This past Sunday a beloved teacher of mine was burying her father as my sister (by love) was birthing my newest nibling. For a few minutes amidst it all, I was talking with her midwife recounting the births of my own children. What always arises for me when I journey back to the birth of my two kids is the way in which the line between life and death seemed to dissolve. Birth and death mark our tenuous and mysterious transitions into and out of this world. And in that moment her midwife responded, "That's why they say midwives stand at the gates."
This week in the Torah we begin the book of Exodus and read parashat Shemot. In this one parsha we move through so much of what is known as the Exodus story. We could spend all year just studying this parsha. What stands out for me this week, not surprisingly, are the Hebrew midwives (note: it is unclear if they are Egyptian midwives who serve the Hebrews or Hebrews themselves). The midwives defy Pharaoh's orders to kill the male babies. They stand at the gates and pursue justice.
In fact, this parsha is full of fierce women. Given the deep roots of patriarchy in Torah, it is astonishing to take note of the many women who are essentially the primary protagonists in the early Exodus narrative. The presence and density of these women is made even more amazing by the fact that they are all mentioned by name. Shifra and Puah, the midwives. Miriam, Moses's sister, who watches from afar, strategizing as her brother floats down the Nile. Pharaoh's daughter (whom the rabbis call Batya) who adopts Moses and enlists Moses's mother Yocheved as her wet nurse. Not to mention Tzipporah, Yitro's daughter, whom Moses marries.
Earlier this week I was remembering that three years ago, just before Trump's inauguration and the first Women's March we read parashat Shemot. And again this year, as people are organizing in every city across the country for the Women's March, Jews all over the world, including us at Calvary, will be reading the story of these mythic women. Reminding us that lifting up and making visible reproductive labor is core to building successful liberation movements. This was true in the days of abolition, in the civil rights movement, and it is certainly true today.
While we are not canceling Shabbat services to attend the march as a community, please know that whether you are in the streets or at shul (and everywhere else!), we are in this together, prying open the gates of justice. May we merit to experience a taste of the world to come, that is whole and just.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week I unexpectedly entered the zeitgeist of Daf Yomi, the spiritual practice of studying one page (both sides!) of Talmud every day. With 2,711 pages, that project takes about 7.5 years. The first cycle began on Rosh Hashanah in 1923. And we just kicked off the 14th cycle this past Sunday. No doubt this is one of the world's most preposterous book groups. I must be honest, I have tried this before. I make no promises that I will finish it. But what feels new this time around is that there is a real excitement (in niche circles) that extends beyond the orthodox world.
The most important insight from this week's learning for me is that the premise of the Talmud is that there is no beginning and no end. אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה, Ain mukdam u'm'uchar ba'Torah, nothing comes before or after in the world of Torah. Which is to say, it's an ongoing cycle, forever cross-referencing itself. This is the fundamental nature of Torah, and perhaps the world (especially if Torah is the blueprint for the world!). This truth is most pronounced at the seams, in moments of apparent beginning, such as starting a new Daf Yomi cycle, and moments of closure, such as concluding a book of Torah as we do this week.
Tomorrow morning we will read parashat Vayechi, concluding the mythic narratives of our genesis ancestors at Jacob's deathbed. And we will together study the magic of our anachronistic tradition that manages to link the blessings he offers to his grandsons to the recitation of the Shema, a text that in theory wasn't revealed until Deuteronomy. And a prayer practice that wasn't established until the Mishnah (220 CE). Ain mukdam u'm'uchar ba'Torah, ours is not a linear tradition!
This seems fitting as the entire first week of Daf Yomi so far has focused on questions related to the Shema. Why we say, how often we say, when we say? For example when the Torah says, "When we lie down and when we rise up," does it mean when we lie down in bed, or when the sun "lies down," as in when evening begins? It "begins" with this question:
מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בָּעֲרָבִין / Me'eimatai korin et shema b'aravin?
From when does one recite the evening Shema?
