I got an amazing text message last week. It read, "Do you have time to talk about big questions that have no answers?" That night I was anonymously recounting this to my family as the highlight of my day, and my six-year-old said, "Like, Why are we here?"
I was verklempt. Yes, precisely a question like that. The moment we enter this world we learn to wonder about the mystery and sit with the limits of what we can know. It is in our bones.
As it turns out my six-year-old had been listening to a podcast earlier that day in which they explored the question "Why are we here?" Which is, in and of itself, amazing.
Fast forward to this week, I was able to meet with this person via Zoom. As you can imagine we asked questions about life and death. I offered my best guesses at the ineffable, which provided very little solid ground and didn't attempt certainty. But what mattered much more to both of us was the space to voice the questions, to name the mystery, and to sit with the overwhelming feelings underneath the questions. And that space actually offered itself up as a kind of solid ground for both of us.
The conversation reminded me of a memoir I read a few months ago written by a young mom who dies of cancer, called The Bright Hour. On her deathbed, Nina Riggs writes:
"I am reminded of an image...that living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But that living without disease is also like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a bit more -- sometimes the wind blowing it off a little, sometimes a nice dense cover."
The last six months have certainly revealed the abyss, that is, was, always there. We have been personally and collectively called to dig deep to find the source of our resilience in the face of wildly scary circumstances.
As I prepare for summer vacation, what I am taking with me is the awe and gratitude for our capacity to ask big questions that have no answers. And to keep seeking the answers, not so much for the certainty, but for the solid ground of companionship.
Thank you for your trust and your questions, and for being in this with me when the cloud cover is thin and the depths of fear, injustice, and impermanence are revealed. Perhaps this is why we are here. To walk this tightrope together.
I wish for each of you spacious moments this summer, when you can feel into the expanse that is also always present as we traverse the depths.
Rabbi Ari Lev
In recent days, as the light is growing longer, my 6-year-old has become fascinated with shadows, specifically the shadows our bodies cast. In particularly proud moments he remarks, "Look my shadow is as big as yours." I am quick to remind her that it is almost inevitable that he will in fact be taller than me in just a few years. This youthful fascination with his shadow seems to accompany her quickly evolving self-perception. How do we understand ourselves relative to others? How do other's perceptions of us affect our self-perception?
We read in this week's parsha, Shlach, the consequential story of the Spies which lies at the very heart of Sefer Bamidbar. This is a story about fear. And its lethal consequences.
What I am drawn to this week -- as we celebrate Juneteenth Shabbat and the liberation of Black people from slavery, as we celebrate the riots at Stonewall that led to the possibility of pride -- the feeling even more than the march -- is a moment of reckoning in this ancient story that speaks directly to the moment of reckoning we are living through.
As the story goes, Moses sends out spies to scout the land of Canaan. When the spies return, Caleb makes the case that they can indeed inhabit the land. But the others refuse, saying:
לֹ֥א נוּכַ֖ל לַעֲל֣וֹת אֶל־הָעָ֑ם כִּֽי־חָזָ֥ק ה֖וּא מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
"We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we...
וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֙ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶֽם׃...
-- and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Num. 13:31,33).
Mind you, these are slaves who have just been emancipated, who crossed a sea and are in search of a safe place to settle. About this moment, Avivah Zornerberg writes, "...seeing and seeing oneself precipitate the narrative into a dynamic of madness, of images, fantasies, and projections."
In Midrash Tanchuma, God frames a critique of the Spies' inner world:
"They said, 'We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes.' God said, 'This I can overlook. But, "And so we looked in their eyes" -- here I am angry! Did you know how I made you look in their eyes? Who told you that you didn't look like angels in their eyes?'"
Zornberg explains, "Apparently, it is legitimate to imagine oneself as a grasshopper in the presence of a giant. This is how human beings begin life, small and powerless in the presence of immense powers...To see a world of giants is to remind oneself of a primal sense of things. But to project one's own fantasy onto the giant is to limit the possibilities of fantasy and of otherness...Here in the Tanchuma passage, God is angered at their fatal constriction of imaginative possibility" (122).
