the full range of human experience
I just checked.
Over the last seven years, I have drafted nearly 100,000 words across 221 pages of unformatted Google Docs, cut-and-pasted into hundreds of Friday blog posts. This practice started out of an instinct to connect across time and space, in a time when Kol Tzedek only met once or twice a month for Shabbat services. It continued out of a desire to share Torah that could support and sustain us through narrow times. And it has persisted because every week another person writes back and reminds me that we are in an ongoing conversation, for which I am profoundly grateful. Thank you for reading my reflections each week.
Shabbat Hanukkah is a very auspicious time in the Jewish mystical traditions, marked by the new moon of Tevet. The new moon is the darkest time of the month. With the solstice behind us, we know the light is returning, but the dark is still predominant. We read the story of Joseph and his many dreams and the words of the prophet Zachariah, "Not by might, and not by power, but by spirit alone!"
But my favorite thing about Shabbat Hanukkah is that we recite the psalms of Hallel. And this year we do it for two reasons. We do it because it is Hanukkah. And because, this year, the sixth day of Hanukkah, which is always Rosh Chodesh, also falls on Shabbat.
Hallel is a journey through the full range of human experience. Through ancient poetry, the psalmist teaches us to find a way to say thank you when we are in the narrowest of places. Min HaMeitzar Karati Yah - from the narrows I call out to You. And to say thank you when we feel a deep sense of safety and abundance. Ozi v'zimrat Yah - You are my Song and my Shield. We humble ourselves and say, lo lanu - this is not about us, but about something much greater than ourselves. Ani avdecha, we offer ourselves up as sacred vessels, eager to be of service. And then we say, Ana Adonai, Hoshia Na as we call out for support and for strength.
Every time I sing Hallel, I am struck by the words of Psalm 115, "Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah / The dead cannot say Halleluyah." As if the psalmist is saying that part of what it means to be alive is to praise, to express Hallel, to connect to gratitude.
It seems like a gift and no coincidence that we will recite Hallel on my final Shabbat before I go on my first sabbatical. You all have taught me the meaning and importance of Hallel. You have taught me how to connect to and praise the full range of human experience. I am so grateful.
The words of Psalm 118 are written in a circle around the text of the ketubah that Shosh and I designed. The chorus of this psalm is repeated four times in the repetition of Hallel, Hodu Ladonai Ki Tov, Ki l'olam chasdo, which literally means, "Give thanks to The Eternal, whose love is everlasting." But I think a more theologically accurate translation might be, "Acknowledge that which is beyond and between us, the thread of connection that binds us."
On Saturday morning, I will sing these words full throttle. And I will be thinking of each of you. It has been a challenging seven years in the life of the world. I began my tenure just before Trump was elected. Those four years were followed by three years of pandemic, which is ongoing. You have taught me how to find dry ground in the midst of the sea. For which I am so grateful. You have brought me closer to everything I know to be holy.
I am so profoundly grateful for the opportunity to serve and care for you as a community. Thank you for allowing me the privilege to teach you Torah and lead you in prayer. This sabbatical comes as an ot - a sign - that we are deeply invested in each other. I am grateful for the opportunity to turn inwards, to care for my mind and body, to exercise and meditate, to study Torah and work on a writing project. And I am so excited to reconnect upon my return.
My hope is that you take really good care of each other. That you show up for each other's simchas and accompany each other in grief. That you are slow to anger and quick to forgive, and abounding in acts of kindness.
I have so much gratitude for and confidence in the Kol Tzedek clergy and staff, board, and entire community to carry this community through this milestone and thrive. I am also super excited for all the things you will create in my absence that will have been beyond my imagination. I am already dreaming about what I will learn from you upon my return and what new Torah I will be able to share. I am so excited for you and for me, and really for us!
This will be my last Friday blog post for many months.
We learn in Pirkei Avot, Ain kemach, Ain Torah. No flour, no Torah. I invite those of you who are able, who have not already, to consider making a donation to Kol Tzedek's 18th Anniversary L'chaim! Campaign. Your generosity will make a huge difference and help us reach our goal of finding an accessible spiritual home in West Philly.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy Kwanzaa!
See you on the other side,
Rabbi Ari Lev
little miracles, everywhere
I offer this dvar Torah with gratitude to Rabbi Avi Strausberg who taught me this Torah.
