The poet Khalil Gibran writes, "Your children are not your children. They are the [children] of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts..." These words are forever sung in my heart by the harmonies of Sweet Honey in the Rock.
I have two kids who are now 5 ½ and 8 years old. These days I have been asking myself, "Are my children really my children?" They are both profoundly different from me and from each other. There is a story from our second night Passover seder that I think captures it best.
We were eating dinner. It was getting late. But I had told my kids that they got extra dessert for every question they asked. They took the challenge seriously and the questions just kept coming, until one of them asked the most existential question of all. "Where did the world come from?" Without skipping a beat and in near unison, one kid emphatically said "God!" and the other kid emphatically said, "The Big Bang!" There you have it. Each of them, with their own clarity and thoughts.
What followed was theological outrage that the very God who created the world also caused the Israelites and the Egyptians to suffer the horrors of the plagues. I can still hear them asking, "Why did people have to die?!"
I have been asking this question myself all week. In the wake of the Buffalo shooting, which is but the latest anti-Black violence in a 400-year litany of racist plagues, "Why?" The horror of the violence and the fear that it inspires in Black bodies is truly cruel. Where is God in all of this?
As someone who believes in both God and the Big Bang, I am constantly searching for a relationship with God that I can reconcile with my postmodern sensibilities. Like my kids, I cannot relate to a God that caused the plagues to fall. And these days I am not drawn to a Divine that can redeem us with an outstretched hand, as the book of Exodus promises. For me, God does not need to be rational or tangible, but it does need to be comforting.
This past week I had the privilege to study Torah with Rabbi Julia Watts Belser. She shared a midrash that I want to share with all of you, which provides a pathway into a God that can't get us out of a jam, but can surely be with us in our pain and our pursuit of liberation.
Exodus 3:2 reads,
"An angel of God appeared to [Moses] in a blazing fire out of a thornbush."
One midrash imagines about this moment (Shemot Rabbah 2:5),
"Rabbi Yannai says,
Just as with twins,
If one suffers an ache, the other feels it."
In the world of this midrash, we B'nei Yisrael / Children of Israel are the children of Life's longing for itself. We come through God but not from God. The Burning Bush is God's origin story as much as it is our own.
So the midrash continues,
"The Holy One said to Moses:
Even if you do not feel that I live in pain when Israel lives in pain–
Know it from the place from which I spoke to you, from within the thorns.
As if to say, I share their pain with them..."
While I have often thought about the burning bush, I have never before called attention to the bramble-like quality described here. Not just a bush, but a thornbush.
And so the midrash asks,
"Why from within the thornbush?
To teach you that there is no empty space devoid of divine presence,
Not even a thornbush...
Just as the thornbush is the hardest of all the trees,
And no bird (read: people) that enters within the thornbush is able to go forth whole..."
The midrash then explains the relationship between God and Israel, saying,
"It is like one who takes up a lash and strikes two people
Both of them receive the lash and know the pain."
I am so moved by the image of a God so radically enmeshed in the world, even as they are so limited in their power to prevent our suffering. A God who experiences the pain of the slave-master's whip. It is not just that God knows our suffering, but God feels our suffering. This midrash reminds me that God has a visceral stake in our liberation.
As I reflect on the thornbush that has been this week, I am drawing strength and comfort from this ancient wisdom. Our journey is to emerge from the thicket as whole as possible. And to remember that the Holy One is pressed up against the thorns with us, working to realize real freedom with us.
Rabbi Ari Lev
One of the highlights of my week was meeting with a Kol Tzedek B'nei Mitzvah student. I asked them what I always ask in our initial meeting. "What is Torah?" Their eyes lit up as we discovered the difference between the Five Books of Moses and the entire Tanakh. It was magic to show them how to find Psalms and Esther tucked away in the chapters of Ketuvim. They got so excited when they realized that the Talmud was not in the Torah, but was also Torah!
I take very seriously the responsibility to cultivate a love of Torah in our B'nei Mitzvah students. To teach them to love the words and even more to love studying Torah. I want each of them, and by extension all of us, to understand that our relationship to Torah matters. That our study of Torah has an effect on us and therefore an effect on the world around us. And perhaps even more importantly, that our study of Torah changes Torah itself.
