In the last few months, my older kid has become thoroughly obsessed with baseball. I was once upon a time a jock, so I am no stranger to sports. But baseball never quite did it for me. A bit too much waiting around and patriotic fervor. Nonetheless, I have been to many a baseball game this summer. Major leagues, minor leagues, collegiate leagues, even a few dyke softball games. For the most part it has been a journey of sympathetic joy, delighting in my kid's delight. So you can imagine my surprise when this year as I was re-reading my beloved High Holidays book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, and I found many a baseball reference. Turns out he was quite a fan!
Rabbi Alan Lew z"l, writes:
"The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams. Certainly it is the most ancient dream of the Jewish people...And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases" (23).
Teshuva is the Jewish home run, Jewish tradition's most prized possession. There's this amazing moment in the Talmud when the rabbis try to make this point crystal clear:
So great is teshuva, says Rebbe Hama bar Hanina, that it brings healing to the whole world.
I can top that, Rebbe Yonatan says. Teshuva is so great that it brings redemption closer.
Rebbe Shmuel Bar Nachmani weighs in: You wanna know how amazing teshuva is? Teshuva elongates the years of a person's life!
Rebbe Meir concludes: Listen. I'll tell you what teshuva's capable of. When one individual makes teshuva, the whole world is forgiven (Yoma 86ab).
And in my experience, it is true, that teshuva makes the world possible and more whole. And it's also true that it's really hard to do. My friend and teacher, Rabbi Jordan Braunig, recently directed my attention to a tale that can be found in S.Y. Agnon's Days of Awe. The story, which I will retell, is of a poor country woman who finds an egg. As it happens, she has many hungry children at home and little food to feed them. Yet, when she gathers her little ones to announce the good news about the egg she tells them that, being a woman of purpose, she will not foolishly cook the egg but will take it to a neighbor's setting hen and wait for it to hatch. Then, instead of simply allowing the chicken to grow for slaughter, she will set it on eggs and they will all hatch and there will be many chicks. And, instead of feasting on chicken and eggs, she tells her children that she will sell them in the market in order to purchase a cow. As you might have guessed, she doesn’t plan to settle for steak dinner at this point but will wait for the cow to produce calves and then will sell calves and buy a field. In the end, they’ll have fields and chickens and cows and won’t want for anything. As the woman speaks to her children, engrossed in fantasy and playing with the egg, it falls from her hands and cracks on the floor.
Agnon's telling ends with this moral: Said our master: "That is how we are. When the Holy Days arrive, every person resolves to do teshuvah, thinking in their heart, 'I'll do this, and I'll do that.' But the days slip by in mere deliberation, and thought doesn't lead to action, and what is worse, a person who made the resolution may fall even lower."
It is easy to get ahead of ourselves, to imagine the finished product, but to forget the immediate task at hand. What are a few "first steps" that you want to make in the coming days? Let's be patient with ourselves, and at the same time be aware of how precious time is.
As we enter the quiet of Shabbat before the joy of the new moon of Tishrei is upon us, I would like to begin by asking each of you for your forgiveness, for any ways I may have missed the mark this past year. Please know I am available to make a repair.
Wherever and however you are marking this Rosh Hashanah, may it be sweet as honey and may you be written in for a year of goodness.
May this be the year...L'Shana Tova!
Rabbi Ari Lev
In the past 3 weeks, I have officiated at a wedding, a b'nei mitzvah, a baby naming, a funeral, two shivas, and two conversions, all within the month of Elul, all within the life of our community. This waterfall of life cycle moments has in some ways finally revealed to me what Rosh Hashanah is all about. Unlike the festivals of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah is not commemorating some mythic moment. Rather it is calling our attention to the deepest truth of our lives. In just over a week we will say, "On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die..."
With each new life cycle moment, I found myself feeling increasingly unprepared. Not because I don’t know the people or the liturgy. Perhaps unprepared to make the transition, to modulate from life to death and back again. To be in the simcha and the sorrow, all at once. And perhaps even more so unprepared to accept the fragility of it all. And then, in a moment of quiet, it all made sense. I finally understood the words of Rabbi Alan Lew z"l (which I have been reading annually for more than a decade). "This is a true story...It is about you. [It is about all of us.] It is really happening, and it is happening to you, and you are seriously unprepared." How could we not be!? How can we possibly prepare for the fullness of our lives? The love and the loss, and the great chasm of experiences in between. And yet, much like the Philly public schools today, there are no excused absences.
Rabbi Lew continues, "This is real whether you believe in God or not. [Also true of the climate crisis!] Perhaps God made it real and perhaps God did not. Perhaps God created this pageant of judgement and choice, of transformation, of life and of death. Perhaps God created the Book of Life and the Book of Death, Teshuva and the blowing of the shofar. Or perhaps these are all inventions of human culture. It makes no difference...What makes a difference is that it's real and it is happening right now and it is happening to us, and it's utterly inescapable, and we are completely unprepared" (105-6).
I invite you to take a moment, take a deep breath, and let that sink in, as it has for me in these past few weeks. Jewish tradition is full of cycles. The cycle of holidays, the cycle of Torah reading, the cycle of the moon, the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of our bodies, the cycle of planting and harvesting, the cycle of years leading to shmita, the cycle of study, and, of course, the cycle of life. At any given point, we find ourselves in the midst of numerous different cycles, all at once. And Rosh Hashanah is in many ways a celebration of them all.
"This year some of us will die, and some of us will live, and all of us will change. And there is nothing in the world more real than this."
Rabbi Ari Lev
On Rosh Hashanah, through shofar blasts and boundless song, we will once again coronate God, in all her majesty. Every year, as we plead with Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King, Our Sovereign, Our Source, I struggle to find my way into this metaphor. You all have been patient with my struggles and shared of your own. In a recent article, Rabbanit Leah Sarna reminded me this is also a daily practice. Our traditional daily blessings begin by describing God as "King of the Universe" (Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha'Olam…). This is the way of the Jewish calendar. Daily themes that appear in our weekday liturgy also find unique dates in the calendar for further exploration and renewal.
Last year at this time I wrote to you, sharing a famous kabbalistic image about the month of Elul through which it is understood that "The King is in the Field." The Jewish mystics believed that the Holy Blessed One resides on high, whether physically above us or spiritually beyond us. But in the month of Elul, the Holy One dwells among us, in our midst.
About this text, my teacher Rabbi Art Green shared that the metaphor above is so much more real after his recent trip to Ukraine. He wrote, "It takes many hours BY CAR, with those still terrible roads, to get from one shtetl to another. With horse and carriage, it must have taken days or weeks! Imagine the Czar visiting Ukraine, coming all the way from St. Petersburg or Moscow. Along the way, he would need to stay at lots of small country inns, many of which were owned by Jews. Imagine that! Of course the Czar is utterly unapproachable. But while making up his room, or serving him his drink, with the appointments secretary not around, you might be able to ask him for something!" How much more so the Holy One.
In the words of the prophet, "Seek the Holy One while She can be found, Call to Her while She is near" (Isaiah 55:6). To which Rabbi Green asks, "But why is God 'closer' in this season? Because our hearts are - hopefully! - more open. That's what it's all about."
In my experience, the many metaphors of Rosh Hashanah connect us more deeply to the power of the universe to make and take life. This shabbat, may we have the courage to open ourselves the possibility of connection that is more palpable in this season of reflection and renewal.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week, I was sitting with a KT member making plans for her to begin home hospice and she remarked, "Dying is such a privilege." She went on to tell me about the ways that she feels so profoundly alive, so able to experience real connection with people. So much joy is possible when we let go of the pretense of our lives. As someone who has for most of my life feared death, I exhaled deeply and took refuge in her experience.
Among many things, this is the time of year when we allow ourselves to be more intimate with the truth of our impermanence. The High Holiday liturgy reflects the seasonal shifts, the bright fiery shedding of leaves. Every Elul, for several years now, my friend and colleague Rabbi Jordan Braunig has created a process by which you can journal your way through the month of Elul. I know at least some of you have subscribed over the years. Each one is poignant, some so much so, that I must share them with all of you. Earlier this week, he wrote:
"Yesterday...this poem by the recently-departed W.S. Merwin caught my attention and calmed my spirit.
For the Anniversary of My Death
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
There could be so much morbidity in considering this fact that each year we cycle past the date of our own death, but somehow the poet treats the subject with curiosity and reverence. 'Then I will no longer/Find myself in life as in a strange garment/Surprised at the earth'. What a notion, that the essence of life is being surprised by it.
A few months ago, Casey reported to me that she had seen one of our kids laughing to himself. When she asked him what was funny, he said, 'Oh, it's just that sometimes I can't remember if I'm alive or if I'm dead." It takes a very particular little six-year-old to giggle in the face of this thought, but sometimes we could all use the reminder. We are, in fact, alive. I want to invite you to consider how you will remind yourself during this trip through Elul and in the year beyond that this is life. How will you keep in mind, in the busyness of the days ahead, that you're alive?"
As we circle round the sun, unknowingly passing the anniversary of our own passing, may the sound of the shofar, and the discipline of our days, call us back to the truth of our aliveness and the joy that is possible.
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.