I know I am not alone when I share that yesterday morning, as I sang the psalms of Hallel to mark the new moon of Nissan, I wept.
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ
From this narrow place, I call out to you.
אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא
Please, Our Source, Our Sovereign, save us.
As I sang these words I thought of the compassionate group of KT members who have been calling other community members to check in. I thought of the phone calls we have made to detention centers and arraignment courts and senators, city council, and state representatives, demanding rent, eviction, and foreclosure freezes, widespread prison bailouts, and debt forgiveness.
And all at once, the opening of the book of Vayikra made a lot more sense to me. This week's parsha begins,
וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מועֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃
"The Holy One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…" (Lev 1:1).
Perplexed by the seeming redundancy of The Holy One calling to Moses and then speaking to him, Rashi explains, "Whenever God commanded, instructed, or spoke to Moses, God always called to Moses first. Kriah, 'calling' is an expression of tenderness and affection." I love to imagine The Holy One as the Hesed committee, calling to check in on Moses who has by every measure been through a lot thus far.
Rashi continues, "[Calling] is also an expression used by the ministering angels, as it is written, 'One angel calls another saying: Holy, holy, holy is Hashem, Lord of Hosts, filling the whole world with awareness of the Divine' (Isaiah 6:3)." In fact it is this very passage that becomes the core moment of collective calling out in our kedusha, as we emulate the heavenly hosts and call one to another.
Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, known as the Esh Kodesh, was a chasidic rebbe who ministered to his people in the Warsaw Ghetto. He gave a d'var Torah every week. This week, 80 years ago, Rabbi Shapira explained to his people what it means to "call out" to another.
"There may be another, deeper explanation as well...An ancient Aramaic translation of this verse from Isaiah reads, 'They receive from one another and say Holy holy holy...'" Here, calling is translated as receiving.
Rabbi Shapira explains, "If a Jew hears of the suffering of others and does what they can to help, and if their heart breaks and blood congeals in their veins at the story of their friend's troubles, then angels are empowered...The calling/receiving that comes from sharing suffering is very loud, and so the angels call out to one another in voices loud with compassion for the suffering of [the Jewish] people."
Rabbi Shapira reminds us that our capacity to call is inseparable from our capacity to receive.
And so we are reminded in psalm 118:5:
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽהּ
In distress I called out to the Holy One,
And the Holy One answered me and brought me relief.
Calling and receiving are both holy acts in these times.
Being willing to extend care and a phone call.
And be willing to receive care and groceries and a phone call.
So sacred is this dance of calling/receiving, says Rabbi Shapira, that it is an act that has reverberations in the Heavens, it impacts the cosmos, it allows the angels to call out to one another.
My friend and comrade Rev. Naomi Leapheart-Washington posted on social media this week:
"Things won't be the same after this. I hope one of the things that persists is the way most people seem to be moving more gently, more graciously around each other...the way every conversation begins with 'How ARE you?' and ends with 'Be well.' and we seem to *mean* it. You know?"
May the Holy Blessed One renew this month for us, and for all who dwell on earth, for life and for health, for joy and for peace, for salvation and for comfort. And may we continue to call out to one another and receive from each other with tenderness and affection. And may we continue to really mean it.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Our parsha ironically begins,
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל
And Moses gathered the entire community of Israelites...
So ancient is this desire to gather ourselves in community. And not only us humans, as it turns out this is a rather mammalian instinct. I happened to be reading two books this week, both of which enumerate the various ways that animals refer to themselves in the collective. The first is a book about endangered species that I was reading with my kiddos. The second, entirely unexpectedly, "is a chapter book," in the words of my 5-year-old! A memoir, nonetheless, called The Bright Hour, on loan to me from a KT member (p. 99). And in a rare moment of spiritual synthesis, The Torah, a picture book and a chapter book!, all articulate the discourse of collectivity.
An embarrassment of pandas.
A celebration of polar bears.
An exaltation of skylarks.
A pride of lions.
A congress of orangutans.
And perhaps my favorite, a memory of elephants.
For a much longer list, check this out.
This has been an utterly disorienting week. More than once I have allowed the word na'afochu (reversal) from the megillah to rise before me like a shiviti, a kabbalistic meditation - the world can be flipped on its head at any moment. We practice for it every Purim, but it is a wholly other thing to live it beyond our control. To realize that the randomness of a virus will lead us towards every effort to contain it, and thus reveal the underlying impermanence of our way of life. My most steady moments have been observing the turtles at the Penn BioPond and studying Torah with all of you. I would describe the longing I feel to be in community with all of you and the importance of the physical distance as inseparable tensions in our collective survival instinct.
And I feel it in this week's parsha as well. As soon as Moses descends from Sinai with the second set of tablets, as he and the people are emerging from the uncertainty of that experience, the first, most important thing he does is to invite them literally to congregate. The word vayakhel is directly connected to the word kahal, which is how the rabbis describe Jewish communities, using the acronym ק׳ק which stands for קהלה קדשה/Kehillah Kodesha, a holy congregation.
Moses then instructs the Israelites to bring offerings to the mishkan. The generosity of the community overwhelms him. The people have more than enough. As we live in to this moment, I have been blown away by the collective generosity of this moment. It seems from every sector and community, the sentiment has been, "Take when I have to offer, take it freely." Together we will have more than enough. It is through this spirit of nedivut lev, this flow of hesed, that holiness enters the narrowest of times.
We, beloveds, are an exaltation of interdependence, reaching out to support each other.
A pride of Jews, reestablishing routines that center spiritual practice to sustain us in these uncertain times.
We are an intrusion of neighbors, unwilling to let our fellows go unnoticed and uncared for.
We are a flutter of kindness, reconceiving what is essential in every moment. Asking the most important question, "Does this constitute an act of care towards myself or another?"
In the words of author Mylene Dressler,
"Friends: all day I have been feeling your physical bodies as though they were my own. It's uncanny. I feel you. I feel us. Italy. South Korea. Egypt. Ohio. Like we are all one body. Like I am not the center, like I am a filament among filaments, like we are all twitch fibers in a single, tensed muscle. Call it instinct. Call it love or fear or solidarity or just plain truth. Call it something ancient. The genes, the old knowing. The tribe is in trouble. Fire on the plains. Gather the children. