www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.11.12Every seven years, every cell in the human body regenerates. This fact has always amazed me. I remember thinking on the seventh anniversary of my coming out as trans that every cell in my body is fully me now. When I officiate at a wedding, I often begin by sharing that the number seven represents wholeness and completion. This helps to explain why the ritual begins with seven circles. But what if the significance of seven is less about completion and more about regeneration?
In this moment in time, we find ourselves in the midst of three different cycles of seven.
The first of which is Shabbat.
The Torah begins with a creation story in which in six days the heavens and the earth and everything in it is created, and on the seventh day the Holy One ceased from the work of creation. This is our first paradigm for the (notably prime) number 7 as a unit of time.
The second cycle is the Omer.
We are instructed to count the days following the festival of Passover, a period of seven weeks of seven days, for a total of 49 days. And we are instructed that the 50th day, following this period of weeks, we are to observe the holiday of Shavuot (which is fast approaching and begins Sunday evening, May 16). Today is the 40th day of the omer.
The third cycle is that of the Sabbatical year, in which we are nearing the end of the sixth year in a seven-year cycle. We receive this teaching in the opening verses of this week's double Torah portion Behar-Behukotai. Leviticus 25 reads:
וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗ת שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַיהוָ֑ה שָֽׂדְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תִזְרָ֔ע וְכַרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תִזְמֹֽר׃
But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Holy One: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.
Much like the observance of Shabbat, in which we work for six days and rest on the seventh, we are instructed to work the land for six years and to let the land rest on the seventh. This cycle comes to be known as the practice of Shmita.
In fact, the Torah teaches us about this practice three times. Once in Exodus 23, in Leviticus 25, and then in Deuteronomy 15. In the first two occurrences, it describes an agricultural practice in which the land gets to rest. But in Deuteronomy, it actually describes a practice of economic justice in which all debt is forgiven. The word Shmita itself actually means release or letting go, and comes to be equally associated with both agricultural and economic practices.
And much like we count the Omer, our Torah portion explains that we should also count the weeks of years:
וְסָפַרְתָּ֣ לְךָ֗ שֶׁ֚בַע שַׁבְּתֹ֣ת שָׁנִ֔ים שֶׁ֥בַע שָׁנִ֖ים שֶׁ֣בַע פְּעָמִ֑ים וְהָי֣וּ לְךָ֗ יְמֵי֙ שֶׁ֚בַע שַׁבְּתֹ֣ת הַשָּׁנִ֔ים תֵּ֥שַׁע וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃
You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years...
וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵ֣ת שְׁנַ֤ת הַחֲמִשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ יוֹבֵ֥ל הִוא֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִ֚ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ׃
and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.
I would say this is yet a fourth cycle of counting, except that we don't quite know where we are within it or if its lofty visions have ever been realized.
What I do know is that we are preparing to enter a Shmita year in 5782. The practices of Shmita -- Release and Regenerate -- will be this year's High Holidays theme and we will have abundant opportunities to learn, engage, and reclaim them. There are a seemingly infinite number of interpretations of Shmita, so many I can hardly choose where to begin or how to define it. Given the proximity to Shavuot, let us begin here.
Rabbi David Seidenberg writes,
"The whole purpose of the covenant at Sinai is to create a society that observed Shmita... The Sabbatical year was the guarantor and the ultimate fulfillment of the justice that Torah teaches us to practice in everyday life, and it was a justice that embraced not just fellow human beings, but the land and all life... In modern parlance we call it 'sustainability,' but that's just today's buzzword. It's called Shmita in the holy tongue, 'release'—releasing each other from debts, releasing the land from work, releasing ourselves from our illusions of selfhood into the freedom of living with others and living for the sake of all life... This is what it means to 'choose life so you may live, you and your seed after you.' (Deut. 30:19) This is what it means to 'increase your days and your children's days on the ground for as long as the skies are over the land.' (Deut. 11:21)."
May we have the courage in all of the small moments to let go and release. And may the journey to Sinai and beyond lead us closer to a realization of this vision.
