built on a stolen beam
"Bo el Pharaoh," begins our parsha. Go tell Pharaoh, to let my people go!
On Shabbat Shuva I began a conversation about reparations for Black Americans and teshuva. In his 2018 article "The Torah Case for Reparations" Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein eloquently writes, "Slavery and its aftermath sit at the heart of the mythic consciousness of any religion or culture that descends from the Hebrew Bible." Bernstein goes on to summarize the contemporary Jewish voices making a case for reparations. Most compelling, in my opinion, is the Rosh Hashanah 5778 sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous calling for Jewish support for reparations to Black Americans. In it she summons a famous, early Talmudic teaching in which the Schools of Hillel and Shammai dispute the method of making restitution when a stolen beam is built into the foundation of a house but agree that restitution must be made (B.T. Gittin 55a). "Our country was built on a stolen beam," preached Rabbi Brous. "Except it was several million stolen beams. And they weren't beams; they were human beings."
For Bernstein, the Jewish vision of reparations begins in this week's parshah. Parshat Bo includes the final three devastating plagues—locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn—which finally lead Pharaoh to insist the Israelites must go. But there is a brief but important interlude between the 9th and 10th plague. God says to Moses:
"Tell the people to request (v'yishalu), each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold" (Exodus 11:2).
And they did just that. So that when it was time to go,
"The Israelites had done Moses' bidding and borrowed (v'yishalu) from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing...And they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians" (Exodus 12:35-6).
As I was studying these ideas with Betsy, in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah tomorrow, I repeatedly felt that these verses present an insufficient model of reparations. In this case, the use of the Hebrew root sha'al--often translated as request, ask, or borrow--conveys tentative permanence and is uncertain in its willfulness. The very concept of reparations as described by the Movement for Black Lives asserts, "The government, responsible corporations and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people—from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance—must repair the harm done." In this demand I see an essential aspect of the nature of reparations. Those who have profited are responsible for the process of repair. In Jewish tradition, we would call this teshuvah—a process of reparations and restorative justice. However, what we see in the parshah is the Israelites reclaiming, some might even say stealing back, wealth they feel was due to them. While this might have allowed them to leave Egypt with something of value, it did nothing to actually restore the humanity of the slaves or slave owners. Which is what I feel is at stake when we talk about reparations in the United States.
What we know is that the concept of teshuvah, the possibility of restorative justice, is woven into the fabric of the universe. The world cannot exist without it. According to Maimonides, the first step in teshuva is to stop causing harm. This is actually where we find ourselves as a country.
In the words of Bryan Stevenson, "I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved." We must end slavery in every context it exists, including in prisons. Then we must acknowledge, take responsibility for, and repair the harm we have caused. This will require radical imagination. Whatever we imagine as real democracy, real teshuva, must be part of it. The Movement for Black Lives is calling for reparations for African Americans. I think it is upon each of us individually and us as a community to wonder what role we can play.
At the end of the first chapter of Just Mercy, Stevenson compassionately says, "Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done." In this election season, I am trying to believe that this country can be more than the worst things it has perpetrated. A real process of teshuva and reparations is essential to living into that potential.
Rabbi Ari Lev
the unbearable lightness of being
I often joke my favorite room in my house is the bathroom. For the past few years, it has arguably been the room I spent the most waking hours, as I journeyed through potty training both of my kids. Just last week I entered a new milestone as I was teaching my five-year-old the blessing Asher Yatzar, which one can say after "going potty." As a trans person, I take particular joy in this blessing as it reclaims the daily stresses of navigating public bathrooms. And I am aware that for many of us these digestive functions can also be the source or symptom of tremendous suffering. There is something healing about the act of blessing the ins and outs of our many orifices - this vital function that marks and maintains our aliveness.
There is an amazing midrash on this week's parsha, for which the punchline is essentially "everyone poops" - even the most stubborn and hard-hearted of rulers. We read in parashat Vaera:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה כָּבֵ֖ד לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה מֵאֵ֖ן לְשַׁלַּ֥ח הָעָֽם׃
And the Holy One said to Moses, "Pharaoh is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go.
לֵ֣ךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֞ה בַּבֹּ֗קֶר הִנֵּה֙ יֹצֵ֣א הַמַּ֔יְמָה וְנִצַּבְתָּ֥ לִקְרָאת֖וֹ עַל־שְׂפַ֣ת הַיְאֹ֑ר וְהַמַּטֶּ֛ה אֲשֶׁר־נֶהְפַּ֥ךְ לְנָחָ֖שׁ תִּקַּ֥ח בְּיָדֶֽךָ׃
Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake (Ex. 7:14-15)."
About this moment, the midrash teaches:
"Look, he goes out to the water," to perform his bodily needs. For Pharaoh would like to think he was a god, claiming that he had no bodily needs; so he would rise early in the morning, and go out to the Nile to ease himself in secret (Midrash Tanchuma, Vaera 14; Exodus Rabbah 9:8)."
In the words of Avivah Zornberg, "Pharaoh constructs himself as a god, without needs...as if he neither eats nor eliminates matter. That cycle, depending on the vital traffic through the orifices of the body, is denied by one who claims to be above change, beyond the cycles of in and out, hunger and fullness...What Pharaoh denies is the unbearable lightness of being: the meaningless movement of fluids and solids that marks human life (Rapture, 100)."
But in truth, it is hardly meaningless. And so we bless our Source, "who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings and orifices." Lest we forget the daily miracles of our bodies. Even the most powerful of rulers (bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in their days and in our time) are but flesh and blood. They, too, are vulnerable, even if they choose to expend energy hiding their humanity so as to protect the facade of their omnipotence.
Rabbi Ari Lev
they stand at the gates
This past Sunday a beloved teacher of mine was burying her father as my sister (by love) was birthing my newest nibling. For a few minutes amidst it all, I was talking with her midwife recounting the births of my own children. What always arises for me when I journey back to the birth of my two kids is the way in which the line between life and death seemed to dissolve. Birth and death mark our tenuous and mysterious transitions into and out of this world. And in that moment her midwife responded, "That's why they say midwives stand at the gates."
This week in the Torah we begin the book of Exodus and read parashat Shemot. In this one parsha we move through so much of what is known as the Exodus story. We could spend all year just studying this parsha. What stands out for me this week, not surprisingly, are the Hebrew midwives (note: it is unclear if they are Egyptian midwives who serve the Hebrews or Hebrews themselves). The midwives defy Pharaoh's orders to kill the male babies. They stand at the gates and pursue justice.
In fact, this parsha is full of fierce women. Given the deep roots of patriarchy in Torah, it is astonishing to take note of the many women who are essentially the primary protagonists in the early Exodus narrative. The presence and density of these women is made even more amazing by the fact that they are all mentioned by name. Shifra and Puah, the midwives. Miriam, Moses's sister, who watches from afar, strategizing as her brother floats down the Nile. Pharaoh's daughter (whom the rabbis call Batya) who adopts Moses and enlists Moses's mother Yocheved as her wet nurse. Not to mention Tzipporah, Yitro's daughter, whom Moses marries.
Earlier this week I was remembering that three years ago, just before Trump's inauguration and the first Women's March we read parashat Shemot. And again this year, as people are organizing in every city across the country for the Women's March, Jews all over the world, including us at Calvary, will be reading the story of these mythic women. Reminding us that lifting up and making visible reproductive labor is core to building successful liberation movements. This was true in the days of abolition, in the civil rights movement, and it is certainly true today.
While we are not canceling Shabbat services to attend the march as a community, please know that whether you are in the streets or at shul (and everywhere else!), we are in this together, prying open the gates of justice. May we merit to experience a taste of the world to come, that is whole and just.
Rabbi Ari Lev
ours is not a linear tradition
This week I unexpectedly entered the zeitgeist of Daf Yomi, the spiritual practice of studying one page (both sides!) of Talmud every day. With 2,711 pages, that project takes about 7.5 years. The first cycle began on Rosh Hashanah in 1923. And we just kicked off the 14th cycle this past Sunday. No doubt this is one of the world's most preposterous book groups. I must be honest, I have tried this before. I make no promises that I will finish it. But what feels new this time around is that there is a real excitement (in niche circles) that extends beyond the orthodox world.
The most important insight from this week's learning for me is that the premise of the Talmud is that there is no beginning and no end. אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה, Ain mukdam u'm'uchar ba'Torah, nothing comes before or after in the world of Torah. Which is to say, it's an ongoing cycle, forever cross-referencing itself. This is the fundamental nature of Torah, and perhaps the world (especially if Torah is the blueprint for the world!). This truth is most pronounced at the seams, in moments of apparent beginning, such as starting a new Daf Yomi cycle, and moments of closure, such as concluding a book of Torah as we do this week.
