Last Shabbat, we deviated from the norm, and chanted from the Haftarah, the prophetic reading from Zechariah paired with Hanukkah. The slight change in practice and the abundant blessings that surround the reading, called my attention.
These days I have been reflecting on the role of the prophetic tradition in our lives. On the one hand there is this idea that we are all prophets. We are called to speak truth and pursue justice, to remember that our words bear witness and instigate change. And on the other hand there is an idea that we see reflected at the very end of the book of Deuteronomy, that Moses was the last prophet to have a direct (face to face) encounter with the Divine (34:10). Which would suggest that prophecy was once alive but is now contained to the written words of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).
According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "The prophet was an individual who said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism" (The Prophets, xiii). But in this political moment, when our culture could easily turn to despair, prophets must do more than speak truth to power. Prophecy must be a source of relentless hope. Theologian Kenyatta Gilbert explains, "Prophets conjure up possibilities of another reality when the king declares that only one reality exists" (Sojourners, Jan 2018). And perhaps most profoundly, "Prophetic consciousness seeks to free people from the royal consciousness" (Brueggemann).
As we depart from the darkest days of the year, I offer you this vision of spiritual tradition and community that calls us to cultivate this alternative consciousness. Through creative speech and clarity of vision, through song and poetry, we are called to nurture in each other a spirit of relentless hope.
In the words of the poet Grace Paley, "The only recognizable feature of hope is action." May we move into the days of growing light, with the words of the Prophet Micah in our hearts: "To enact justice, to love kindness and to embody humility" (6:8).
Wishing all who celebrate a Happy Kwanzaa and a Merry Christmas!
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past weekend I sat a silent meditation retreat. It was a time to let things settle and create more internal spaciousness. One of the reasons I am drawn to this practice is it unequivocal commitment to the liberation of all beings and the deep knowing that liberation is possible. The practice, in all its simplicity, is full of both anguish and delight, and every emotion under the sun. And the goal is presence, or more precisely a collectedness of mind often translated as mindful awareness.
On the train coming home from the retreat, transitioning back into reality (or further from it, depending on the view), I found myself immersed in a new memoir about the Talmud (geeky Rabbi thing to do!). The following passage jumped out at me:
The Mishnah in Tractate Hagigah cautions against looking into four things:
"What is above, what is below, what is in front, and what is behind" (11b).
Having spent 5 days trying to cultivate an awareness of what is, I was caught by this caution to seek out what is beyond or behind us (which is the deepest pattern of my mind and the cause of much suffering]. I have always been taught that one reason we anchor our meditation in our breath is because we can only breath in the present moment. We can't breath in the present or the past, in what is above or below, in front or behind.
And yet the Jew in me knows that our liberation is so deeply bound with how we reconcile, honor and transform the past. We see this tension and teaching in the second blessing we recite while lighting the Hanukkah candles:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמָן הַזֶּה
Barukh Atah Adonay Elohaynu Melekh Ha'olam she'asah nisim l'imoteynu vela'avoteynu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.
Blessed is the Source of Life...who made miracles for our ancestors in their days, in this time.
What does it mean to make miracles in their days, in this time? Thankfully the grammar is unclear, as it allows us to seek the meaning for ourselves.
Hanukkah calls us, over and over again, to be present bazman hazeh - in this moment. Perhaps because the miraculous cannot be experienced in the past or in the future, above or below, in front or behind. The awe and wonder, the surprise, the unexpected, the experience of collectedness that we attribute to the Divine (which may also be deeply connected to our human power as we saw in Alabama this week!), is itself tied to zman hazeh - this present moment. It is precisely this collectedness of mind and collective power, that I believe leads to liberation. And we do so inspired by, in the spirit of, on the shoulders of all who came before us.
So looking forward to celebrating Shabbat and Hanukkah with you this weekend, and cultivating our collectedness!
Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Hanukkah is coming next week.
Perhaps you are looking ahead to next week celebrations and found yourself asking, What's Hanukkah? How will I explain this holiday to my friends, co-workers or kids? How will I connect to it myself? It is precisely this question that the rabbis have been asking for over 1500 years.