A common Sefardic Hebrew name is Nissim, which means miracles. We knew this when we gave our younger child the middle name Niso, which is a diminutive of Nissim. He really is a delightful little miracle.
What we didn't know is that there would be a few other Nisos in the KT community. Which led my child to make up an entire fantasy basketball team called "Another Niso," where every player was named Niso. She would draw the players and narrate their games with endearing toddler pronunciations. "And then Another Niso shoots and scores...And the crowd goes wild!"
It has been a few years since this fantasy has been part of regular breakfast conversations. But I return to it every Hanukkah, when we sing Al HaNissim - and give thanks for the many miracles bestowed upon our ancestors in their days at this time.
Hanukkah is on the one hand a very humanist holiday. It is about creating light at the darkest time of year. It is a holiday about hope and resilience. The songs are mostly silly and accessible. Dreidel is arguably ritualized gambling.
But on the other hand, Hanukkah is a deeply religious holiday. It is about Divine salvation in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. It is about faith and miracles.
It is my sense that most of us don't quite know what to make of miracles. And we don't spend nearly enough time fantasizing about "another miracle."
Rabbi Avi Strausberg writes,
"The time of the Bible was a time brimming with miracles beyond human comprehension. Everywhere the Israelites looked, God's divine hand was discernible. In the Bible, Moses' rod miraculously transformed into a snake, the great Nile bled blood, rocks broke forth to bring water, and the sky brought down gifts of sustenance. This was a world in which, for better or worse, to our salvation or to our demise, great seas might part to save us, or the earth might open its mouth to swallow us whole. It was a world in which God’s clear and palpable presence could not be denied."
Despite my own desire to feel a sense of awe and connection to the natural world, this is not our world today.
Rabbi Strausberg continues,
"Rabbi Rabbi Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk, known as the Meshekh Hokmah, writes that this transition from a world driven by miracles to a world where we hardly see them anymore occurred when the Israelites left behind their wandering... (comments on Deuteronomy 29:3). The Isrealites were no longer dependent on an external force, on Divinity itself, to survive. To make food fall from the sky and part the sea. We developed agency and an ability to sustain ourselves. This is a good thing. 'For the Meshekh Hokmah, this move from divine interventions to human enterprise marks a healthy and necessary stage in the development of the Jewish people’s relationship with God.'"
But despite this overall transformation, we are still reminded daily in our prayers and every year at Hanukkah (and Purim), that the world is full of miracles. That the good in our lives is in part because of human creativity, but also in part because of something beyond us, something miraculous.
In the words of the poet Walt Whitman,
"To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the
ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?"
This Hanukkah, may we have the courage to fantasize about "another niso," little miracles, everywhere and always. To "Praise the light that shines before us, through us, after us." (Marge Piercy, "On our feet we speak to you").
Wherever you find yourself this week, shine bright!
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,
Rabbi Ari Lev
What is 'and afterward'?
Tomorrow morning, in addition to celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, we will get to once again place a baby in the actual Torah and welcome her into the covenant of the Jewish people. It is incredible to imagine how many dozens of babies over the past seven years have been swaddled in the womb of Torah, quite literally wrapped in the letters of the parchment scroll.
I first wrote this ritual in my final year of rabbinical school. I had seen it done elsewhere but can't quite trace its lineage. Shosh was pregnant and I wondered how we might welcome a child in a way that felt true to our values as transfeminists.
Historically, babies assigned female at birth did not actually have a Brit, aka a Bris - a ritual to enter the covenant. Since ritual circumcision is not possible for all babies, I knew I wanted to create a ritual that would invite every baby to enter the covenant of the Jewish people regardless of their assigned sex. In the end, I researched and wrote three ritual options - and Brit Torah has been the most popular at Kol Tzedek.
What feels unique about tomorrow's naming is that it will coincide with the words of parashat Vayishlach, which in addition to recounting Jacob wrestling with an angel and getting blessed with the name Yisrael, also includes the birth of Jacob's only daughter, Dinah.
Genesis 29-30 reads, "And Leah conceived and bore a son...And she conceived again and bore a son...and she conceived again and bore a son...And she conceived again and bore a son...and she conceived again and she bore Jacob a fifth son...And Leah conceived again and bore a sixth son to Jacob...And afterward she bore a daughter."