Rabbi Ari Lev
It is a custom for the rabbi to deliver a long sermon on Shabbat HaGadol, which precedes the festival of Passover. Some have been known to go on for six hours or more. I share with you here the words I will offer tonight. Longer than usual, but hopefully not unreasonably so. Thank you in advance for reading and receiving them. They come from my heart. May they be blessed to enter yours.
I am not by nature a joiner. I am generally not good at going with the flow. I don't like sleep-overs unless it's a very familiar place. I am forever trying to be more flexible and easy going. To trust that I will be able to get my needs met in any given situation. To trust that if I show up somewhere I will feel seen and safe in my body. Each and every year I am leaving the narrow place of seeing myself as "the difficult" child.
Being part of the Kol Tzedek community has been one of my greatest teachers in the spiritual practice of joining. It has taught me how vulnerable, how risky, and how healing this joining is. What holds us back is often directly correlated to the many layers of identities we each hold that may not be easily seen, appreciated, or respected in communal space.
This coming Saturday and Sunday nights, Jews and our beloveds around the world will gather to tell a story of liberation. A story that is specifically designed to be at once mythic and personal, collective and intimate. Some might describe it as the central Jewish story. And the Haggadah is perhaps a masterpiece in the spiritual pedagogy of transmitting this story. A multi-sensory, multilingual journey intended to free us from the constrictions of our time.
Every year when we arrive at the section of Maggid, when we describe the four prototypical children (classically sons), I am quick to identify with the rasha, the "wicked" child. I imagine I am not alone in this at Kol Tzedek. I have done a lot of fancy footwork to retranslate what in Hebrew is the rasha, a word that does in fact mean evil or wicked. I have been generous and said this is the skeptical child, the critical thinker, the iconoclast, the boundary-crosser. And I have been less generous and said this is the contrary child, the stubborn, inflexible, "difficult" child I so often felt like.
Now I do not want to take for granted what I know to be true in my own soul. That the four children -- imperfectly translated as the wise, the wicked, the quiet, and the one who does not know how to ask -- are not archetypes but aspects within each of us. Each of us has the capacity to embody these qualities. And perhaps the Haggadah is inviting us more intentionally to remember that. To try on being each of these characters in different contexts and to notice how it shifts. In what parts of my life am I the one who doesn't know how to ask and in what parts of my life do I have wisdom to share?
And at the same time, the Haggadah suggests, we also have habits, shaped by lifetimes of experiences, that deeply impact how we are in the world and how we perceive ourselves. And for me, that habit usually defaults to identifying with the rasha.
What really is so bad about the rasha after all? What makes the character deserving of this title?
We read in the Haggadah:
רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר?
The Rasha, what does he say?
מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם.
'What is this worship to you?' (Exodus 12:26)
For me this reads like a helpful, reasonable and engaged question. What's so wicked about this question?
The Haggadah critically elaborates,
לָכֶם – וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר.
[The Rasha said] 'To you' and not 'to him.' He excluded himself from the collective and therefore denies our essence.
What makes the wicked child wicked (according to the Haggadah and thousands of years of commentary)? The fact that he excluded himself from the community.
As someone for whom joining and the trust it requires does not come easily, these words sting and they resonate. For Mordecai Kaplan there were three major forms of Jewish identity -- believing, behaving, and belonging. For Kaplan himself, the primary form of identity was belonging. Neil Gilman explains that according to Kaplan, "To exclude oneself from the community is to abandon the relationship that above all makes one a Jew and to forsake the responsibility for the fate of Jews."
For Kaplan and for the Haggadah, to be able to see ourselves in this Jewish story, b'chol dor v'dor, in each and every generation, is itself a defining spiritual practice.
וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר.
For to exclude ourselves from the collective is to deny our essence.
What defines Jewishness, says the Haggadah, is our willingness to choose each other and our traditions, year after year.
This has never been easy. And it does not come naturally to me.
I remember years ago, early in rabbinical school. I generally did not feel like I fit in. And I struggled to claim the community as my own.
