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
P.S. Please enjoy this week's Torah reading brought to you by KT leyners, such a gift!
I must be honest, I never aspired to homeschool my children. And if only you could see the short video of one of our "morning meetings" -- one kid bouncing on the trampoline upside-down while Shosh tries to read the schedule, and the other kid reminding us we are already behind schedule while I cry a new-to-me kind of tears, where I literally don't know if they are tears of laughter or fear. After a few days, we called in some reinforcements. And since that tearful morning, Shosh's mother, the amazing Rabbi Gila Ruskin, has been running morning meetings, which we should actually rename Circle Time because it has no fixed hour and often happens midday.
The most important hiddush (innovation) of her morning meeting is a Mad-Libs-style fill in the blank schedule. Rather than worrying about what time we will do anything, she asks them things like, "What is our act of hesed today?" This can be anything from writing a letter to their great grandmother or recording a video for someone's birthday or making a heart out of sticks in front of a friend's house. For me personally it has profoundly changed my days to orient around the question, "What act of hesed can I do today?" And it has helped me to orient to this entire quarantine with that same question. What acts of hesed can we do in this time?
Every year the second night of Passover brings in the counting of the omer, as we seamlessly weave from one sacred cycle into another. In the mystical imagination, each of the seven weeks of the omer corresponds to a sephira, a divine emanation. And we began last week with hesed. How fitting. The Talmud teaches us that the Torah begins with hesed and ends with hesed. "How so," you might ask?
Rabbi Simlai taught: In the beginning of Genesis, the Holy One makes garments for Adam and Eve, and at the end of Deuteronomy, the Holy One buries Moses (B.T. Sotah 14a). For Rabbi Simlai, the whole of Torah is filled with acts of hesed. And if the Torah is the blueprint for the world, then so too the world begins and ends with hesed. These days, that seems increasingly true.
In response to a culture of "cancel everything" I have witnessed the rise of its spiritual corollary, "share everything." This has proliferated at Kol Tzedek, in the wider West Philly community, and in the world beyond. It has been true at car protests to free folks from jail and waiting in line for essentials like groceries and banking. Mutual aid, loaves of bread, boxes of matzah, face masks, baseball mitts, projectors, seeds, books, gardening tools. The world has become the lending library it was always meant to be. Canceling everything has loosened our grip on the material world and given way to a culture of generosity that can only be understood as hesed.
One of my beloved mentors, Rabbi Rim Meirowitz taught me that in a community everyone is a member of the hesed committee. This is our fundamental calling as humans. To reach out and support one another. In the words of Ashrei, "Poteach et yadecha u'masbia l'chol chai ratzon - Reach out your hand and sustain all life." The mishnah teaches that there is no upper limit on gemilut hesed/acts of kindness. And this feels increasingly obvious, evident, and necessary in these times. I am so grateful to everyone in our community who has been extending care and phone calls and increasing our interdependence. It was a powerful reminder to sing of this profound hesed every morning of Pesach during Hallel, calling out - Ki l'olam hasdo - Hesed is what endures.
In a quiet moment after a rainstorm earlier this week I went on a run. As I meandered through the vacant parks on this warm spring night, a feeling arose inside me: "I miss the world and all of you in it." The feeling gave way to a spacious softness inside. Something I can only describe as a well of hesed. A longing to share the world with each of you. And I thought of the words of the inspired poet Rabbi Mónica Gomery:
"To say I choose the world, and you in it.
Wide and blasted through
and bleeding light, I don't
know how else to name it..."
I know Rabbi Mó wrote this poem about a very personal grief. And I know for me in this moment it touches a vast abyss of collective loss. Which is to say, I miss you all. I choose the world with you in it. As we journey into Shabbat, may we merit to begin and end our days with acts of hesed.
However you choose to connect and spend shabbat, know you are in my heart.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Written in collaboration with Rabbis Joseph Berman, Avi Killip and Micha'el Rosenberg.
As we prepare to celebrate Passover isolated in our homes, separated from loved ones, and struggling against the grave injustices of our society, now so clearly unmasked, I am thinking of a teaching from Rabbi Arthur Green about the central tension of the Seder. Rabbi Green explains that the tension is between the contradictory claims in the Haggadah, which contains the words "now we are slaves" and then, moments later, "we were slaves to Pharaoh in Mitzrayim (the narrow place)…" The Haggadah seems to be saying that we are both enslaved and free.
This year the whole world is in a narrow place - mitzrayim - as we are living through what many people are describing as a plague. We often sing as our prayer for healing at Shabbat services the words of the Three Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra: "when the world is sick/can't no one be well." How acutely we know this to be true. But then we sing another line: "and I dreamt we were all beautiful and whole." These last words capture for me both the yearning for a world of wholeness, healing, and liberation along with the truth that we are in fact beautiful and whole, even if we might not feel that way. More than one thing is true at once says the Haggadah.
For those who were not present online during Friday night services, I wanted to take a few moments (as a break between cleaning my fridge and my stove) to share some brief reflections on preparing for Passover this year.
