days when the new moon was determined by testimony and smoke signal. When we looked to the sky rather than our phones to tell time.
In the spirit of Eid, may we all seek out this new moon and the take note of that which is being born within and around us.
Rabbi Ari Lev
It has been a very rainy few weeks. And I have had the pleasure of finding myself in several amazing thunder storms. While sometimes extreme storms and weather are concerning and dangerous, sometimes they are awe inspiring. As it turns out, there is a special blessing (if you had a penny for every time I said that!) to be said upon experiencing lightning, thunder and big storms: "בָּרוּךְ שֶׁכֹּחוֹ וּגְבוּרָתוֹ מָלֵא עוֹלָם / Blessed is the One whose strength and power fill the world."
In this week's parsha, we get to spend time with this powerful Divine presence. In Parashat Beha'alotecha, we read about the astonishing Divine presence as a cloud that is fire:
"On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. It would always be so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night" (Numbers 9:15-16).
Pointing to this divine contradiction, the Talmud asks: "Mai shamayim, what are the heavens?" regarding the second day of Creation when earth and heavens came to be separate entities (Ta'anit 12a). "An old teaching answers: esh u'mayim, fire and water. The Holy Blessed One scrambled them together each in the other and made from them the firmament." אש ומים becomes שמים, the letters themselves combining to make something new out of these essential elements.
Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman explains, "We imagine that mixing fire and water should eliminate one of the elements—fire should evaporate water or water should quench fire—but instead we learn that the coexistence of these apparent opposites is essential to Divine creation."
We live in a world of multiple truths. It can be uncomfortable to accept. This Torah portion reminds us that the practice of making space within ourselves for complexity and contradictions will also increase our capacity to experience the holy within and around us.
Blessed is the Source of Life whose powerful presence fills us up.
Wishing you all a shabbat shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.