Purim is by nature destabilizing. Costumes and coming out and the idea that nothing is as it seems. But add to it the commandment to drink and that just feels outright dangerous. In practically every chapter of the Megillah, someone is imbibing heavily at a drinking party. And the scroll concludes with Mordecai's instruction to the entire Jewish people to celebrate these days as "yemei mishteh v'simchah, days of drinking and rejoicing" (Esther 9:22).
So let's start with the question, how drunk is one really supposed to get?
We learn in the Talmud:
"Rava said: It is one's duty levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'arur Haman' (cursed be Haman) and 'barukh Mordekhai' (blessed be Mordecai)" (Megillah 7b).
But what degree of drunkenness is meant by this? The word levasumei is from the same root as besamim (fragrant spices, like those that are smelled during Havdalah). Minimally, one should "be fragrant" - drink enough that others can smell it on your breath. And maximally, one should get sloshed, so to speak.
And if this makes you at all uncomfortable, you are in good company.
The rabbis are nervous too and tell this tale of caution:
Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got together for a Purim Seudah (the feast on the afternoon of Purim). They got very drunk, and Rabbah got up and cut R. Zeira's throat (literally, Rabbah butchered him). The next day, Rabbah prayed on R. Zeira's behalf and brought him back to life. A year later, Rabbah asked, "Would you like to have a Purim Seudah with me again this year?" R. Zeira replied, "One cannot count on a miracle every time" (Megillah 7b).
Purim is dangerous, and the rabbis knew it. Getting dressed up, getting drunk, turning things upside down, insisting that nothing is as it seems, blurring boundaries - these are all best done with care and caution. Not only because of the threat of physical injury or death, but also emotional and spiritual safety. I have been to many Purim parties where I felt uncomfortable. Humor is funny until it's not.
If Yom Kippur - is Yom K'Purim - the day that is like Purim, then Purim is also somehow like Yom Kippur. It is its calendrical corollary, its spiritual underbelly. Much like fasting on Yom Kippur, the purpose is not the consumption of alcohol in and of itself. So if you are sober or on medication, pregnant or nursing, or for any other reason do not drink, please know drinking is only one medium for attaining a spiritual state of looseness where we can see the ironic, sometimes painful, and true interconnectedness of all things.
Purim is dangerous, but it is a portal into magical realism. And drinking is only one of the four mitzvot of Purim. The full verse quoted above from the Megillah reads, "They are to observe these as days of feasting and gladness, and for sending delicacies to one another, and giving gifts to the poor" (Esther 9:22).
Accordingly, we are instructed to hear the Megillah, give goodie bags to our friends and give tzedakah. Whether or not you plan to attend the Purim Party Fundraiser tomorrow night, I want to personally invite you to participate in the Purim mitzvah of matanot l'evyonim/giving gifts to those in need - to give as generously as you are able to La Familia Centeno-Delgado. We have raised $43,000. We need to raise $8,000 more by Purim.
This Purim, may we hearken to the wisdom of both Rava and Rabbah. May we have the courage to soften and sparkle, to let our hidden light shine. And may we have the wisdom to do so in such a way that does no harm to ourselves or others.
Rabbi Ari Lev
There is a folk legend that King Solomon once posed the following riddle: "What can you say to a happy person to make them sad, that will also make a sad person happy?"
King Solomon took a gold ring from his pocket upon which were engraved three Hebrew letters: גז"י – Gimel, Zayin, Yod. They stand for 'גם זה יעבור gam zeh ya'avor,' this too, shall pass.
The primary themes of Purim are a corollary to King Solomon's teaching: ונהפוך הוא / V'nahafoch hu. What is true in one moment can turn upside down. The Megillah is replete with examples. Queen Esther, who first appears as a closeted Jew, ends up saving the Jewish people by standing up to King Ahashverosh. Haman's evil plot to wipe out all the Jews of Shushan leads to his own demise. And the Jews of Shushan, once powerless subjects, become powerful actors, able to control their own destiny.
And so we will read in Esther 9:1:
"...When the king's command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened [v’nahafoch hu], and the Jews got their enemies in their power."
With a heaping helping of heavy handedness (and an overindulgence in revenge), the Megillah reminds us just how topsy-turvy the world can be. In the words of my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe, all stories ultimately and inevitably crash. V'nahafoch hu. Purim is a celebration of subversion, inversion, and transformation.
