one river gives its journey to the next
I got an email from a KT member this week lamenting that there aren't enough hours in the day. My response: meditate longer. It's not obvious. And it's not facetious. Somehow pausing makes for more space. I am forever grateful to a therapist who once taught me this wisdom.
But the truth is it doesn't solve the larger problem of feeling like there aren't enough hours in the day. Which is actually only one of the many things we don't have enough of. Time, money, patience, clarity, understanding, peanut butter-filled pretzel snacks. We are conditioned towards scarcity by the structures of everyday life, which is further amplified by the endless wants of the human mind.
Once a year we gather around a seder table and sing Dayenu - It's enough for us, aka, we have enough, or often translated, it would have been enough! Whether or not we actually believe the verses of this song, by embedding this song in the traditions of Passover, we learn that the feeling of enoughness is intricately connected to freedom itself.
But long before anyone ever sang Dayenu, Moses pronounced this very sentiment. This week we read parashat Vayakhel. Moses instructs the Israelites to bring whatever their heart is called to generously give to build the mishkan. Gemstones and precious metals, colorful fabrics and fancy wood. And in a biblical instant, the people open up their hands and hearts and give so much that Moses calls out, enough!
וַיֹּאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה לֵּאמֹ֔ר מַרְבִּ֥ים הָעָ֖ם לְהָבִ֑יא מִדֵּ֤י הָֽעֲבֹדָה֙ לַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽהּ׃
"The people are bringing much more than enough... (Ex. 36:5)"
For me what is always so meaningful about this passage is the energy that motivates such giving. It intentionally comes freely from one's heart. As if to say, when we are generous, we have more than enough.
But in truth, it is not obvious or logical that the Israelites are feeling particularly generous in this moment. We just finished reading the story of the Golden Calf. As a collective they are facing tremendous uncertainty, and often very fearful. It would be fair to characterize them as living with a scarcity mentality. So what happened that allows them to feel so generous with their most precious possessions? Do they actually feel generous or do they just give generously? In a world that is constantly suggesting we feel scarcity, what might we do to feel like we have more than enough?
In my own experience, the feeling of abundance doesn't actually lead to being generous. In fact the opposite is true. The experience of being generous is what allows me to feel abundance. If I were to wait until I felt like I had more than enough, I would miss so many opportunities to be generous. This is true for other sentiments like kindness and compassion. It is precisely when I am feeling most irritable that I need to find a way to do an act of kindness. And precisely when I feel most squeezed for time, I need to exercise or meditate.
And the same might be said of our ancestors. In precisely the moment when the Israelites are feeling the most protective and fearful, Moses instructs them to give generously. Not because they have a sense of overflowing abundance, but because giving will allow them to open their hearts to each other, and in that way, they will come to feel they have more than enough.
In his poem "When Giving Is All We Have," Alberto Ríos writes,
One river gives
Its journey to the next.
We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.
We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us...
And in the words of Parker Palmer, "Community doesn't just create abundance - community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed."
May we have the courage to be as generous as possible, with ourselves and with each other, so that we all may come to feel we are and we have more than enough.
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
the starting point
I have been glued to the Olympics these past two weeks. My kids and I have been watching replays from the night before in the moments between breakfast and school. And I have been staying up way too late watching historic competitions like the first women's monobob, figure skating's emotional performances, and the rising tide of black athletes in the winter sports. I have surely tried but failed to appreciate the sport of curling, played Harry Potter style with brooms and stones.
Each night I am filled with awe (and some terror, particularly with skeleton) as each athlete completes near-impossible feats on (fake) snow and hard ice. The sheer speed and complexity of each event defies my own experience of the human body. 1620s. 130 km/hr. Winning defined by thousandths of a second.
But what has really got me hooked, both in the Tokyo Olympics this past summer and in Beijing this winter, is the unprecedented vulnerability of so many of the athletes. The pandemic has placed unreasonable demands on their lives (like ours!) and the pressure has impacted their performances.
It started when Simone Biles got the "twisties" and couldn't perform on the vault. It was a stress-induced mental block that gave her vertigo in the air and prevented her from knowing up from down. It inspired her to talk to the world about her struggles with mental health.
The transparency and vulnerability has continued this winter. I have read so many unbelievable stories. Kailie Humphies, the former Canadian bobsled star who left the sport because her coach was abusive. She later married an American and received her citizenship two months ago so she could compete for the U.S. Elena Meyers Taylor is the mom of a toddler. She pumped while training in quarantine to create more precedent that it is possible to be a parent and an Olympian. The snowboarder Shaun White fell in his farewell Olympic half-pipe run and sobbed in the embrace of his fellow competitors. I could go on with another half-dozen names, but would be remiss if I didn't mention Erin Jackson, Nathan Chen, and Kamila Valieva. Each of these athletes has revealed themself to be undeniably human while competing.