Tomorrow morning we will read parashat Vayechi, concluding the mythic narratives of our genesis ancestors at Jacob's deathbed. And we will together study the magic of our anachronistic tradition that manages to link the blessings he offers to his grandsons to the recitation of the Shema, a text that in theory wasn't revealed until Deuteronomy. And a prayer practice that wasn't established until the Mishnah (220 CE). Ain mukdam u'm'uchar ba'Torah, ours is not a linear tradition!
This seems fitting as the entire first week of Daf Yomi so far has focused on questions related to the Shema. Why we say, how often we say, when we say? For example when the Torah says, "When we lie down and when we rise up," does it mean when we lie down in bed, or when the sun "lies down," as in when evening begins? It "begins" with this question:
מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בָּעֲרָבִין / Me'eimatai korin et shema b'aravin?
From when does one recite the evening Shema?
About this opening question, my dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig shared this story, which is both a cautionary tale for studying Talmud and an inspiration for our own practice of reciting the Shema:
"Reb Zusha of Hanipol was wise in the world of mysticism but thought of himself as ignorant in terms of the revealed tradition. He asked R' Shmelke of Nicholsburg if they might learn together; Zusha teaching the hidden/kabbalistic tradition and Shmelke instructing him in the revealed/rabbinic tradition. R' Shmelke began with the first Mishnah of Brachot, reading, "Me'eimatai/From what time can one recite the Shema?" Immediately, Reb Zusha fell upon his face, "How do you know me'eimatai means 'from what time?' Rather, might it mean that on a daily basis we need to recite the Shema from a place of eimah/awe and wonder?!"
The story concludes, delightfully, with R' Shmelke passing R' Zusha the book and saying, "You teach!"
For those of us undertaking to learn just about anything, whether it's the alef-bet, one tractate, or the entirety of the Talmud, my prayer is that we take up the tradition of reading texts playfully, falling upon our faces in amazement, and bringing awe and wonder into all of our learning.
Hazak hazak v'nithazek / חזק חזק ונתחזק
May we all gather strength and courage from our learning and from each other.
Rabbi Ari Lev
the important word is gentle
This morning I was listening to a guided meditation with Sharon Salzberg. It began with an invitation: "See if you can feel just one breath from the beginning, to the middle, to the end." And with that my mind was gone, off thinking about the book of Genesis, and what it has been to read it weekly as a community from the beginning, to the middle, and now nearing the end. To follow the generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. To nestle ourselves inside their ancient stories, to encounter ourselves in them.
And then I heard, "It's just one breath."
In an instant, I woke up and returned to the simple awareness of my breath, noting the rising and falling of my abdomen, being with the sensations of breathing, tingling at the nostrils, constriction in the sternum.
The meditation continued, "If something arises, sensations, emotions, memories, plans, that is strong enough to take your sensation away from the breath, if you've fallen asleep or gotten carried away in some incredible fantasy, the moment you realize you've been distracted, is the magic moment, because that's the moment we have the chance to be really different, not judge ourselves, but simply let go and begin again."
This is where we find ourselves this week, nearing the end of the book of Genesis, at the beginning of parshat Vayigash.
וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה
"And Judah drew near (vayigash) to him" (Gen. 44:18).
While the text is sufficiently ambiguous, the most simple understanding is that Judah drew near to Joseph, not knowing it was Joseph, and tells his story, in what rabbis for thousands of years can only come to understand as a kind of prayerful plea for compassion. And it is precisely this intimate exchange that compels Joseph to come out to his brothers. They fall on each other weeping, hugging and kissing.
And it all began with the simple, profound, seemingly impossible posture of vayigash - understood as a word of approach. Judah drew near to Joseph. It is a posture of courage and presence. He didn't just speak to him. He brought himself to him.
The meditation continued: "If you have to let go and begin again thousands of times, it's fine, that's the practice. It's just one breath."
Over and over again, our tradition reminds us that our practice is to gently let go and simply return. And with each breath that I returned to, I quietly noted in my mind "vayigash" - each breath became an encounter, a drawing near to my own experience.
The meditation concluded: "Remember that in letting go of distraction the important word is gentle. We can gently let go. We can forgive ourselves for having wandered. With great kindness to ourselves, we can begin again." As Judah and Joseph do.
This shabbat, may we have the wisdom to be gentle with ourselves, from the beginning, to the middle, to the end. To see this day, and each breath within it, as an opportunity to let go and begin again. May we together draw on the gentle spirit of Shabbat, as we draw near to our breath, to community, and to the mystery.
Rabbi Ari Lev