In the past 3 weeks, I have officiated at a wedding, a b'nei mitzvah, a baby naming, a funeral, two shivas, and two conversions, all within the month of Elul, all within the life of our community. This waterfall of life cycle moments has in some ways finally revealed to me what Rosh Hashanah is all about. Unlike the festivals of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah is not commemorating some mythic moment. Rather it is calling our attention to the deepest truth of our lives. In just over a week we will say, "On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die..."
With each new life cycle moment, I found myself feeling increasingly unprepared. Not because I don’t know the people or the liturgy. Perhaps unprepared to make the transition, to modulate from life to death and back again. To be in the simcha and the sorrow, all at once. And perhaps even more so unprepared to accept the fragility of it all. And then, in a moment of quiet, it all made sense. I finally understood the words of Rabbi Alan Lew z"l (which I have been reading annually for more than a decade). "This is a true story...It is about you. [It is about all of us.] It is really happening, and it is happening to you, and you are seriously unprepared." How could we not be!? How can we possibly prepare for the fullness of our lives? The love and the loss, and the great chasm of experiences in between. And yet, much like the Philly public schools today, there are no excused absences.
Rabbi Lew continues, "This is real whether you believe in God or not. [Also true of the climate crisis!] Perhaps God made it real and perhaps God did not. Perhaps God created this pageant of judgement and choice, of transformation, of life and of death. Perhaps God created the Book of Life and the Book of Death, Teshuva and the blowing of the shofar. Or perhaps these are all inventions of human culture. It makes no difference...What makes a difference is that it's real and it is happening right now and it is happening to us, and it's utterly inescapable, and we are completely unprepared" (105-6).
I invite you to take a moment, take a deep breath, and let that sink in, as it has for me in these past few weeks. Jewish tradition is full of cycles. The cycle of holidays, the cycle of Torah reading, the cycle of the moon, the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of our bodies, the cycle of planting and harvesting, the cycle of years leading to shmita, the cycle of study, and, of course, the cycle of life. At any given point, we find ourselves in the midst of numerous different cycles, all at once. And Rosh Hashanah is in many ways a celebration of them all.
"This year some of us will die, and some of us will live, and all of us will change. And there is nothing in the world more real than this."
Rabbi Ari Lev
On Rosh Hashanah, through shofar blasts and boundless song, we will once again coronate God, in all her majesty. Every year, as we plead with Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King, Our Sovereign, Our Source, I struggle to find my way into this metaphor. You all have been patient with my struggles and shared of your own. In a recent article, Rabbanit Leah Sarna reminded me this is also a daily practice. Our traditional daily blessings begin by describing God as "King of the Universe" (Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha'Olam…). This is the way of the Jewish calendar. Daily themes that appear in our weekday liturgy also find unique dates in the calendar for further exploration and renewal.
Last year at this time I wrote to you, sharing a famous kabbalistic image about the month of Elul through which it is understood that "The King is in the Field." The Jewish mystics believed that the Holy Blessed One resides on high, whether physically above us or spiritually beyond us. But in the month of Elul, the Holy One dwells among us, in our midst.
About this text, my teacher Rabbi Art Green shared that the metaphor above is so much more real after his recent trip to Ukraine. He wrote, "It takes many hours BY CAR, with those still terrible roads, to get from one shtetl to another. With horse and carriage, it must have taken days or weeks! Imagine the Czar visiting Ukraine, coming all the way from St. Petersburg or Moscow. Along the way, he would need to stay at lots of small country inns, many of which were owned by Jews. Imagine that! Of course the Czar is utterly unapproachable. But while making up his room, or serving him his drink, with the appointments secretary not around, you might be able to ask him for something!" How much more so the Holy One.
In the words of the prophet, "Seek the Holy One while She can be found, Call to Her while She is near" (Isaiah 55:6). To which Rabbi Green asks, "But why is God 'closer' in this season? Because our hearts are - hopefully! - more open. That's what it's all about."
