I am a lover of names. Names are portals into connection, to people and places, across time and space. Names tell stories about who we are, who we've been, and who we might become. One of my favorite parts of being a rabbi at Kol Tzedek is helping people choose the right name, for themselves and their babies. As someone who has changed my name more than once, I can relate to the power of our names to call our truest selves into existence. For a long time I have understood the names I no longer go by as "dead names." But that has felt like a microaggression against my younger selves. I recently learned that we can instead say they are our "caterpillar names" - the names that invoke our molted lives.
In Jewish tradition, taking on a new name is an act of teshuva (B.T. Rosh Hashanah 16b). It has the power to call us home. It is at once an evolution and an act of return in the spiral of time. In this week's parsha, Lech Lecha, our mythic ancestors experience the power of being renamed as Abram sheds his caterpillar name and becomes Abraham and Sarai, Sarah.
God says to Abraham:
אֲנִי הִנֵּה בְרִיתִי אִתָּךְ וְהָיִיתָ לְאַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם: וְלֹא־יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת־שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָם וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם כִּי אַב־הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ:
Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
In fact, says Torah, names have the power to call us into sacred relationship, into covenant itself. [It is worth noting that according to the rabbis, we are to refer to Sarah and Abraham by their new names even when referring to events that precede these names (B.T. Brachot 13a).]
And it is not just us humans that are known by many names. Early on in God's relationship with Abraham, God introduces Godself saying, "I am El Shaddai," and later, when Moses asks God how he should refer to God when convincing the people of his holy mission, God says, "ehyeh asher ehyeh, I will be what I will be." Rabbi Avi Strausberg writes, "When asked for God's name, it's as if God refuses to be defined by any one name. Instead, God insists on the ability to continue to reinvent Godself, to be a God called by many names with many identities that cannot be defined by just one. I will be what I will be. I will keep defining and redefining myself. I cannot be limited by one name."
As we each hear the call of Lech Lecha and go forth in our own lives, extending beyond our comfort zones, in search of our purpose and our path, may we each have the courage to be who we will be. To allow ourselves to contain multitudes. And to honor the names others ask to be called by. In this way, may we merit to see others as they really are and be seen for who we really are.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week I was doing my least favorite chore - washing used plastic bags and hanging them to dry. I called a friend in California to keep me company. She was hiding out in her kitchen, venting about her inability to go outside because the air is not fit for breathing. We shared an uncomfortable laugh about living through the end times. The earth is burning, the earth is flooding, people are suffering - and here I am washing plastic bags.
Later in the week, I went for a walk in the woods with one of my mentors who was recounting an article in the New York Times, which suggests that by 2050 the land that 150 million people live on will be underwater during high tide. We similarly shared an uncomfortable sigh about living through Noah's flood. I asked her (kidding, not kidding): Might we really not have great-grandchildren?
What we know is that estimates continue to worsen. Even if we were to cut carbon emissions in half, we might be in irreversible trouble. And instead emissions are just increasing. It is at once hard to believe and also hard not to believe, as I am talking to a dear friend who for the second time this year doesn't have safe air to breathe.
In a D'var Torah she published this week, my hevruta, Rabbi Avi Killip, points us to wisdom from this week's parsha. "In Genesis chapter 7, verse 7, we are told that Noah and his family enter the ark 'מפני מי המבול - because of the flood waters.' Rashi lingers on the word 'because.' Noah shouldn't be boarding the ark because of the falling rain pooling at his ankles, maybe even his knees. He should have entered the ark 'because God said so.' If Noah had really believed, if he were a man of greater faith, Rashi implies, he would already be inside the ark when the rain begins."
And so Rashi tells us:
מפני מי המבול אַף נֹחַ מִקְּטַנֵּי אֲמָנָה הָיָה, מַאֲמִין וְאֵינוֹ מַאֲמִין שֶׁיָבֹא הַמַבּוּל, וְלֹא נִכְנַס לַתֵּיבָה עַד שְׁדְּחָקוּהוּ הַמָּיִם
Because of the flood waters Noah, also, was of little faith: he believed and did not believe that the Flood would come, and he would not enter the Ark until the waters forced him to.
Increasingly I feel a lot like Noah. I believe it and I don't believe it. I can't believe it. It is unbelievable. And yet how could I not believe it. Could it be that Noah is a man of little faith because he is hopeful? Perhaps Rashi is wrong. Perhaps Noah had so much faith in God that he too couldn't believe it was the end times. And we, too, have so much faith in our planet, in its resilience, that we can't believe it either.
Rabbi Killip concludes, "We must each find the balance between hope and fear, between belief and disbelief, that will allow us the strength and courage to move forward." May we be granted the courage and wisdom to know when to believe and and when not to believe, so that we, and our children's children, may live. May it be so!