As was shared last week at another B'nei Mitzvah, relative little is said about or by women in the Torah. Throughout the entire biblical story, Dinah never speaks. Her silence is painful. Which makes this brief mention of the birth of Dinah pronounced and important.
In a recently published collection, Dirshuni: Contemporary Women's Midrash, Rivkah Lubitch writes about this moment,
"What is 'and afterward'? After all these sons, she had a daughter.
Some interpreted 'afterward' as a language of pain, others of joy.
A language of pain, for Jacob made no feast when she gave birth to Dinah, and Jacob didn't come when her mother named her; rather the call went out, a daughter is born to Jacob, and the world went on as usual..."
Every time we ritualize the naming of a daughter or non-binary child at Kol Tzedek, we are redeeming Leah's pain. But even more so, we are remaking Jewish tradition. Even rewriting Torah. We are claiming the birth of a daughter is a reason to celebrate, a moment of joy.
My only regret is that this ritual tradition did not yet exist for my own kids. While I had written them before they were born, we were not yet embedded in a community that had a Torah where we could imagine fulfilling it. You all have taught me so much about the importance of ritual and community. I am proud of the ways that we have found truly meaningful ways to reclaim the concept of covenant so that it can include everyone.
It is said that the birth of a child brings with it the possibility of shalom in the world. Tomorrow morning, when we place a newborn baby inside the heart of the story of Dinah, may her cries be ones of joy and the beginning of so much Torah we hope to learn from her.
Rabbi Ari Lev
the power of the place we are
The Hebrew word makom has been the theme of my week for at least three reasons.
The first is because I have been teaching two simultaneous classes on Jewish custom related to mourning and comforting mourners. In class this past week, we discussed that a mourner is actually not permitted to greet people for the duration of shiva (seven days). As in, to say, "Hello, how are you?" And they are not permitted to answer the question for the first three days of mourning. So what, then, might a person say to someone deep in grief? Well, the rabbis authored a salutation for just this purpose. It begins, "HaMakom yenachem etchem..." May the Place comfort you... In this case Makom is a name for the Divine. God as a physical or metaphysical comforting space.
The second reason is because I have spent the last week looking extensively at commercial real estate in West Philly. As many of you know one of our community's priorities is to identify a new physical space that can house the majority of Kol Tzedek programs. We are actively looking for (and fundraising to afford!) a physical place to gather in the Cedar Park neighborhood that is ADA accessible, with working heat, air conditioning, and adequate ventilation, that can accommodate our growing community. As we tour different buildings, I find myself trying to feel into the felt sense of a place. Can I feel a sense of Makom, of presence, in this place?
And the third reason is that the word makom appears in two key moments in this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei. As Jacob leaves from Be'er Sheva and heads towards Haran, the second verse of the parsha begins,
"And [Jacob] encounters baMakom/the Place... (Genesis 28:11)"
In fact, the word makom actually appears three times in that very verse:
"He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones from that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place."
This moment takes on unexpected spiritual magnitude. The rabbis understand the encounter in this place to be a prayerful act, a precedent for the Ma'ariv/Evening service itself. To encounter a place is to really be there, is to be present, is to connect to holiness.
This moment in which Jacob lays down to rest his head on a few stones always reminds me of the words of the poet Mary Oliver in her poem "Praying":
"It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak."
In what ways is HaMaKom a place? And in what ways is it a doorway? An opportunity for comfort, for connection, for refuge, for rest, for deep sanctuary?
And then, a few verses later (Gen. 28:15-16), Jacob wakes from his slumber, and we see this magic word appear twice more:
"'Surely יהוה is present in this place, and I did not know it!' Trembling, he said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.'"
Is the Makom God or the doorway to the Divine? Or both?
Either way, it is my hope that every time we gather, whether in celebration or mourning, online and in person, at Calvary and in our new someday home, that we feel comforted by the power of the Place we are in together. That we are able to take refuge in being together and experience a doorway to the presence of HaMakom. That we are open to being surprised by our own spiritual experiences. Such that we, like Jacob, can say, "Wow, the Holy One is in this place, and I didn't expect it."
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
May we be like elephants ?
On Rosh Hashanah, I shared some stories about my beloved Nonna, Alice Notrica Fornari. She was my father's mother after whom I was named. I shared how she was born on the island of Rhodes and grew up speaking Ladino. What I didn't share was that she left Rhodes in 1940 at the age of 24 in anticipation of a Nazi invasion.
