Last night as my family gathered around, my father shared that his mother's family arrived in New York by ship, fleeing Nazi Italy, on Thanksgiving Day in 1940. For him, this day marks a certain survival. My own relationship to Thanksgiving is fraught, and this piece of my family history only adds to the complex emotions that I feel. We explicitly don't talk politics together, but the political context is still very present for me personally.
In my twenties I organized for the protection of sacred burial ground in Oakland that had been turned into a shopping mall. Every Black Friday, I organized a protest in honor of "Buy Nothing Day."
For a few years while living in Boston, I marked Thanksgiving by attending the National Day of Mourning at Plymouth Rock. This Indigenous-led gathering commemorates Native history and bears witness to resilience and resistance. Their slogan says a lot: "We Are Not Vanishing. We Are Not Conquered. We Are As Strong As Ever."
Over the past year, I have learned so much from the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. I truly believe that our survival and liberation will be led by Indigenous communities and guided by their connection to the sacred.
In many ways, what Thanksgiving represents to many Americans, I experience in Shabbat each week. Gathering around a table with family and community. Taking time to cook a special meal. Marking time as dedicated to being together and being grateful. In the words of Psalm 92, "A psalm for shabbat. It is good to express gratitude..."
This year, I felt a heaviness in our my heart as we gathered. In part because I don't want to dishonor native genocide. And in part because of this tenuous political moment, that feels at times too close to the history that brought my family here 77 Thanksgiving's ago. My growing edge, is learning how to have more of this conversation with my family of origin. I offer you two resources that I plan to share with my family over email, in case you too share in this journey. The first is an article just published by Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc, entitled: Are Jews Avoiding anti-Trump Activism Out of Fear, or Moral Failure?. And in light of the food scarcity that so many Native Americans face, I plan to donate to Seeding Sovereignty to support this youth-led movement and the Indigenous Environmental Network.
I know there are people in our community who themselves have Native ancestry, and I pray that these reflections cause no further harm. I also know that holidays can so painful for many of us who have complicated or no relationships with our family's of origin. If you are feeling the holiday blues, I encourage you to come to services tonight.
Minyan Ometz Lev Tonight at 6:30pm!
Come take refuge with the Angels of Shabbat and of this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei. I am grateful to be in community with you and building towards a just and transformed world.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Someone recently asked me what I might have done with my life if I was not a rabbi. After some internal pause, I shared that I might have been a farmer. Throughout my time living in Boston I was connected to an 11 acre farm, called Powisset. I worked there weekly and at one point was a full-time summer farm hand. I have a vivid memory of the first time I walked out into the field. The sky felt huge. There were rows upon rows of vegetables, so many shades of green I felt like I was in an impressionist painting. The air was crisp and the light clear. In many ways, that farm was one of the places I have felt most free.
In this week’s parsha we hear the account of Isaac, who famously (according to the rabbis) “went out walking in the field” [Gen 24:63]. From this line the rabbis extrapolate core Jewish practices about prayer [BT Brachot 26b].
Throughout the High Holidays KT members explored, Why Pray?. Tonight, as we celebrate and welcome so many new people into the KT community, I will explore where Jewish prayer comes from and how it might relate to large themes of ecology and interconnectedness. I am excited to continue this evolving conversation, which according to the rabbis, is prayer itself.
See you tonight at 6:30 pm, followed by (homemade) dessert oneg!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week I was meeting with Spencer to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat. We decided to go on a bit of a Torah scavenger hunt to find the verses he would be reading so that he could see how they appear in our specific Torah. It was a bit of a race to see who could find them first. We rolled through the mysterious, vowel-less, unpunctuated columns, passing over Lech-Lecha, skimming through the beginning of this week's Parsha, Vayera, until we were close. And then we zoomed in on a column and started looking with complete focus for the particular "Vayomer Avimelech..." and "And Said Avimelech..." that Spencer will be reading. After a couple close calls, Spencer spotted it! With deserved glee, he had found the verses first. We took a picture and practiced reading them.
Then, as we closed up the scroll, I explained that was how it was done every week, everywhere. He seemed surprised and delighted in the best possible way. There is no secret decoder ring, no magic rabbinic bookmark. Each week it is a treasure hunt to roll the Torah to the spot we need it next, finding our way through an ancient text, written without chapters or page numbers on parchment.
I always love the hunt for the words. But what struck me this week was the bit of awe on Spencer's face that this was the behind-the-scenes process. It is precisely that awe which captivated my imagination throughout rabbinical school. There were so many moments when I thought to myself, "This is how it's done!?" In truth, Judaism has always been a Do-It-Yourself tradition. This is the part of Judaism that still hearkens back to folk religious practice. There is almost nothing that actually requires a rabbi. [The only thing rabbis can do that everyone else can't do it, is make other rabbis!] Judaism is a spiritual practice for anyone that holds fast to it, anyone who wants to make it it their own. You too can be the person that rolls the KT Torah every week!
While I spent so much time in my early 20's seeking out DIY Judaism, what I realized in rabbinical school and beyond, is that Judaism is itself a DIY religion, in all its scrappy glory. In delegating the doing to someone else, we miss out on so much of the fun. And perhaps more profoundly, there is a deep sense of agency and satisfaction that comes with knowing how to do it ourselves. This is the wisdom of the Israelites response to receiving Torah on Mt. Sinai: "Na'aseh v'Nishmah...We will do it, and then we will understand its meaning."
Rabbi Ari Lev
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.