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
One of my favorite things I learned when I was farming is that one plants garlic in the late Fall and then it somehow knows when it's time to grow in the spring. It reminded me that the winter is a time of gestational growth. There is a deep aliveness within the frozen earth. I have been reflecting on this as we come to the end of the Hebrew month of Tevet.
This week is what is referred to as Shabbat Mevarchim/The Blessed Shabbat, by which we mean the shabbat when we bless the coming month. In the Jewish calendar, the increments of time keep track of one another such that the six days of the week are for the sake of shabbat. And shabbat tracks the new moon and in that way the months. And the months are what track our sacred times and ultimately our years. In many ways, how we do time is a model for how we are instructed to live in community. That we keep track of each other, pay attention to the cycles of our lives, and mark transitions in our lives with blessings.
There are two reasons I feel called to teach about Shabbat Mevachim in the month of Tevet. The first is because the blessing one says explicitly references the Exodus story. And it has increased resonance to say it as we read the story itself this week in parashat Va'era.
And the second is because the Tanakh only mentions the month of Tevet once. It is in the month of Tevet that Esther approaches King Ahasuerus and he makes her his queen (2:16). There is no explicit divine intervention in the book of Esther. Yet the Talmud comments that there is a hidden reason for the date of Esther's arrival in the palace. Why did she enter the king's house in Tevet? Tevet is a season when one body benefits from the warmth of another (B.T. Megillah 13a). Sexual innuendos aside, this is a cozy time of year.
The story of Esther is the garlic seed in our holiday cycle. Even as the days begin to lengthen, it would be too much to look ahead to spring and the Passover story. But the cathartic release of Purim, the humor and the creativity, that is all gestating within us all winter long, waiting to sprout. And this is not just true in the Talmudic imagination, but in our community, too. Stay tuned for an invitation to help plan this year's Purim party and be part of the shpil magic!
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom U'Mevorakh,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week the book of Exodus begins,
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
"And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob..."
While it is often omitted from translations, the very first word of Sefer Shemot/The Book of Exodus is, "And..." Well, in truth it is not even a word. It is a single letter, a conjunctive vav, pulling a gentle thread forward from the book of Genesis. "And these are the names..."
It somehow feels appropriately asynchronous to be beginning the book of Exodus in this last Shabbat of 2018. All beginnings are hard. Ripe with expectation, loss, change, and anticipation. And all beginnings are also endings. Which is why I am particularly grateful this year for the reminder that there is also continuity. "And these are the names..." The very same names that end the book of Genesis appear again, recounted in the beginning of Exodus. Signaling this is one long story. Welcome to the world of redemption and revelation that will in turn take us back to creation. The Torah in truth has no beginning or end; hardly even a distinction between books, one long scroll with a few line breaks.
The rabbis continually read hints of the Exodus story into the book of Genesis, both of the Israelite enslavement and the promise of freedom (see Genesis 15:13). Perhaps this grammatically mysterious "And" is an invitation to ask ourselves, "What do I want to carry forward from my own creation story? What from the past year might hint at greater freedom in the year to come? What do I want to bring with me into 2019?"
For all those that celebrated, I hope you had a Merry Christmas and a Happy Kwanzaa. And I wish everyone a Happy (Gregorian) New Year!
Rabbi Ari Lev
In preparation for this solstice shabbat, I have been ruminating over a story in the Talmud that tells the tale of the first human being, Adam HaRishon, who was said to have been created on Rosh Hashanah. One of the first things Adam HaRishon notices is that the days are gradually getting shorter. Because Adam had not yet witnessed the cycle of the year, he fears that the darkness will continue to overwhelm the light and the world would return to primordial chaos (B.T. Avodah Zarah 8a). Certainly many generations and many of us have wondered that same thing.
In response to the increasing darkness Adam HaRishon fasts for eight days. But before the days are complete, after the onset of the month of Tevet [which corresponds roughly to December], he noticed that the days are getting longer. The winter solstice had come. He is overjoyed and relieved, declaring, "This is the way of the world," and he celebrates for eight days. For this reason some tell this tale in relationship to Hanukkah, another story of miracles and light. But for me, this story is fundamentally about the solstice and the way our personal rhythms are linked to the natural word.
