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
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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.