So much so, that the rabbis of the Mishnah took the time to warn against thinking v'nahafoch hu applies to reading the Megillah backwards, a practice they ruled does not fulfill one's obligation on Purim (Megillah 2:1). In classic Hasidic fashion, the Ba'al Shem Tov turned the Sages' caution inward by adding, "one who reads the Megillah backwards" is a person who only reads it in retrospect and neglects to pay attention to how its spirit is alive in their own day.
As the seasons change and the days grow longer, we seek out levity and instability, allowing the brittle interface of reality to loosen its grip on our souls. To remind ourselves that anything is possible, in our selves and in our world. On this Rosh Hodesh Adar II, may the promises of the rabbis come true and may the sliver of this new moon increase joy in your life.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Every year as we read of the building of the mishkan in all its ornate details, I think to myself, Beztalel (the artist of the Torah) must really have been a flaming gay man. Who else would have such attention to color, fabric, and gemstone?! As someone who does not feel gifted with interior design skills, I am in awe of the Torah's artistry. This week, I am feeling so grateful to be part of a community where I can openly share this totally ridiculous queer reading of Torah.
It is my sense that what binds Kol Tzedek together as a community is the desire for each of us to be wholly ourselves. This is why I start every service with what has become somewhat of a creed, that you are welcome here just as you are. While this seems obvious on so many levels, it is hardly the normative experience of religious spaces and religious movements.
I am grateful that for so many of us, Kol Tzedek is a refuge; a place to reimagine family; a place to truly be our full selves; a place to connect to something beyond ourselves. We are healing from the Judaism of our childhood or the religion of our childhood. In particular, we are healing from homophobic and transphobic sentiments of our childhood denominations.
For all of these reasons and more, it was painful to witness this week when the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted against LGBTQ inclusion, maintaining that "Homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity." This vote was the culmination of years of exclusion and hurt, and decades of organizing momentum trying to make the church's insides match its outsides.
I have spoke with Pastor John and members of Calvary United Methodist. They are heartbroken and grieving. The future of the denomination, the building, and the community is uncertain. This is a very tender moment for our neighbors and spiritual housemates.
Certainly this vote did not happen in isolation. It is part of the right-wing backlash that is emboldened by our current administration. It is also helpful to understand that the Methodist church is a global denomination with more than 12 million members. So this is not necessarily a barometer of US sentiments. Having said that, it is painful to even be adjacent to the indignity of religious voices. I can't imagine what it feels like to be inside of it. And I can imagine that for some of you and your family members, this touches you personally.
As the United Methodist Church integrates this new reality, I have had many instincts and responses. I share this article to encourage us to be helpful and not harmful allies to Calvary United Methodist. Knowing that there is not unanimous queer support in all Jewish communities and denominations, I invite us to send love to them and ourselves. To know that we are all called to build sanctuaries full of flamboyant beauty, justice, and love.
In the words of Adrienne Rich,
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
Rabbi Ari Lev
In this week's parsha, we get the famous story of Moses ascending Mt. Sinai carrying two stone tablets upon which the Holy One uses a finger (really! check out Ex. 31:18) to inscribe the Ten Commandments. Moses returns down the mountain only to find the people have built a golden calf. Enraged, and probably feeling betrayed, he smashes the tablets and returns up the mountain to plead forgiveness with the Holy One. While on the mountain a second time, Moses has a heart to heart with the Holy One.
The text of Exodus 34:6 reads:
וַיַּֽעֲבֹ֨ר יְהֹוָ֥ה | עַל־פָּנָיו
And God passed before his face...
As if the rabbis pressed pause on this scene and zoomed in close on their smartphones, they ask, what was it that Moses saw when the Holy One passed by? Was it a glowing aura? A long white beard? What's God's profile pic?
In one midrash, the rabbis conclude that Moses saw the back of God's head. Not only that, but he saw the knot of the tefillin shel rosh, the leather straps of God's tefillin. Wait, you might say, God prays? God wears tefillin? Isn't God the one we call Shomea Tefillah, the one who hears our prayers? And if the Shema, which asserts the oneness of the Divine, is written inside of our tefillin, then what is written in God's tefillin?
The Talmud teaches, "These tefillin [that belong to] the Master of the Universe, what is written in them? He said to him, And who is like you Israel? A singular nation on the earth (Divrei HaYamim 1, 17:21)...God said to Israel: You have made Me a singular entity in the world and I will make you a singular entity in the world. You have made Me a singular entity in the world as it says, Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord is One (Devarim 6:4). And I will make you a singular entity in the world, as it says, And who is like you Israel? A singular nation on the earth (Berakhot 6a)."
Just as the tefillin that human beings wear pray for Divine unity, so too the Holy One's tefillin prays for our earthly unity. Just as we long to feel connected to something beyond ourselves, the Source of All Life longs for us to feel connected to each other.
