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.
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
I was talking with a friend before Shabbat and I described this time after the High Holidays as "the descent." To which she responded, "Well that means you at least got a little high!" Good point. The High Holiday season, which we have now officially exited [I even took my sukkah down today!], was full of intensity. And it was incredibly beautiful. I have savored the moments when I was able to close my eyes and listen to all of us singing together. Our songs and our silence were transformative for me personally. And I was feeling almost melancholy that it was all over.
And then this past weekend we celebrated the New Moon, Shabbat and Molly's Bat Mitzvah. And we danced and sang and ate. And I was once again nourished by the sweetness of the KT community and Jewish time. I was reminded that in fact the High Holidays are our community booster shot. They are designed to get us back in the swing of things, to help us reconnect, to jumpstart the year. And then we get to enjoy each other and be nourished by the slightly less intense, yet still beautiful and joyful rhythms of the weeks and the months.
Thank you for that reminder. Thank you for teaching me about the incredible power of community, every day!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Tonight marks the 25th day of the Jewish month of Elul. The new moon is fast approaching. Soon we will be eating round challah with raisins and dipping apples in honey. About this day, Rabbi Eliezer taught: "The world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul...This implies that first person was created on Rosh Hashanah."
This midrash comes as part of a Jewish theological thread that places creation and our relationship with the natural world at the center of our spiritual lives. [*wink*wink* more to come about this on Rosh Hashanah...]
In preparation for the birthday of the world and it could be exciting to think about how we might mark the 25th of Elul. This year the 25th of Elul begins tonight. I offer you the modest ritual proposal of my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader, based on the teachings of the Ben Ish Hai, an Iraqi rabbi:
When setting out candles to mark the arrival of Shabbat, add five candles (or set out a total of five) to signify each of the days of creation that proceeded the emergence of humankind.
Take a moment before or after reciting the blessing over the Sabbath candles to reflect on the wonder of creation, and to recommit to living more consciously as but one part of an amazing and interconnected planet. You are also invited each night leading up to Rosh Hashanah to read one day of creation from Genesis 1.
Praise the light that shines before us, through us, after us. May we have the presence of mind to remember that this planet and all its life precedes us.
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. Hot off the press! We have been dreaming up a year's worth of 5778 Kol Tzedek Adult Education. Registration is now open.
I am not sure how many of you know that I think Teshuva is the best thing about Judaism. The sheer brilliance of asserting that transformation and healing are not only possible, but they are an essential source of holiness. Most of the time when we talk about Teshuva, we list the qualities we want to turn away from; the habits we want to quit and the patterns we want to shift. Now some might think this is the work of turning away. But in my experience, real transformation is possible when we turn towards ourselves and our loved ones. This can feel abstract and hard to grasp. And so towards this end, I offer you one of my personal practices for engaging with this work, in the form of a writing prompt from my dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig:
"I encourage you to write down names of people you need to be in touch with before this month comes to an end. The list can begin with the people who you owe an apology. Perhaps, there are folks you want to express gratitude towards. Or, others that you’d like to reconnect with before the holidays. Maybe you want to forgive someone or offer an overdue congratulations or tell someone that you miss their presence in your life or that you’re holding on to some hurt.
Once you’ve done that, I encourage you to move names onto your calendar. Will a text suffice? An email? Would it be better to speak on the phone? In person? When and how will you carve out the time to turn inward and from that place turn towards wholeness?
Looking forward to being together tonight at 6:30 pm, with leadership from three trans community members (other than myself!) in honor of the Philly Trans Health Conference.
Happy Elul and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. There are so many way to participate in High Holiday services at Kol Tzedek. And it literally takes the community to make it happen. In addition to volunteering, please email me if you want an honor like opening the ark or carrying the Torah or having an Aliyah or sharing a reading. There are easily 100 honors to be had. One for every blast of shofar perhaps. We all deserve to be honored for our work within and beyond the KT Community.
All week I have felt tired. Not just take a nap tired. Tired to the bone. Perhaps more accurately, tired in my heart. Every day seems to hold its own disaster or political mountain to climb. Floods, deportations, white supremacy. Not to mention the challenges we carry personally, divorce, depression, grief, illness. It takes tremendous effort to maintain our own dignity in the midst of so much suffering. This is precisely why shabbat exists, and why I am grateful its time has come.
On this Labor Day weekend, in the midst of Elul, I offer you this vision of rest in five stages that I think captures the essence of the restorative and redemptive powers of shabbat observance. Brought to you by the poet David Whyte:
"Rest is the conversation between what we love to do and how we love to be. Rest is the essence of giving and receiving; an act of remembering, imaginatively and intellectually but also physiologically and physically. To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself through established goals...
In the first state of rest is the sense of stopping, of giving up on what we are have been doing or how we have been doing. In the second, is the sense of slowly coming home, the physical journey into the body's un-coerced and un-bullied self, as if trying to remember the way or even the destination itself. In the third state is a sense of healing and self-forgiveness and of arrival. In the fourth state, deep in the primal exchange of the breath, is the give and the take, the blessing and the being blessed and the ability to delight in both. The fifth stage is a sense of absolute readiness and presence, a delight in and an anticipation of the world and all its forms; a sense of being the meeting itself between the inner and outer, and that receiving and responding occur in one spontaneous moment.
A deep experience of rest is the template of perfection in the human imagination..."
May we all be blessed with ability to pause, come home, heal, forgive, and ultimately delight in this world, which is the true meaning of "Oneg Shabbat." And may trust that deep rest will in fact ready us for the work that lies ahead.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Within this parsha is our community's namesake. We read the powerful instruction, "Justice, justice you shall pursue." Why the repetition? you might be asking. Rest assured, just about every student and teacher of Torah has asked that question too. And perhaps more importantly, they have answered it differently. This repetition calls out to us, "Interpret me!" I would like to share one interpretation by the Yehudi of Przysucha that resonates with me in this moment. He taught that the word "justice" is repeated here to say that even in the pursuit of justice, you have to engage justly.
That second justice comes to remind us that true transformation lies in the how and not just the what. It can be easy to focus on the product -- the march, the rally, the campaign. But this verse reminds us that true justice is bound up in our relationships; in the depth of process that moves us forward. It offers a biblically based vision of social justice in which the ends never justify the means.
This teaching has led me to think about another way to interpret the repetition. First we must pursue justice in the world, beyond ourselves. Knowing that those experiences will ultimately guide us to turn inward, to heal and transform our own souls.
This is the season in our sacred calendar to hear the call of the second justice and turn inwards; to account for and heal from the many ways that we internalize systemic injustice and racism.
This reminds me of the lyrics written by Koach Frazier to his song, "Tzedek tzedek tirdof." In it he sings, "How shall I pursue justice? love, compassion and listening. And how shall I pursue justice? Embracing my own humanity."
May this first Shabbat of Elul be a time when you can offer yourself and those around you love, compassion and listening. And may you have the courage to embrace your own humanity, knowing that too is part of pursuing justice.
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For those looking to experience the daily sound of shofar in this time leading up to Rosh Hashanah, here is a recording of me blowing shofar in the KT office!