Another anecdote from retreat.
One of the teachers described his meditation practice as tending his little plot in the world's garden. In this way, the whole of who we are is connected across time and place, and we have inherited this little plot of existence to care for. I love this image because it connects me to the fact that some of my least favorite parts of myself are not necessarily the product of my doing. They come from a wider context of which I am a part. Even more so, when I imagine my anxious mind and stiff hips as a garden plot, I really soften to my own suffering. I can begin to appreciate the many reasons why these aspects once served me. And in an effort to transform, I found myself on retreat expressing appreciation for and towards my own pain (both physical and emotional).
Recent studies by positive psychologists have unearthed a truth long understood by many religious traditions. Expressing gratitude is fundamentally beneficial to us. This is precisely what the psalter meant in Mizmor Shir L'Yom HaShabbat when it says, "Tov L'Hodot...It is good to be grateful." Whether that gratitude is directed externally to something beyond yourself - anything from the sky to a friend to the Holy One, or whether it is directed toward yourself, appreciating some part of yourself. It is good to be grateful.
Recent studies have shown that a person who keep a daily journal noting five things they are grateful for is 20% more likely to achieve their goals. When I heard that I immediately thought of Muslim prayer which happens five times daily. And then I thought of Jewish prayer, which begins each day with "Modeh Ani..." expressing gratitude for the breath and the new day. And then Amidah, which we are instructed to pray three times a day. As we say, "Modim Anachnu Lach...We offer gratitude..." If, perhaps, for no other reason than to note what we are grateful for.
It is my own experience that when I feel stuck, when I feel tense or stubborn or angry, expressing gratitude softens me, brings me back to center. Perhaps this is why my teacher Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum insists that gratitude is the beginning of prayer. I invite you to join me this summer in keeping a gratitude journal. To note down three or five things a day for which you are grateful, without any expectation.
This is my final Friday blog post before I am on vacation for the month of July. As I enter this time off, I am filled with gratitude. For each of you and the conversations we have shared. For the honor of getting to do such meaningful work. For the joy that we create together. And for the unknown of what's to come.
Earlier today I had the joy of watching a live stream of Dan Blackbserg playing music in Krakow, Poland at the Jewish Culture Festival. The person who introduced it began by saying, "We must get going, because the time is short and the most important Jewish holiday is fast approaching - Shabbat!"
So too here!
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Summer!
Rabbi Ari Lev
I spent last week in the wilderness of a silent meditation retreat. Much like the Israelites, I too felt it was at once an endless, arduous journey and an extraordinary spiritual experience. I have been sitting meditation retreats for nearly 10 years, and every time, one of the central experiences is eating. Eating three meals that I don't have to prepare, on a set schedule. Eating food that I have not decided on and trusting I will be sated and cared for. One of the things I noticed last week is that in the early days of the retreat I tend to eat too much at meals, for fear that I will be hungry later when food is not available. But as the retreat went on, I was able to trust that I would have what I need, when I needed it. And that if I didn't, that too would be OK. Questions of sustenance and desire, and whether we will have what we need, when we need it, are some of the core struggles of the book of Bamidbar, and this week's parsha, Be'haalotcha, in particular.
Throughout their journey in the wilderness, the Israelites are sustained by מן / manna. For hundreds of years, commentators have been asking the exact same question that the Israelites themselves ask, "Man hu? -- What is it?" the people ask, "for they did not know what it was." To which Moses answers, "It is God's gift of bread." It is the question, and not the answer, that names the unknowable substance. This manna, this "what-stuff," remains enigmatic. Some imagine it be something akin to oily cakes soaked in honey. Others say it tastes like coriander. Some posit it is shaped like little crystals, or a thin layer of frost. Some posit it was actually a physical manifestation of light that could be consumed. My favorite is the midrash that says that it tasted like whatever each person desired. This is the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory version of manna. And it wasn't just the manna that fell; the Talmud suggests that other necessities fell with it, spices for cooking and precious stones for the mishkan, the list goes on.
Avivah Zornberg writes, "The manna is essential wilderness food, unknown, uncanny; but precisely in its unknowability it will open a new kind of knowledge: 'that a person does not live on bread alone, but on what issues from God's mouth.' The sentence communicates the mystery of the manna: it stirs up the question -- What is it that can sustain human life?" (xvii).
So too on retreat. The meals themselves, more than a means of sustenance, are an opportunity for me to see more clearly my own relationship to desire. In the words of one of the teachers, to see how desire is in some sense a micro-aggression against the present moment. To try to imagine how much trust it would require for the Israelites to go to sleep each night in the barren wilderness and trust that in the morning the miracle of manna would once again fall from the sky so they could collect a day's worth of food. Here I was, knowing with certainty that there would be oatmeal at 6am, and I still worried.
What is it that sustains human life?
There is more to interrogate about the source of that worry and the reality of food scarcity in this world. For now I will say that I left retreat with a tender appreciation for every moment of calm that I have worked hard to experience and for the deep web of relationships that sustain our community.
Wishing you all a happy solstice and shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Saturday night begins the Holiday of Shavuot. This festival, which is counted among the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, along with Sukkot and Passover, is unique in many ways. Most interesting to me personally, coming on the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan, means that it is not linked to either the full or the new moon (which would be aligned with the 1st or 15th of any Hebrew month). In the Torah, Shavuot is known by many names which say something of its origins. It is called the Festival of Weeks (חג השבועות, Ḥag ha-Shavuot), Festival of Reaping (חג הקציר, Ḥag ha-Katsir), and Day of the First Fruits (יום הבכורים, Yom ha-Bikkurim).
Shavuot, the plural of a word meaning "week" or "seven," alludes to the fact that this festival happens exactly seven weeks (i.e. "a week of weeks") after Passover. So perhaps one could argue it is most closely tethered to the full moon of Nissan, as one begins counting the 49 days of the Omer on the 2nd night of Passover concluding with this harvest festival. But it still feels rather strange to mark such a significant moment on the rather anticlimactic 6th day.
Upon further reflection, I realized that rather than being connected to a prominent lunar cycle, it is connected to a significant moment in our Torah cycle. Every year we begin the 4th book of the Torah, known in Hebrew as Bamidbar and in English as Numbers, the Shabbat before Shavuot. In her new book, Avivah Zornberg explains,
"The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers is Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of (lit.) In-the-Wilderness. Although the Israelite wilderness experience begins in Exodus and concludes in Deuteronomy, the book of Numbers claims the interior of this world of wilderness as its peculiar territory. It evokes not only geographical terrain, but also an inner landscape, an 'inscape' as it were--a world of imaginative being" (xi).
Every year, beginning this book calls our attention to the fact that Torah was given in the wilderness. And every year it leads me back to the same question, why in the wilderness? This is a question that the rabbis have been asking for hundreds of years. And it is perhaps the only question where every possible answer is resonant. Perhaps my favorite midrash, which many of you have heard me teach, is that Torah was given in the wilderness so that no one could say it was theirs and in this way Torah would belong to everyone.
This year, I am captivated by a powerful midrash that teaches "...Wilderness [midbar] is, in essence, language [dibbur]. [Ein midbar ela dibbur.]" (Shemot Rabbah 2:5). And it is not just any language, but the Aseret HaDibbrot, the 10 Utterances of Sinai, known as the 10 Commandments. Which begin with the silent, ineffable aleph of "Anochi - I am." So say that from this place of vast uncertainty we call ourselves into existence. This is what it means to experience revelation. Lest we think our deepest teachings are in our control, Torah was given to us in the wilderness. Torah itself is a wilderness.
May we have the courage to journey to the wilderness this Shabbat and Shavuot, whether the landscape or the inscape. And to listen for the still small voice that is eager to reveal to us the Torah that is uniquely ours.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,
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.