One afternoon I was standing in an auditorium with about 50 students waiting for a community program to start and a teacher was trying to get everyone's attention. I walked over and silently stood next to this teacher, trying to be helpful. He looked at me with some amount of surprise. Clearly he had not seen me as the most cooperative student. I remember him looking over and saying these words: "Nice job not perpetuating your own marginalization."
Those words stung.
And they resonated.
We learn in Pirkei Avot (2:4),
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר
Hillel says: 'Do not separate yourself from the community.'
As I said in the beginning, I am not, by nature, a joiner. I return to these words often. They have become central to my theology. That might be why I wanted to be the rabbi at Kol Tzedek. To create a community that we might all feel proud and comfortable belonging to. This might have been, and might continue to be, overly ambitious. And yet I cannot stop imagining the power and importance of all of us being tethered to each other, to these stories, to something beyond ourselves. This is central to my own theory of change -- personal and political. It is core to my own understanding of joy. It continues to be what sustains me.
For some of us this year, our sense of belonging has been strengthened. And for others it has frayed. As an extrovert, I so miss strangers. I miss just showing up to shul and meeting new people. The very essence of what makes a strong community is radical hospitality and a wide web of relationships. And this has not been safe or possible for us in person over the last year. Just about everything we were trying to do at Kol Tzedek was about bringing together large groups of random people to sing and breathe deeply together in close proximity (oy!).
In different ways, what we have needed to do to survive physically has been at odds with what we need to thrive spiritually and emotionally. We have learned to fear each other's company, which has felt at times like denying our essence. And I can imagine we are all feeling tender as we look ahead at the prospect of returning to some amount of in-person anything. Feelings of isolation and exclusion are present and inevitable.
For those of us who have felt distant from community, what will it take to rebuild a sense of connection to the collective?
For those of us who have felt more connected than ever, what will it take to stay connected as things continue to change?
Neither I, nor Torah, are naive about the nature of community. It is a messy web of relationships. Like all enduring relationships, it is full of heartbreak, disappointment, and harm. And it is a powerful source of interdependence, transformation, and healing.
I am forever inspired by the image that is referenced three times in the Exodus story. The Israelites crossed in the midst of the sea on dry ground.
To which a midrash asks,
"If it was in the midst of the sea, then how could it be dry ground?
And if it was dry ground, how could it have been in the midst of the sea?"
If we have learned anything from this year, it is the truth of this contradiction. We have learned how to be dry ground for each other in the midst of the sea. In song, in study, in countless ways. Thank you.
This teaching was further transformed for me this week when one of my teachers, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, shared an excerpt from a letter written by Franz Rosenzweig. For me, Rosenzweig speaks to the power of community in the face of unending uncertainty, which has certainly defined the time from last Pesach to this one.
"Each of us can only seize by the scruff whoever happens to be closest to us in the mire. This is the 'neighbor' the Bible speaks of. And the miraculous thing is that, although each of us stands in the mire of our self, we can each pull out our neighbor, or at least keep him from drowning. None of us has solid ground under our feet; each of us is only held up by the neighborly hands grasping us by the scruff, with the result that we are each held up by the next one, and often, indeed most of the time...hold each other up mutually. All this mutual upholding (a physical impossibility) becomes possible only because the great hand from above supports all these holding human hands by their wrists. It is this, and not some nonexistent 'solid ground under one's feet' that enables all the human hands to hold and to help. There is no such thing as standing, there is only being held up." [From a letter to his sister-in-law, p.92 of Franz Rosenzweig --His Life and Thought by Nahum Glatzer]
May we continue to find the courage to reach for each other, to hold each other up.
May our inner children be forever liberated from the stories we tell that are no longer serving us.
May we know that even as we bravely cross the sea on dry land we are also being carried.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Kasher v'Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Marcia Falk's Kaddish begins:
Praise the world
praise its fullness
and its longing,
its beauty and its grief.
This week marks a collective anniversary, a yahrzeit of sorts. It has been one year since COVID shut down the world and the global pandemic took hold of our daily lives. It has also been one year since Breonna Taylor's death, may her memory be a blessing.