In the words of Marcia Falk,
"Hear, O Israel--
The divine abounds everywhere
and dwells in everything;
the many are One."
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week's parsha takes us deep into the details of the mishkan, the portable sacred dwelling place that the Israelites built in the desert. And amidst the details of the priestly garments and building materials, pure gold, crimson yarn, and fine linens, The Holy Blessed One reminds us what it's all for:
וְשָׁ֣כַנְתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
"I will dwell among the children of Israel" (Ex 30:45).
The message of this week's parsha, which echoes the message of last week's parsha, which essentially is the core Jewish message embodied in the Shema prayer, is that we are all interconnected and we need to live in a way that embodies that truth. That message, in biblical terms, describes the presence of the divine dwelling among and between us.
This was on my mind earlier this week when I got a phone call from NPR. It was very unexpected. I was about to teach a class on prayer and they just had a quick request: Would I be willing to appear on air in the morning to comment on the recent political controversy with Ilhan Omar's tweets? And then the producer continued, more specifically, that they wanted to invite another "more centrist" rabbi onto the show so that we could publicly debate our views. It did not take long for me to realize this was not a good idea. Not because there isn't nuance and difference of opinion in the Jewish world. And not because I don't believe in giving voice to that nuance and finding ways to constructively disagree, even in public. For me, this didn't feel like a good idea because I felt it was playing directly into the strategy of the right. It is my personal sense that the alt-right is trying to divide us from each other, target women of color, and define public discourse on antisemitism. In this case, Ilhan Omar was criticizing the influence of AIPAC. Regardless of our views on Israel, I imagine we are all able to see the negative impact of lobbyists in government and her inherent right to voice criticism as free speech. This is very scary to me, because it censors free speech and uses the rhetoric of antisemitism as a tool to silence women of color in leadership. Censorship is so deep and dangerous, that even as I write this email I fear I may be censoring myself, so worried about how you will interpret it.
The request from NPR also scared me because pitting two rabbis against one another in public debate on this most controversial issue directly does the work of antisemitism for the right, and has us fighting against each other as opposed to actually fighting the forces of true antisemitism in our world. None of this, says my inner compass, would invite holiness into our midst.
In the wake of Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, we are raw. We know in our bones that antisemitism is real and dangerous. The call from the producer at NPR was so startling, because it pointed to a wound in the Jewish psyche which is becoming a deep chasm in the Jewish community. How do we respond to white supremacy with dignity and integrity? What do we need to do to understand the source of real antisemitism? It is my sense that the right wing propaganda machines are using media attacks and political smear campaigns, largely targeting people of color (Linda Sarsour, Marc Lamont Hill, Angela Davis, and now Ilhan Omar), to pit us against each other and to divide us from our natural allies. And as a result, we undermine each other's dignity and ultimately jeopardize each other's safety. Put in Kabbalistic terms, sending the Shekhina, the indwelling presence of the Divine, into exile.
You may not agree with me about any of this. That is welcome. Kol Tzedek is still your community. I welcome disagreement, feedback, and respectful debate in our community. I share all of this with you, hoping we as a community can deepen our capacity for real connection. In the weeks and months to come, I invite you to pay attention to this with me so that we can together develop our collective consciousness and find ways to speak with compassion, clarity, and integrity about antisemitism, holiness, and the chasm between.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Last shabbat we blessed the coming of the new moon of Adar. I shared that this year we are welcoming Adar 1, because it is a Jewish leap year. Unlike the Gregorian calendar which adds a day to the end of February, the Jewish calendar doubles an entire month. This is what allows us to follow the lunar cycles and also stay in rhythm with the solar seasons such that Passover will always be in the spring time. However, when I shared this, I misspoke and said that Jewish leap years happen every four years. That, in fact, is not true. That is when Gregorian leap years happen. The Jewish calendar follows a much more idiosyncratic (or perhaps natural) rhythm. Here is what I learned this week, with huge gratitude to Rachel and Nati Katz Passow for being my teachers.
In the days before the calendar was codified (and climate change was happening), the rabbis would go out into the fields at the end of the month of Shvat (say, around last week) to inspect the barley. According to the biblical calendar, Passover is a barley harvest and so the spring festival must be timed with the crop. If the barley looked like it would be ready six weeks later, it wasn't a leap year. And if it needed more time, it was a leap year. (This is the ancient Hebrew groundhog day!) In this way they were able to align the festivals with both the harvest and the seasons. Put another way, the harvest defined the seasons for them.
In our times, Jewish leap years occur seven out of every 19 years. Which is actually a lot more frequently than Gregorian leap years. Now you might ask, how did they come up with a 19-year cycle. That is hardly a familiar Jewish number. I don't quite know. But somehow, though, the number 19 is at once completely random and naturally attuned. As it turns out, it corresponds to the pattern of the keys on a piano, which are divided into 19 equal temperaments. (You can actually use the spacing of black and white keys to know whether it's a leap year!) Now I am certainly not a music theorist. But while many people call it coincidence, it seems to me there is a resonant echo between the natural world, music, and math that defies logic and alludes to a deeper truth.
In the words of Rami Shapiro, "Nature is God's niggun, a wordless melody of unfolding Life."
But still, how do I know what year it is? The Hebrew Leap Year follows a 19-year cycle. The years of the 19-year cycle that are leap years are: 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19. For the brave of heart, there are amazing mathematical equations that line up with a Hebrew mnemonic (גוחאדז"ט), which you can explore and play with to figure out which year it is. I personally am sticking to Hebcal for this information.
As we begin this first month of Adar, I invite you to marinate in the patient joy it brings as we journey towards the expanse of spring.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I am currently in the midst of teaching a 7-week class on prayer. One of the most challenging aspects has been figuring out, "Do I teach how to do it or why we do it first." The how and the why have their own multilayered histories that intersect but are still distinct. Several of the students are interested in learning to wear a Tallit and wrap Tefillin. And their first questions are inevitably and understandably, "Why do we do this?" I am deeply empathetic to this question, and yet I find myself sounding a lot like Moses in this week's Torah portion when he famously declares, "Na'aseh v'Nishmah / We will do and we will hear" (Ex. 24:7). In other words, "Try it and then let's talk."
Now, to us post-modern critical thinkers, this does not come easy. In fact, when I suggested to one student that he might just want to try on Tefillin before reading a book about it, he responded, "I prefer to understand it first." That's reasonable. I am much more comfortable doing something that I understand. It is hard to trust that which we don't understand. And yet! I have found it important to remember that there are things we can only understand by way of experience. There is learning that happens beyond language and insight that is deeply personal, none of which can be prescribed to you.
Sometimes we need to Na'aseh v'Nishmah - sometimes we need to experience something in order to really hear it. Because, in truth, sometimes the reasons why we do things are not nearly as compelling as the doing itself. This is my own experience for example with wearing Tefillin. The fact that the Torah says I should make "a sign upon by arm and upon my forehead" is not what compels my practice. It is the fact that I inherited a pair of never-worn Tefillin from my father who received them for his Bar Mitzvah and I get to be the generation that reclaims them; It is the visceral acupressure-like feeling; It is the gender subversion; It is the ancient unknown.
In a midrash about this verse, the rabbis imagine Moses asking: Is doing something possible without understanding? Understanding leads one to doing. And then the rabbis reread the line in our Torah to mean, "Na'aseh v'Nishmah - We will do what we understand" (Mechilta 24:7).
While I appreciate and agree with this rational rendering, it is not the whole truth. This Shabbat I invite you to dwell in the discomfort and wisdom that sometimes we do things irrationally and only later understand why. Not in some naive, "You'll understand when you are older" kind of way. But in a, "Revelation takes many forms" kind of way.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week we read Parashat Yitro, in which the Holy One reveals the Torah through Moses at Mt. Sinai. As you can imagine, many stories are told about this mythic moment, and even more about the nature of Torah itself. One of my favorite midrashim creates an unexpected portal in time.
Rabbi Yehudah taught in the name of Rav:
When Moses went up Mt. Sinai he saw the Holy Blessed One sitting and putting small crowns on the letters of Torah. Moses inquires: Why are you spending so much time doing this tedious work? To which the Holy Blessed One explains, in a future generation there will come a person by the name of Rabbi Akiva who will interpret each and every one of these crowns and create piles and piles of Jewish practices based on them. With a bit of incredulity, Moses demands that God reveal such a person. Wayne's World-style, The Holy One turns Moses around and he is all of a sudden sitting in the back row of Rabbi Akiva's Beit Midrash. Rabbi Akiva is teaching Torah but Moses doesn't recognize the teachings. Moses is very upset. And then at one point, a student asks Rabbi Akiva: "Teacher, how do you know it is so?" To which he replies: "It is halacha that was given to Moses at Mount Sinai." And Moses was comforted. (B.T. Menachot 29b)
Here the rabbis foreground their deep belief that Torah is expansive and ever-changing. And their insistence that there is a thread of continuity between that which Moses received at Mt. Sinai and that which we come to understand as the meaning of Torah in our time. This is what my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe refers to as an unrecognizable future. We are inheritors of a tradition whose resilience is based on reinterpretation in every generation. The rabbis are saying, that is what The Holy One intended, which is why there are so many little beautiful details awaiting your meaning-making.
If any of you have ever studied a passage of Talmud, you will know that one of the first challenges is pronouncing any series of names that precedes many teachings. Often these attributions come as linguistic stumbling blocks and patriarchal reminders. And yet they also allow us to place ourselves in an ancient lineage.
I like imagining Moses sitting in the Kol Tzedek Beit Midrash (newly catalogued!), utterly perplexed and also completely at home as we transmit Torah from Sinai, as we claim and reclaim our roots and our reasoning. If Rabbi Akiva represented an unrecognizable future for Moses, you can only imagine what we represent. Another Torah, another world, is not only possible, she is on her way.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week, I was picking up my kids from school and one of them pointed to the sky and said, "Look, the moon is almost full." I looked on in shared awe at the bright light shining in the winter night sky. It feels to me that this particular full moon is overflowing with power.
This is the full moon of Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the trees. This is the full moon of MLK Jr. Day. This is the full moon of the Women's March. This is the full moon when we recount the mythic exodus of our people as they crossed the sea in search of safety and freedom. And as if that was not enough, apparently, there will also be a total lunar eclipse on this full moon.
This week I keep thinking about cosmic crossings and interconnected liberation journeys. Earlier this afternoon a group of KT members welcomed the Delgado family into our community; we are sponsoring them as they seek asylum from El Salvador. It was an emotional, joyful arrival. They expressed an ineffable amount of gratitude and shared snippets of what sounds like an unbearably painful journey to this moment. That this is the full moon when the Delgado family arrives in Philly, in the exact parsha when we recount the mythic exodus of our people and sing of their crossing of the sea; it leaves me relatively speechless.
I am awed by our community's open hearts. To welcome this family is one of the most profound embodiments of Torah, as we are directly and repeatedly instructed to care for the sojourners in our midst.
This is also the week that the great poet Mary Oliver died. And she too was a lover of many moons. Tomorrow morning will be infused with her poetry in honor of her life and her recent death. She writes in her poem "Strawberry Moon,"
"Now the women are gathering
in smoke-filled rooms,
rough as politicians,
scrappy as club fighters.
And should anyone be surprised
if sometimes, when the white moon rises,
women want to lash out
with a cutting edge?"
For all who will be marching tomorrow, please know that I am unequivocally in solidarity with you and I am particularly grateful for the leadership of JWOC who have modeled wholeness and resistance in one breath. However you choose to embody prayer this Shabbat, whether in the streets or at Calvary, and everything in between, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Amidst the magic of the Exodus story, we must also reckon with the suffering. Not just our own, but that of the other. This week's parsha asserts yet again:
"Then God said to Moses, 'Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your grandchildren how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them - in order that you may know that I am God.'"
As someone who takes refuge in Divine Justice, I primarily identify it with the aspects of kindness and mercy. But here we have it, front and center, God as punishing judge. And on the one hand, I want to say, that is not the God I believe in. (To which many of you might be thinking, if I even believe in God.) But on the other hand, it would be dishonest to say that I have not at times (even recent times) wished ill in my heart for those in power perpetuating evil, true evil.
Would I not want God to send plagues to the greedy racist powers that be if I knew it would both cause them suffering and cause them to change?
In a well known midrash that flashes forward to the end of the plagues, when the Israelites have crossed the sea, we learn the following: That night, while the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea and the ministering angels in heaven wanted to sing their established song, the Holy Blessed One said, "The works of my hands drown in the sea, and you want to sing?" And so, on that day, the angels were forbidden to sing, because God does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked (B.T. Megillah 10b).
About this contradiction, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, also known as the Esh Kodesh, asks the following question, "So how can it be that in our text God is saying, 'You will tell your children and your grandchildren how I made a mockery of Egypt, and laughed at their downfall'?!"
If the Esh Kodesh in the midst of the Nazi Holocaust is working to wish his oppressors well, all the more so, must we! For we, all of us, including them, whomever we deem other to us, is the work of the One's hands. In the words of Isaiah, which we recite on Yom Kippur,
וּמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָדְךָ֖ כֻּלָּֽנוּ
"We are all the work of your hands (64:7)."
In particular, I am sending love to everyone who is not receiving a federal paycheck today. And hoping that the Pharaohs of our times will soften their hearts without further suffering.
Shabbat Shalom to all,
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.