Our parsha ironically begins,
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל
And Moses gathered the entire community of Israelites...
So ancient is this desire to gather ourselves in community. And not only us humans, as it turns out this is a rather mammalian instinct. I happened to be reading two books this week, both of which enumerate the various ways that animals refer to themselves in the collective. The first is a book about endangered species that I was reading with my kiddos. The second, entirely unexpectedly, "is a chapter book," in the words of my 5-year-old! A memoir, nonetheless, called The Bright Hour, on loan to me from a KT member (p. 99). And in a rare moment of spiritual synthesis, The Torah, a picture book and a chapter book!, all articulate the discourse of collectivity.
An embarrassment of pandas.
A celebration of polar bears.
An exaltation of skylarks.
A pride of lions.
A congress of orangutans.
And perhaps my favorite, a memory of elephants.
For a much longer list, check this out.
This has been an utterly disorienting week. More than once I have allowed the word na'afochu (reversal) from the megillah to rise before me like a shiviti, a kabbalistic meditation - the world can be flipped on its head at any moment. We practice for it every Purim, but it is a wholly other thing to live it beyond our control. To realize that the randomness of a virus will lead us towards every effort to contain it, and thus reveal the underlying impermanence of our way of life. My most steady moments have been observing the turtles at the Penn BioPond and studying Torah with all of you. I would describe the longing I feel to be in community with all of you and the importance of the physical distance as inseparable tensions in our collective survival instinct.
And I feel it in this week's parsha as well. As soon as Moses descends from Sinai with the second set of tablets, as he and the people are emerging from the uncertainty of that experience, the first, most important thing he does is to invite them literally to congregate. The word vayakhel is directly connected to the word kahal, which is how the rabbis describe Jewish communities, using the acronym ק׳ק which stands for קהלה קדשה/Kehillah Kodesha, a holy congregation.
Moses then instructs the Israelites to bring offerings to the mishkan. The generosity of the community overwhelms him. The people have more than enough. As we live in to this moment, I have been blown away by the collective generosity of this moment. It seems from every sector and community, the sentiment has been, "Take when I have to offer, take it freely." Together we will have more than enough. It is through this spirit of nedivut lev, this flow of hesed, that holiness enters the narrowest of times.
We, beloveds, are an exaltation of interdependence, reaching out to support each other.
A pride of Jews, reestablishing routines that center spiritual practice to sustain us in these uncertain times.
We are an intrusion of neighbors, unwilling to let our fellows go unnoticed and uncared for.
We are a flutter of kindness, reconceiving what is essential in every moment. Asking the most important question, "Does this constitute an act of care towards myself or another?"
In the words of author Mylene Dressler,
"Friends: all day I have been feeling your physical bodies as though they were my own. It's uncanny. I feel you. I feel us. Italy. South Korea. Egypt. Ohio. Like we are all one body. Like I am not the center, like I am a filament among filaments, like we are all twitch fibers in a single, tensed muscle. Call it instinct. Call it love or fear or solidarity or just plain truth. Call it something ancient. The genes, the old knowing. The tribe is in trouble. Fire on the plains. Gather the children. Watch the wind. Listen. The tribe is in trouble. Love the tribe. Feel. There is no other you."
There is no other you.
Whether you join us online for shabbat or take the opportunity to unplug, we are a kahal. We are all twitch fibers in a single, tensed muscle working to stay strong and responsive. Let this shabbat be an opportunity to unfurl, to release and let go. And may we all merit the blessing that comes with finishing the book of Exodus this week: Hazak Hazak v'Nithazek, May we be strengthened.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
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.