This week also marks the end of another chapter, a book in fact. The book of Exodus. A story of miracles and liberation woven into the world's imagination, shaping our sense of what is possible, pushing up against the limits of the very premise of impossible.
Traditionally a yahrzeit is marked by lighting a candle that will burn for 24 hours and reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, which we will do tonight. As is the way of death and grief, the past year has brought into stark relief existential questions about what matters most in our lives. In the words of the High Holiday machzor:
מה אנו ומה חיינו
מה חסדינו מה צדקינו מה כוחינו מה גבורותינו.
Who are we and what is our life?
What is our kindness? Our righteousness? Our resilience? Our powers?
In this week's parshiyot, Vayakel-Pekudei, we witness the creative genius and generous offerings of the ancient Israelite community as they construct the mishkan, and invite holiness into their midst. Blue, purple, and crimson handspun wools, precious stones, special spices, and aromatic incense. It was truly a celebration of the senses.
And once they had collected all of the raw materials, the Holy One singles out one artisan and calls him by name.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רְא֛וּ קָרָ֥א יְהוָ֖ה בְּשֵׁ֑ם בְּצַלְאֵ֛ל בֶּן־אוּרִ֥י בֶן־ח֖וּר לְמַטֵּ֥ה יְהוּדָֽה׃
And Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Holy One has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah (Exodus 35:30).
There is abundant commentary on the specificity of the Holy One's words here. What is it to be seen and called upon by our name?
One midrash explains that every time a person performs a good deed, a mitzvah, it adds to our shem tov, our good name. And according to Ecclesiastes, "A good name is better than precious oil; and the day of death better than the day of one's birth" (7:1). Why? Because even the best oil spoils, while a good name is everlasting. (Tanhuma, Vayakel 1:1).
And why is the day of death better than the day of one's birth?
When a person is born, no one knows who they will become,
but when a person leaves this world with a good name, good deeds become abundant because of them.
When we rise tonight, in body or in spirit, to praise the world, its fullness, its longing, its beauty, and its grief, may we be inspired by the gifts of the mishkan, the skills of Bezalel, and our experience of the past year, to do as many good deeds as possible that we may be called upon and remembered by that which endures -- our good name.
May the names of the 2.63 million people that have died from COVID worldwide be lifted up and honored.
And may we remember Breonna Taylor's good name as an inspiration to pursue justice and to love kindness.
Hazak hazak v'nithazek.
Strength, strength, grant us inner strength.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I still remember the first time I tried to sit still. Not in an elementary school way, but in meditation. I was nearly 20. Myself and two friends, relatively spontaneously, decided to join a sit at the San Francisco Zen Center. We were each given a cushion and a cubicle of sorts. We were instructed to sit still for 30 minutes. If we needed to move, we were told to first bow and then move with awareness.
All I remember is spending what felt like an eternity repeatedly bowing to myself, until I had literally given myself the giggles. After a few minutes I ran out of the room and completely unraveled into a ball of nervous laughter. I am confident I was a complete distraction to everyone present, most of all myself.
And yet I was also encouraged. The unparalleled simplicity of the instruction to sit still has captured my spiritual attention for nearly 20 years. This is not a posture that comes easily to me. Yet one that most ancient spiritual traditions point to.
Over the years I have come to understand that Shabbat is to time as meditation is to being human. We sing of this stillness every week on Shabbat afternoon and read them aloud in this week's parsha, Ki Tissa:
וְשָׁמְר֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת לַעֲשׂ֧וֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֛ת לְדֹרֹתָ֖ם בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם
The Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.
בֵּינִ֗י וּבֵין֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל א֥וֹת הִ֖וא לְעֹלָ֑ם כִּי־שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבַיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ׃
It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Holy One made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day ceased and was refreshed (shavat vayinafash) (Exodus 31:16-17).
According to these words, Shabbat is not just stillness for its own sake, but it also contains a sense of promise. Not exactly the enlightenment of meditation, but the possibility of being re-souled, refreshed, renewed (shavat vayinafash).