She first went to Antwerp and stayed as long as she could until it was clear that they were no longer safe in Belgium. Her uncle's wife had a brother who had married a German woman named Hilda. Hilda escorted them all by train through Germany in the summer of 1940, flirting and playing cards with the Nazi soldiers on the train, using their Italian passports. Because of Hilda no one suspected they were Jewish. They told stories about giving out cartons of cigarettes and silk stockings to the soldiers at every stop. It was a very tense crossing, playing cards and telling jokes and acting like they weren't scared. Until they arrived in Bologna Italy. Italy had not yet joined the war. Mazliah proceeded with his family to Rome where they took a boat to Barcelona, and from Barcelona a train to Lisbon and in Lisbon they waited for departure. On October 8, 1940 they left Lisbon and what should have taken five days, took 20 days to get to Cuba because of all the mines in the sea placed by the Germans. When they arrived in Cuba they waited for approval to come to the United States. They arrived in New York City on Thanksgiving day 1940.
I think of her every year at this time. And even more so this year, as I just started reading a new book called Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World. Stella is my Nonna's second cousin. They grew up together in Rhodes. The other night my father called and told me that reading this book is like talking to his mother. Stella captures the world of superstition and close-knit family that my father grew up with. A world where when you fall down and scrape your knee, you mix three teaspoons of sugar into a glass of water and then drink three sips.
This is a world I am longing to know full of traditions I am hoping to recover and reconnect with.
This longing is as ancient as it is personal. We read in this week's Torah portion, Toldot,
וְכׇל־הַבְּאֵרֹ֗ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ עַבְדֵ֣י אָבִ֔יו בִּימֵ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֑יו סִתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים וַיְמַלְא֖וּם עָפָֽר׃
And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which [Isaac's] father's servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth... (Genesis 26:15).
So much is loss from generation to generation, especially at the hands of oppressive governments.
And the parshah continues,
וַיָּ֨שׇׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו
Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham (Genesis 26:18).
So much of our own spiritual journeys are about digging anew the wells of our ancestors. Recovering what has been lost. Remembering their superstitions. Studying their languages. Receiving their wisdom. Recreating their recipes.
May we be like elephants on this journey, paying attention to the scent of water deep in the earth; patient and persistent; caring for loved ones, honoring their memories and digging anew the living waters.
Rabbi Ari Lev
determining the years of someone's life
This week's Torah portion begins,
וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃
"Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah's life—came to one hundred years and twenty years and seven years" (Genesis 23:1).
I have spent the past two week as a juror on a criminal trial where a person was charged with five charges, including murder. (If I haven't responded to your email, this is why!) We were tasked with coming to a unanimous decision about each charge. And as a result, we spent many hours reading through each charge and reviewing the evidence. Throughout the many hours that I spent in deliberations, I kept hearing the echo of this week's parsha.
This is the life of the defendant – each charge charting the years he might spend in prison.
It was devastating to be up so close to so much pain and injustice. It was exhausting to try to come to a unanimous decision with a room full of strangers. And it was incredibly powerful and empowering to know that my vote was essential to the process. It was a profoundly impactful experience that I imagine I will process and preach about more than once.
Torah commentators for thousands of years have been puzzled about the opening line of this week's parsha, Chayei Sarah. Why doesn't it just say, Sarah was 127 years old? Why divide up the years of her life into seemingly random segments? Even my kids, who have been known to be overly exacting when sharing their ages, will say something like, I am 6-and-11/12ths. But never, I am three years and three years old.
There is no one answer. Perhaps these are the notable years in Sarah's life. Starting with the fact that she becomes pregnant at the age of 100. (Undeniably noteworthy!)
As I thought about the defendant on trial, a Black man from North Philly being prosecuted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I wondered about the notable years of his life. I wondered how old he was when he first laughed? I wondered how old he was when he was first stopped and frisked? How old was he when he first fell in love? How old was he when he was first arrested? I wondered how many years he has already served? I wondered if he is a parent? I wondered at what age the police stopped assuming that he was no longer innocent until proven guilty?
As many of you know, I am an abolitionist. What this means to me is that I do not believe that police are the answer to community safety. And I do not believe that prisons are means of establishing justice. I welcome your disagreements, debate, and objections to these ideas.
