All week I have been wavering between competing headlines in my own heart. This is the end. And, This is the beginning. It is surely both. A moment of profound transition and transformation. A vulnerable moment for a vulnerable planet -- and for us, as people subject to the plagues greed has produced. A vulnerable moment for a vulnerable democracy -- and for us, as people subject to unjust laws and leaders its rotten joists have empowered.
This has been a long and tiring week, year, and term. I have felt fear and despair. And I have had to dig deeper, to meditate longer, to offer more gratitude, and to share more generously in order to sustain my own spirits. And from talking to many of you, I know you are digging deeper, too. Just as our ancestors have done for thousands of years in the wilderness, digging and redigging wells to sustain them in uncertain times.
Lucky for us, Jewish tradition is replete with stories about personal and collective transformation, stories in which what seemed completely impossible becomes reality. Stories in which our ancestors transcended the narrowest of circumstances and created the world anew.
And while sometimes we call this a miracle and credit it to the Holy One, more often than not the sages, of blessed memory, go out of their way to recognize it as human creativity and agency. Or perhaps more aptly, the sages understand that the miraculous is ever present in our world and in our actions.
In preparation for this Shabbat, I have been meditating on the power and perils of leadership which have been on full display this week. And I have been thinking about Moses, a tender-hearted leader who extracts us out of a narrow place and leads us through the wilderness. Moses' leadership is prominent in this week's parsha, Vaera.
On Kol Nidre I taught a midrash which wonders, "How did Moses go from fleeing from Pharaoh to plunging him into the sea?"
For which the midrash offers two answers:
אֶלָּא רָאָה עוֹלָם חָדָשׁ
That he could envision a new world. An olam hadash. A world renewed.
That he fed and sustained others. Zan um'farnes. Moses materially and spiritually sustaining the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years.
On the precipice of annihilation, our ancestors had the courage to dream big and take care of each other. And according to our sages, that is what sustained them.
And that is what will sustain us.
As we learn in Pirkei Avot, the world is sustained by three things: by Torah, by Avodah, and by Gemilut Hesed. By accessing the well of Jewish teachings, by spiritual practice, and by heaps of kindness.
The hesed, you may notice, is the only sustaining force with a quantitative measure. As if to say, be abundantly kind to yourself and abundantly kind to one another. Take really good care of yourself and really good care of each other. And trust in the prophecy of Arundhati Roy, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
May this Shabbat be that quiet day and may we find ourselves refreshed and renewed for the week to come.
Rabbi Ari Lev
All year long I look forward to Hanukkah. There are few things as peaceful as sitting in the dark and watching the Hanukkah candles burn. As a parent, I find myself wanting to light once with my kids for the raucous joy. And then again, after they are asleep, in the quiet of the night.
In many circles, Shabbat Hanukkah is one of the holiest nights of the year. It comes always in the winter solstice season, and always with the story of Joseph and his dreams. The darkest time of year is accompanied by lighting the greatest number of lights.
In fact, this is the only Shabbat of the year in which we get to observe all three mitzvot related to lighting candles - Hanukkah, Shabbat, and Havdalah. While there are other candles we are invited to light, like a shiva or a yahrzeit candle, only these three are accompanied by a blessing and in this way ritually obligated. What can we learn from the differences in practice associated with each of them?
In the case of Shabbat, the obligation is quite practical. Since one is traditionally forbidden to make fire on Shabbat itself, the light is meant to dispel the darkness on Friday night that would otherwise make it difficult to eat, read, and rejoice in each other's company. For this reason, it is considered a kind of shalom bayit, intended to increase the peace in our homes. This light is both meant to be used and internally focused.
In the case of Hanukkah however, the opposite is true. The light exists for its own sake and is meant to be dispersed. One is in fact forbidden lehishtamesh bo - to make use of it. Which is to say, while you can delight in its burning, you cannot use it to produce light for the purpose of doing any other activity. I must resist the urge to cozy up with a book beside my little menorah and read by its light. A second difference is that originally our menorot were lit in public gathering places. And even as we have moved them into our own homes, we are instructed to place them in our windows, to publicize the light. In this way the light is very externally focused, meant to be spread but not used.
What strikes me this year, as we gather in our own homes, is the specific instruction to not see the Hanukkah candles as dispelling the darkness, but rather existing within it. There is a quality of knowing and a clarity of mind that comes when we allow ourselves to be with the darkness.
One midrash teaches,
"You find that a [sighted] person who finds themself in the dark can observe what is transpiring in a lighted place. However, any [sighted person] who finds themself in a lighted place is unable to observe what is happening in the dark. The Holy Blessed One, however, can see in the dark or in the light, as it is said: 'God knows what is in the darkness…' (Daniel 2:22)" (Tanhuma Tetsaveh 8).
Or in the words of Mary Oliver,
The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
In these darkening days, I invite you to find companionship in the light that exists in the dark. To remember, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches, that a little light can permeate a lot of darkness. And to allow for the unexpected gifts of this season.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week my kids and I have been reading the book Older Than Dirt: A Wild but True History of Earth. It explores how the world came to be over the course of billions of years. The vastness of time, the evolution of all things that live, and their precariousness. Mass extinctions, minerals, fossils. It's all rather miraculous.
Did you know there was half a billion years where the earth was a giant river of volcanic lava?! And that the moon was formed when it crashed into earth. At first it was so close to our planet that days were only five hours long. And every year it moves one inch further away. Perhaps most astonishingly, modern humans are but the last two seconds on the 24-hour clock of the earth! The entire book is in many ways a macro-meditation on our smallness.
As it turns out, this week's parsha, Vayishlach, offers a micro-meditation on our smallness. Jacob returns to the Holy Land after twenty years of absence. His first act is to send messengers to his brother Esau, with hopes of reconciliation. Jacob sends his family ahead as he waits for Esau. Fearful for his life, he prays to God, in what Avivah Zornberg describes as "the first quoted prayer in the Torah" (Desire, 216).
Having invoked the God of his father Abraham, he begins:
קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַחֲסָדִים֙ וּמִכָּל־הָ֣אֱמֶ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה וְעַתָּ֥ה הָיִ֖יתִי לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַחֲנֽוֹת׃
I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps (Genesis 32:11).
The word in Hebrew, ubiquitously translated as "unworthy" is actually the root קטן (k-t-n), meaning small or insignificant. It is the same word used to describe a minor and a younger sibling. It is a word of relative importance or size.
Ibn Ezra, known for his tendencies towards grammatical correctness, translates Jacob's prayer as "I am too small..." In this moment, Jacob assumes a posture of humility as he approaches the Holy One in prayer and praise for the goodness in his life.
So many times reading this book with my kids I thought to myself, "I am too small. I am unworthy of the kindness in my life." Given all of planetary existence, we are but specks of dust, sparks of light scattered about metabolizing light and water and trying to evolve. And in the process we are blessed in a myriad of ways with hesed and emet, kindness and truth, compassion and promises.
No doubt we are each responsible in some ways for the goodness that has come into our lives. But there is a deeper level on which we are unworthy recipients, humble servants of something larger and beyond ourselves.
In the words of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye:
"Since there is no place larger enough
To contain so much happiness (read: kindness, goodness, blessing)
You shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
Into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
For the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
And in that way, be known."
This Shabbat, may we be humbled by the clock of the earth and inspired by the prayers of our ancestor Jacob, to let the kindnesses in our lives flow into everything we touch. May we have humility and the courage to take no credit. And in that way be known.
Rabbi Ari Lev
The second blessing of the Amidah is all about the powers of life and death, birth and rebirth, seasons, sustenance, and survival. Themes that are ever-present in our lives, perhaps even more pronounced in these times.
מִי כָמֽוֹךָ בַּֽעַל גְּבוּרוֹת וּמִי דּֽוֹמֶה לָּךְ
Who is like you master of many powers and who has your restraint,
מֶֽלֶךְ מֵמִית וּמְחַיֶּה וּמַצְמִֽיחַ יְשׁוּעָה:
Sovereign One who causes death and creates life and cultivates salvation.
In a recent interview on the podcast "Finding Our Way," Prentis Hemphill asks Lama Rod Owens, "How would you describe where we are right now?"
Lama Owens responds, "For me, this time feels like being in labor. Our culture, our lives, the world, the country, our communities, we are in labor, we are in the process of trying to give birth to something." Lama Owens does not romanticize labor or birth. They are states of hopeful potential, and also suffering and loss.
And this is not just where we are in our world, but in our Torah too. This week's parsha describes Rebecca's difficult pregnancy with twins and the eventual birth of Jacob and Esau. In a moment of both embodied and existential crisis, she calls out:
אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי
"If this is how it is, why do I exist?"