For the rabbis, the promise of renewal and the mitzvah to observe Shabbat is so important they say it is tantamount to observing all other mitzvot combined. The first mention of Shabbat comes famously on the seventh day of creation. And then there is relative radio silence. We never hear about our ancestors observing shabbat in Genesis. Until parshat Beshallach, just about a month ago, when Shabbat reappears in regards to manna in the desert. And from then on, Shabbat appears in every parsha in Exodus. Shabbat is mentioned relative to all the instructions to build the mishkan. Perhaps most famously in the Ten Commandments in Yitro. And in particular in this week's parsha as we get the second set of tablets, once again inviting the instructions around observing Shabbat.
One midrash offers us an aspirational image from the natural world.
נְהַר סַמְבַּטְיוֹן מֵעִיד שֶׁבְּכָל יָמִים הוּא מוֹשֵׁךְ אֲבָנִים וָחוֹל וּבְשַׁבָּת נִנּוֹחַ.
Even the river of Sabbtyon testifies to the power of Shabbat for it carries stones and sand throughout the week, but on Shabbat it is still (Tanhuma, Ki Tissa 33).
Shabbat is a time in which the current ceases and the rocks settle. And for a moment the world is still. Yet nothing about this stillness comes naturally to me. And nothing about it is supported by popular culture or capitalism. To borrow an image from the poet Ross Gay, Shabbat is at its best a day for loitering.
"The Webster's definition of loiter reads thus: 'to stand or wait around idly without apparent purpose,' and 'to travel indolently with frequent pauses.' Among the synonyms for this behavior are linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey. Any one of these words, in the wrong frame of mind, might be considered a critique or, when nouned, an epithet ('Lollygagger!' or 'Loafer!')...All of these words to me imply having a nice day. They imply having the best day. They also imply being unproductive. Which leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America, and more explicitly criminal depending upon any number of quickly apprehended visual cues."
Ross Gay goes on to say that loitering is delightful. And wouldn't you know it, so is Shabbat. To quote the liturgy of the Mussaf Amidah,
יִשמְחוּ בְמַלְכוּתְךָ שׁומְרֵי שַׁבָּת וְקורְאֵי ענֶג.
They will rejoice, those who keep the Sabbath and call it a delight (v'korei oneg).
For me delight conjures a tender, easeful kind of joy. It has tones of spontaneity and the unexpected. Not feelings that have primarily been present for me in meditation, nor necessarily on Shabbat. If I am honest, some weeks I dread Shabbat during the pandemic. The days are long and the distractions are few, and I miss being physically together. I quickly recover the spirit of myself 20 years ago, looking for the eject button from this spiritual practice. There must be a way out.
And so I am grateful for the wisdom of Ross Gay. His essay continues:
"Which points to another of the synonyms for loitering, which I almost wrote as delight: taking one's time. For while the previous list of synonyms allude to time, taking one's time makes it kind of plain, for the crime of loitering, the idea of it, is about ownership of one's own time, which must be, sometimes, wrested from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is."
And I am grateful for the repetitive instructions of Exodus which seem at times to be like pounding a nail into wood, and in other moments, like an abundant gift.
V'shamru et yom hashabbat
Protect this day. For it is precious.
V'nei u'vein b'nei yisrael ot hi l'olam
It is what binds us together.
Ki sheshet yamim asa adonai et hashamayim v'et haaretz
For all week we are busy and time is not our own
U'vayom hashevi'i shavat vayinafash
But on this day, we cease and refresh.
Whatever your Shabbat practice includes and excludes, I invite you to linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey.
May you have the courage and discipline to take your time this Shabbat, to go slow enough to conjure delight and to know that you are connected to many concentric circles of people who are doing so with you.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Yesterday Zoom invited me to a webinar. As far as I can tell they had no idea it was Purim. The description read, "In this webinar you will learn pragmatic ways to embed disruption into your strategy, leadership, and culture." I stopped and laughed. At this point we don't need to embed disruption, it has become our pandemic status quo. And then I thought, Zoom just tried to repackage the wisdom of Purim in a webinar.