Rabbi Ari Lev
The first and second Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah remind us that the month of Tishrei is the new year as it relates to land and food. The next Mishnah teaches that on the holiday of Sukkot the world water balance is determined.
וּבֶחָג נִדּוֹנִין עַל הַמָּיִם
"And on Sukkot, we are judged by water" (1:2).
Sukkot is at once a celebration of the Fall harvest and the time in which we pray for the winter rains, so that the wheat and barley we are planting will grow throughout the winter and be ready for their spring harvests. Sukkot is fundamentally a communal rain dance. We can hear in the echoes of the lulav the sounds of rain. And rain is no small thing. In a world of rising waters, melting ice caps, and toxic drinking waters, we know that our lives rest in the balance of water. We learn elsewhere in the Talmud, that a day of rain is greater than the giving of Torah (B.T. Taanit 7a). As we have learned over and over again from indigenous communities, water is life.
In the Jewish mystical imagination, water is associated with the quality of hesed. It is that which flows between us, that which nourishes and sustains us. This Sukkot, I invite us to imagine that we will be judged not by how productive we are, or even how much we have changed from one year to the next, but by our capacity for kindness. In this threadbare, broken world, I keep coming back to the words of Naomi Shihab Nye, "Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore." This is emerging as my motto for 5780. May it be what nourishes and sustains us as we begin this next journey around the sun.
Shabbat shalom and Moadim L'Simcha,
Rabbi Ari Lev
On this Fall Friday, I find myself at once empty and full, the echo of those words still resonating from our High Holiday services. I am so full of gratitude to be the rabbi of this community, a community that cares so deeply about our spiritual lives, about holiness, about pursuing wholeness. For most of the Neilah service, I just closed my eyes and listened to all of us singing together, to the fullness of our final shema. It was such a nourishing experience. Thank you for making it so.
And I also feel emptied out. There are no longer any words, there are no longer any promises. Lucky for us, our amazing Music Director, Rabbi Mónica Gomery, has much to say about the power of poetry in this week's parsha, Ha'azinu, and published a dvar Torah about it this week on Hebrew College's blog.
"In this week's parsha, Moshe's book-length speech switches genres--from prose oration to a shira, an epic poem--and Moshe takes up the project of poetic un-truth. In the first verse, he begins to twist our sense of what is real, proclaiming 'הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי-פִי' 'Listen, heavens, and I will speak. And let the earth hear the words of my mouth.' Even if we could say that the heavens contain the ears of God, Moshe here describes the land and soil itself as bearing witness by listening - consciously, actively. Newly a poet, and one verse in, Moshe teaches us, the Israelites gathered before him, to listen for something other than logic, to stop making sense.
God is a rock, Moshe tells us, God is a warrior. My words are dew, my words are rain. You are a blemish, you are God's child. God is an eagle, God is a mother. God wounds, God heals. God's wrath is fire, arrows, pestilence. God fed you honey from stone, God fed you the cream of a cow. The litany goes on...
...The journey through the un-truth of poetry can take us to the truth of it all, to the bright face of the shamayim that Moshe calls upon in the opening verse of Ha'azinu, to the color of the sky. As we stand, or perhaps scramble and tremble, as we march, as we build resilient communities, as we live into this foreboding new reality, let's remember to take along with us the illogical, the emotional, the intuitive and figurative--the truth that lives beyond truth, the poetry of our tradition and the poetry of our lives. Just as the Israelites stood hearing Moshe's final poem, shimmering with possibility, and transformation, becoming something new."
As you prepare for Shabbat, I invite you to read her beautiful dvar Torah in its entirety here.
In the wake of the utterly terrifying shooting in Germany on Yom Kippur, we will continue to pray for peace and safety for all of Yisrael, for all of Yishmael, and for all who dwell on earth.
Shabbat Shalom, May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I continue to feel the effervescent joy and vibrations of Rosh Hashanah. So full of gratitude for everyone who made that possible, which is everyone!
Yesterday I sent a draft of my Kol Nidre sermon to a friend to edit. When I opened it a few hours later I received a notification I never noticed before. There was a little blue box that read "Wow! This document has changed a lot. Do you want to reload?" I laughed and thought to myself, why yes I do! Here we are in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I keep wanting to look inside my soul and say, "Wow! This person has changed a lot." Alas, it is easier to reload a google doc than transform our well-worn habits.
For this reason, I draw most of my inspiration for transformation from the natural world. This past July I spent a few weeks swimming in the rivers of New England. At each new swimming hole, one of the things I learned to look for was signs of a healthy water supply. I learned that tracking the presence of macro-invertebrates (dragonflies, crayfish, stoneflies, etc.) is used in New Zealand to measure the water quality of fresh water.