I can imagine we each have or will have our moments this pandemic of calling out in existential angst about the state of things. So much has been revealed and so much has been lost. But as the recitation of the Amidah reminds us daily, we are called to hold birth and death in one breath.
This Shabbat falls on Trans Day of Remembrance, a day in which we honor our dead, its own epidemic. This year alone we know of 37 trans and gender non-conforming people have been murdered, mostly Black and Latinx transwomen. And we are called to say their names, to remember them.
And then in an act of Divine power,
וְנֶאֱמָן אַתָּה לְהַחֲיוֹת מֵתִים:
We faithfully give life to the dead by claiming our resilience in the face of so much loss.
I invite you to join us tonight, as we weave life and death, celebrating Shabbat and the resilience of trans lives. We will be led by a small multitude of trans voices in our community. May we all have the strength to connect to everything within our power, to sustain ourselves in the face of so much being born and so much being lost.
Rabbi Ari Lev
These weeks have been a whirlwind of emotion. Rebecca Ganetzky describes it well in her teaching about the emotional contours of Torah trope. Last weekend the city of Philadelphia felt like the Simchat Torah celebration that never was. And following moments of much needed joy, the painful reality that we continue to live through a pandemic returned. As the number of daily cases of COVID continues to set new records, we long for ways to care for our community members who are sick and isolated.
More and more I find myself turning to prayer, carving out mere moments, maybe ten minutes, to punctuate the day with a single Amidah. First and foremost, I pray for refuah shleimah, for healing of body and mind for all those impacted by this pandemic. I take a moment to call to mind all those in my orbit in need of healing. But the truth is, these days, that does not feel like enough. There is a profoundly communal nature to our suffering.
A dvar Torah published way back in March begs the question:
How widespread does disease have to be in order to pass the threshold and trigger a communal response of prayer or fasting?
The Shulhan Arukh, a 16th century law code, writes:
"Just as we fast...in times of drought, we also fast for other disasters...and so for plague. What is considered a plague? If a city of 500 inhabitants has three deaths a day (from plague) for three consecutive days, this is defined as a plague" (Orah Hayyim, 576).
I am not sure how this would correspond to the CDC's definition and metrics relative to how many cases per 100,000 people in a given population. But I do know that it reveals a longstanding rabbinic sensitivity to a threshold in the definition of an epidemic. One, that in my own bones, I feel we have crossed.
While I am not yet prepared (nor authorized!) to call for a public fast day, I do want to posit that it might be time that we each personally, and even more so communally, begin to orient ourselves toward prayer as a response to this plague. The aforementioned dvar Torah actually shares such examples across time and place, from cholera to the coronavirus.
Some even reference the evocative words of Avinu Malkeinu:
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ כַּלֵּה דֶּֽבֶר וְחֶֽרֶב וְרָעָב וּשְׁ֒בִי וּמַשְׁחִית וְעָוֹן וּשְׁ֒מַד מִבְּ֒נֵי בְרִיתֶֽךָ
Avinu Malkeinu, remove pestilence, sword, famine, captivity, destruction, iniquity, and religious persecution from the members of Your covenant.
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ מְנַע מַגֵּפָה מִנַּחֲלָתֶֽךָ
Avinu Malkeinu, withhold the plague from Your inheritance.
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Chayei Sarah, following the trauma of the Akedah, of a father's near sacrifice of his son, Isaac goes out into the field to meditate.
Va'yetze Yitzchak lasu'ach ba'sadeh lifnot arev.
And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the turning of evening (Gen. 24:63).
About this moment, the Talmud exclaims: What is meditating in a field if not prayer (Berachot 26b). And from this we learn that we should pray in the evening.
Rebbe Nachman, z"l, digs deeper into these words and notices that the word lasu'ach - meaning to meditate, pray, or converse - is also the root of si'ach, a bush, a shrub, even a blade of grass. It refers to green and verdant growing things.
One of my mentors, Rabbi Victor Reinstein, translates Rebbe Nachman's teaching this way:
"Know, that when a person prays in a field, then all of the grasses come within the prayer, and aid the one praying, and give to the one praying strength in their prayer. In this way, prayer is called 'sicha' (in all of its layers of meaning, prayer, meditation, and shrub)" (Likutei Moharan Tinyana 11).