While I am no stranger to the impact of decreased light on the psyche, I also am grateful for the cozy quiet, early bedtimes, and contemplative space that winter carves out within and between us.
In the words of Joyce Rupp,
"This year I do not want
the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap
of silent stillness,
of long lasting embrace.
Too much light
has pulled me away
from the chamber
Let the dawns
let the sunsets
let the evenings
while I lean into
the abyss of my being.
Let me lie in the cave
of my soul,
for too much light
steals the source
Increasingly, we are not only impacted by the light of the sun, but by the light of our computers. I was recently reading about how the average person sleeps two hours less per night than 20 years ago. And how the light of our screens distorts our internal clock by at least 45 minutes. Perhaps now more than ever we need the darkness to remind us that there are rhythms in this world and in our bodies that are fundamentally at odds with the material world and capitalism.
This solstice Shabbat, may we feel the hopefulness of Adam HaRishon, knowing the days are officially getting longer. And the shelter of winter's cloak, as we seek the clarity that emerges from the quiet stillness.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Solstice,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week's parsha is the penultimate in the book of Genesis, and brings both revelation and resolution to the story of Joseph. It begins,
"...וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה"
And Judah drew near to him... (Gen. 44:18).
This intimate gesture is a transformative moment for Joseph, as Judah breaks through the line of his brothers and the years of distance and silence, and speaks with passion into Joseph's ear. What has been noted by my commentaries is that Judah doesn't actually say anything particularly new. And yet, his detailed account of history and his father's grief leads Joseph to reveal himself to his brother. "And Joseph could no longer restrain himself" (45:1). What was it about Judah's testimony that caused Joseph to break?
One midrash powerfully imagines the moment this way:
It is written, "'Deep waters are counsel in a person's heart' (Prov. 20:5). This can be compared to a deep well full of cold water -- its water was cold and fresh, but no one could drink it. Then someone came and tied rope to rope, cord to cord, string to string, and drew water and drank. Then, everyone began to draw the water and drink. In the same way, Judah did not stir till he had responded to Joseph, word by word, and had reached his heart" (Bereshit Rabbah 93:3).
This week in particular, the deep waters of community have touched my heart. Last night, a group of glittery queers and rabbis gathered in Emet's hospice for a living funeral to celebrate his life and to impart the much-deserved title of Rav Hayyim - A rabbi by merit of his life. We surrounded him with songs and rainbows, and sheltered him beneath the canopy of our tallitot we called him by his name, Rabbi Emet Tauber. And in that moment, he burst into tears, like Joseph, revealed as his true self. It was glorious.
So many people in the room shares stories of how Emet was the person who brought them back to Judaism. Emet has taught so many people in queer, radical, and disability justice communities to tie cord to cord, word to word, so that we can each drink from the well of Torah. When I spoke to Emet this morning, he was still glowing and reflecting on how loved he feels and how amazing it is to be surrounded by so much community.
Earlier this week, a KT member shared with me, "Every time you say God, I substitute the word community." This theological reflection and Emet's life affirm that we have the power to be the deep waters for each other, in our comings and in our goings. To draw ourselves close, to share our often painful stories, and to experience the Divinity that is community.
I look forward to being in community with you all this weekend as we celebrate the fullness of life, from birth through the wisdom years.
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. Many of you have asked for a learner's minyan of sorts. I am teaching a class on Tuesday nights this winter called the Theology and Mechanics of Prayer. Sign up here!
Every year during Hanukkah we read the story of Joseph in our weekly parsha cycle. Even beyond its catchy Broadway tunes, it is among the great dramatic myths in our tradition. It is a story of sibling rivalry, colorful clothing, self-expression, favoritism, deceit, bloodshed, betrayal, survival, redemption, and ultimately miracles. Which is for me, where the powerful link to Hanukkah comes in.
Today I want to fast-forward to the end of the story. After burying his father Jacob, Joseph returns to Egypt with his brothers. As they travel together, the brothers fear that now that their father is dead, Joseph will seek revenge (Genesis 50:14-15).