I was distressed but not surprised by my experience of jury duty. (Well, maybe I was surprised by the fact that you don't get a lunch break during deliberations.) But more so I have been surprised by how many members of the KT community have shared with me that they never serve on a jury because they don't pass the initial juror survey.
In my case, the survey asked two questions that essentially wanted to know if I would be inherently biased for or against the testimony of a police officer. Don't get me wrong - I paused. But then I understood that I do believe I am able to listen carefully and assess fully the testimony of any person, including a police officer. Which is not to say I don't hold critiques of our criminal justice system. But I can be critical and still be impartial. As impartial as those who are loyal to the system are able to be. I truly believe this question is designed to intimidate and eliminate potential jurors who might be critical of the police. And sadly, I think it is effective.
Here are some important resources to read and review in advance of any summons for jury duty.
What I feel most strongly from this experience is that I hope you will each do what you can to find yourself on a jury. Our cities need people like each of you, people with integrity and compassion, to be determining the years of someone's life.
May the prayers of our hearts and the words of every Amidah be heard in the highest court:
...מְכַלְכֵּל חַיִּים בְּחֶֽסֶד מְחַיֵּה מֵתִים בְּרַחֲמִים רַבִּים סוֹמֵךְ נוֹפְ֒לִים וְרוֹפֵא חוֹלִים וּמַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים
May the One who sustains the living with compassion, animating all life, supporting those who are falling and healing those who are sick, free all who are imprisoned...speedily and in our days!
Rabbi Ari Lev
a commitment to do what is right
This past week I joined the first-graders at the Kol Tzedek Torah School and then stayed for tefilah (prayer) time. I listened as the students took turns translating the words of the Shema. When they got to the word "Adonai," one student eagerly piped up, "God doesn't have a name!" And then another kid clarified, "God has many names!" There was a lot of resonance in the room and affirming ASL "me too" hand gestures that these kids clearly learn to use in school. I joined in myself.
God is not a Jewish name for the Divine. It is an anglicized Germanic placeholder for that which is ineffable and ultimately beyond us, but somehow also inseparable from us. I have so many favorite names for God. It changes like the weather to help me meet the moment.
This week, I have been meditating on one particular name, Yodea Ta'alumot - the Knower of Secrets. I can imagine that for some people, this phrase might evoke an uncomfortable sense of spiritual surveillance, especially in a world that is increasingly digitized and documented.
But for me, this emanation of the Divine calls me to account in a way that feels supportive, inviting me to bring care and attention to my actions and my thoughts. And that there is a witness to my inner experience. I am not alone with my mind.
It is not uncommon that above the Ark in the sanctuary of a synagogue, one might find the phrase, "Da lifnei mi atah omed," which translates to "Know before whom you stand." I think the rabbis imagine this as a way to set intention for the Amidah - the "standing" prayer. Though it always lands larger for me personally. Know before whom you stand, not just in prayer, but in life (and maybe even in death too).
While I think the short phrase can be intimidating, I have always experienced it as an invitation to live a life of integrity; to be reminded that the One before whom I stand Knows all secrets. It echoes another name for the DIvine, the Blessed Judge of Truth. For me, these emanations of the Divine invite me into a relationship of spiritual accountability.
What works about this relationship of spiritual accountability is that it is mutual.
There is a striking moment in this week's Torah portion, Vayera. The Holy Blessed One is disappointed in the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. So much so, that They plan to destroy the entirety of the two cities. This comes on the heels of having said to Abraham, "Lech lecha" - go, leave everything you know and love, and I will bless you.
The Holy One remembers this promise and wonders aloud (Genesis 18:17),
(יז) וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃
"Can I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?"
What does the Holy One mean by this question?
Can I hide? - as in, Is it possible? Or is it ethical? Is the Holy One really worried about what Abraham might think? Might Abraham judge the Holy One for causing destruction, for acting without compassion and integrity?
And after wondering aloud, the Holy One seems to arrive at the immediate conclusion that They can't hide from Abraham and immediately proceeds to explain to Abraham the intention to destroy the two cities.
One commentary writes, "This is a verse of supreme importance in the Book of Genesis. God promises to have a special relationship with Abraham and his children, so that they will be inspired to do what is right and just..."