In my experience, the many metaphors of Rosh Hashanah connect us more deeply to the power of the universe to make and take life. This shabbat, may we have the courage to open ourselves the possibility of connection that is more palpable in this season of reflection and renewal.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week, I was sitting with a KT member making plans for her to begin home hospice and she remarked, "Dying is such a privilege." She went on to tell me about the ways that she feels so profoundly alive, so able to experience real connection with people. So much joy is possible when we let go of the pretense of our lives. As someone who has for most of my life feared death, I exhaled deeply and took refuge in her experience.
Among many things, this is the time of year when we allow ourselves to be more intimate with the truth of our impermanence. The High Holiday liturgy reflects the seasonal shifts, the bright fiery shedding of leaves. Every Elul, for several years now, my friend and colleague Rabbi Jordan Braunig has created a process by which you can journal your way through the month of Elul. I know at least some of you have subscribed over the years. Each one is poignant, some so much so, that I must share them with all of you. Earlier this week, he wrote:
"Yesterday...this poem by the recently-departed W.S. Merwin caught my attention and calmed my spirit.
For the Anniversary of My Death
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
There could be so much morbidity in considering this fact that each year we cycle past the date of our own death, but somehow the poet treats the subject with curiosity and reverence. 'Then I will no longer/Find myself in life as in a strange garment/Surprised at the earth'. What a notion, that the essence of life is being surprised by it.
A few months ago, Casey reported to me that she had seen one of our kids laughing to himself. When she asked him what was funny, he said, 'Oh, it's just that sometimes I can't remember if I'm alive or if I'm dead." It takes a very particular little six-year-old to giggle in the face of this thought, but sometimes we could all use the reminder. We are, in fact, alive. I want to invite you to consider how you will remind yourself during this trip through Elul and in the year beyond that this is life. How will you keep in mind, in the busyness of the days ahead, that you're alive?"
As we circle round the sun, unknowingly passing the anniversary of our own passing, may the sound of the shofar, and the discipline of our days, call us back to the truth of our aliveness and the joy that is possible.
Rabbi Ari Lev
All week I have been falling asleep and waking to the resonant song of the crickets singing me through the thick heat. And then this morning, the heat broke. According my kids this is the coldest day of the summer. They even asked if it might snow. And isn't this exactly what the crickets have been trying to tell us.
In the words of Charlotte's Web, "The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer's ending, a sad, monotonous song. 'Summer is over and gone,' they sang. 'Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.' The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year--the days when summer is changing into fall--the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change" (113).
In truth, it is not just the crickets singing the song of change. With summer's end, the Jewish calendar is calling us home and reminding us that change is part of every return. Next week is Rosh Hodesh Elul. We will sound the great shofar, the school year will resume, and along with it will come the intensity of increased routine and the relief of cooler days.
The crickets are not wrong. Summer is just about over and gone, which is sad, but it is also cause for celebration. According to the Hasidic masters, the most deeply honored day of all days is the day of death -- even more important than the day of birth. For them the day of death is turned into a day of celebration. So much so, that they don't typically use the term death. Rather they refer to it as the day of departure. I quite like to imagine these next two Shabbatot as a great celebration of summer's departure.
Our sacred texts are full of descriptions of the departures of tzaddikim, righteous teachers. Especially wondrous and soul-shaking is the description of the departure of Moshe Rabbeinu (Deathbed Wisdom, 5-7). In these final days of summer, as we read the Book of Deuteronomy, I invite you to hear it as the voice of a teacher who knows his final days are coming.
With summer's departure, may we create space for the sadness and the celebration, the anticipation and the excitement for what's to come. And may the crickets be our companions, reminding us we are part of something so much bigger.