Every year on Yom Kippur, we ask ourselves in what ways is the Day of Atonement like Purim, inspired by the linguistic wordplay Yom k'Purim? During the mincha service we integrate the spirit of whimsy and carnival to further open the heart.
What if the opposite is also possible? This year I am drawing more connections and noticing the ways that Purim is a lot like Yom Kippur.
Now, on the surface they look antithetical to each other. On Yom Kippur we wear all white. On Purim we dress up in costume. On Yom Kippur we fast from food and water. On Purim we eat and drink until we can't tell the difference between right and wrong. And yet, both holidays are replete with seemingly opposite practices that point us towards change and transformation, towards teshuvah.
The Sefat Emet explains that teshuvah on Yom Kippur happens through "affliction" -- abstaining from food, water, sex, and other bodily functions, and focusing on prayer and introspection. The Sefat Emet then asserts that on Purim, the work of teshuvah takes place through simcha -- joy, happiness, and celebration.
The most outrageous mitzvah on Purim is surely the instruction to get so inebriated that we don't know the difference between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman." The prospect of letting loose and letting go so that we blur the boundaries of what we know to be true is risky and vulnerable. And a subversive way to access that which is hidden, yet persistent and possible. The combination of levity, libation, costumes, and carnival creates a sacred destabilization of reality, embedded disruption if you will. Not for its own sake, but because it leads us closer to our truest selves and to each other.
In the words of Yehudah Amichai:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
Or in the words of adrienne maree brown, "Laughter is important. Joy is important. It's not a guilty pleasure, it is a strategic move towards the future we all need to create."
May the laughter and joy of Purim soften our judgements and loosen our grip on what we know as fixed and true, ad d'lo yada, until we no longer know the place where we are right. And may the coming of spring be full of new possibilities and abundant growth for each of us.
Hag Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov famously said,
מִצְוָה גְּדוֹלָה לִהְיוֹת בְּשִׂמְחָה תָּמִיד
It is a great mitzvah to be happy always.
His words are often invoked in the month of Adar, especially as we approach the holiday of Purim. It is helpful to know that Rebbe Nachman was a person who suffered tremendously in his life. Lest we think these are the words of a naively and naturally joyous person. Quite the opposite.
Joy is existentially and practically very complicated. We long for it. We fear it. Reflecting on this teaching, I was reminded of a story in my own life.
About twenty years ago I was visiting a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan and found myself in an elevator with a group of nuns. There was an unspoken ethos of silence, even when not in formal sitting practice. But I couldn't help myself. I had the captive attention of these young nuns. They were at once peers and from another world, another way of life.
My impulsive western mind quickly asked them the first question that came to mind: "Are you happy?" I feel some shame for the judgement embedded in this question and also deep compassion for my young seeking self, trying to understand happiness.
The nuns responded, "Yes. But it is a different kind of happiness." This answer has surely stayed with me. Long before I had a meditation practice of my own, I had this sense that there are different kinds of happiness. Science has actually studied it. Whatever special machine measures the happiness of the brain has registered off the chart levels of happiness for monks and nuns coming off of extended retreats.
And Judaism knows this too.
We sing of the great varieties of human joy in the seven wedding blessings, gilah rinah ditzah v'chedvah, ahavah v'achavah v'shalom v'reut...Blessing the Source of Life who created joy and gladness, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing, love and harmony and peace and companionship.
And the list continues in a verse that comes from Megillat Esther, which is also sung weekly at the beginning of Havdalah, "Layehudim hayetah orah v'simcha v'sason vikar. Kein tehiyeh lanu. The Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor. May we have the same."
Jewish tradition is replete with teachings about it. The boost of Joy that characterizes the month of Adar and the holiday of Purim is also deeply linked to another Jewish holiday, Sukkot, referred to as zman simchateinu, the season of our Joy.
At this time of year, I often refer back to Alan Lew's teachings on Joy. He describes "the special joy of being flush with life...Joy as a deep release of the soul and it includes death and pain...any experience we give our whole being to...any moment fully inhabited, any feeling fully felt, any immersion in the full depth of life, can be the source of deep joy" (265,7).
