Yesterday Zoom invited me to a webinar. As far as I can tell they had no idea it was Purim. The description read, "In this webinar you will learn pragmatic ways to embed disruption into your strategy, leadership, and culture." I stopped and laughed. At this point we don't need to embed disruption, it has become our pandemic status quo. And then I thought, Zoom just tried to repackage the wisdom of Purim in a webinar.
Every year on Yom Kippur, we ask ourselves in what ways is the Day of Atonement like Purim, inspired by the linguistic wordplay Yom k'Purim? During the mincha service we integrate the spirit of whimsy and carnival to further open the heart.
What if the opposite is also possible? This year I am drawing more connections and noticing the ways that Purim is a lot like Yom Kippur.
Now, on the surface they look antithetical to each other. On Yom Kippur we wear all white. On Purim we dress up in costume. On Yom Kippur we fast from food and water. On Purim we eat and drink until we can't tell the difference between right and wrong. And yet, both holidays are replete with seemingly opposite practices that point us towards change and transformation, towards teshuvah.
The Sefat Emet explains that teshuvah on Yom Kippur happens through "affliction" -- abstaining from food, water, sex, and other bodily functions, and focusing on prayer and introspection. The Sefat Emet then asserts that on Purim, the work of teshuvah takes place through simcha -- joy, happiness, and celebration.
The most outrageous mitzvah on Purim is surely the instruction to get so inebriated that we don't know the difference between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman." The prospect of letting loose and letting go so that we blur the boundaries of what we know to be true is risky and vulnerable. And a subversive way to access that which is hidden, yet persistent and possible. The combination of levity, libation, costumes, and carnival creates a sacred destabilization of reality, embedded disruption if you will. Not for its own sake, but because it leads us closer to our truest selves and to each other.
In the words of Yehudah Amichai:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
Or in the words of adrienne maree brown, "Laughter is important. Joy is important. It's not a guilty pleasure, it is a strategic move towards the future we all need to create."
May the laughter and joy of Purim soften our judgements and loosen our grip on what we know as fixed and true, ad d'lo yada, until we no longer know the place where we are right. And may the coming of spring be full of new possibilities and abundant growth for each of us.
Hag Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov famously said,
מִצְוָה גְּדוֹלָה לִהְיוֹת בְּשִׂמְחָה תָּמִיד
It is a great mitzvah to be happy always.
His words are often invoked in the month of Adar, especially as we approach the holiday of Purim. It is helpful to know that Rebbe Nachman was a person who suffered tremendously in his life. Lest we think these are the words of a naively and naturally joyous person. Quite the opposite.
Joy is existentially and practically very complicated. We long for it. We fear it. Reflecting on this teaching, I was reminded of a story in my own life.
About twenty years ago I was visiting a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan and found myself in an elevator with a group of nuns. There was an unspoken ethos of silence, even when not in formal sitting practice. But I couldn't help myself. I had the captive attention of these young nuns. They were at once peers and from another world, another way of life.
My impulsive western mind quickly asked them the first question that came to mind: "Are you happy?" I feel some shame for the judgement embedded in this question and also deep compassion for my young seeking self, trying to understand happiness.
The nuns responded, "Yes. But it is a different kind of happiness." This answer has surely stayed with me. Long before I had a meditation practice of my own, I had this sense that there are different kinds of happiness. Science has actually studied it. Whatever special machine measures the happiness of the brain has registered off the chart levels of happiness for monks and nuns coming off of extended retreats.
And Judaism knows this too.
We sing of the great varieties of human joy in the seven wedding blessings, gilah rinah ditzah v'chedvah, ahavah v'achavah v'shalom v'reut...Blessing the Source of Life who created joy and gladness, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing, love and harmony and peace and companionship.
And the list continues in a verse that comes from Megillat Esther, which is also sung weekly at the beginning of Havdalah, "Layehudim hayetah orah v'simcha v'sason vikar. Kein tehiyeh lanu. The Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor. May we have the same."
Jewish tradition is replete with teachings about it. The boost of Joy that characterizes the month of Adar and the holiday of Purim is also deeply linked to another Jewish holiday, Sukkot, referred to as zman simchateinu, the season of our Joy.
At this time of year, I often refer back to Alan Lew's teachings on Joy. He describes "the special joy of being flush with life...Joy as a deep release of the soul and it includes death and pain...any experience we give our whole being to...any moment fully inhabited, any feeling fully felt, any immersion in the full depth of life, can be the source of deep joy" (265,7).
I think this is the joy that the nuns were describing in that elevator. And the kind of joy that Rebbe Nachman is compelling us towards. And frankly, the kind of joy that is always and especially now accessible and necessary for each of us.
As we enter Shabbat, and come closer to the holiday of Purim, may we each have the courage to more fully inhabit even just one moment, to know our pain and gratitude so fully, that it fills us with deep joy.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Last night I brought home a very special gift in honor of Rosh Hodesh Adar. A case of 10 ripe mangoes. This is a beloved fruit in our house. The haul was met with cheers of joy. Just as we were eating the first juicy bites, fears of scarcity arose. My kids asked, "How many have we eaten? How many are left? Why didn't you get 20?" They started to ration. "We need to save some for tomorrow!" I tried to reassure them and encourage them to enjoy the bounty of this tropical fruit without much success. The fruit was after all finite.
My kids awoke this morning, remembered the mangoes, and asked the most important question: "Do we have enough to share with our friends?" As soon as I assured them of this, they were completely at ease. Over and over again, my kids remind me that the ability to share is actually what produces a sense of abundance, not the quantity itself.
Each year, at this time of year, as the sap begins to flow in the trees and the days grow ever so much longer, I return to a particular teaching about abundance from this week's parsha, Mishpatim. Amidst a litany of laws about how to create an ethical society, comes this holy instruction:
אִם־כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ תַּלְוֶ֣ה אֶת־עַמִּ֗י אֶת־הֶֽעָנִי֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ לֹא־תִהְיֶ֥ה ל֖וֹ כְּנֹשֶׁ֑ה לֹֽא־תְשִׂימ֥וּן עָלָ֖יו נֶֽשֶׁךְ׃
If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them (Exodus 22:24).
A beloved midrash on this verse opens up this conversation further (Tanhuma, Mishpatim 12):
"All of God's creations borrow from each other;
day borrows from night, and night from day...
The moon and the stars borrow from each other...
The night borrows from the sun, and the sun from the night...
Wisdom borrows from understanding, and understanding borrows from wisdom...
Mercy and righteousness borrow from each other...
Heaven and earth borrow from each other...
The midrash concludes:
"A person who charges interest once asked The Holy Blessed One:
'Don't you charge interest to all of your creations? From the earth that you irrigate; From the flowers that you grow; From the luminaries that you cause to shine; From the person into whom you breathed life?'
To which the Holy One replies, 'No, never! See how much I lend, and I never collect interest. The earth lends and she doesn't collect interest. I lend to the source of all lending, and the earth renews herself in it.'"
We live in a world of abundance, and yet we feel scarcity. The voice of God in this midrash reminds us that there is enough to go around. And sharing -- mangoes and money and time and love -- is actually how we come to feel that truth.
This is at the heart of the mitzvot of Purim. To share food and treats through mishloach manot. And to give money directly to those who need it through matanot l'evyonim.
About the power of sharing, the Sufi mystic Hafiz writes:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
Or in the words of Pirkei Avot:
אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ
Who is rich? A person who rejoices in what they have (4:1).
As we enter this new month, may we take every opportunity to share what we have and come to feel the joy of having enough.
Happy Lunar New Year, Hodesh Tov & Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi 🦁 Lev
For the past many months, I have been co-teaching a morning class on the weekday Amidah. We begin each class by listening to a song. Mechanically speaking, I share the sound from my computer and it seemingly magically can be heard through the participants' speakers.
This morning, for unknown reasons, the sound share worked for some students but not others. And people started to write in the chat, "I can't hear it." And then others responded, "I can hear it." I had little faith in my ability to solve this technological issue. But I did have the thought, this is feeling a lot like Sinai.
When I imagine the moment of revelation, as described in this week's parsha, Yitro, I imagine the crowd of Israelites full of anticipation and uncertainty. Some eager, some skeptical, some terrified. I imagine the confusion. The thunder and the silence. The wondering: Was that the voice of the Holy One or just a low pressure system passing through? It is so hard to trust our own experience of something so unprecedented.
One midrash tells the story this way (Shemot Rabbah 5:9):
כְּשֶׁנָּתַן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה בְּסִינַי הֶרְאָה בְּקוֹלוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל פִּלְאֵי פְּלָאִים, כֵּיצַד?
הָיָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְדַבֵּר וְהַקּוֹל יוֹצֵא וּמַחֲזִיר בְּכָל הָעוֹלָם...
"In the moment when the Holy Blessed One gifted Torah at Sinai, God's voice was revealed through wondrous miracles. How? The Holy Blessed One would speak and the voice (kol) could be heard from one end of the earth to the other..."
The midrash goes on to explain that the Israelites would hear the voice coming from the south and run towards it. And then they would hear it from the north and run towards it. The east, the west, the heavens, the earth. But every time they arrived, the sound was coming from somewhere else. Then the sound splits into 70 voices, in 70 languages, so that each and every person could receive Torah in their own way.
אֵצֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד לְפִי כֹּחוֹ
I am so conditioned to believe that if only circumstances were different, then I would have the capacity to make great changes or heed much-needed wisdom in my life.
But what if the opposite is true?
What if the revelation at Sinai can be received wherever we are in life, in whatever way we are most easily able to receive it?
What if we don't need to run beyond our reach, or wait for some better moment, or be anyone but who we are?
What if the clarity and connections we long for are in fact seeking us out, descending from the heavens, delicate as snowflakes?
This Shabbat, may we take the time to attune to the still small voice in our own hearts. And to know this too as Torah.
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.