This week the book of Exodus begins,
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
"And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob..."
While it is often omitted from translations, the very first word of Sefer Shemot/The Book of Exodus is, "And..." Well, in truth it is not even a word. It is a single letter, a conjunctive vav, pulling a gentle thread forward from the book of Genesis. "And these are the names..."
It somehow feels appropriately asynchronous to be beginning the book of Exodus in this last Shabbat of 2018. All beginnings are hard. Ripe with expectation, loss, change, and anticipation. And all beginnings are also endings. Which is why I am particularly grateful this year for the reminder that there is also continuity. "And these are the names..." The very same names that end the book of Genesis appear again, recounted in the beginning of Exodus. Signaling this is one long story. Welcome to the world of redemption and revelation that will in turn take us back to creation. The Torah in truth has no beginning or end; hardly even a distinction between books, one long scroll with a few line breaks.
The rabbis continually read hints of the Exodus story into the book of Genesis, both of the Israelite enslavement and the promise of freedom (see Genesis 15:13). Perhaps this grammatically mysterious "And" is an invitation to ask ourselves, "What do I want to carry forward from my own creation story? What from the past year might hint at greater freedom in the year to come? What do I want to bring with me into 2019?"
For all those that celebrated, I hope you had a Merry Christmas and a Happy Kwanzaa. And I wish everyone a Happy (Gregorian) New Year!
Rabbi Ari Lev
In preparation for this solstice shabbat, I have been ruminating over a story in the Talmud that tells the tale of the first human being, Adam HaRishon, who was said to have been created on Rosh Hashanah. One of the first things Adam HaRishon notices is that the days are gradually getting shorter. Because Adam had not yet witnessed the cycle of the year, he fears that the darkness will continue to overwhelm the light and the world would return to primordial chaos (B.T. Avodah Zarah 8a). Certainly many generations and many of us have wondered that same thing.
In response to the increasing darkness Adam HaRishon fasts for eight days. But before the days are complete, after the onset of the month of Tevet [which corresponds roughly to December], he noticed that the days are getting longer. The winter solstice had come. He is overjoyed and relieved, declaring, "This is the way of the world," and he celebrates for eight days. For this reason some tell this tale in relationship to Hanukkah, another story of miracles and light. But for me, this story is fundamentally about the solstice and the way our personal rhythms are linked to the natural word.
While I am no stranger to the impact of decreased light on the psyche, I also am grateful for the cozy quiet, early bedtimes, and contemplative space that winter carves out within and between us.
In the words of Joyce Rupp,
"This year I do not want
the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap
of silent stillness,
of long lasting embrace.
Too much light
has pulled me away
from the chamber
Let the dawns
let the sunsets
let the evenings
while I lean into
the abyss of my being.
Let me lie in the cave
of my soul,
for too much light
steals the source
Increasingly, we are not only impacted by the light of the sun, but by the light of our computers. I was recently reading about how the average person sleeps two hours less per night than 20 years ago. And how the light of our screens distorts our internal clock by at least 45 minutes. Perhaps now more than ever we need the darkness to remind us that there are rhythms in this world and in our bodies that are fundamentally at odds with the material world and capitalism.
This solstice Shabbat, may we feel the hopefulness of Adam HaRishon, knowing the days are officially getting longer. And the shelter of winter's cloak, as we seek the clarity that emerges from the quiet stillness.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Solstice,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week's parsha is the penultimate in the book of Genesis, and brings both revelation and resolution to the story of Joseph. It begins,
"...וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה"
And Judah drew near to him... (Gen. 44:18).
This intimate gesture is a transformative moment for Joseph, as Judah breaks through the line of his brothers and the years of distance and silence, and speaks with passion into Joseph's ear. What has been noted by my commentaries is that Judah doesn't actually say anything particularly new. And yet, his detailed account of history and his father's grief leads Joseph to reveal himself to his brother. "And Joseph could no longer restrain himself" (45:1). What was it about Judah's testimony that caused Joseph to break?