I think this is the joy that the nuns were describing in that elevator. And the kind of joy that Rebbe Nachman is compelling us towards. And frankly, the kind of joy that is always and especially now accessible and necessary for each of us.
As we enter Shabbat, and come closer to the holiday of Purim, may we each have the courage to more fully inhabit even just one moment, to know our pain and gratitude so fully, that it fills us with deep joy.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Last night I brought home a very special gift in honor of Rosh Hodesh Adar. A case of 10 ripe mangoes. This is a beloved fruit in our house. The haul was met with cheers of joy. Just as we were eating the first juicy bites, fears of scarcity arose. My kids asked, "How many have we eaten? How many are left? Why didn't you get 20?" They started to ration. "We need to save some for tomorrow!" I tried to reassure them and encourage them to enjoy the bounty of this tropical fruit without much success. The fruit was after all finite.
My kids awoke this morning, remembered the mangoes, and asked the most important question: "Do we have enough to share with our friends?" As soon as I assured them of this, they were completely at ease. Over and over again, my kids remind me that the ability to share is actually what produces a sense of abundance, not the quantity itself.
Each year, at this time of year, as the sap begins to flow in the trees and the days grow ever so much longer, I return to a particular teaching about abundance from this week's parsha, Mishpatim. Amidst a litany of laws about how to create an ethical society, comes this holy instruction:
אִם־כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ תַּלְוֶ֣ה אֶת־עַמִּ֗י אֶת־הֶֽעָנִי֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ לֹא־תִהְיֶ֥ה ל֖וֹ כְּנֹשֶׁ֑ה לֹֽא־תְשִׂימ֥וּן עָלָ֖יו נֶֽשֶׁךְ׃
If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them (Exodus 22:24).
A beloved midrash on this verse opens up this conversation further (Tanhuma, Mishpatim 12):
"All of God's creations borrow from each other;
day borrows from night, and night from day...
The moon and the stars borrow from each other...
The night borrows from the sun, and the sun from the night...
Wisdom borrows from understanding, and understanding borrows from wisdom...
Mercy and righteousness borrow from each other...
Heaven and earth borrow from each other...
The midrash concludes:
"A person who charges interest once asked The Holy Blessed One:
'Don't you charge interest to all of your creations? From the earth that you irrigate; From the flowers that you grow; From the luminaries that you cause to shine; From the person into whom you breathed life?'
To which the Holy One replies, 'No, never! See how much I lend, and I never collect interest. The earth lends and she doesn't collect interest. I lend to the source of all lending, and the earth renews herself in it.'"
We live in a world of abundance, and yet we feel scarcity. The voice of God in this midrash reminds us that there is enough to go around. And sharing -- mangoes and money and time and love -- is actually how we come to feel that truth.
This is at the heart of the mitzvot of Purim. To share food and treats through mishloach manot. And to give money directly to those who need it through matanot l'evyonim.
About the power of sharing, the Sufi mystic Hafiz writes:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
Or in the words of Pirkei Avot:
אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ
Who is rich? A person who rejoices in what they have (4:1).
As we enter this new month, may we take every opportunity to share what we have and come to feel the joy of having enough.
Happy Lunar New Year, Hodesh Tov & Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi 🦁 Lev
For the past many months, I have been co-teaching a morning class on the weekday Amidah. We begin each class by listening to a song. Mechanically speaking, I share the sound from my computer and it seemingly magically can be heard through the participants' speakers.
This morning, for unknown reasons, the sound share worked for some students but not others. And people started to write in the chat, "I can't hear it." And then others responded, "I can hear it." I had little faith in my ability to solve this technological issue. But I did have the thought, this is feeling a lot like Sinai.
When I imagine the moment of revelation, as described in this week's parsha, Yitro, I imagine the crowd of Israelites full of anticipation and uncertainty. Some eager, some skeptical, some terrified. I imagine the confusion. The thunder and the silence. The wondering: Was that the voice of the Holy One or just a low pressure system passing through? It is so hard to trust our own experience of something so unprecedented.