I remember the first time I understood what it meant that Torah is alive. That a single word can mean many things and a sentence can be read many ways. Torah is indefinite and it is infinite. Without vowels and punctuation, it is on its own indecipherable. For Torah to be meaningful, it requires that we pronounce it. And we have agency in how we do that. I always tell our B'nei Mitzvah students, Torah is a tree of life. And your Dvar Torah will be its newest leaf. Every time you teach Torah you are directly contributing to the wisdom of our tradition.
As you can see, I have a very romantic relationship with Torah. I love transmitting this sense of wonder to my students. But as I approached this week's parsha, I was reminded that Torah is also vulnerable. The fact that it is forever open to human interpretation means that it is also available for misinterpretation, exploitation, and manipulation.
This week, in parashat Acharei Mot, we read the words of Leviticus 18:22. Often translated as "Man shall not lay with man. It is an abomination." These words, as they appear in Hebrew, are obscure in both meaning and context. It is ambiguous what this verse means. And yet it has resoundingly been used as the biblical justification for homophobia across religious traditions and cultural contexts. There is no question this verse has harmed many of us personally and Judaism at large.
It should be some comfort to consider that the very fact that Leviticus 18:22 has caused so much pain and harm is also proof that our relationship to Torah and our study of it matters. And yet, I rarely study the painful verses of Torah with my B'nei Mitzvah students. I neglect to tell them that it is not all magic and mystery. That Torah is infinite which means it is also hard and harmful.
There have been times in my life when I have wanted to cross out every problematic verse in Torah. I even have a copy of the Tanakh where I started this project with scissors and a sharpie. Trying to redact this sacred text to make it less harmful. To remove the promise of colonial conquest and the rape of Dinah and even the opening verses of Genesis where it appears human beings might have been made male and female, exclusively.
But then I discovered the world of Midrash. Stories about the Torah, which are also Torah! Stories that retell, reclaim, and often redeem our stories. Take as an example the midrash of the first human being, describing Adam HaRishon as neither male nor female, but rather androginos, which we can imagine as a Hellenistic non-binary identity. Had I torn the pages from my Tanakh, I might have missed the chance to study these words and all of the stories they have generated.
So the question arises existentially and usually very practically in my inbox: What do we do with these verses? Do we read them out loud on Shabbat? Do we bless them with an aliyah?
There was a time when I would have said no, let's skip them. Let's bury them. But these days I am using these hard moments in Torah to embrace a larger spiritual practice of being present with hard things. This includes working with pain in the body and not wishing it away; noting anger and judgment and not reacting to it immediately. I am actively trying to get better at being physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Not because I prefer it. But because it allows me to be present for more of life. And in this case, to be in relationship with more of Torah. Our power as human beings is our vulnerability; our ability to feel the full range of human experience. So too with Torah.
May our presence and patience with these ancient words lead to healing, insight, and transformation for all of us.
Shabbat Shalom and (almost!) Hodesh Tov,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Next week at this time I will undoubtedly be scrambling to be ready for seder. If there even is such a thing as being ready. I take comfort thinking of our Israelites ancestors who left in a haste. Our rushed preparations have mythic precedent. So I am going to take this opportunity to share some seder Torah in anticipation.
The Haggadah famously teaches, "In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we personally went out from mitzrayim." Years ago I learned a beloved Sefardi custom from my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader that I think most honestly fulfills this teaching. Every year at our seder, when we arrive at the Maggid section, we physically go outside and find the famous full moon of Nisan. And then we walk by its light around the block. Like all good rituals, it begins as a theatrical moment, inviting our kids to reenact a mythic story. But inevitably it becomes part of our story too.
Certainly the journey from the front door of our row home to the backdoor is hardly a sea-crossing. But nonetheless, there is a felt sense of this collective leave-taking. And certainly a cry of "Dayenu!" from the little ones.
While the Israelites left b'hetzi ha'lailah - in the middle of the night - we are more likely to be doing this at 6pm than midnight. Nonetheless, I am already anticipating the magnetic pull of that luminous moon, which, according to some, has the power to turn day into night.
The song of this month, as curated in our newsletter by Rabbi Mó, is called "Karev Yom." Its haunting melody attributed to the Baal Shem Tov draws on the closing words of a 6th-century piyyut by Yannai that appears in the concluding Nirtzah section of the Haggadah:
Karev yom / Bring close the day
A-sher hu lo yom v'lo layla / which is neither day nor night...
Ta-ir k'or yom chesh-kat layla / Illuminate, like the light of day, the darkness of night.
Every year as I stand beneath the full moon, I Imagine the desert headlamp it must have been, and still is for so many. So strong was its light, that it was able to transform the darkness of night into the light of day.
The full poem is actually called "Vayehi bahatzi HaLayla" / "And so it will be in the middle of the night" and it is actually a reworking of a midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 20, which describes all the miracles that took place in the middle of the night. Moments like Jacob wrestling with the angel, Israel's escape from Mitzrayim, King Ahashverosh's decision to save Mordechai and the Jews, to name a few. The poem goes on to make the bold claim that רב נסים בחצי הלילה / "most miracles happen in the middle of the night."
Most often I think of night as a time of increased danger and profound vulnerability. Our liturgy calls on the Holy One to spread over us a canopy of protection as we descend into the dreamworld. Eager to wake and express gratitude for the return of breath to our bodies.
But here this poem reminds us that night can also be a time of miraculous transformation. This should be a comfort to those of us who struggle to sleep. It is in the middle of the night that the seams of the world are loosened and more things are possible. Not to mention, most births happen at night.
As we sit around our seder tables this year, I invite you to call close the day that is neither day nor night, the liminal time where miracles abound. Just as the haste of our ancestors made way for unimagined freedom, may our hurried preparations bring us closer to a world that is entirely just and peaceful.
Shabbat Shalom and wishing you each a Zisn Pesach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
One of the most important moments of my week is when we pray for healing as a community during the Torah service. This practice began for me during the years when I worked at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan. As an LGBTQ synagogue that was forged during the AIDS epidemic, they lost an entire generation of gay men in their community. Prayers for healing were essential and complex. It was there that I learned to pray for a refuah shlemah - a complete healing of mind, body, and spirit. And to acknowledge that if a complete healing is not possible, may we be surrounded by care and community.
Disease, illness, and healing are at the center of the Torah portions we are reading this week and next – Tazria and Metzora. They are infamously known for their nuanced teachings about skin afflictions and priestly practices. But since March 2020, these parshiyot have taken on new resonances. Resonances that the two brave B'nei Mitzvah students that we will be celebrating this week and next will be speaking directly to.
About these parshiyot, my teacher Rabbi Art Green writes:
"All of us who read these words are survivors. We have lived together through terrible years of plague. Many of us have lost people we loved or cared about. Readers beyond a certain age are also likely to see themselves as survivors of various other events in the course of our lives: cancers, road accidents, addictions, and lots more sorts of plagues. In the course of this, we have all sought out healers, whether professionals, spouses, or friends. Is there any wisdom for healers or for those needing to be healed (that includes all of us, of course) that might be found in these very obscure chapters of Va-Yikra? Let’s try."
Having had COVID last month, I felt the wisdom and challenge of this parsha's instructions around communicable diseases and quarantine. So deep was my desire not to infect anyone else. When was it safe to emerge? How can I be sure not to transmit this virus? But also my longing to be taken care of. To have someone bring me a cup of soup and sit at my feet. I can relate to the biblical fear of having an illness that we do not fully understand. This is not unique to COVID. And ever more pressing for the many people in our community living with chronic illness.
At the end of this week's parsha we shift from illness to wounds and we receive this instruction:
או בשר כי יהיה בעורו מכות אש...וראה אותה הכהן
"If a person has a burn by fire in the skin...the kohen shall look at it. Has the hair turned white in it? Is it deeper than the skin (13:24-25)?"
Rabbi Green explains, "Here we are talking about an affliction that comes from without, a burn by fire. Let us see it as referring to any sort of wound that has come about due to some external event. We call this trauma...The healer has to look – perhaps 'looking' has to be expanded to listening – carefully before deciding how to go about helping to heal. There are cases when the healer will then be able to move forward, doing or prescribing something that will help. But there are also cases when that ve-ra'ahu ha-kohen, 'the healer sees – or hears – the person,' is itself a great act of healing."
To move beyond the specific sensory language, it seems that the work of the healer is to bear witness, so as to acknowledge the suffering of another. In truth I think this applies to wounds and illnesses, from within and without. I think this parsha points to the power we all have to be kohanim, to be healing presences for one another.
Each week we lean into our priestly duties as we pray for healing, as we offer ourselves as listening companions, visit each other in the hospital, and cook meals for one another. This care work is holy, it is ancient, and it, too, is a great act of healing.
May the one who brings healing and wholeness on high, bring healing and wholeness to everyone who dwells on Earth. And when a complete healing is not possible, may we be surrounded by a community of people to bear witness and be with us to ease our suffering.
Rabbi Ari Lev
The poet Dylan Thomas writes, "After the first death, there is no other."
Which death counts as the first? Genesis 5:5 reads, "All the days that Adam lived came to 930 years, then he died." Certainly our existence as humans has been forever altered and shaped by our own mortality.
And yet I think Thomas is describing something much more intimate than even our own death. He points to the reality that our first experience of death, as in our first personal and significant loss, is a threshold that cannot be undone.
In this week's parsha, we read of the death of two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu. Upon hearing of these deaths, in a moment of remarkable biblical brevity, the Torah reads, "וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃ / Aaron was still." In the stillness, I hear the words of the poet Dylan Thomas, "After the first death, there is no other."
The stillness of this moment invites infinite commentary. Was he in shock? Was he at peace? Did he accept the Divine verdict? Did he weep? Did he wail? Did he sit in silence?
Yes, yes to all of it. Death is a kaleidoscope of emotions that flood our entire being beyond words and reason.
Not a week goes by that a member of our community does not lose a loved one. After the first death, death is ever-present. An elder, a sibling, a student. Some of our losses are more public than others. This week alone I have written four condolence cards.
One of the most challenging parts of my role as a rabbi has been unlearning my own fear of death. I remember driving away from a funeral for a KT member weeping. I pulled over and called a colleague, "You mean to tell me I am supposed to fall in love with each of these people and then bury them?!" They listened as I cried. And Aaron was still. After the first death, there is no other.
The Torah is full of detailed accounts of our ancestors' deaths. Jacob and Joseph. Miriam and Moses. From each of these stories we have learned how to grieve, as people and as a people.
As a congregational rabbi, I am constantly reminded by members of our community, what a gift Jewish mourning rituals are. How supportive it is to have rote actions and daily routines when one is immersed in grief.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Yesterday afternoon I rode my bike around West Philly delivering mishloach manot - little Purim goodie bags with edible treats and DIY crafts. I arrived at the home of a KT member dressed like a piece of bacon. I handed her the paper tote and said, "Happy Purim!" In exchange she asked me to wait a moment as she went inside to retrieve an even larger brown paper bag. She handed it to me and said, "Happy Passover!" Her bag was filled with burlap "plague bags," which contained little toy models of each plague to be used at our seder.
In an instant I thought of the words that Flory Jagoda sings in our Song of The Month, Purim lano, Pesach ala mano. "As soon as Purim is over, Passover is imminent!" Literally in Ladino, Passover is at hand or in our hand. And in my case it was literally like a Jewish holiday hand-off, relay race style.
It is sweet to imagine that Purim passes the baton to Passover. And easy to make meaning of it as though it was by design. But then we remember that the festival of Passover comes from the Torah itself. Passover is one of the shalosh regalim - the three pilgrimage festivals described in parashat Emor, along with Shavuot and Sukkot.
But Purim gets no mention in the Torah. It is a "rabbinic" holiday - which means it was established much later. Which is why the mitzvot associated with Purim are so qualitatively different from the shalosh regalim. There are no prohibitions around cooking or commerce. In fact quite the opposite. We are instructed to eat and drink and give tzedakah with wild abandon!
The Jewish ritual calendar may not be intentionally relentless, but it is very effective. These holidays were born at different times in Jewish history, with different textual origins. But as far as we are concerned, we have inherited a season of celebration. For thousands of years, Jews have been participating in this festival relay race. Purim initiates the spring holidays cycle. Hands off the momentum to Passover. And Shavuot is the spiritual closer. (There is a very brief pause before the next cycle begins with the breach of the walls on the 17th of Tammuz. But that is the subject of another email).
When Adar comes, joy increases. The natural world reflects this truth in her colorful blooms, and we echo this need in our insistent frivolity. One KT member wrote to me today, "Purim festivities definitely helped me exhale a bit." Someone else shared, "Let us continue to bring joy into each other's lives." I think that's all we can ask for from the opening round of Spring holidays.