The worth of this promise is in the real mutuality of this relationship. God's relationship with Abraham also inspires God to do what is right and just, as Abraham pleads, prays, and protests that God not wipe out the innocent with the guilty. This verse seems to suggest that God knows before whom They stand (the children of Abraham), just as we strive to know before whom we stand.
The Talmud teaches, "The descendants of Abraham are characterized by three traits: a capacity for kindness, a sense of honor, and a commitment to do what is right."
According to this week's parsha, we are more able to do what is right when we remember before whom we stand and to whom we are accountable, and have the courage to speak truth to (our highest) power. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
circling the bases
This week's Torah portion begins with the Holy One's bold command to Abraham, "Lech Lecha..." Go, get going! Journey from the place you were born, leave everything and everyone you know, and brave the unknown. There is not much explanation as to why Abraham should or would do this. No real justification. Only a promise that it will be worthwhile.
Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, in his book about the High Holidays, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, writes, "But here is the $64,000 question: Why do biblical figures all have to leave home in order to find home in order to leave again? More to the point, why do we?" (20).
The Torah offers Abraham's journey as a paradigm for each of us. Spiritually and physically, Abraham embodies the courage we each need to live the life that is uniquely ours. And the promise that if we take leave, blessings await us.
Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, continues, "The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams. Certainly it is the most ancient dream of the Jewish people..." (23).
As you may have gathered over the years, I am a big fan of Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l. His book has made a big impression on me. I re-read it every year and have a tab on every other page. But what you may not know is that Rabbi Lew, z"l, was not only an insightful teacher of meditation and Torah, but he was also a big fan of baseball.
Just as he is musing about human nature and home, he unexpectedly writes, "And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases." (23).
Given how many innings of baseball I have watched in the last few weeks, it is validating to connect to the spiritual dimension of my new-found fandom; to imagine that each time a player comes to the plate, it is their own mini lech lecha moment. I certainly have been feeling the intensity and pressure of each pitch and play. I am not entirely convinced that literally circling the bases is transformative for the players. But it certainly is thrilling and clearly requires an incredible amount of fortitude and resilience.
It redeems the many late nights I have spent watching the World Series to imagine that the real goal of baseball is a kind of embodied teshuva; a conscious return to the place we started, transformed.
Rabbi Lew continues, "And the truth is, every time we come home, home is different." This is perhaps one of the unspoken obstacles to leaving. Abraham was not just journeying into the unknown, he was leaving home as he knew it. Such that even if he wanted to return to the place, it wouldn't be the same and neither would he. I know it certainly is an emotional hurdle to overcome in every move and coming out moment in my own life.
I have never before imagined Abraham's leaving as a kind of teshuva. He is at the very beginning of his journey, and yet every step leads him closer to home. Rabbi Joseph Solevetchik explains that if you are moving along the circumference of a circle, it might seem at first as if the starting point is getting farther and farther away, but actually it is also getting closer and closer.
There is so much longing in leave-taking. In fact longing is both the thing that gets us to actually go and that propels us to try to return. Soloveitchik writes, "Longing develops only when one has lost something precious..." (25).
Losing is such a big part of playing a game, especially baseball. Even the best teams lose a third of the time. Even the best baseball players only hit the ball 3 out of every 10 plate appearances. Our longing to circle the bases may be the thing that gets us back up at the plate, willing to hear the call of Lech Lecha inning after inning, year after year.
This Shabbat may we feel inspired by the Phillies quest to win the World Series, and their love of the queer anthem "Dancing on My Own" (which we will for sure be singing on Saturday morning!).
May we have the courage to hear our own still small voice, encouraging us to let go and get going. And may our losses and our longings lead us home.
Shabbat Shalom and go Phillies!
Rabbi Ari Lev
on dry ground
Every year I get to visit the Kol Tzedek kindergarten class at Torah School to study the story of creation. I have developed a love of one method of telling the story using the tools of Godly Play, in which each day is depicted on a 4x6 wood card. And as I tell them about what was created on that day, I set the card out. Once all of the cards are lined up, we are invited to wonder about the days of creation. I always begin, "I wonder which day is most important?"