Wishing you all a shabbat shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Tomorrow morning, communities around the world will rise in body or spirit as the 10 Commandments are read aloud. Now you might be thinking, the 10 Commandments? Didn't that happen at Sinai, way back in Exodus after the Israelites crossed the sea? Among other things the book of Deuteronomy is a retelling of Torah, some even say it is our earliest midrash, others refer to it as the mishneh torah, the second Torah (a name most attributed to the Rambam's law code). The story reads more personally this time, most often as a firsthand account in the voice of Moses. And most notably in this week's parsha, rather than the great blasts, the chaos of thunder and lightning that accompanied the 10 Commandments in Exodus, here we have a much more intimate revelation, described in the text as a face to face encounter (Deut. 5:4).
While there are several notable differences between the renderings of the 10 Commandments, much remains consistent. Including the fact that it is very difficult to understand how one actually tallies up these mitzvot. What counts as a mitzvah? The list, which spans 13 verses, is hardly a checklist and would not fit neatly in a spreadsheet. Don't steal, don't lie, those seem more obvious. But things like "I am God" are a bit more amorphous. How many mitzvot are there anyway?
I was always taught 613. 248 positive commandments (Do!), and 365 negative (Don't do!). Now twice these lists have been uttered within the Torah itself and neither time suggests anything close to 613. Maybe someone somewhere can recite a list that long, but for the most part I see the number as mystically meaningful and spiritually aspirational. And I think that the rabbis understood that to be true.
My teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe explains it this way. The reason we have so many mitzvot is not because we are meant to fill our hearts with the guilt of inadequacy for all the mitzvot we don't do, or don't even know to do, but because they are meant to help us collectively aspire to be a community rooted in kindness and compassion. No single person is responsible for all 613 mitzvot. We are each obligated to do our part. One midrash describes the person whose sole mitzvah is Sukkot. All year long she prepares for Sukkot. Growing shakh, inviting guests, waving her lulav. She is holding down Sukkot knowing that other people in her community might not have space for a sukkah. Meanwhile, in this vision, they might be holding some other mitzvah, visiting the sick or thrice daily prayer, baking challah, attending to the needs of the community.
We are seven weeks away from Rosh Hashanah. The process of Heshbon HaNefesh, of our inner reflections, has begun. This Shabbat I invite you to consider which mitzvot are yours to observe in the coming year. Which mitzvot do you want to learn more about? And in so doing I invite you to lay down the old story, that your are not enough. As the Holy One says to Moses in this week's parsha, Rav lakh! You are sufficient just as you are (Deut. 326).
May this week's recitation of the 10 Commandments inspire within us curiosity, commandedness, and commitment to the practices which we feel personally bring greater holiness into our lives and our communities.
Rabbi Ari Lev
It is really good to be back. And it seems I came back just in time for the Gravitron ride that is the High Holiday season.
Last weekend we celebrated Rosh Hodesh Av, the new moon which comes with a tender epithet, known by the rabbis as Menachem Av, may this month bring your comfort. Who does not need a bit of solace these days? Rosh Chodesh is usually a time of joy and hope for renewal. It is in fact one of my favorite holidays. But the rabbis tell us, "Mishenichnas av mema'atin besimchah / When the month of Av arrives, we diminish our joy." This stands in strong contrast to Rosh Hodesh Adar, which calls in the season of Purim, when we are told to "marbin b'simcha / to up our joy."
Rosh Hodesh Av marks the beginning of the Nine Days, considered a period of heightened communal mourning leading up to the 9th of Av, known in Hebrew as Tisha B'Av. Considered by the rabbis to be the saddest day of the year. Think of it like Yom Kippur meets shiva. Its customs include fasting from food and water, not wearing leather footwear, not washing ourselves (washing only until the knuckle when mandated by halakhah), not applying ointments or creams, not having sex, not sitting on a normal-height chair, only studying really sad Torah, like Lamentations (seriously!), not sending gifts, or even greeting one another (you may respond to greetings), not engaging in outings, trips, or similar pleasurable activities (not a beach day!), and not wearing fine, festive clothing (typically not an issue at Kol Tzedek).
To be honest, I have never really been a fan of Tisha B'av. If I am really honest about it, it is not for some theological problem with centering the Temple in Jerusalem. That would make too much sense. It is a much more mundane aversion. I simply just love summer too much. I love swimming and ice cream and laying in a hammock in the park, fresh peaches and picking berries. In the midst of all that fun, it really feels like a spiritual buzzkill to concentrate on every bad thing that ever has, is, or will happen. I mean, can't we put Tisha B'av in January? Maybe trade it for Tu Bishevat. I can actually plant a tree in August.
But perhaps that is precisely the point.
Because in truth, who could sustain an even deeper dive into despair in the depths of winter. Perhaps the moment when the earth is in full bloom is precisely the time also to hold that the world is utterly broken, families are shattered, whole species have been lost, violence and cruelty are routine. This is precisely what Rabbi Alan Lew describes as "the great crumbling."
Somehow only this year did I realize that maybe only once the hot (and oh so humid!) summer fun has opened our pores and nourished our hearts, only then can we bear the heartbreak that is also ever present; only then can we actually let ourselves fall apart.
Tisha B'Av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah. It begins the process that culminates on Yom Kippur, some might even say on Simchat Torah. Tisha B'Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and courageously face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives and in our world (Lew, 41-42).
In many ways Tisha B'Av is the answer to another question I have been asked, emailed, and texted repeatedly this summer. To paraphrase, "How is one supposed to find joy, take a vacation, relax at the beach, go out dancing in the face of so much violence and cruelty?"
Which is to say, the rabbis understood that catastrophic loss has, is, and will be part of the human experience. For them, the destruction of the Temple was truly the worst-case scenario. They understood the human need to mourn and grieve, and they also understood the need to contain the grief. And so they appointed a time in which we would open to the wound of existence with discrete practices and finite time constraints. Such that we could also return.
We learn in the very beginning of Genesis, in the beginning the world was tohu va'vohu, crass and chaotic. So too now. Tisha B'Av suggests perhaps it always is. And we are once again called to journey into the chaos and construct something beautiful.
If you are able to come to services tonight, I will be sharing more about why in fact Shabbat and Tisha B'Av are equally necessary and ultimately incompatible. As a result, even though tonight begins the ninth of Av on the Hebrew calendar, we observe the fast of Tisha B'Av Saturday night and Sunday.
Wherever you are this weekend, I wish you a shabbat shalom and a gentle turning.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Another anecdote from retreat.
One of the teachers described his meditation practice as tending his little plot in the world's garden. In this way, the whole of who we are is connected across time and place, and we have inherited this little plot of existence to care for. I love this image because it connects me to the fact that some of my least favorite parts of myself are not necessarily the product of my doing. They come from a wider context of which I am a part. Even more so, when I imagine my anxious mind and stiff hips as a garden plot, I really soften to my own suffering. I can begin to appreciate the many reasons why these aspects once served me. And in an effort to transform, I found myself on retreat expressing appreciation for and towards my own pain (both physical and emotional).
Recent studies by positive psychologists have unearthed a truth long understood by many religious traditions. Expressing gratitude is fundamentally beneficial to us. This is precisely what the psalter meant in Mizmor Shir L'Yom HaShabbat when it says, "Tov L'Hodot...It is good to be grateful." Whether that gratitude is directed externally to something beyond yourself - anything from the sky to a friend to the Holy One, or whether it is directed toward yourself, appreciating some part of yourself. It is good to be grateful.
Recent studies have shown that a person who keep a daily journal noting five things they are grateful for is 20% more likely to achieve their goals. When I heard that I immediately thought of Muslim prayer which happens five times daily. And then I thought of Jewish prayer, which begins each day with "Modeh Ani..." expressing gratitude for the breath and the new day. And then Amidah, which we are instructed to pray three times a day. As we say, "Modim Anachnu Lach...We offer gratitude..." If, perhaps, for no other reason than to note what we are grateful for.
It is my own experience that when I feel stuck, when I feel tense or stubborn or angry, expressing gratitude softens me, brings me back to center. Perhaps this is why my teacher Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum insists that gratitude is the beginning of prayer. I invite you to join me this summer in keeping a gratitude journal. To note down three or five things a day for which you are grateful, without any expectation.
This is my final Friday blog post before I am on vacation for the month of July. As I enter this time off, I am filled with gratitude. For each of you and the conversations we have shared. For the honor of getting to do such meaningful work. For the joy that we create together. And for the unknown of what's to come.
Earlier today I had the joy of watching a live stream of Dan Blackbserg playing music in Krakow, Poland at the Jewish Culture Festival. The person who introduced it began by saying, "We must get going, because the time is short and the most important Jewish holiday is fast approaching - Shabbat!"
So too here!
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Summer!
Rabbi Ari Lev
I spent last week in the wilderness of a silent meditation retreat. Much like the Israelites, I too felt it was at once an endless, arduous journey and an extraordinary spiritual experience. I have been sitting meditation retreats for nearly 10 years, and every time, one of the central experiences is eating. Eating three meals that I don't have to prepare, on a set schedule. Eating food that I have not decided on and trusting I will be sated and cared for. One of the things I noticed last week is that in the early days of the retreat I tend to eat too much at meals, for fear that I will be hungry later when food is not available. But as the retreat went on, I was able to trust that I would have what I need, when I needed it. And that if I didn't, that too would be OK. Questions of sustenance and desire, and whether we will have what we need, when we need it, are some of the core struggles of the book of Bamidbar, and this week's parsha, Be'haalotcha, in particular.
Throughout their journey in the wilderness, the Israelites are sustained by מן / manna. For hundreds of years, commentators have been asking the exact same question that the Israelites themselves ask, "Man hu? -- What is it?" the people ask, "for they did not know what it was." To which Moses answers, "It is God's gift of bread." It is the question, and not the answer, that names the unknowable substance. This manna, this "what-stuff," remains enigmatic. Some imagine it be something akin to oily cakes soaked in honey. Others say it tastes like coriander. Some posit it is shaped like little crystals, or a thin layer of frost. Some posit it was actually a physical manifestation of light that could be consumed. My favorite is the midrash that says that it tasted like whatever each person desired. This is the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory version of manna. And it wasn't just the manna that fell; the Talmud suggests that other necessities fell with it, spices for cooking and precious stones for the mishkan, the list goes on.
Avivah Zornberg writes, "The manna is essential wilderness food, unknown, uncanny; but precisely in its unknowability it will open a new kind of knowledge: 'that a person does not live on bread alone, but on what issues from God's mouth.' The sentence communicates the mystery of the manna: it stirs up the question -- What is it that can sustain human life?" (xvii).
So too on retreat. The meals themselves, more than a means of sustenance, are an opportunity for me to see more clearly my own relationship to desire. In the words of one of the teachers, to see how desire is in some sense a micro-aggression against the present moment. To try to imagine how much trust it would require for the Israelites to go to sleep each night in the barren wilderness and trust that in the morning the miracle of manna would once again fall from the sky so they could collect a day's worth of food. Here I was, knowing with certainty that there would be oatmeal at 6am, and I still worried.
What is it that sustains human life?
There is more to interrogate about the source of that worry and the reality of food scarcity in this world. For now I will say that I left retreat with a tender appreciation for every moment of calm that I have worked hard to experience and for the deep web of relationships that sustain our community.
Wishing you all a happy solstice and shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Saturday night begins the Holiday of Shavuot. This festival, which is counted among the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, along with Sukkot and Passover, is unique in many ways. Most interesting to me personally, coming on the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan, means that it is not linked to either the full or the new moon (which would be aligned with the 1st or 15th of any Hebrew month). In the Torah, Shavuot is known by many names which say something of its origins. It is called the Festival of Weeks (חג השבועות, Ḥag ha-Shavuot), Festival of Reaping (חג הקציר, Ḥag ha-Katsir), and Day of the First Fruits (יום הבכורים, Yom ha-Bikkurim).