The journey to freedom is iterative and annual. These holidays are sprints that energize what is otherwise a daily practice of opening up and letting go. This week's parshah, Tzav, describes both the persistence and patience required as we tend our inner ner tamid - our connection to the sacred and to the truth that everything is one. May our festival and daily practices bring us closer to each other and to freedom.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week I returned a call from a KT member I knew had lived in Ukraine as a child and still had family there. He began, "I had called you when things were still feeling like 1918 and now that things feel more like 1939 we have other things to discuss." It took me a moment to realize he was referencing two different historical markers – the Spanish Flu in 1918 relative to COVID-19 and the onset of World War II in 1939 relative to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Our current political reality was somehow in reference to several other key moments in centuries past all at once.
This week we read parashat Pekudei as we conclude the book of Exodus, the great liberation narrative of our people. But hardly a day goes by in Jewish ritual life that we don't reference it. We imagine ourselves crossing the sea singing Mi Chamocha before every Amidah. We call out from a narrow place in the verses of Hallel on Rosh Hodesh. And every Shabbat, as we make kiddush, we bless the day in remembrance of the work of creation and in remembrance of the Exodus / zecher l'tziyat mitzrayim. Each week we are at once back in the Garden of Eden and back in the Narrow Place.
Our prayers and blessings call to us. They are our memory keepers. Drawing connections across time and place. And in this way reminding us of what is enduring and sustaining.
Linguistically speaking, the reason the Israelites were freed from slavery is because God "remembered" them (Exodus 4:30). In the Hebrew it reads, "Adonai pakad et B'nei Yisrael." This is the same remembering that the Holy One does when Sarah gets pregnant at the age of 99. Our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading begins, "Adonai pakad et Sarah." This remembering can be personal and it can be communal.
This week as we read parashat Pekudei, I am returning to the power of memory. So many of us have family that were forced to migrate from Ukraine in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And some of us are ourselves refugees from Ukraine. It is devastating to think that 100 years later there is a Jewish president and another fascist invasion. I read a piece about how one rabbi in Odessa bought enough canned goods for his congregation to eat for a year. It is 1918 and it is 1939.
Earlier this week the member shared on our congregant listserv, "I was born in Kyiv and so were most of my family members for the previous three generations. I still have elderly family members there that survived the bombing by the Nazis 80 years ago only to be homebound and stuck in there apartment while the city is being bombed by the Russia today... I can't begin to describe sheer horror of what Putin has unleashed on the country where I was born and where I spent my childhood. I recognize every one of those subway stations that are being used as bomb shelters and every street where buildings are being blown up and tanks are driving down."
One midrash on the Exodus story tells of the power of remembering. Moses and Aaron are trying to impress the Elders of Israel. The elders go to visit Serah Bat Asher, the oldest woman in the Torah. (Her life spans the entire experience of enslavement and liberation, and some communities hold that she lives until the 12th century!) They tell Serah Bat Asher that Moses said, "G-d will remember you!" Upon hearing this, she said: "He is the man who will bring Yisrael out of Egypt, for I heard from my father 'Peh Peh Pakod Yifkod' are the magic words.
Serah Bat Asher, often referred to as the memory keeper, is the one person who knows where Joseph is buried. She is called upon so that B'nei Yisrael can fulfill their promise to carry his bones out of Egypt. She is invoked in moments when we need to look back, unbury truths, and unlock our courage to carry ourselves across the unknown.
In the words of the wonderful Marge Piercy,
"Bless the gift of memory
that breaks unbidden, released
from a flower or a cup of tea
so the dead move like rain through the room."
The stories we tell are themselves keepers of memory. We pass them down from generation to generation, from mouth to mouth (peh peh), from heart to heart, so that we can honor our dead and fight like hell for the living.
May the blessings of the new moon be upon us, and upon all of Yisrael and all who dwell on Earth. And may this Adar fulfill its promise to increase our joy.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
I got an email from a KT member this week lamenting that there aren't enough hours in the day. My response: meditate longer. It's not obvious. And it's not facetious. Somehow pausing makes for more space. I am forever grateful to a therapist who once taught me this wisdom.
But the truth is it doesn't solve the larger problem of feeling like there aren't enough hours in the day. Which is actually only one of the many things we don't have enough of. Time, money, patience, clarity, understanding, peanut butter-filled pretzel snacks. We are conditioned towards scarcity by the structures of everyday life, which is further amplified by the endless wants of the human mind.