At times, we too may see ourselves as small in the shadow of the other. But, says God, "You know nothing of how they see you." In this moment pregnant with possibility, we can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. Let this not be a story written by fear. Let us not confuse the limits of self-perception with the limits of possibility.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Be a lamplighter!
Our parsha begins with the instruction for Aaron to not just kindle, but actually "raise up" (be'ha'alotcha) the menorah, invoking the image of flames shooting up. Rashi offers insight into this unexpected choice of words. He teaches us that Aaron must "keep lighting until the flame ascends on its own" (Num. 8:2).
We too are living through a moment of rising up. And perhaps one of the most important questions we can be asking ourselves is, "What is my role?" For Aaron it was clear. He was called to light the menorah itself. And for some of us, our roles feel clear. But I have spoken with many of you this week who have described a sense of disorientation as we try to tap into the visionary potential of this unstable moment. You are not alone.
Deepa Iyer wrote back in March, "Lately, I've been stuck in a fog, cycling through periods of motivation and stillness, outrage and exhaustion, determination and grief. Even though I'm connected to various networks, mentors, and organizations, I couldn't figure out where I fit in, what my lane was, or how to begin."
Some of us have spent the last several weeks or months in the hospitals and in the streets as frontline responders. But that is not wise or possible for all of us. What else is needed? The antidote to Iyer's disorientation was her ability to see herself as part of a larger ecosystem. Her own self-reflection gave way to the creation of this insightful tool to map our roles in a social change ecosystem. There are so many roles to play in movements for justice and healing. Iyer writes, "This exercise can especially be helpful to re-align ourselves when we feel lost, confused, and uncertain in order to bring our fullest selves to the causes and movements that matter to us."
We as a community are healers and weavers, caregivers, storytellers, disrupters, guides, and visionaries. We are phone bankers and bakers, street medics and artists, media mavens and jail support providers. All of our voices and skills are needed. The question before each of us is "How can I be part of this movement for transformative change? What is my role?" In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, "You are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are you free to desist from it." (Pirkei Avot, 2:16)
The Sefat Emet, a Hasidic master, tells us that to be a lamplighter means the more we grow our own souls, the more Holiness is revealed in every place. As one mentor wrote to me earlier this week, "This Black-led uprising is pointing the way for all of us who love justice." Personal and collective transformation are inseparable in this moment, and always. I invite you to take some time this Shabbat to journey inward and consider in what ways have you been, and can you be, a lamplighter in this moment?
May we all know that we are contributing to and connected by something much greater than ourselves. May we have the courage and stamina to rise up for justice, until the flames of justice can ascend on their own. May this be a lasting fire, an eternal movement for racial justice.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Mikolot mayyim rabim, the waters above and below are raging. For those of us in Philly, this week has been a tornado, spiritually, politically, and even physically. This is the week we received an emergency alert to retreat to our basements, while already sheltering-in-place, under citywide curfew, during quarantine. The week that people took to the streets by the thousands, and the city finally removed the Rizzo statue from City Hall Plaza, and multiple school districts around the country ended their contracts with police departments.
When I think back to Rosh Hashanah this past year, and the sermon I gave about the West Philly Sinkhole, I wonder, was that sinkhole a kind of prophet, preparing us for the kind of ground-shifting transformation that we are living through now?!
Deep continues to call unto deep.
Yesterday, I gathered with hundreds of people of faith at City Hall to kneel for nine minutes, the length of time it took Derek Chauvin to murder George Floyd, z"l. Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel AME Church invited all of us present to unlock our holy imaginations. He said: "Everyone has been asking, 'Who moved the Rizzo statue?' The people did! And if you can move a statue, you can move a mayor. If you can move a statue, you can move city policy." We are witnessing the rise of the Movement for Black Lives, made possible by decades of Black-led organizing and more than 400 years of fighting to end slavery and racism. What else is possible that we have been dreaming of for centuries?
What I have felt most in my bones this week, in addition to fear and grief, is the knowing that there is no normal worth returning to. We are living through destabilizing times, thank G!D. In the words of Pema Chodron, "Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found in us...It [is] all about letting go of everything." This time is all about letting go of everything. Another world is on her way. I can hear her breathing in the holy protests of Black people everywhere. We are witnessing a literal transformation of George Floyd's final words, "I can’t breathe." I invite you to wonder with me, what do we each need to let go of to join with the potential of this moment?
This week, as we enter Shabbat, I plan to pause from social media and reground myself. This is the work of lifetimes. I will be carrying the oldest blessing in our tradition, which comes from this week's Torah portion, Naso. And I offer you all this interpretation, based on my study of Midrash Tanhuma Naso, Siman 10. I offer it to you as a touchstone.
יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
May the Holy One bless and protect you, in the streets and in your home.
May there be a forcefield calling us to protect and care for each other.
יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
May the light of the Holy One shine upon you, giving you long years, and may you hear the prophetic calls of our times.
May there be an amulet around every Black person's body, in this time and always.
יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
May you find a way to stay connected to that which is whole in you.
May we have the courage to let go, and open to that which is indestructible in us.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Much ink is spilled over the nature of revelation at Sinai. Was it a thunderstorm or a whisper? What is just the tablets or the oral Torah too? But I think everyone would agree that at the very least there were ten utterances. Ten fundamental principles that we are obligated to live by. And while it is not first on the list that Moses brought down, there is one that is unequivocally primary in my theology.
Thou shalt not kill.
I imagine that your hearts are as heavy and broken as mine is with the recent events of police and citizen brutality against Black bodies in this country. None of this is new and all of it is devastating. At a time when everyone is feeling the impact of increased threat from COVID-19 (health-wise, financially, socially, etc.) we know that people of color, and Black people in particular, have always experienced an astronomically higher level of threat than white people. This moment is making this painfully clear yet again.
In the words of ada limón,
"You ever think you could cry so hard
that there’d be nothing left in you, like
how the wind shakes a tree in a storm
until every part of it is run through with
wind? I live in the low parts now, most
days a little hazy with fever and waiting
for the water to stop shivering out of the
body. Funny thing about grief, its hold
is so bright and determined like a flame,
like something almost worth living for."
We're approaching Shavuot, which means we're approaching Yizkor. It's so important to make space for grief, to mark it in time over and over again, to let it run through us like a current of water, changing everything, carving us anew. These days as mourning and mortality hang heavy over the whole world, and even more so in these days of devastation and fury over the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and thousands upon thousands of people who did not need to die. Who should not have died. Who should not have been lost to their families and communities.
Fierce, Black, Jewish prophetess of our times Yavilah McCoy shared this morning, "Tonight is Shavuot, and my belief and tradition will offer me a vortex that can transport me back to Sinai and a moment in time when all souls that ever were or ever would be a part of the Jewish people committed themselves - and their children, and their children, and their children's children - to the Torah. 'Thou shalt not kill!' is booming like thunder in my veins, and, like at Sinai, I am silent, I am listening, I am weeping in recognition, and I am committed."
The very first thing I did this morning was to call Mayor Jacob Frey to urge him to defund the Minneapolis Police Department, (612) 673-2100. And the very last thing I am going to do before I sign off is ask you to join me in taking tangible action. Here are important resources to guide you:
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past Wednesday, Rep. Ayanna Pressley tweeted:
Behind each number is a name, a story, a life, and a community grieving deeply.
This week we begin the book of Numbers. The book begets its name and so begins with a census of the people, an accounting of all those who made it through the great Exodus; a generation that would ultimately die in the wilderness.
I spent some time this week sitting vigil, as volunteers recited the names of nearly 100,000 COVID-19 victims. The 24-hour marathon reading, called Naming The Lost, was organized by clergy and community activists. It was an effort to humanize COVID-19's death toll and give space for those of us surviving to grieve.
About the book of Numbers, the great scholar Avivah Zornberg notes, "The people are in fact counted twice, once at the beginning of the book and once toward the end (ch. 26). These two moments are thirty-eight years apart; and both, ironically, are in preparation for the imminent wars of conquest of the Land of Israel. Between these two moments, a whole generation dies. What separates the two moments of counting is a total shift in population" (Bewilderments, 4).
