Every year as we read the story of the Israelites crossing the sea, we lift up the role of song as a source of inspiration and celebration. In fact, we refer to this very parsha, Beshalach, by a secondary name, Shabbat Shirah - a shabbat dedicated to the power of song. And in every morning service, we remember this moment from which comes the famous Shefa Gold chant "Ozi v'Zimrat Yah, vayehi li lishuah - My strength and God's song will be what saves me" (Ex. 15:2).
While the image Miriam and the Israelites singing and dancing with their timbrels is core to our liberation narrative, so is the image that follows. That of the Egyptians and their horses drowning in the sea as the Israelites pass over to the other shore. In a world where we believe that none of us are free until all of us are free, it is hard to reconcile this theological moment.
And not just for us postmodern folk. But for the ancient sages as well. The Talmud tells the story of the angels who wanted to sing a song of praise as the Israelites crossed over to the safety, while the Egyptians drowned. But God scolds them saying: "The work of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?!" (B.T. Megillah 10b). There is inevitably tremendous loss in even the most liberating of choices. The rabbis make clear that we are not meant to derive joy in the suffering of others.
In my own experience, singing itself opens me to the possibility of transforming anger into compassion. In the words of Joey Weisenberg, "Music reminds us that even as we must sometimes fight, we can still urge ourselves to consider the essential humanity of even our worst enemies" (The Torah of Music, 91). If not for their sake, then for ours.
I wish you all a Shabbat Shirah Shalom.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Liberation not Deportation
This week, Rabbi Michelle and I (and I am sure many of you) watched from afar as our teachers, friends, and rabbis occupied the Senate, sitting on the floor and singing the song of the sea in support of the 800,000 Dreamers. Many of them were arrested as they demanded that congress pass a clean Dream Act.
In the weeks when we read the story of Moses repeatedly begging Pharaoh for for our freedom, the calls are coming out from immigrant organizations and Jewish coalitions to "Let my people stay." In precisely this moment when give voice to our mythic story of liberation, our government is conducting mass deportations.
This week I also have been following the journey of Carmela Libre, currently taking sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate in North Philly. Many KT members have been gathering supplies to sustain her in sanctuary.
In this week's Parsha, Bo, Pharoah says, "Rise up, leave...Go! קומו צאו...לכו" (Ex 12:31). Sometimes freedom and safety look like an exodus. And sometimes staying in sanctuary. One way or another, we too must create our own momentum to claim our liberation and leave this narrow place.
Tomorrow, we at Kol Tzedek will not hold our regular Shabbat for Everyone servcices. Instead, many of us will join the Women's March tomorrow. You are invited to gather (whether or not you are planning to march!) with Rabbi Michelle 9:00-10:0 at the new Kol Tzedek space (707 S. 50th Street) to sing and pray together or for a contemplative service with Rabbi Ari Lev at BZBI (300 S. 18th Street).
I also fully support everyone who is honoring the boycott of the march because of its collaboration with the police. And pray that the march leaders revoke the call for surveillance and checkpoints. And that no harm comes to anyone, especially (trans)women of color, from this collective organizing.
May we all find our way through this narrow place to a redeemed world free of borders and oppression.
Rabbi Ari Lev
A tough mind and a tender heart
I spent the morning reading through the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and commentary on this week's Torah portion, Vayera. Every year I am stunned by the intertextual resonance as we delve into the book of Exodus and honor the legacy of such a tremendous spiritual leader in the liberation movements of our own time.
This morning, I was struck by a particular echo. In response to Moses' pleas to free the Israelites, Pharaoh's heart repeatedly hardens (Ex. 9:12, 35).
וַֽיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃
It is precisely this dangerous contraction that Dr. King spoke to when he delivered this sermon, A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart (circa August 1959, Alabama). I invite you to read his wisdom in full.
In his sermon, Dr. King cautions us against the dangers of the soft mind which he characterizes as guided by fear -- fear of change and of difference. With an eery resonance to our own political moment, he writes: "We do not need to look far to detect the dangers of soft mindedness. Dictators, capitalizing on soft mindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society.”
But we must not stop with the cultivation of a tough mind. He preaches: "Tough mindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached...The hardhearted person never truly loves...[and] lacks the capacity for genuine compassion...There are hardhearted and bitter individuals among us who would combat the opponent with physical violence and corroding hatred."
By way of conclusion, Dr. King writes: "[There is a way in] our quest for freedom, namely, nonviolent resistance, that combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft-minded and the violence and the bitterness of the hard-hearted."
We learn from this week's parsha, that hardheartedness is the defining response of a Pharoah. We also know from personal experience, that hard-heartedness can be a protective measure in the face of so much suffering. While it serves us in some ways, the story of Exodus makes clear, it ultimately stands in the way of liberation.
In our own lifetimes, we too are called to cultivate a tough mind, seeking truth with clarity and discernment. And a tender heart, pursuing justice with love and compassion. May we each find the courage to look inside and discern where our work lies. And may have the wisdom to approach ourselves and each other with a spirit of nonviolence. In this way, may we continue the work of leaving the narrow places.
Looking forward to singing and learning with you this Shabbat.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Turn it and Turn it
I have spent much of this week sorting through boxes of books. When the library is complete, it will likely fill six full bookshelves, spanning large swaths of time and space. The shelves are full of books on Biblical Torah commentary, Feminist thought, Jewish Philosophy, midrash, dictionaries, spirituality, and much more.
We learn in Pirkei Avot, "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it" (5:22). And for sure I felt that this week. So many voices lifting up spiritual truths. And so many voices still yet to be heard. While on the one hand all of these books could lead to spiritual overwhelm. How will I ever learn enough? What do I need to know to feel Jewish enough? They also point to a more profound teaching about Talmud Torah, the practice of text study. But in fact, the teaching continues, "Reflect on it and grow gray with it..."
Much like Jewish concepts of the Divine, Torah is a deep well whose bottom is intentionally beyond our grasp. And the deeper we journey, the greater clarity and wisdom we encounter.
And in truth this is not just true of Torah at large, but also of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Shemot. We begin the book of Exodus with a parsha packed with so many greatest hits that even this one section of Torah could lead to a lifetime of study. For this reason, we will dedicate tomorrow morning's beit midrash to an in depth study of the parsha using the many books in the newly forming KT library as resources for deeper insight. Please bring your own Tanakh or Chumash if you have one.
Together we will learn to follow the path of our own questions. To seek and search and turn the pages, to grow old and wise with these books as witness and guide. We cannot become a master of Torah. We can only become Talmidei Torah, students of Torah.
Rabbi Ari Lev