Once a year we gather around a seder table and sing Dayenu - It's enough for us, aka, we have enough, or often translated, it would have been enough! Whether or not we actually believe the verses of this song, by embedding this song in the traditions of Passover, we learn that the feeling of enoughness is intricately connected to freedom itself.
But long before anyone ever sang Dayenu, Moses pronounced this very sentiment. This week we read parashat Vayakhel. Moses instructs the Israelites to bring whatever their heart is called to generously give to build the mishkan. Gemstones and precious metals, colorful fabrics and fancy wood. And in a biblical instant, the people open up their hands and hearts and give so much that Moses calls out, enough!
וַיֹּאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה לֵּאמֹ֔ר מַרְבִּ֥ים הָעָ֖ם לְהָבִ֑יא מִדֵּ֤י הָֽעֲבֹדָה֙ לַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽהּ׃
"The people are bringing much more than enough... (Ex. 36:5)"
For me what is always so meaningful about this passage is the energy that motivates such giving. It intentionally comes freely from one's heart. As if to say, when we are generous, we have more than enough.
But in truth, it is not obvious or logical that the Israelites are feeling particularly generous in this moment. We just finished reading the story of the Golden Calf. As a collective they are facing tremendous uncertainty, and often very fearful. It would be fair to characterize them as living with a scarcity mentality. So what happened that allows them to feel so generous with their most precious possessions? Do they actually feel generous or do they just give generously? In a world that is constantly suggesting we feel scarcity, what might we do to feel like we have more than enough?
In my own experience, the feeling of abundance doesn't actually lead to being generous. In fact the opposite is true. The experience of being generous is what allows me to feel abundance. If I were to wait until I felt like I had more than enough, I would miss so many opportunities to be generous. This is true for other sentiments like kindness and compassion. It is precisely when I am feeling most irritable that I need to find a way to do an act of kindness. And precisely when I feel most squeezed for time, I need to exercise or meditate.
And the same might be said of our ancestors. In precisely the moment when the Israelites are feeling the most protective and fearful, Moses instructs them to give generously. Not because they have a sense of overflowing abundance, but because giving will allow them to open their hearts to each other, and in that way, they will come to feel they have more than enough.
In his poem "When Giving Is All We Have," Alberto Ríos writes,
One river gives
Its journey to the next.
We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.
We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us...
And in the words of Parker Palmer, "Community doesn't just create abundance - community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed."
May we have the courage to be as generous as possible, with ourselves and with each other, so that we all may come to feel we are and we have more than enough.
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I have been glued to the Olympics these past two weeks. My kids and I have been watching replays from the night before in the moments between breakfast and school. And I have been staying up way too late watching historic competitions like the first women's monobob, figure skating's emotional performances, and the rising tide of black athletes in the winter sports. I have surely tried but failed to appreciate the sport of curling, played Harry Potter style with brooms and stones.
Each night I am filled with awe (and some terror, particularly with skeleton) as each athlete completes near-impossible feats on (fake) snow and hard ice. The sheer speed and complexity of each event defies my own experience of the human body. 1620s. 130 km/hr. Winning defined by thousandths of a second.
But what has really got me hooked, both in the Tokyo Olympics this past summer and in Beijing this winter, is the unprecedented vulnerability of so many of the athletes. The pandemic has placed unreasonable demands on their lives (like ours!) and the pressure has impacted their performances.
It started when Simone Biles got the "twisties" and couldn't perform on the vault. It was a stress-induced mental block that gave her vertigo in the air and prevented her from knowing up from down. It inspired her to talk to the world about her struggles with mental health.
The transparency and vulnerability has continued this winter. I have read so many unbelievable stories. Kailie Humphies, the former Canadian bobsled star who left the sport because her coach was abusive. She later married an American and received her citizenship two months ago so she could compete for the U.S. Elena Meyers Taylor is the mom of a toddler. She pumped while training in quarantine to create more precedent that it is possible to be a parent and an Olympian. The snowboarder Shaun White fell in his farewell Olympic half-pipe run and sobbed in the embrace of his fellow competitors. I could go on with another half-dozen names, but would be remiss if I didn't mention Erin Jackson, Nathan Chen, and Kamila Valieva. Each of these athletes has revealed themself to be undeniably human while competing.