We too are in a moment of accounting. Doubly so. Naming the lives lost to COVID-19. Registering the living with the federal census. Wondering how much of a generation this pandemic will claim. Knowing neither number is value-neutral. Knowing the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx communities. Knowing these are the same communities disenfranchised from the census, and therefore government funding.
But there is another name for the book, Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of In-the-Wilderness, as Zornberg translates it, noting, "The wilderness is more than context; it provides the tone and tension of a narrative of dying." It can be hard for some of us to remember that behind our daily stresses of sheltering in place is a broader communal narrative of dying. A narrative of dying in a context that does not easily allow us to access the primary tools we have for grieving. Most notably, gathering in community.
I encourage you to find a way to make space to name your losses. Personally and collectively. And in this time, our tradition offers tools and practices for paying attention to grief. On Friday morning of next week, we'll celebrate Shavuot with a Torah service and Hallel, followed by Yizkor. Yizkor is a service of remembrance recited four times a year, on Yom Kippur and Yom Tov. Jewish tradition understands that our resilience depends on our ability to allow for grief.
I was ever inspired by this rendition of Psalm 23 and offer you my own:
As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
we are afraid. and we are grieving.
And yet, we remember, that we are not alone
For You are with us.
The trees and the sky, they comfort me.
Compassion is all that makes sense. For ourselves first. And then for others.
And I shall dwell in the House of the Holy One
Sheltering in place
For as long as is needed.
Like the generation of the wilderness, may we be guided by the warm light of fire and sheltered beneath a protective cloud. May we feed on miracles and receive spiritual sustenance directly from our Source. And may we merit to receive Torah to the fullest extent.
Wishing you a shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Most days my kids ask me, "When will Coronavirus end?" By which they mean, when can we play with our friends and grandparents? When will life go back to normal? And most days I say, "I don't know when, but I know it will." In the way that parenting is full of benevolent lies, I hug my kids and swallow these false words of reassurance. My heartfelt words to my children are false because while shelter-in-place orders might end, the experience of this pandemic is meant to change us. Returning to normal will not serve us.
In the prophetic words of Sonya Renee Taylor:
"We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature."
In the Torah portion this week, the Jewish people receive the gift of shmitah, a time when we pause and recalibrate so that our land may be healthier and our society more equal. For nearly all of human existence, the concept of shmitah has been upheld as an idealistic and metaphorical paradigm, rather than a necessary part of reality. In her newly released essay, "The pandemic is a portal," the author Arundhati Roy writes, "Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could." Perhaps we are living through a kind of global shmitah, if not for the land specifically, certainly for the ozone. And I pray also that it may also come to be for the workers, as we watch more and more unions striking.
It is important to remember two simultaneous impulses for shmitah - it is at once a call for economic justice and for environmental sustainability. So much so that the rabbis warn us that there are four periods of time in each seven-year shmitah cycle when deathly plagues increase. As it turns out, each of these ominous periods is caused by systemic greed and inequity. The fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot reads, "It would happen in the fourth year because tithes were not given to the poor in the third year. It would happen in the sevent year because tithes were not given to the poor in the sixth year..." And so on. Today we find ourselves in the fifth year of the shmitah cycle living through a deathly plague that reveals the gross injustices of the world.
No part of me would choose this pandemic. But I do feel we have a choice in how we live through it and what we learn from it. Arundhati Roy continues, "Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."
Perhaps the daily question is not, "When will coronavirus end?" but rather, "What will it take to pass through this portal?" For the mystics, the concept of Olam Habah, often translated as the world to come, is not primarily about messianic end times. They return our focus to the here and now. It calls us to participate in the redemption of the world, as we together bring about the world that is coming.
As we travel through this portal, may we have compassion for ourselves and each other as we grieve our losses. And may we have the courage to walk through lightly as we fight for the world that awaits us.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Today is many things.
It is 55 days that we have been sheltering in place in Philly. 29 days in the counting of the Omer. The 8th day of May. And the 14th day of the month of Iyyar, which among other things means it is also Pesach Sheni. Quite literally Passover, Take 2. I must be honest: while I have heard of it, until this year I have had zero emotional or spiritual connection to Pesach Sheni, which apparently occurs every year exactly one month after the first night of Pesach (14th of Nissan).
More than a month ago, as the shelter in place orders took effect just days after Purim, conversations on rabbinic listservs about Zoom Seders quickly led to half-serious/half-kidding comments about observing Pesach Sheni this year. I now find myself nostalgic for a time when it seemed beyond reasonable that this quarantine would not last more than a few weeks. And also in awe of all the public health professionals who have been finding a way to gradually release us into the reality that this pandemic is not temporary.
Just as the Rambam reminds us that there is rabbinic precedent for solo sedarim (by teaching us who asks the four questions when only one person is present), Pesach Sheni reminds us that there is biblical precedent for rearranging sacred time to meet real-time realities.
The origins of the holiday come from Bamidbar.
In the words of Rabbi Ariana Katz:
"In Bamidbar 9:10, G!d is swayed by the workers who explain they could not bring a sacrifice on Passover due to caring for the dead. G!d immediately creates Pesach Sheni, the Passover Mulligan.
"Pesach Sheni shows us how the calendar, the world, our communal resources must be turned on their head when the essential workers, the ones who come closest to death, are endangered.
"In this heart-wrenching piece from Sujatha Gidla in the New York Times on May 5, she writes:
"'The conditions created by the pandemic drive home the fact that we essential workers — workers in general — are the ones who keep the social order from sinking into chaos. Yet we are treated with the utmost disrespect, as though we're expendable. Since March 27, at least 98 New York transit workers have died of Covid-19. My co-workers say bitterly: "We are not essential. We are sacrificial."'
"Pesach Sheni calls us to create space for sacrifices to be brought--not made of the people themselves."
In many ways our holiday cycle, our festive times enumerated in this week's parsha, Emor, are the essential workers of Jewish tradition. They are the ones that knit us together through a shared understanding of sacred time, they keep communal practice from sinking into chaos.
Core to my personal theology is a belief in collective liberation. Which means that we must commit to building a world in which we are all treated as essential. This points me to a larger spiritual tension I am holding. To what extent are we called to sustain ourselves and each other in these times? And to what extent must we focus on supporting those beyond our personal orbit, especially those who are most vulnerable and at risk? The unhoused, the uninsured, the incarcerated. This tension is not new. This pandemic has taken a sledgehammer to societal injustice. It has crushed any facade that ever existed. And we are called to lift up the shards, to find the sparks of holiness, to be the broken vessel in which G!d can dwell.
On this Pesach Sheni, may we have the clarity and courage of heart to call on the miracles of Passover. To lift up the dignity of every person. If the sea could part then, it will again. May it be so, speedily and in our days.
Rabbi Ari Lev
The book of Leviticus is the Torah of touch. It is the Torah of intimacy and connection, sacrifice and ritual readiness. It is all about how to best prepare ourselves to be in connection - with ourselves, community, and Divinity. What new insights arise as we dwell in these words that focus on spiritual practices of closeness in this time of physical distance?
This week we read the pregnant parshiyot of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. We return to the world of Aaron after a period of grieving the death of two of his sons (narratively interrupted by the timeless teachings of Tazria-Metzora). But as I opened my Tanakh to study, my heart kept being pulled back to the moment in parashat Shemini when Aaron learns about the death of Nadav and Avihu. Leviticus 10:1-3 reads:
וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜בוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃
Now Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.
וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה ׀ לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃
Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people." And Aaron was silent.
Ain Mukdam u'Meuchar baTorah - Torah is not linear. And certainly grief is not linear. And these days, time doesn't even feel linear, if it ever did. Here Aaron, the high priest, the great teacher of sacred intimacy, teaches us the importance of stillness, which may just be the korban/the offering/the pathway to connection in these times.