A midrash elaborates (Tanhuman, Vayechi 17), imagining that as they traveled back to Egypt, Joseph and his brothers passed the pit into which the brothers had thrown Joseph. Joseph approaches the pit and his brothers fear he will be reminded of what they did to him there. Instead, Joseph blesses the pit, in the tradition of saying a blessing in a place where a miracle has occurred:
ברוך המקום שעשה לי נס במקום הזה
Blessed is HaMakom/The Holy One who made a miracle for me in this makom/place. Or perhaps, Blessed is the The Space where a miracle happened to me in this place.
The Hebrew is poetic and hard to translate. But a few things are clear. We don't know exactly what Joseph is blessing here -- his survival, his ability to forgive his brothers, or the entire journey he underwent as a result of this initial trauma? Joseph uses the word Makom, both for God and for the location of the pit, the place where it happened. God as the physical site where our lives take place. God as the container, even as deep and threatening as the pit, for everything that happens to us, including the nes/miracle of our own transformation. Reading the story of Joseph in conjunction with the story of Hanukkah flips the script from nes being about military victory or Divine intervention, but rather our own capacity for forgiveness, transformation and healing.
This is what I think it means when we sing in the second blessing when lighting the candles:
שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמָן הַזֶּה...
...she'asah nissim la'avoteynu bayamim ha'hem bazman ha'zeh.
Blessed are you...who performed miracles for our ancestors in their day at this time.
Tonight is the sixth night of Hanukkah. Which means it is also Rosh Hodesh, marking the new moon of Tevet. On this auspicious night, as you sing your Hanukkah blessings, may we call on the spirit who performed miracles for our ancestors in their day, and may we call on that same healing force to be with us in our time.
Shabbat Shalom! Hodesh Tov! Happy Hanukkah!
Rabbi Ari Lev
More than once this week, a member of our community remarked to me, "Kol Tzedek folks do so many mitzvahs." This week alone I am aware that members have been making food for each other, visiting each other in the hospital, picking up latkes for the Hanukkah party, cataloguing the library, giving each other rides to an event, hosting each other for meals, and the list goes on.
But what really is a mitzvah?
Growing up I was taught it was a good deed and sometimes a commandment. Which have really different connotations that Jewish theology manages to make one. Twice we invoke the root of mitzvah in our standard blessing formula, which begins:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם. אֲשֶר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וִצִוָּנוּ
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu
Blessed are You, Source of Life, Sovereign of the universe, Who makes us holy through mitzvot and v'tzivanu...
Perhaps the best way I know how to translate "v'tzivanu" is by imagining The Holy One as a loving teacher. This is a pedagogical word, which I translate as instructed us...
Which is to say that a mitzvah is a (Divine) instruction. And in that way it is both a good deed - something good to do - and a commandment - something we might want to consider ourselves obligated to fulfill.
Some of you may be familiar with the idea that there are 613 mitzvot. And you may be wondering, "Where is that master list? Is there a Google doc with the Jewish mitzvah checklist?" Not really. According to the Talmud, the negative commandments (don't do this!) number 365, which coincides with the number of days in the solar year, and the positive commandments (do this!) number 248, a number ascribed to the number of bones and organs in the human body (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b–24a). But needless to say, it is an aspirational concept more than a rule book.
My rabbi and teacher Benay Lappe puts it this way. We are not meant to fulfill 613 mitzvot a day, by ourselves. Don't think of this as a forever unfilled list of deeds undone, resting in a guilty pile with the house projects I never get to. Rather, she insists that there are 613 mitzvot that we are instructed to fulfill, collectively.
There are so many different ways to access holiness and embody Jewish practice. Some of us are going to pray three times a day and some of us are going to visit someone in the hospital, and some of us are going to study Talmud and some of us are going to greet folks at services. Some of us are going to bake challah and others are going to light Shabbat candles. And together, all of us, are going to fulfill the mitzvot of our Creator.
And together we already do.
Thank you to everyone who makes this community holy through their mitzvot. I am in awe of your generosity, kindness, and caring. Bearing witness to your mitzvahs is the most profound aspect of serving as your rabbi.
Shabbat Shalom and almost Happy Hanukkah (which starts on Sunday Night)!
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.