L'cha dodi, come beloveds. Let us go out to meditate in the field that is Shabbat. May we feel supported from within and around as we pray for the cessation of all disease, war, famine, exile, destruction, and this very real plague. And may we know that the natural world is praying alongside us, aiding and strengthening us in this time of isolation. On this November Shabbat, we need only look out our windows and take note of the colorful leaves to join in the conversation (lasu'ach ba'sadeh).
Rabbi Ari Lev
Many truths have emerged this week. Painfully high on the list is the reality that we live in a deeply divided country, as we watch the vote roll in county by county, city by countryside. The battle for the soul of this nation has revealed that there is no unifying understanding of freedom, democracy, or justice. Perhaps the unifying force this week is that we have all been waiting, anxiously, (im)patiently. And the whole world has been watching and waiting with us.
This week has been marked by a profound sense of anticipation followed by a need for real patience as we wait for every vote to be counted. I must admit, I have refreshed the news more times than ever before in my life. I have at moments felt like a dog chasing its tail. I have also felt a kind of unexpected hopefulness; knowing that our waiting would show that years of organizing, movement building, and voter enfranchisement would reveal a new horizon.
But waiting does not come naturally or comfortably. And most often we look for a way out. Over and over again this week I have turned to these words:
כִּי לִישׁוּעָתְ֒ךָ קִוִּֽינוּ כָּל הַיּוֹם:
For your help/salvation, I wait all day long!
The line comes from the 15th blessing of the weekday Amidah, in which we beseech God to bring about the sprouting of salvation. I have taken refuge in its imagery and the long view of time it offers. The blessing begins with grassroots language, literally expressing a desire for redemption to sprout up like a shoot from the earth. It is an image of what is possible linked to a deep longing for it to come true.
Much of Jewish liturgy is actually born of longing and waiting and hoping. In fact, the word in this prayer, kivinu, from the root קוי, means all of that - to hope, to long, to wait. Waiting, says this prayer, is fertile ground.
At its core the Amidah reaches for a vision for a world that is entirely whole and just. A vision bigger than any election or even any lifetime. It connects us to the long view of history which points us toward the world to come. We name our hope for it every time we pray. And we cultivate a taste of it every shabbat.
The poet David Whyte writes,
"Longing has its own secret, future destination, and its own seasonal emergence from within, a ripening from the core, a seed growing in our own bodies; it is as if we are put into relationship with an enormous distance inside us leading us back to some unknown origin with its own secret timing indifferent to our wills, and gifted at the same time with an intimate sense of proximity, to a lover, to a future, to a transformation, to a life we want for ourselves, and to the beauty of the sky and the ground that surrounds us" (Condolences, 137).
We arrive at this Shabbat with a more intimate sense of proximity to the life we want for ourselves; the adrenaline of waiting pulsing through our blood and a long-awaited hopefulness in our hearts. I invite you to take a deeper breath. To allow the exhale to slowly bring you to a halt. And to never stop hoping for what's possible and necessary.
I gift you this song, recorded by my beloved colleague Rabbi David Fainsilber. May it guide your heart to keep waiting and longing and dreaming of a world that is whole as our ancestors have done for millennia.
Rabbi Ari Lev
The poet Rilke writes,
God speaks to each of us as [she] makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
All week I have been feeling pushed to the limits of my longing. I can imagine I am not alone. And sitting with the words of this week's Torah portion I realized this is what is meant when the Holy One calls to our ancestor Abraham: Lech lecha! Go forth, out beyond your recall; from a place of comfort and belonging, into the vast unknown of this world. Go to the limits of your longing!
Abraham heeds the call and heads out into the wilderness. In a famous midrash, beautifully recounted for us by Rivka Cohen in this morning's Torah reading, Abraham's journey is likened to a person who is traveling, a person who is all of us, and comes upon a bira doleket, a burning palace (Gen. Rabbah 39:1).
The traveler cries out, "Does this palace have an owner? Who is its caretaker?" On hearing this, the owner of the palace leans out the window and calls from amidst the flames, "I am its caretaker."
We, like Abraham, are in the midst of a world on fire, stunned by the magnitude of injustice; betrayed by the malice and negligence of those in power and ever aware of our own power and responsibility to take care of each other and our world.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
In the wake of the murder of Walter Wallace, Jr., on the second anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, on the eve of this crucial election, we must heed the wisdom of our ancestors. Lech lecha! Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don't let yourself lose your center, your Source, your dignity, your power.
As we enter this Shabbat, I encourage you to carve out time to both go forth and go inward. Make a plan for how you will vote and how you will make sure every vote is counted. AND make a plan for how you will care for yourself this Shabbat and in the coming week. The journey forward and the journey inward are simultaneous and inseparable. May we all have the courage, calm, and capacity to make our lives a blessing in this burning world.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Here we go again...
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the beginning, when the Holy One began to create the sky and the earth.
Every year our tradition invites us to assume a posture of beginner's mind, a state of curiosity and uncertainty, as we re-encounter these dog-eared stories and see what arises this time around.
Most years I am drawn to the very first days of creation. The light and the luminaries, the spirit hovering over the face of the deep. Or I find myself jumping ahead to the final days, the creation of human beings each holy, in the image of the divine and the invitation to rest in the glory of it all on Shabbat.
But this year I am lingering on the often under-appreciated fifth day of creation.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים יִשְׁרְצ֣וּ הַמַּ֔יִם שֶׁ֖רֶץ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֑ה וְעוֹף֙ יְעוֹפֵ֣ף עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ עַל־פְּנֵ֖י רְקִ֥יעַ הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
And the Holy One said, "Let the waters swarm with sheretz nefesh chayah/living creatures and let the birds fill the horizon of the skies" (Gen. 1:20). Not to mention on the fifth day the Holy One creates sea monsters and all kinds of creepy crawly critters (See v. 21)!
What is a sheretz? From Genesis we know that it is a living creature that swarms the earth. Then in Leviticus we get a list of eight kinds of shratzim -- the mole, the mouse, and lizards of every variety, the gecko, the crocodile, more lizards, and the chameleon (11:29-30). But what's more, the Torah asserts that each of these creatures is fundamentally and categorically impure (tameh). Which means that anyone who comes into contact with one of their corpses, a dead sheretz, needs to immerse in a mikveh to become ritually available again.
The sheretz reappears in rabbinic discourse in the most unexpected of places, as the rabbis are discussing the requirements for who should be able to sit on the highest rabbinic court, the Sanhedrin. And as it so happens, we too are in the midst of a national conversation about who is worthy of such power and responsibility. A matter the rabbis take very seriously!
As Bennett Decker explains:
"Rabbi Yochanan suggests a number of requirements. They must be tall, wise, good looking, and old. They also must have mastered sorcery and all 70 languages. In short, these requirements are specifically designed to exclude all but a select class of men. It sets the Jewish 'ideal' as a nigh unattainable goal."
But Rav Yehudah, in the name of Rav, presents another idea. Rav argues that one is only placed upon the Sanhedrin if they are able to metaher et ha sheretz min hatorah, to declare a sheretz pure by Torah law. Which is to say, the judges on the Sanhedrin must be so skilled at logical reasoning that they could even produce a convincing argument that creeping animals, which the Torah states explicitly are ritually impure, are actually pure.
In the words of Laynie Soloman, "A requirement for rabbinic leadership, power, and authority, then, is to use the Torah to declare pure something that the Torah itself defines as fundamentally and unchangeably impure. To be a judge on the Sanhedrin is, in short, to be able to overturn the Torah itself—even, or perhaps especially, where the Torah seems least able to be overturned."
We learn in Pirkei Avot that the purpose of Torah is to increase freedom in the world (6:2). By extension we can understand that the purpose of any system of law should be to increase freedom and uphold justice. This is fundamentally the role of everyone in power, most especially the rabbis of the Sanhedrin and the justices of the Supreme Court; to be bold and brave and willing to transform the law when it does not align with freedom.
As we begin this new Torah cycle, may we draw strength and courage from the rabbis to be willing to overturn and transform Torah when it misses the mark. And may we merit to live in a world where we can hold those in power to this standard.
Shabbat shalom u'mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Each morning of this week has been infused with the psalms of Mutual Aid Hallel (Thank you Rabbi Mó!). I have sat in my sukkah and sung along, swaying my body and the lulav in the brisk but inviting fall air. And each morning I have allowed myself to linger with a different phrase, to notice how many different ways there are to praise the mutilated world. The many hallelujahs of our tradition. In truth many of my most favorite words to pray appear in Hallel:
לֹ֤א לָ֥נוּ יְהוָ֗ה לֹ֫א לָ֥נוּ
This is not about us...but about something larger and ineffable...