With gratitude to Koach Frazier, who pointed me to the wise words of Dr. Valerie Bridgeman:
"All these 'extra' things people and organizations are doing to be in touch tells me that we (writ large) are afraid. We are doing way too much because we are afraid we may never get to see/touch one another again. People's hearts are failing them because of fear.
"We actually need to sit still to stop us from all this 'busy,' designed to keep us from feeling the fear, the dread, the anxiety, the angst, the uncertainty...We have to sit still so that it won't rule over us. So we can slow our heartbeat. So we can hear our breath. So we can find our connections - to ourselves, our people, to our God.
"We are doing too much because we are afraid.
And Aaron was still.
This is what we sing about on Shabbat morning Kiddush in V'shamru. "שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ / shavat vayinafash - The Holy One ceased and was resouled" (Ex 31:17).
May we all have the courage to seek out more moments of stillness and to trust that it will lead us back to ourselves, to each other, and to a sense of holiness that connects us all.
Rabbi Ari Lev
True confessions in times of COVID:
During Passover, I would listen to the Mutual Aid Hallel service while wrestling with my kids in bed underneath a tallit. It was the best way to meet all our needs at once. Call it my quarantine “"prayground," if you will. At one point, I jokingly said aloud, "We are wrestling with G!D," which I personally got a kick out of. Fast forward to this morning, when my kids jump in my bed. I tell them excitedly it's Rosh Hodesh, which means we get to sing Hallel. Without skipping a beat my three-year-old responds, "Yay, wrestling with G!D!"
Mind you, he knows nothing of Jacob's encounter with an angel. And he has yet to explore his own existential ambivalence about the existence of Divinity at large. So as far as he is concerned, nothing is more fun than wrestling with G!D. And as far as I am concerned, nothing is more necessary. I have been wrestling with G!D all week. How else could it have been? This was the week marked in the cycle of the omer by gevurah, which draws on the qualities of strength, discipline, boundaries, power. And never have I felt less disciplined, less in control, less fit for the world. Where as hesed is associated with the right hand, gevurah is associated with our left hand. And in so many ways we are living in what Gloria Anzaldúa describes as El Mundo Zurdo, the Left-handed World. A world of radical imagination, blurred boundaries, multiple truths, self-sovereignty, and transformative connections. For Anzaldua, El Mundo Zurdo holds redemptive power. In the defining collection, This Bridge Called my Back, she writes:
"The pull between what is and what should be. I believe that by changing ourselves we change the world, that traveling El Mundo Zurdo path is the path of a two-way movement – a going deep into the self and an expanding out into the world, a simultaneous recreation of the self and a reconstruction of society. And yet, I am confused as to how to accomplish this" (208).
This is why I pray. To journey inward and expand outward. To connect to my own vulnerability and agency. Every time I put on my tallit, I find myself in the pull between what is and what should be, connected to this two-way movement inward and expanding outward, to this left-handed world of gevurah.
אַתָּה גִּבּור לְעולָם אֲדנָי
Atah gibor l'olam Adonai...Your power endures within and beyond me.
מְכַלְכֵּל חַיִּים בְּחֶסֶד
Mechalkel hayyim b'hesed...You sustain all life with loving kindness.
Anzaldúa continues, "I'm trying to create a religion not out there somewhere, but in my gut. I am trying to make peace between what has happened to me, what the world is, and what it should be."
It is through this embodied peacemaking, this wrestling with G!D, this sacred mixing of hesed and gevurah, that we are able to pivot from El Mundo Zurdo to the world of Tiferet - a world of balance, harmony, equanimity; a striving for beauty. In the words of poet-laureate Joy Harjo:
"The sung blessing of creation
Led her into the human story.
That was the first beauty...
There were many beauties in this age
For everything was immensely itself:
Green greener than the impossibility of green,
the taste of wind after its slide through dew grass at dawn,
Or language running through a tangle of wordlessness in her mouth..."
This is the invitation of tiferet.
On this new moon of Iyyar, may we have the courage to lay down our fight (however playful or prayerful it may be), and rest in the beauty of the dark night sky, the greener than green of Spring, and everything that is immensely itself.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.