About this opening question, my dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig shared this story, which is both a cautionary tale for studying Talmud and an inspiration for our own practice of reciting the Shema:
"Reb Zusha of Hanipol was wise in the world of mysticism but thought of himself as ignorant in terms of the revealed tradition. He asked R' Shmelke of Nicholsburg if they might learn together; Zusha teaching the hidden/kabbalistic tradition and Shmelke instructing him in the revealed/rabbinic tradition. R' Shmelke began with the first Mishnah of Brachot, reading, "Me'eimatai/From what time can one recite the Shema?" Immediately, Reb Zusha fell upon his face, "How do you know me'eimatai means 'from what time?' Rather, might it mean that on a daily basis we need to recite the Shema from a place of eimah/awe and wonder?!"
The story concludes, delightfully, with R' Shmelke passing R' Zusha the book and saying, "You teach!"
For those of us undertaking to learn just about anything, whether it's the alef-bet, one tractate, or the entirety of the Talmud, my prayer is that we take up the tradition of reading texts playfully, falling upon our faces in amazement, and bringing awe and wonder into all of our learning.
Hazak hazak v'nithazek / חזק חזק ונתחזק
May we all gather strength and courage from our learning and from each other.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This morning I was listening to a guided meditation with Sharon Salzberg. It began with an invitation: "See if you can feel just one breath from the beginning, to the middle, to the end." And with that my mind was gone, off thinking about the book of Genesis, and what it has been to read it weekly as a community from the beginning, to the middle, and now nearing the end. To follow the generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. To nestle ourselves inside their ancient stories, to encounter ourselves in them.
And then I heard, "It's just one breath."
In an instant, I woke up and returned to the simple awareness of my breath, noting the rising and falling of my abdomen, being with the sensations of breathing, tingling at the nostrils, constriction in the sternum.
The meditation continued, "If something arises, sensations, emotions, memories, plans, that is strong enough to take your sensation away from the breath, if you've fallen asleep or gotten carried away in some incredible fantasy, the moment you realize you've been distracted, is the magic moment, because that's the moment we have the chance to be really different, not judge ourselves, but simply let go and begin again."
This is where we find ourselves this week, nearing the end of the book of Genesis, at the beginning of parshat Vayigash.
וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה
"And Judah drew near (vayigash) to him" (Gen. 44:18).
While the text is sufficiently ambiguous, the most simple understanding is that Judah drew near to Joseph, not knowing it was Joseph, and tells his story, in what rabbis for thousands of years can only come to understand as a kind of prayerful plea for compassion. And it is precisely this intimate exchange that compels Joseph to come out to his brothers. They fall on each other weeping, hugging and kissing.
And it all began with the simple, profound, seemingly impossible posture of vayigash - understood as a word of approach. Judah drew near to Joseph. It is a posture of courage and presence. He didn't just speak to him. He brought himself to him.
The meditation continued: "If you have to let go and begin again thousands of times, it's fine, that's the practice. It's just one breath."
Over and over again, our tradition reminds us that our practice is to gently let go and simply return. And with each breath that I returned to, I quietly noted in my mind "vayigash" - each breath became an encounter, a drawing near to my own experience.
The meditation concluded: "Remember that in letting go of distraction the important word is gentle. We can gently let go. We can forgive ourselves for having wandered. With great kindness to ourselves, we can begin again." As Judah and Joseph do.
This shabbat, may we have the wisdom to be gentle with ourselves, from the beginning, to the middle, to the end. To see this day, and each breath within it, as an opportunity to let go and begin again. May we together draw on the gentle spirit of Shabbat, as we draw near to our breath, to community, and to the mystery.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Last Friday night, we experimented with holding Friday night services at 707 [our office space]. The goal was to create a more intimate, resonant prayer experience. There is much to be said for the power of proximity in prayer. I personally refer to the space as the KT Beit Midrash, a community learning space. But many others call like it is, "the storefront." However mundane it may sound, it is undeniably true that it was built as a storefront, half a block off of Baltimore Ave, placing our prayers in the public domain. After services, more than one person commented they felt overexposed. It was vulnerable in this political climate to gather as Jews and pray in "public."
I have been holding these sentiments throughout these nights of Hanukkah. One of the core mitzvot of Hanukkah is to light the menorah in public, literally "to publicize the miracle." This is why many of us place menorahs in our front windows.
As we learn in the Talmud:
ת"ר נר חנוכה מצוה להניחה על פתח ביתו מבחוץ
It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one's house on the outside, so that all can see it.
אם היה דר בעלייה מניחה בחלון הסמוכה לרה"ר
But if one lives upstairs, they place it in the window adjacent to the public domain. (Later commentaries add it should only be but a handbreadth from the window!)
(B.T. Shabbat 21b)
As we can see, the original intention was something akin to lighting the menorah in front of city hall, to make it known and visible for all to see. I hear there are some places where people still place little tables in front of their homes to light the menorahs outside.
But the Talmud is not naive, and this is hardly the first Hanukkah to be observed in a politically hostile context. And so it goes on to teach:
ובשעת הסכנה מניחה על שלחנו ודיו
And in a time of danger, one places it on the table (inside their home) and that is enough.
This year, for the first time in my adult life, I hesitated for a moment at the idea of placing a menorah in the window. Is this such a time of danger? The rise of antisemitic violence is destabilizing at best. And then I remembered this old photo that has been circulating on social media, the image of a menorah proudly burning in a window with a nazi flag hanging (perhaps equally proudly) from a house across the street.
It seems to me that this is precisely the moment to remind ourselves of the miracles in their days that are possible in our time too. This is precisely the moment to affirm our connection to hope through this communal practice. This is precisely the moment to sing and play and eat and advertise our joy in the public domain as a sign of our resistance and our resilience.
This Shabbat marks not only the sixth night of Hanukkah, but also the new moon of Tevet. Both holidays call for us to recite the extra-special psalms of Hallel (113-118), singing:
לֹ֤א לָ֥נוּ יְהוָ֗ה לֹ֫א לָ֥נוּ
Not just for our sake,
כִּֽי־לְ֭שִׁמְךָ תֵּ֣ן כָּב֑וֹד עַל־חַ֝סְדְּךָ֗ עַל־אֲמִתֶּֽךָ׃
But for the sake of our collective dignity;
for the sake of living in service to a world full of compassion.
עָזִּ֣י וְזִמְרָ֣ת יָ֑הּ
Our strength comes through our song, it is our shield.
Open, open up the gates of justice.
זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ׃
Let us rejoice fully!
Let the new moon, the bright lights of Hanukkah, and the songs of Hallel call us to our higher purpose. Let us light our menorahs in our windows proudly.
Hodesh Tov, Hag Urim Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For centuries people have participated in the practice of Daf Yomi, reading a page of Talmud a day. At this rate it takes 7.5 years to study the entire Talmud. A new cycle of study begins on January 5. For those interested in getting a daily teaching on the first masechet, Brachot (Blessings!), you can sign up here on My Jewish Learning.
For about a month now, my older kid has been saying he can't wait for Hanukkah. And every time he says that, I ask him what he's most excited about - it's pretty consistently the latkes, and then other fun things follow like playing dreidel and eating gelt. This recurrent conversation has allowed me time to think about what I am most excited about Hanukkah. And the answer also has emerged with similar clarity.
My favorite thing about Hanukkah is sitting in front of the lit menorah, savoring the dancing lights and their reflections in the window. Last year I remember lighting candles around 5pm with my kids, and then more than once relighting the candles after my kids had gone to bed so I could actually sit and drink a cup of tea, and bask in their presence. As it turns out, it is in fact an ancient Jewish mystical practice to meditate on the Hanukkah candles.
This practice is actually rooted in the most unexpected of places, the laws of Hanukkah. In the Halakha we learn:
אין לנו רשות להשתמש בהן
We are not permitted to use them (O.H. 673: 1).
This stands in strong contrast to the candles of Shabbat, which are intentionally lit before Shabbat and are intended to serve as the functional light available on Shabbat.
So what is different about Hanukkah?
The Rambam teaches that we are not intended to "use" the light so that we can actually bear witness to it, so we can manifest the miracle. This is actually the reason why we have the shamash candle. This extra special candle is necessary because the Hanukkah lights themselves should not even be used for kindling other candles.
In this way, Hanukkah comes to remind us that miracles are possible if we take the time to witness what is. This requires taking time to be with and observe, without trying to change or put to "use." This is the invitation of both Shabbat on a weekly basis, and Hanukkah during this dark, cozy time of year. To pause, notice, and bask in the light of the world as it is. And from that place, invite the miraculous insights that arise from not trying to make it otherwise.
I offer you this practice for this coming Hanukkah festival. May it be filled with gratitude, presence, and the unexpected.
Happy Solstice, Shabbat Shalom, and Hag Urim Sameach!
Rabbi Ari Lev
The weight of this week has felt enormous. Among the many things happening in the wide world, this week marks the first yahrzeit of the passing of my dear friend and mentor Ray Fischler, z"l. Ray was a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust. Born in 1925 in Kazmierza Weilka, a small town near Krakow, Poland. When WWII started he was 14 years old. Ray spent two years in Plaszow, the concentration camp featured in Schindler's List. He spent the last five months of the war on death marches traveling to four different camps, including Auschwitz. After he was liberated on May 9, 1945, he emigrated to the US in 1949 and worked in the garment industry. I met Ray when I was 16 years old on the March of the Living. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of officiating at his unveiling, which was truly like getting an infusion of his incredible spirit.
Some of you had a chance to read his story in his memoir Once We Were Eight. It begins, "I believe that I'm a lucky man." It then begins to chronicle a life of what he calls "senseless loss, a nightmare of death and devastation." But throughout his narrative, there are countless moments in which he could have died. Repeatedly what spares Ray is his capacity for human connection, which is why at the end of it all, he felt to be a lucky man. There is much I want to teach in his honor, but it is this truth which called to me from this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach.
Tomorrow morning we will read the famous story of Jacob wrestling through the night with a being which results in his being blessed with a new name.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
Said he, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed." (Genesis 32:29)
And skipping but a verse, the Torah explains,
וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃
So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, "I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved." (Genesis 32:31)
For me, it is this verse that most highlights the Torah of Ray's life. His capacity to be present with everyone he encountered, to search out their humanity, to struggle, to survive because of the power of being face to face. So many times his memoir says, "I was lucky because I knew X person..." The Russian cook who saved him rations he shared with the 20 other tailors; Sorensen, the Nazi soldier whom he made a special pair of wool pants; Miller, the SS guard who supervised the scientists. He remembers them all by name with the clarity that is only possible when you are truly panim el panim/face to face, completely present.
The unfolding news of this week, the antisemitic violence in Jersey City, Trump's Executive Order, has my set off our personal and collective sirens. On the one hand, I thought to myself, I really should get passports for my children. And on the other hand, I have been thinking of Ray, and the power of real relationship. The newsreel is utterly dehumanizing, it diminishes our sense of self until we are asking, pleading, desperate to figure out, Who are we? What does it mean to be a Jew? Are we a people? A nation? A religion?
I have resisted issuing a statement on the matter, because it is my sense we should heed the wisdom of Jacob and talk about these questions face to face. Which we will be doing tomorrow morning at services. So come with your love and your fear, your questions and your desire to be in community, and encounter these existential questions about identity that have been used against us. That we may reimagine the answers in ways that empower us to see ourselves as whole.
Here are three resources I am reading for those interested in understanding more about what is at stake in the Executive Order:
An article in the Atlantic explaining the Executive Order, the law it addresses and its problems.
Understanding Antisemitism: A resource created by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
Reconstructing Peoplehood: A Dvar Torah by Rabbi Toba Spitzer
As the full moon fills the dark winter sky, may you take the time to rest, reconnect, and remember it is the effort, the engagement, the not letting go of the question that makes us Israel, wrestlers with God.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Welcome to the season of dreams. This dark and cozy month of Kislev opens with the story of Jacob's Ladder and closes with the stories of his son Joseph's dreams. It calls us to pay attention to the subconscious, to cultivate a kind of inner cocoon. And it all begins with Jacob leaving his parents' home. Avivah Zornberg notes, "This is a journey that is pointedly different from his grandfather's originating journey: the lekh lekha wandering to the place yet to be shown, the promise of place and destiny. Jacob does not simply "go" (lekh); he leaves (va-yetzei)" (Genesis of Desire, 180).
And yet, what touches me most this week is the echo, the constant reminder, that we are a people in motion. Migration is encoded in our bodies, our histories, and our mythologies. Jacob's journey in particular may be distinct in that he knows both where he is coming from (Beer Sheva) and where he is going (Padan Aram). But it is unique in that he does not know why he is journeying.
More than once we hear of his encounters in the fields. In Genesis 29, Jacob resumes his journey and comes to the land of the Easterners. And we read:
וַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלֹשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר׃
"There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large."
Now, we know for desert wanderers wells are by nature places imbued with meaning. For the midrashic imagination, the world is but a barren, overgrown wilderness. We live much of our lives in the weeds, in the thick of things, longing for spacious perspective.
And then comes Shabbat. Says the Song of Songs, "Come my beloved, let us go out into the field." Meaning, come meet me in this spacious fertile time. In the words of Art Green, "Shabbat is a magical time, a moment when the world that often seems a barren wilderness is transformed into a field waiting to be planted" (Language of Truth, 46).
About this particular well that Jacob encounters, the Sefat Emet teaches, in the name of Rabbi Isaac Luria, that when it says there is a well in the field, it reminds us that on Shabbat a source of living water is opened to us. To which Green responds, "The well is open. But that magic is still only potential, waiting for us to plant the seed and nurture it to grow. Only we can do that. The true miracle is that of our ability to open in response."
May we choose this Shabbat to leave behind the work of the week and enter into the magic of Shabbat, to drink from the well of connection and community, to quench our thirst for presence and create space for dreaming.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week, there was a debate on a rabbinic listserv. Should one recite Hallel (special joyful psalms) in honor of the new moon when the new moon falls on Thanksgiving, as it did this year? The concern behind this question is that it could appear as though we are reciting Hallel in honor of Thanksgiving itself. And while there is joy to be found in the rituals of family, food, and gratitude, the violent context that this federal holiday conceals is not worthy of celebration. So much so, that each year in Plymouth, MA Indigenous communities gather for a National Day of Mourning.
While not every year Rosh Hodesh falls on Thanksgiving, the tensions are nonetheless present. Last night before my family ate, a series of spontaneous toasts ensued. My brother got choked up, so grateful to be able to host 40+ members across four generations of my family. Then I nervously shared the names of the Indigenous people of Westchester County, including the Lenape tribes that also claim the territory of Philadelphia. And then my father spoke, sharing that his mother's family immigrated to the United States 79 years ago on Thanksgiving Day. Those two minutes worth of emotions and history were in and of themselves a lot to hold.
This week we read parshat Toldot, which chronicles the life of Isaac.
וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק
"And these are the generations of Isaac" (Genesis 25:19).
For me, family gatherings have a way of echoing the dynamics also present in our mythic stories. Stories of sibling rivalry, inheritance disputes, and family favoritism. Family is complicated, says the Torah. That is not new.
Last night, amidst the loud banter of a house full of New York Jews, I looked around and thought to myself, "These are the generations..." I found myself asking, what stories do I want to teach my children about how and why my family came to live on Turtle Island? What are we transmitting from generation to generation about the Thanksgiving? In what new ways can we learn to relate to the land we live on?
My favorite image from this week's parsha is that of Isaac digging wells on his new land. For which we learn that he re-dug the wells of his father Abraham. And he also dug his own new wells.
This year at Thanksgiving dinner, I felt a lot like Isaac, digger for a deeper truth; at once trying to connect to members of my family I rarely see and also trying to invoke the wisdom of Indigenous leaders who understand more fully how to live in sacred relationship to the earth.
Most of the rabbis agreed on Facebook, we should in fact recite Hallel. We live on Jewish time. And while we live in relationship to American holidays, we need not concede our sacred rhythms.
As we enter Shabbat and embrace the new moon of Kislev, I'm sitting with these words from Ohlone leader and activist Corrina Gould: "...Come onto this land in a humble way; this land is alive, there were people before you and there will be people after you. What does it mean for us, humans, to be the bridge between the past and present?"
L'dor v'dor, from generation to generation, may we have the courage to both pass on family traditions and instigate new ones. And may the stories we tell connect us more fully to each other, to the Earth, and to a deeper truth.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past Wednesday marked Trans Day of Remembrance/Resilience. That night I was teaching the Judaism for Everyone class and many of us dedicated our learning to the memory of trans people who have been killed or who have taken their own lives. We said a prayer that ends with "Blessed are they, who have allowed their divine image to shine in the world. Blessed is God, in Whom no light is extinguished." And then we closed class with the Mourner's Kaddish.
Of the many gifts that being trans has given me, developing a dynamic relationship with grief and loss is top of the list. When I first began to come out to myself as trans, grief - or, more specifically, my fear of loss - was my greatest internal obstacle. I had this idea that a liberated life did not include loss; that in fact, the "right decisions" by nature avoided loss, on all counts. Oh, you can imagine, it was a tearful realization to understand in the core of my being that there is loss in everything. There is no choice that does not involve loss. This truth is at once devastating and freeing. And has required me to make space in myself to grieve; to wrestle with and feel fully the loss.
Frances Weller writes, "We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled...There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive" (The Wild Edge of Sorrow, 1).
In recent years people have reframed and renamed Trans Day of Remembrance, calling it Trans Day of Resilience. This lifts up precisely this sacred exchange between grief and aliveness. We are called to honor our losses and live fully in their light.
This week's parsha, Hayei Sarah/The Life of Sarah, is itself an extended journey into our ancestral grief. It begins by honoring the life of Sarah. Dayenu, that would be enough. To wrestle with what it means to honor a life. But Rashi presses deeper, and claims that her death is a result of the grief she feels when she learns that Abraham nearly sacrificed her only son Isaac. She died of grief, claims a least three midrashim. And then Abraham grieves for Sarah.
In the words of Oscar Wilde, "Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground."
In the words of trans poet SA Smythe,
"To be righteously unashamed of this grief until the otherwise comes
Until that time when we may name ourselves whole, if not holy”
The less I fear loss, the more I am able to choose life.
Tomorrow morning we will be exploring our relationship to grief in the parsha and our own lives, deepening our capacity to embrace grief with grace and resilience.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Who among us has not wanted to yell at the heavens for the injustice in our world?
Who among us has not questioned their faith in the Divine who created the heavens and the earth, and along with it so much suffering?
This week's parsha, Vayera, captures Abraham shaking some proverbial sense into G?D. In short, G?D sees the transgressions of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and threatens to destroy the entire city. And Abraham engages in holy protest, a moment so important that the rabbis use it as a model for prayer, of crying out to the Holy One. He argues: "Are you really willing to sweep about the innocent with the guilty? Will you not save the city if I can find 50 righteous people? Will you not save it for 40 righteous people? 30? 20? 10?" At which point Abraham explodes in holy outrage:
חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט
"Shame on you! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly!?" (Gen. 18:25).
The midrashic imagination transforms Abraham's cry into a profound ultimatum: "The judge of the whole earth shall not do justice. As if to say, God, if it is a world You want, then strict justice is impossible. And if it is strict justice You want, then a world is impossible" (Bereishit Rabbah 49:9).
About which Avivah Zornberg clarifies, "Absolute standards of justice cannot be realized in this world as God has created it. To adhere to such standards is to destroy the world; in order to build the world, hesed, the generous perception of alternative possibilities, is necessary" (Desire, 110).
In my own heart, I feel so much compassion for both renditions of Abraham's plea. On the one hand, I want to believe in a forgiving God who would do anything to save the lives of the people of Sodom. And I am willing to beg God to remember that we are all made in the image of the Divine. And on the other hand, I am ever frustrated with the limitations of human beings and the injustice we perpetuate. I, like Abraham, wonder if we are compatible with a world that is just and whole. Underneath both readings is a desire to live in a world full of love and justice. And the question trembles, is it possible? And how do we get there?
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.