One morning we arrived to the bend of a beautiful river. As we were hopping from rock to rock, we noticed the rocks were covered in what looked like dried skeletons of prehistoric lizards. I later came to learn they were in fact the exuvius skeletons of nymph stoneflies. In biology, exuviae are the remains of an exoskeleton and related structures that are left after ecdysozoans (including insects, crustaceans, and arachnids) have molted. This is true of all animals that grow by ecdysis, molting their exoskeleton. In fact, stoneflies can molt as many as 20-30 times in their lifetimes.
On that summer day, as I ventured upstream with my kids, we hopped from rock to rock. We came across a nymph stonefly that was actually mid-molt. We sat and watched as the shell cracked down the center spine, its body was in the process of breaking through, preparing to let go and emerge anew. It seemed simultaneously possible and impossible. Kind of like this moment. We too are called to molt and transform, hopefully hundreds of times in our lifetimes. And this moment in the calendar, we are trying to break through.
May we each have the courage to carve out some time before Yom Kippur for reflection, forgiveness, and letting go.
Gmar Hatimah Tova and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. Here is a copy of my sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It was an honor to share these words of Torah with our extended community. We are also working to get lay leaders vorts and Divrei Torah on our website as well.
In the last few months, my older kid has become thoroughly obsessed with baseball. I was once upon a time a jock, so I am no stranger to sports. But baseball never quite did it for me. A bit too much waiting around and patriotic fervor. Nonetheless, I have been to many a baseball game this summer. Major leagues, minor leagues, collegiate leagues, even a few dyke softball games. For the most part it has been a journey of sympathetic joy, delighting in my kid's delight. So you can imagine my surprise when this year as I was re-reading my beloved High Holidays book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, and I found many a baseball reference. Turns out he was quite a fan!
Rabbi Alan Lew z"l, writes:
"The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams. Certainly it is the most ancient dream of the Jewish people...And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases" (23).
Teshuva is the Jewish home run, Jewish tradition's most prized possession. There's this amazing moment in the Talmud when the rabbis try to make this point crystal clear:
So great is teshuva, says Rebbe Hama bar Hanina, that it brings healing to the whole world.
I can top that, Rebbe Yonatan says. Teshuva is so great that it brings redemption closer.
Rebbe Shmuel Bar Nachmani weighs in: You wanna know how amazing teshuva is? Teshuva elongates the years of a person's life!
Rebbe Meir concludes: Listen. I'll tell you what teshuva's capable of. When one individual makes teshuva, the whole world is forgiven (Yoma 86ab).
And in my experience, it is true, that teshuva makes the world possible and more whole. And it's also true that it's really hard to do. My friend and teacher, Rabbi Jordan Braunig, recently directed my attention to a tale that can be found in S.Y. Agnon's Days of Awe. The story, which I will retell, is of a poor country woman who finds an egg. As it happens, she has many hungry children at home and little food to feed them. Yet, when she gathers her little ones to announce the good news about the egg she tells them that, being a woman of purpose, she will not foolishly cook the egg but will take it to a neighbor's setting hen and wait for it to hatch. Then, instead of simply allowing the chicken to grow for slaughter, she will set it on eggs and they will all hatch and there will be many chicks. And, instead of feasting on chicken and eggs, she tells her children that she will sell them in the market in order to purchase a cow. As you might have guessed, she doesn’t plan to settle for steak dinner at this point but will wait for the cow to produce calves and then will sell calves and buy a field. In the end, they’ll have fields and chickens and cows and won’t want for anything. As the woman speaks to her children, engrossed in fantasy and playing with the egg, it falls from her hands and cracks on the floor.
Agnon's telling ends with this moral: Said our master: "That is how we are. When the Holy Days arrive, every person resolves to do teshuvah, thinking in their heart, 'I'll do this, and I'll do that.' But the days slip by in mere deliberation, and thought doesn't lead to action, and what is worse, a person who made the resolution may fall even lower."
It is easy to get ahead of ourselves, to imagine the finished product, but to forget the immediate task at hand. What are a few "first steps" that you want to make in the coming days? Let's be patient with ourselves, and at the same time be aware of how precious time is.
As we enter the quiet of Shabbat before the joy of the new moon of Tishrei is upon us, I would like to begin by asking each of you for your forgiveness, for any ways I may have missed the mark this past year. Please know I am available to make a repair.
Wherever and however you are marking this Rosh Hashanah, may it be sweet as honey and may you be written in for a year of goodness.
May this be the year...L'Shana Tova!
Rabbi Ari Lev
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
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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.