Their courage points me towards one of the most foundational teachings of this week's parsha, Ki Tisa. Infamously, this is the parsha where Moses takes a long minute up on Mt. Sinai. When he returns, he finds that Aaron and the Israelites have built a molten calf; an "elohim" to worship. This violates the very words that the Holy One had carved on the two tablets Moses is carrying, and proceeds to smash. And it undermines the entire spiritual journey that Abraham began in Genesis when he left his father's house, his birthplace, his home, and with it the idolatrous practices of his ancestral people.
I have often wondered, why is it so important that our concept of the Divine be intangible and ineffable? What specifically about the golden calf was so anathema to Moses and to the Holy One?
Oddly enough, watching Kamila Vallieva crumble under the cruel scrutiny of the Olympic Committee brought this teaching home for me. These athletes are not golden idols, even if they are chasing gold medals. They are fallible and feeling, and this is what defines their humanity. No amount of training can alter the profound vulnerability of being human.
If our concept of Divinity existed in metallic form it would be solid, fixed, impermeable, and in that way perfect. And we might be led to believe that we too, made in the image of the Divine, have the capacity for unfaltering perfection.
This is a truth I think the Olympians know best. None of them are under the illusion that being the best is achievable beyond the snapshot of a moment. One year you are the fastest and four years later you lose by a whole second!
The threat of the golden calf is both theological and psychological. For Moses it undermines the entire project of entering into a relationship with a Source that is nothing and everything. The draw of the golden calf is its definiteness. But the very essence of the Holy One is precisely its infiniteness.
We are made in the image of something that knows no bounds. And we are conditioned to strive towards our gold medals. But lest we worship or think we can become them, Moses smashes the tablets. Just like Abraham before him, who smashed all the idols in his father's shop. Our vulnerability is the starting point of our relationship with the Divine.
Rabbi Ari Lev
There are currently thousands of Philadelphians without gas to heat their homes. As we all know, this has been one of the coldest winters in a long time. Yesterday I spoke at a powerful call to action organized by POWER declaring that access to energy is a human right. Clergy, leaders, and organizers from around the city gathered at City Hall with members of City Council to demand that Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) turn on the heat. PGW is a publicly-owned gas utility that has received government assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and yet has neglected to restore service to people who had lapsed payments.
As with all well organized actions, I wasn't just invited to speak. I was given a script with clear goals and a tight timeline. I was asked to publicly lament the reality of living in a city that denies heat to people who are poor and low income. And then I was asked to invite everyone present to turn to someone near them and share what brought them out to this vigil.
In reading this week’s parsha, Terumah, I have been reflecting on the wise instructions I received from seasoned community organizers. In Terumah, we receive very detailed instructions regarding the building of the mishkan. It was the work of metal-workers and weavers, artists and builders. And we are taught that when everyone offered their unique gifts and skills, the holiness overflowed.
One of the key design elements was the instruction to place two keruvim, winged angel creatures, to watch over the kaporet, the covering to the ark. Commentators note how important it is that there are two of them, lest a single angelic being be confused for a Divine idol. And they work very hard to reconcile two seemingly contradictory instructions. The first being that the angels face the kaporet, watching over it. And the second that these angels face one another.
The rabbis of the Talmud attempt to reconcile this discrepancy by teaching that the keruvim faced each other when b'nei Yisrael followed the mitzvot, and turned away from each other when they did not. Which I understand to mean that they face each other when we take responsibility for our obligations to one another.
I thought about this teaching as I invited the people gathered in the freezing rain to take a moment and turn towards one another. So grateful someone else had gifted me this instruction. The white noise of a city block was replaced with the alive hum of people sharing their stories. The Torah teaches that the Holy One actually spoke from the empty space between the keruvim, often likened to the space between two people engaged in Torah study. It is precisely this relational moment that fortifies our humanity in the face of so much injustice.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes about the space between the keruvim,
"We can choose to act in ways which create the space within which that voice speaks, or we can choose to act in ways which will negate that possibility. The voice of the Infinite issued forth not from the golden statues themselves, not even from the holy text which was contained in the ark then and is contained in our scroll now, but from the dynamic space between the keruvim. God speaks to us from emptiness -- but not just any emptiness. God speaks from the spiritually charged space of relationship."
May we draw on the power of these winged-creatures and the courage in our own hearts, to have the strength to keep turning towards another, despite the physical and social distancing of our times -- to engage the spiritually charged space of relationship to make our lives, our city, and this world more whole.
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.