In a discussion about how to light Shabbat candles, one rabbi references the lighting of candles on Hanukkah, to which another replies, "What's Hanukkah? מאי חנוכה" (B.T. Shabbat 21b). Hanukkah was, is and likely always will be a multilayered Holiday. It is a story of resistance, hope, and abundance. It is a story about natural resources and revolt. It is a story about creating light on the darkest days of the year. The mystic in me is most often drawn to Hanukkah teachings about how we have the power to be the light, to kindle hope, to burn bright.
But this week, I have been thinking about the narrative I often ignore and barely understand. The one in which there is a Jewish civil war in Jerusalem. Rabbi James Ponet writes in his article The Maccabees and the Hellenists (which I highly recommend for a complicated Hanukkah history lesson), "So the miracle-of-the-oil celebration of Hanukkah that the rabbis later invented covers up a blood-soaked struggle that pitted Jew against Jew."
This week, with the Supreme Court's decision to support the Muslim Ban and the decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, both of which I see as acts of Islamophobic aggression designed to divert attention away from charges of treason and sexual assault -- This week I cannot ignore that Hanukkah was also a battle for the Jewish soul and its relationship to government, assimilation and interdependence, in Jerusalem, no less.
h/t to Rabbi Sharon Brous' Facebook post for this Midrash:
It is said that two righteous men, Abraham and Shem, called Jerusalem by two different names. One called it Yir’eh—meaning God will reveal—and the other, Shalem—meaning wholeness. God did not want either to feel wronged, so compromised and called the city Yir’eh Shalem, or Yerushalem (Bereishit Rabbah).
Rabbi Brous writes, "This city, which has seen so many miracles and so many tears, is intended to be a place not of sanctimonious grandstanding, but of holy compromise. It’s built into the very foundation of the place. When those who stake a claim on the city are righteous, there is room for everyone."
Next week, in honor of Hanukkah, we will chant the prophetic words of Zechariah which I can only hear in my head through the tune of Debbie Friedman: "Not by might and not by power but with spirit alone shall we all live in peace" (4:6). Going into this Shabbat, I take refuge in Debbie Friedman's three-part ending of that same prophetic song, "Another song will rise."
I pray that in the days to come wise and compassionate leadership will arise and that Palestinians and Israelis avert the violence that could result from the reckless acts of this administration. And may we at Kol Tzedek sing, dance and protest our way through this Hanukkah and be part of that new song.
Tonight, 6:30 pm Friday Night For All Services led by Rabbi Annie Lewis
Rabbi Ari Lev
It has been months since the hashtag #metoo went viral. I have been keenly aware that I have not spoken to this directly. It has been for me a painful reminder of a pervasive rape culture that no one is immune too. It has brought me back to my own experiences of "Take Back the Night." And while I keep not being surprised, the revelation of it, the visibility, is wounding unto itself. And I know from our conversations and everyone's social media, this is present and palpable within our community.
In this week's parsha, Vayishlach, we recieve one of the most ancient stories of sexual assault. The story of Dinah. "And Dinah, the [only] daughter of Jacob and Leah, went out to see the daughters of the land" (Gen 34:1). We don't know much of her story. She does not speak out. We know she is defiled and that Jacob and his sons are horrified (34:5-7).
The story of Dinah tells us that misogyny and sexual violence are as old as humanity. Torah's relevance is not always desirable. But it is a reflective surface for our own healing and transformation. While the men in the story are outraged, we still do not hear Dinah's voice. And her silence has been echoing across time. In response, Rabbi Annie Lewis just published this poem, entitled Uprising.
Me too, Dinah,
If only you could
see us now,
all the great men falling
like the idols of your
great, great grandfather,
like the men of Shechem.
If only you could
see us now,
taught to make nice,
take care –
All your sisters trained
to harbor shame
for going out,
Because we asked for it
so we deserved it.
If only you could
see us now, Dinah,
rising up like song.
I offer it has a healing salve on our own wounds and the wounds in our tradition. Thank you for everyone's courage and truth rising up like song. It is an honor to bear witness to our collective testimony and commit to uproot the source of violence within ourselves and our culture. #metoo
Tomorrow morning in the Beit Midrash we will be explore the Story of Jacob and his encounters with divine messengers. Through midrash and poetry, we will be exploring what we might learn about ourselves through our relationship to angels.
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. In case you can't be there, here is one beautiful Mary Oliver poem we will explore, Angels.
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.