Shavuot, the plural of a word meaning "week" or "seven," alludes to the fact that this festival happens exactly seven weeks (i.e. "a week of weeks") after Passover. So perhaps one could argue it is most closely tethered to the full moon of Nissan, as one begins counting the 49 days of the Omer on the 2nd night of Passover concluding with this harvest festival. But it still feels rather strange to mark such a significant moment on the rather anticlimactic 6th day.
Upon further reflection, I realized that rather than being connected to a prominent lunar cycle, it is connected to a significant moment in our Torah cycle. Every year we begin the 4th book of the Torah, known in Hebrew as Bamidbar and in English as Numbers, the Shabbat before Shavuot. In her new book, Avivah Zornberg explains,
"The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers is Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of (lit.) In-the-Wilderness. Although the Israelite wilderness experience begins in Exodus and concludes in Deuteronomy, the book of Numbers claims the interior of this world of wilderness as its peculiar territory. It evokes not only geographical terrain, but also an inner landscape, an 'inscape' as it were--a world of imaginative being" (xi).
Every year, beginning this book calls our attention to the fact that Torah was given in the wilderness. And every year it leads me back to the same question, why in the wilderness? This is a question that the rabbis have been asking for hundreds of years. And it is perhaps the only question where every possible answer is resonant. Perhaps my favorite midrash, which many of you have heard me teach, is that Torah was given in the wilderness so that no one could say it was theirs and in this way Torah would belong to everyone.
This year, I am captivated by a powerful midrash that teaches "...Wilderness [midbar] is, in essence, language [dibbur]. [Ein midbar ela dibbur.]" (Shemot Rabbah 2:5). And it is not just any language, but the Aseret HaDibbrot, the 10 Utterances of Sinai, known as the 10 Commandments. Which begin with the silent, ineffable aleph of "Anochi - I am." So say that from this place of vast uncertainty we call ourselves into existence. This is what it means to experience revelation. Lest we think our deepest teachings are in our control, Torah was given to us in the wilderness. Torah itself is a wilderness.
May we have the courage to journey to the wilderness this Shabbat and Shavuot, whether the landscape or the inscape. And to listen for the still small voice that is eager to reveal to us the Torah that is uniquely ours.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Tomorrow morning, Sadie Parker will not only become a Bat Mitzavh, but she will be chanting the final words of the book of Leviticus. And after she does so, all of us present will have the opportunity to observe the Ashkenazic custom and respond to her finishing this book of Torah with the words, "Hizki hizki v'nithazek!" (Note the feminine rendering of "Hazak hazak" since Sadie will be reading). These words resist translation, but might best be rendered as, "Be strong, be strong and we will strengthen one another." The "hazak" declaration is a closure ritual, a performative parallel to the graphic demarcation in the Torah scroll in which after the conclusion of each book we see four blank lines. The largest consecutive white spaces in all of Torah. This is the deep exhale of completion.
This ritual does not stand alone. There is a parallel invocation when one completes a chapter or masechet (volume) of Mishnah or Talmud. In those moments, it is a custom to recite, "Hadran alach v'Hadrach alan," literally "May we return to you and may you return to us." Alternately, the Aramaic word Hadran, like the Hebrew word Hadar, can mean to glorify or beautify. "May our study lift up the light of Torah and may Torah increase our own light." The essence of this double entendre is actually addressed to the sefer, the sacred text itself, and comes as the beginning to a longer concluding prayer. Those of us who completed the four-week Talmud class this past Tuesday had the opportunity to recite these words.
What strikes me about both of these rituals is the explicit mutuality and reflexivity embedded in our relationship to these sacred texts. In the case of the Torah scroll, it is the plural reflexive verb nithazek - we will draw strength. As though the ancient words, the reader, and those present are all bolstered in this intention. And in the case of the Talmudic practice, the intention that we long to return to study the text again, even more so, that the text stays with us beyond our study of it.
As Shavuot approaches and we prepare to begin the book of Numbers, I am touched by the image of Torah as sacred stories that strengthen us, make us more resilient, and call us back to them time and again.
May it be so.
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.