Their courage points me towards one of the most foundational teachings of this week's parsha, Ki Tisa. Infamously, this is the parsha where Moses takes a long minute up on Mt. Sinai. When he returns, he finds that Aaron and the Israelites have built a molten calf; an "elohim" to worship. This violates the very words that the Holy One had carved on the two tablets Moses is carrying, and proceeds to smash. And it undermines the entire spiritual journey that Abraham began in Genesis when he left his father's house, his birthplace, his home, and with it the idolatrous practices of his ancestral people.
I have often wondered, why is it so important that our concept of the Divine be intangible and ineffable? What specifically about the golden calf was so anathema to Moses and to the Holy One?
Oddly enough, watching Kamila Vallieva crumble under the cruel scrutiny of the Olympic Committee brought this teaching home for me. These athletes are not golden idols, even if they are chasing gold medals. They are fallible and feeling, and this is what defines their humanity. No amount of training can alter the profound vulnerability of being human.
If our concept of Divinity existed in metallic form it would be solid, fixed, impermeable, and in that way perfect. And we might be led to believe that we too, made in the image of the Divine, have the capacity for unfaltering perfection.
This is a truth I think the Olympians know best. None of them are under the illusion that being the best is achievable beyond the snapshot of a moment. One year you are the fastest and four years later you lose by a whole second!
The threat of the golden calf is both theological and psychological. For Moses it undermines the entire project of entering into a relationship with a Source that is nothing and everything. The draw of the golden calf is its definiteness. But the very essence of the Holy One is precisely its infiniteness.
We are made in the image of something that knows no bounds. And we are conditioned to strive towards our gold medals. But lest we worship or think we can become them, Moses smashes the tablets. Just like Abraham before him, who smashed all the idols in his father's shop. Our vulnerability is the starting point of our relationship with the Divine.
Rabbi Ari Lev
There are currently thousands of Philadelphians without gas to heat their homes. As we all know, this has been one of the coldest winters in a long time. Yesterday I spoke at a powerful call to action organized by POWER declaring that access to energy is a human right. Clergy, leaders, and organizers from around the city gathered at City Hall with members of City Council to demand that Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) turn on the heat. PGW is a publicly-owned gas utility that has received government assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and yet has neglected to restore service to people who had lapsed payments.
As with all well organized actions, I wasn't just invited to speak. I was given a script with clear goals and a tight timeline. I was asked to publicly lament the reality of living in a city that denies heat to people who are poor and low income. And then I was asked to invite everyone present to turn to someone near them and share what brought them out to this vigil.
In reading this week’s parsha, Terumah, I have been reflecting on the wise instructions I received from seasoned community organizers. In Terumah, we receive very detailed instructions regarding the building of the mishkan. It was the work of metal-workers and weavers, artists and builders. And we are taught that when everyone offered their unique gifts and skills, the holiness overflowed.
One of the key design elements was the instruction to place two keruvim, winged angel creatures, to watch over the kaporet, the covering to the ark. Commentators note how important it is that there are two of them, lest a single angelic being be confused for a Divine idol. And they work very hard to reconcile two seemingly contradictory instructions. The first being that the angels face the kaporet, watching over it. And the second that these angels face one another.
The rabbis of the Talmud attempt to reconcile this discrepancy by teaching that the keruvim faced each other when b'nei Yisrael followed the mitzvot, and turned away from each other when they did not. Which I understand to mean that they face each other when we take responsibility for our obligations to one another.
I thought about this teaching as I invited the people gathered in the freezing rain to take a moment and turn towards one another. So grateful someone else had gifted me this instruction. The white noise of a city block was replaced with the alive hum of people sharing their stories. The Torah teaches that the Holy One actually spoke from the empty space between the keruvim, often likened to the space between two people engaged in Torah study. It is precisely this relational moment that fortifies our humanity in the face of so much injustice.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes about the space between the keruvim,
"We can choose to act in ways which create the space within which that voice speaks, or we can choose to act in ways which will negate that possibility. The voice of the Infinite issued forth not from the golden statues themselves, not even from the holy text which was contained in the ark then and is contained in our scroll now, but from the dynamic space between the keruvim. God speaks to us from emptiness -- but not just any emptiness. God speaks from the spiritually charged space of relationship."
May we draw on the power of these winged-creatures and the courage in our own hearts, to have the strength to keep turning towards another, despite the physical and social distancing of our times -- to engage the spiritually charged space of relationship to make our lives, our city, and this world more whole.
Rabbi Ari Lev