One midrash powerfully imagines the moment this way:
It is written, "'Deep waters are counsel in a person's heart' (Prov. 20:5). This can be compared to a deep well full of cold water -- its water was cold and fresh, but no one could drink it. Then someone came and tied rope to rope, cord to cord, string to string, and drew water and drank. Then, everyone began to draw the water and drink. In the same way, Judah did not stir till he had responded to Joseph, word by word, and had reached his heart" (Bereshit Rabbah 93:3).
This week in particular, the deep waters of community have touched my heart. Last night, a group of glittery queers and rabbis gathered in Emet's hospice for a living funeral to celebrate his life and to impart the much-deserved title of Rav Hayyim - A rabbi by merit of his life. We surrounded him with songs and rainbows, and sheltered him beneath the canopy of our tallitot we called him by his name, Rabbi Emet Tauber. And in that moment, he burst into tears, like Joseph, revealed as his true self. It was glorious.
So many people in the room shares stories of how Emet was the person who brought them back to Judaism. Emet has taught so many people in queer, radical, and disability justice communities to tie cord to cord, word to word, so that we can each drink from the well of Torah. When I spoke to Emet this morning, he was still glowing and reflecting on how loved he feels and how amazing it is to be surrounded by so much community.
Earlier this week, a KT member shared with me, "Every time you say God, I substitute the word community." This theological reflection and Emet's life affirm that we have the power to be the deep waters for each other, in our comings and in our goings. To draw ourselves close, to share our often painful stories, and to experience the Divinity that is community.
I look forward to being in community with you all this weekend as we celebrate the fullness of life, from birth through the wisdom years.
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. Many of you have asked for a learner's minyan of sorts. I am teaching a class on Tuesday nights this winter called the Theology and Mechanics of Prayer. Sign up here!
Every year during Hanukkah we read the story of Joseph in our weekly parsha cycle. Even beyond its catchy Broadway tunes, it is among the great dramatic myths in our tradition. It is a story of sibling rivalry, colorful clothing, self-expression, favoritism, deceit, bloodshed, betrayal, survival, redemption, and ultimately miracles. Which is for me, where the powerful link to Hanukkah comes in.
Today I want to fast-forward to the end of the story. After burying his father Jacob, Joseph returns to Egypt with his brothers. As they travel together, the brothers fear that now that their father is dead, Joseph will seek revenge (Genesis 50:14-15).
A midrash elaborates (Tanhuman, Vayechi 17), imagining that as they traveled back to Egypt, Joseph and his brothers passed the pit into which the brothers had thrown Joseph. Joseph approaches the pit and his brothers fear he will be reminded of what they did to him there. Instead, Joseph blesses the pit, in the tradition of saying a blessing in a place where a miracle has occurred:
ברוך המקום שעשה לי נס במקום הזה
Blessed is HaMakom/The Holy One who made a miracle for me in this makom/place. Or perhaps, Blessed is the The Space where a miracle happened to me in this place.
The Hebrew is poetic and hard to translate. But a few things are clear. We don't know exactly what Joseph is blessing here -- his survival, his ability to forgive his brothers, or the entire journey he underwent as a result of this initial trauma? Joseph uses the word Makom, both for God and for the location of the pit, the place where it happened. God as the physical site where our lives take place. God as the container, even as deep and threatening as the pit, for everything that happens to us, including the nes/miracle of our own transformation. Reading the story of Joseph in conjunction with the story of Hanukkah flips the script from nes being about military victory or Divine intervention, but rather our own capacity for forgiveness, transformation and healing.
This is what I think it means when we sing in the second blessing when lighting the candles:
שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמָן הַזֶּה...
...she'asah nissim la'avoteynu bayamim ha'hem bazman ha'zeh.
Blessed are you...who performed miracles for our ancestors in their day at this time.
Tonight is the sixth night of Hanukkah. Which means it is also Rosh Hodesh, marking the new moon of Tevet. On this auspicious night, as you sing your Hanukkah blessings, may we call on the spirit who performed miracles for our ancestors in their day, and may we call on that same healing force to be with us in our time.
Shabbat Shalom! Hodesh Tov! Happy Hanukkah!
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.