Now on the other side of the mountain, we enter the series of parshiyot that call our attention to the intricacies of building community. From the laws of kashrut to the timing of festivals, parashat Mishpatim reveals 53 mitzvot, inspiring us to ask: Who are we to each other? What binds us together? Where will we find holiness?
And in a moment of spiritual synchronicity, Kol Tzedek is asking these questions, too. The next two weekends we have two big community forums planned. This Sunday the congregational meeting will include a special training called "Building Trauma Awareness & Relational Healing." And next week's Shabbat there will be an important forum about accessibility at Kol Tzedek. Lest one think these are distinct opportunities for community engagement, my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Elliot Kukla published an inspired piece of Torah this week entitled The Holiness of Being Broken: Trauma and Disability Justice. While I have excerpted a taste of his wisdom below, I really encourage you to read it in its fullness as he expresses deep truths with clarity and compassion.
In it he writes, "Most of us will experience some form of trauma or wounding in our lifetime. Trauma and disability are essential parts of what make us human and what connects us to one another...Trauma is central to who we are as a Jewish people, and impacts so many of our individual stories. Disability Justice can guide us in thinking more holistically about the holiness of our brokenness."
Reading this, I was reminded of a passage from masechet Brachot that I studied some weeks ago. "Even the old man who has forgotten his learning must be treated tenderly, for were not the broken tablets placed in the Ark of the Covenant side by side with the whole ones?" (8b). Jewish tradition has such deep reverence for our vulnerability, which is utterly inseparable from our humanity. This teaching links the two versions we receive of the giving of Torah at Sinai. One, which we read last week in parashat Yitro, and the other we will read in a few weeks when Moses returns from the mountain and finds the people have built a golden calf, prompting him to shatter the original set.
Rabbi Kukla concludes, "L'dor v'dor—'from generation to generation,' from teacher to student, from friend to friend, when we share our wounding and our healing, we share ourselves."
In preparation for these two weeks of communal sharing, and in honor of Jewish Disability, Awareness, and Inclusion Month, I encourage you to read Rabbi Kukla's teaching in its fullness.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Perhaps one of the campiest Jewish songs from my childhood proclaims, "It is a tree of life to those that hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy." This is followed by a series of fast-paced arhythmic claps. You can get a feel for it here. As I kid I never really stopped to wonder what the profound "it" of this song was really about. On some level, I think I thought it referred to being Jewish. As a grown up, I have come to understand that this kitschy song is in fact a translation of a line from Proverbs (3:18) speaking poetically about Torah. This piece of liturgy is sung in Jewish communities around the world, across every denomination, as we close the ark at the end of the Torah service.
This song has come back to me this week, as we find ourselves steeped in Torah and tree imagery. This week marks both the holiday of Tu B'svhat and parashat Yitro, in which we read the story of the Israelites receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai. For the rabbis, there is no limit to their metaphorical relationship to Torah. Torah is fire and water; it is a prism and a multi-faceted jewel; it is a graceful gazelle and a nursing breast. But perhaps most famously, Torah is a tree of life, eitz hayyim hi. And we call upon this particular metaphor every time we read from the Torah itself.
This week, even more than trees, I have been studying the wisdom of forests, which are essentially cooperative communities of trees. In his incredible book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben explains:
"In such a cooperative system, it is not possible for the trees to grow too close to each other. Huddling together is desirable and the trunks are often spaced no more than three feet apart... If you 'help' individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send out messages to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own... This is because a tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it...
"'But isn't that how evolution works?' you ask. 'The survival of the fittest?' Trees would just shake their heads - or rather their crowns. Their well being depends on their community..." (26-27).
So too with us.
Like trees in a forest, the closer we grow together, the more we are able to sustain and protect each other amidst the changing weather patterns over which we otherwise have no control.
Wohlleben concludes, "'A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.' Because trees know this intuitively, they do not hesitate to help each other out."
Which is why the rabbis count, among the things that have no limit in this lifetime, gemilut hasadim, acts of generosity and kindness. Hesed is our mycelium, our fiber-optic underground web of connection.
עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃
She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her - me'ushar - has the capacity to thrive.
As we prepare to receive the Torah that is uniquely and collectively ours, may we remember to hold fast not only to its teachings, but to each other. It is through community that we have the capacity to thrive.
Rabbi Ari Lev
For anyone who lives in West Philly, Wednesday was quite a scene in the Cedar Park neighborhood as Mike Pence's motorcade strolled into town. As I walked down Windsor Terrace, approaching the St. Frances DeSales school where Pence was scheduled for a school choice photo op, I was taken by the visual image. The crowd was big and proud. And at first glance I thought to myself, what an incredible cross section of the neighborhood flooding the streets in protest. But as I got closer, I realized that what I was looking at was not one unified protest, but protest and counter-protest. The street itself was full of large burly, cis-men representing the Boilermakers Union with signs about power. They were there in support of Pence, asking him to reopen the oil refinery in South Philly. And across from them on the porches and sidewalks was a large gaggle of colorful queers and their allies waving signs about queer and trans rights, public education, black lives matter and the like. What at first look had appeared like an incredible multiracial, cross-class protest, revealed itself to be two sides of a deep rift in our economy, one that rarely appears in full dimension on the streets of West Philly.
The scene conjured the featured image of this week's parsha, Beshallach. This is the week when we get the amazing story of the sea parting and the Israelites walking in the midst of the sea on dry ground. So much of my love for this story is about imagining the sea walls miraculously separating, creating an otherwise unimaginable path forward. But this week, I saw it differently. Each of us protesting on behalf of our dignity and basic rights, on opposite sides of the streets, seemingly opposite sides of the political spectrum, we were the sea separated from itself.
I spent some time talking with KT members before walking across the street to talk with some of the refinery workers. Most of them expressed that it was a well paying job and they were now out of work with no health insurance. We all agreed that in an ideal world closing the refinery would guarantee new jobs in renewable energy. But in the absence of that, they were here to beg Pence to reopen the refinery. They need jobs.
And here we are, as a community, actively organizing to keep the refinery closed. In fact our upcoming Purim party is co-sponsored by Philly Thrive, a group specifically organizing against the refinery. And for good reason. The refinery itself is responsible for 50% of the pollution in Philadelphia. It is at once a modern day plague and a source of people's survival. I keep thinking about the Egyptians and their horses who drown in the sea when the walls close in on them.
סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם (Ex. 15:1).
This Shabbat, as we rise in body or spirit to hear the song of the sea, let us all heed the words of one of my teachers, Aurora Levins Morales:
"They say that other country over there, dim blue in the twilight, farther than the orange stars exploding over our roofs, is called peace, but who can find the way?
"This time we cannot cross until we carry each other. All of us refugees, all of us prophets. No more taking turns on history's wheel, trying to collect old debts no one can pay. The sea will not open that way.
"This time that country is what we promise each other, our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between, until there are no enemies left, because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it's all of us or none."
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For those interested in a taste of daf yomi, here are my reflections on today's page of Talmud, inspired by the students in this year's Judaism for Everyone class.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.