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.