This is the first time we have experienced seder in the midst of a pandemic, but it is not the first time Jews have celebrated this holiday in a moment of danger and fear. We have celebrated Passover in narrower times. All week I have been thinking of a photo published in the NY Times, of women baking matzah in the oven they built beneath the Lodz Ghetto in 1943. We may be physically distant, but we must remind our bones that this is not World War II. We may never have seen a solo seder as something that might happen to us, but Maimonides did and we know this because he taught us that one is required to ask themself the Four Questions. Our seders this year will become a link in a chain of seder throughout Jewish history that offered Jews comfort, ritual, and joy in uncertain times.
Perhaps you too have been wondering how best to prepare for Passover this year. I've had moments in the past few weeks where I thought I should say to our community, don't worry about Passover this year. Only focus on what is urgent and what you most need to do. The last thing you need to be worrying about is purchasing matzah and making charoset. This may in fact be necessary for some of us and that is OK! And, with the help of my chevruta and teacher, I'm now thinking about the process of observing Passover as an opportunity to move through our present narrowness.
Part of what has been anxiety provoking about this pandemic is that we've lost many of the mechanisms by which we structure time. This might be a commute, in person meetings, "going" to school, or "going" to work. Part of the gift of Judaism is that we still have the possibility of structuring, of texturing, of sanctifying time. It can help our mental health and create joy. While we are spending so much time at home, we can still do a serious Spring cleaning and put away the chametz. Whether at home or on Zoom, we can tell stories and ask questions. The Haggadah also says, one who expands upon the Exodus story, harei zeh meshubach - that person is worthy of praise. Because in truth, the Exodus from Mitzrayim never ends. This year's story is ours to tell.
This doesn't mean you are going to necessarily observe Pesach this year the way you have in previous years. In fact, that is likely impossible. Passover is at its heart a night of questions. And so it seems fitting that my primary instruction on how to prepare for Passover this year comes in the form of a question. I invite you to ask yourself:
What are the core principles or observances of Passover for me?
Maybe that means having a seder, maybe it means calling the mayor to demand he decarcerate PA jails, prisons, and detention centers, maybe it means asking big questions about freedom and justice and dreaming up even bigger answers, maybe it means eating matzah, maybe it means avoiding bread or all chametz or even kitniyot. AND, at the same time, ask yourself:
What are the adornments and practices that in other years I have put attention on, that might not make sense in this time?
For example, I am still committed to deep-cleaning behind my stove. But unlike previous years, I am planning to eat kitniyot.
Many of us associate Passover with a heightened attention to practice, going above and beyond what we typically do. There is a culture, particularly in Ashkenazi communities, of leaning into stringencies, a kind of strictness of observance. For some of us this will still feel meaningful, in which case I invite you to see this as core to your practice. But for those who feel ourselves retreating at the idea of Pesach this year, overwhelmed by the prospect of having to figure it out, approach Pesach with gentleness, let go of things you might have done in previous years, and focus on the core principles and observance. Give yourself permission to prepare in ways that are meaningful and to know you are allowed have a shvach seder. And please do not put yourself at increased risk or danger for the purpose of ritual observance.
I must admit, when I looked at the ritual calendar just before Purim, I could never have imagined this moment. To imagine that all plans and projects could evaporate. And on the one hand, it is unnerving and utterly disorienting. On the other hand, it seems infinitely hopeful. To realize that change is not only possible, but inevitable. It means that liberation is also not only possible, but inevitable. That oppressive forces will also one day cease and desist. And this is why we celebrate Passover, every year. Not just to remember it, but to live it, to breathe life into the potential this ancient story represents. In the words of the Haggadah:
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יֶָָצֶָא מִמִּצְרַָים
"In every generation each of us is obligated to see ourselves as though we had gone through Mitzrayim."
Rabbi Shai Held taught this morning, Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) is a paradigm for the truth that there is no status quo that cannot be overturned. So let this be the year you have the strength to tell a story that takes you from bitterness to joy, because if it is possible for us to adapt and make the great changes these times require of us, liberation is also possible. I am grateful for the reminder from my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader: "Closed in our homes as we were in Pesach Mitzrayim, may this night again be a gateway to redemption." May it be so, speedily and in our days.
May it be a uniquely meaningful, liberatory, and healthy Passover for you and your loved ones.
Chag Kasher v'Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
הא לחמא עניא די אכלו אבהתנא בארעא דמצרים.
כל דכפין ייתי ויכל
כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח.
Our Passover story famously begins, Ha Lachma Anya, "This is the bread of affliction/poverty (lechem oni) that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, come and eat. All who are in need, come and do Pesah."
This teaching embodies the Haggadah's aspiration for true liberation for everyone – no matter one's income level. Everyone deserves to celebrate being free at Passover. The Mishnah even teaches us that even the poorest of the poor are required to have four cups of wine at their seder (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1).
Every year, this profound declaration challenges us to imagine a kind of hospitality and economic justice that is ever-expansive and all-inclusive. Most years I wonder how I can say these words and mean them. Could I be inviting folks I meet on the street, especially folks who ask me for money, to literally come join me in my house? Could I be posting on listservs or social media, gathering folks who are looking for a seder at the last minute? Could I be spending the morning cooking Food Not Bombs-style and serving a meal in a public space?
But this year, even more so, as we prepare for a Passover like none other, what might it mean to say, "Let all who are hungry come and eat," when I literally cannot invite anyone to my house for seder?
As it turns out this line has been the cause of sufficient curiosity for centuries. I learned with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer this week that throughout Jewish history our teachers have interpreted this statement in different ways.
Three different, relatively literal interpretations suggest the following:
Take a moment to note that the latter two are actually quite possible this year. And yet, I think there is important spiritual insight in another interpretation from the Talmud to guide us in our seder preparations.
אמר שמואל: לחם עני (כתיב) - לחם שעונין עליו דברים.
Shmuel teaches: "The bread of affliction [lehem oni]" refers to the bread over which one answers [onim] questions, (i.e., one recites the Haggadah over matzah) (B.T. Pesachim 115b).
Passover is, at its heart, a night of questions. And matzah is our magic 8-ball. It is meant to inspire in us generative thinking and creative problem-solving. We are instructed to be abundant with our answers. This feels like an essential practice this year. Most of us have not had the time or presence of mind to sit and luxuriate around a table, to get lost in conversation about freedom and justice. To imagine our way out of these narrow times. To imagine what new things are now possible.
What it means to be free, says the Haggadah, is to spend a night, reclining, pontificating, asking and answering questions big and small. To know that the work of the world can wait. Tonight we are free to wonder. To allow a spaciousness to descend in our homes that might lead us toward clarity.
How will this night be different from all other nights?
How will this Passover be different from all other Passovers?
We will each answer these questions differently. But as we learn from Shmuel, the real mitzvah is in our courage to lean back and indulge our curiosity. Whether you are celebrating alone (and the Haggadah is your companion), with your housemates, or on Zoom, may the questions you ask and the answers they inspire bring you closer to freedom and may you have a zisn Pesach, a sweet and joyful Passover. May we all pass through these narrow times together.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I know I am not alone when I share that yesterday morning, as I sang the psalms of Hallel to mark the new moon of Nissan, I wept.
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ
From this narrow place, I call out to you.
אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא
Please, Our Source, Our Sovereign, save us.
As I sang these words I thought of the compassionate group of KT members who have been calling other community members to check in. I thought of the phone calls we have made to detention centers and arraignment courts and senators, city council, and state representatives, demanding rent, eviction, and foreclosure freezes, widespread prison bailouts, and debt forgiveness.
And all at once, the opening of the book of Vayikra made a lot more sense to me. This week's parsha begins,
וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מועֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃
"The Holy One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…" (Lev 1:1).
Perplexed by the seeming redundancy of The Holy One calling to Moses and then speaking to him, Rashi explains, "Whenever God commanded, instructed, or spoke to Moses, God always called to Moses first. Kriah, 'calling' is an expression of tenderness and affection." I love to imagine The Holy One as the Hesed committee, calling to check in on Moses who has by every measure been through a lot thus far.
Rashi continues, "[Calling] is also an expression used by the ministering angels, as it is written, 'One angel calls another saying: Holy, holy, holy is Hashem, Lord of Hosts, filling the whole world with awareness of the Divine' (Isaiah 6:3)." In fact it is this very passage that becomes the core moment of collective calling out in our kedusha, as we emulate the heavenly hosts and call one to another.
Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, known as the Esh Kodesh, was a chasidic rebbe who ministered to his people in the Warsaw Ghetto. He gave a d'var Torah every week. This week, 80 years ago, Rabbi Shapira explained to his people what it means to "call out" to another.
"There may be another, deeper explanation as well...An ancient Aramaic translation of this verse from Isaiah reads, 'They receive from one another and say Holy holy holy...'" Here, calling is translated as receiving.
Rabbi Shapira explains, "If a Jew hears of the suffering of others and does what they can to help, and if their heart breaks and blood congeals in their veins at the story of their friend's troubles, then angels are empowered...The calling/receiving that comes from sharing suffering is very loud, and so the angels call out to one another in voices loud with compassion for the suffering of [the Jewish] people."
Rabbi Shapira reminds us that our capacity to call is inseparable from our capacity to receive.
And so we are reminded in psalm 118:5:
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽהּ
In distress I called out to the Holy One,
And the Holy One answered me and brought me relief.
Calling and receiving are both holy acts in these times.
Being willing to extend care and a phone call.
And be willing to receive care and groceries and a phone call.
So sacred is this dance of calling/receiving, says Rabbi Shapira, that it is an act that has reverberations in the Heavens, it impacts the cosmos, it allows the angels to call out to one another.
My friend and comrade Rev. Naomi Leapheart-Washington posted on social media this week:
"Things won't be the same after this. I hope one of the things that persists is the way most people seem to be moving more gently, more graciously around each other...the way every conversation begins with 'How ARE you?' and ends with 'Be well.' and we seem to *mean* it. You know?"
May the Holy Blessed One renew this month for us, and for all who dwell on earth, for life and for health, for joy and for peace, for salvation and for comfort. And may we continue to call out to one another and receive from each other with tenderness and affection. And may we continue to really mean it.
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.