One midrash tells the story this way (Shemot Rabbah 5:9):
כְּשֶׁנָּתַן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה בְּסִינַי הֶרְאָה בְּקוֹלוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל פִּלְאֵי פְּלָאִים, כֵּיצַד?
הָיָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְדַבֵּר וְהַקּוֹל יוֹצֵא וּמַחֲזִיר בְּכָל הָעוֹלָם...
"In the moment when the Holy Blessed One gifted Torah at Sinai, God's voice was revealed through wondrous miracles. How? The Holy Blessed One would speak and the voice (kol) could be heard from one end of the earth to the other..."
The midrash goes on to explain that the Israelites would hear the voice coming from the south and run towards it. And then they would hear it from the north and run towards it. The east, the west, the heavens, the earth. But every time they arrived, the sound was coming from somewhere else. Then the sound splits into 70 voices, in 70 languages, so that each and every person could receive Torah in their own way.
אֵצֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד לְפִי כֹּחוֹ
I am so conditioned to believe that if only circumstances were different, then I would have the capacity to make great changes or heed much-needed wisdom in my life.
But what if the opposite is true?
What if the revelation at Sinai can be received wherever we are in life, in whatever way we are most easily able to receive it?
What if we don't need to run beyond our reach, or wait for some better moment, or be anyone but who we are?
What if the clarity and connections we long for are in fact seeking us out, descending from the heavens, delicate as snowflakes?
This Shabbat, may we take the time to attune to the still small voice in our own hearts. And to know this too as Torah.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Everything I know about birth I learned through the births of my two children. Their births were in many ways extremely different from one another. One was exceedingly long and the other reasonably short. One ended in a hospital and the other at home. One went as we had hoped and the other was a practice in resilience. One felt joyful and the other painful.
And yet, what stands out most in my mind is the way in which they are most similar to each other. There were moments in each birth, forever etched into my bones, in which the lintel between life and death disappeared. In which it was not clear who would live and who would die. Time evaporated. And on the other end of that suspended reality, I was skin to skin with new life.
After the birth of each of my children, I discussed these moments with our respective midwives, and they seemed unfazed. It was completely normal. Our transition earthbound, our tender and determined arrival into the world, birth itself, is inseparable from death.
Four years ago, Valerie Kaur, founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, begged this provocative question, "What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb – but the darkness of the womb?"
This past Thursday, I participated in the People's Inauguration, in which Kuar revisits that question and names what we all know in our bones. Certainly the past four years have been both womb and tomb. Much has been born and much has been lost. Too much to bear in one breath.
To quote the magnificent Amanda Gorman:
"The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We've braved the belly of the beast,
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn't always just-ice.
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it."
As I listened to both the President’s Inauguration and the People's Inauguration, I noticed an unexpected weepiness arise. We have been invited to unclench our hearts and risk hopefulness. To unfurl and remember that liberation is possible. Which is why it is so unbelievable that this week we also read parshat Bo. In addition to the last of the three plagues, we experience the miracle of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the exodus out of the narrow place.
This is one of those weeks when the Torah portion is a reflecting pool for our lived experience and we are once again reminded that Torah is only a tree of life if we hold on to it. And when we do, it can provide shade and sustenance, its branches can be our walking stick and its trunk a rooted resting place.
In both the rabbinic and feminist imaginations, yetziat mitrayim is its own birth story, midwives and all. The transformative experience through which Israelite slaves became Am Yisrael, the people Israel. Just as the Exodus story is about the birth of a nation through the waters of the Red Sea, so too Kaur says, "We find ourselves in this country's great transition. And what do the midwives tell us to do? Breath and Push!"
In every conversation about this pivotal moment in history, I have felt the ambivalence of relief and determination. Both are true. But before we commit ourselves to the next four years of community organizing and pushing for a world that is just and whole, I invite you to head the wisdom of our mythic and modern midwives. Breath, then push.
Let this Shabbat be the deep breath we all need and deserve.
So that we are ready for the labor that awaits us.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.