וַאֲנַ֤חְנוּ ׀ נְבָ֘רֵ֤ךְ יָ֗הּ מֵֽעַתָּ֥ה וְעַד־עוֹלָ֗ם הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃
And we will continually bless the Source of our resilience...
הוֹד֣וּ לַיהוָ֣ה כִּי־ט֑וֹב כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
Grateful for the goodness that comes our way and the kindness in our lives...
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽהּ׃
From the narrow place we call out towards the expanse which awaits us...
אֶ֭בֶן מָאֲס֣וּ הַבּוֹנִ֑ים הָ֝יְתָ֗ה לְרֹ֣אשׁ פִּנָּֽה׃
The stone that the builders rejected is the foundation of our beginning...
זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ׃
This is the day, no matter what kind of day it is, let's choose to live it joyfully.
But today, beneath the waning quarter moon bright in the blue sky, on this seventh day of Sukkot, which is also known as Hoshanah Rabbah, the great crying out in which we circle seven times and beat our willow branches against the earth, another line landed.
אָנָּ֣א יְ֭הוָה הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א
Please mysterious, ineffable, breath of all beings, save us!
There is something raw and relieving about singing out a series of praises, expressing awe and gratitude for the mountains and the miracles, and then getting to just give into the desperate impulse to beg for help.
As my attention turns more fully from the Days of Awe to election season, I feel this impulse.
אָנָּ֣א יְ֭הוָה הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א
Deliver us from this time!
אָֽנָּ֥א יְ֝הוָ֗ה הַצְלִ֘יחָ֥ה נָּֽא׃
Allow us to be on the side of victory.
But then I feel a deeper desire - a longing to know that whatever happens in November, we will have what it takes to dream big and to take care of one another. To continue to cry out and praise the world, to root deep in prayer and community, and to hold fast to that which has sustained our ancestors for millennia.
If you too are feeling this demanding combination of celebration and desperation, come to Simchat Torah on Saturday night so we can conclude this holiday season together as a community. Over and over again we will call out to the many names of the Holy One,
Strengthen us, so that we know that we have what it takes!
Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Each year I am grateful for the direct instruction to begin building a sukkah as soon as Yom Kippur ends. How else would we manage to climb down from the lofty heights of endless song and prayer, if not for the obligation to climb up a new, actual ladder; to set hammer to nail and build an intentionally impermanent and permeable structure.
The days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot are tender and alive. I can feel that I have removed the calluses on my soul. My heart has been stretched open to meet the horizon. I am able to notice a profound contentment, a kind of grateful release, a resting into what is that is itself joyful. Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, describes this special Sukkot joy as "the joy of being stripped naked, the joy of being flush with life, the joy of having nothing between us and the world" (265).
He then recounts this amazing parable from the Talmud:
"It is the unusual way of human beings to feel secure and unafraid while under the shelter of their own roofs. On emerging from their homes, their sense of security is diminished and they begin to feel fear. [Jews], however, are different. While in their homes the whole year, they are apprehensive. But when Sukkot comes and they leave their homes and come under the shadow of the sukkah, their hearts are full of trust, faith, and joy, for now they are protected, not by the protection of their roofs, but by the shadow of their faith and trust in God.
"The matter may be compared to a person who locks themself up at home for fear of robbers. Regardless of how many locks they use and how strong these locks may be, they remain afraid lest the locks be broken. Once they hear the voice of the King approaching and calling, 'Emerge from your chamber and join me,' they are no longer afraid. They immediately open their doors and emerge joyously to join the King...trust and joy never depart from them" (267).
We are once again invited to take refuge in impermanence; to trust that in our comings and our goings, the Shekhina will accompany us. To know a joy that can contain our tears. To remember that security does not lie in locks and policing, but that through our shared vulnerability and care we keep each other safe.
We began this journey on Tisha b'Av, when we invite the wall to crumble as the first step in waking up to our lives. And we conclude it on Sukkot, as we rebuild, raw and revealed. The journey invites us to not only inhabit our sukkot, but to more fully inhabit our lives. In the words of Rabbi Lew, "any moment fully felt, any immersion in the depth of life, can be the source of deep joy" (267).
After so many months of being afraid, contracted in my own home and in my own soul, I am so full of awe and gratitude for having made it through the experience of the Yamim Noraim this year; for the courage of this community to feel it all fully and immerse so deeply. It was more transformative and more joyful than I ever could have imagined. And I know from my inbox, that we all needed it. And there is still more to come!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
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.