It is amazing to hear their answers. Their little bodies jumping off their shevet spots, eager to share which day they think is most important. Since this lesson is part of a unit about Shabbat, it might be easy to imagine that the hidden punchline is always that Shabbat is the most important. But that would be too prescriptive an approach. And speaking from personal experience, it wouldn't be honest. I find that my own answer changes year to year.
This year, I am personally captivated by the third day of creation, when the waters below the sky are gathered together revealing the yabasha - dry ground (Gen 1:9). This moment always invites me to reset my imagination, reminding me that all of existence was once water. That dry ground was not a given.
My love of the third day is not contained to the third day. It is because the creation of dry ground on the third day makes so many other biblical triumphs possible. Throughout the Torah, the presence of yabasha, dry ground, is a sign of real hope.
Most recently, we read the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, in which the wayward prophet finds himself praying to God in the belly of a whale who then spits him out onto dry ground (2:11).
Perhaps most famously dry land appears in the midst of the sea as the Israelites fled from Pharaoh's army. The phrase b'toch hayam b'yabasha - in the midst of the sea on dry land actually appears three times in the Exodus story (14:22, 14:29, 15:19).
Dry ground also makes an appearance in this week's Torah portion. In the story of Noah the Holy One brings on flooding rains so that water once again covers the surface of the earth. But when the floodgates of the deep and the fountains of the sky were stopped up (8:2), the waters began to recede from the earth. Noah sends out a dove three times, until the dove doesn't return, confirming that the earth was dry again - יבשה הארץ - yavsha ha'aretz (8:14). And only then, does the Holy One instruct Noah to leave the ark.
The dry ground of the third day is a spiritual seed for so many other moments in Torah when dry ground will be needed. And it is also an invitation for all of us to remember, in the midst of our own overwhelm, that dry ground is possible. Sometimes it requires measured patience, as in the story of Noah. Other times we are forcibly hurled onto it, as in the story of Jonah. And yet other times, it miraculously appears in the moment we need it most, as it did for our ancestors in the Exodus story.
Each of these Torah stories invites us to trust that we will find our way to dry ground so that we can live a life of purpose and possibility. This is a key part of our spiritual journey. I would be remiss if I didn't also mention this is a key part of winning the World Series. To quote one sports columnist, "A key part of becoming a championship team is believing it and feeling it," Schmidt said. This week, the Torah boldly invites us to believe.
Shabbat Shalom and Go Phillies!
Rabbi Ari Lev
the generative kernel
For the past few months my family has had a new awesome housemate who happens to not be Jewish. This was her first time experiencing the epic journey that is the the Days of Awe. There was truly no way to prepare her for the marathon of holidays.
This past Tuesday morning, as we were making breakfast in the kitchen, I told her the holidays were officially over (despite the Sukkah still being up). She looked at me with concern and asked, "Does that mean we don't get to celebrate Shabbat?"
"Oh no!" I assured her. "We get to celebrate Shabbat every week. In fact, in the upcoming month of Cheshvan, Shabbat will be the only holiday."
Living with her has helped me appreciate that for a person who is not Jewish the idea of having a holiday every week is rather absurd. And also quickly becomes essential.
To quote one of my teachers, Rabbi Nehemia Polen, "Shabbos is the generative kernel at the center of the Jewish spiritual universe."
And at the center of this week's Torah portion.
This is the week when everything is possible. The week we begin the Torah again, from the beginning, with parashat Bereishit. The week that includes both the six days of creation and the instruction to cease from creation on the seventh day.
Rabbi Polen's new book is entitled Stop Look Listen: Celebrating Shabbos Through a Spiritual Lens. In it he explains that Shabbat is an uninterrupted, immersive, full-day spiritual practice that leads us to full presence.
Shabbos enables us to feel hibbat hakodesh – the sweet, precious embrace of the sacred. A textured landscape of indescribable beauty, Shabbos is the greatest, most noble gift we can give to the world, to our communities, to ourselves, and to God" (xxxvii).
As we begin this new year acharei hahagim, on the other side of the holidays, we find ourselves rediscovering the holiday that has been there all along. We enter Shabbat Bereishit where we receive Shabbat as our spiritual inheritance. This Shabbat plants the seed for the year ahead. To quote, Rabbi Adina Allen, it is the kernel of the yet-to-come.
May our exploration and practice of Shabbat in 5783 lead us each into a textured landscape of indescribable beauty and may we feel (even in moments) the precious embrace of the sacred.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev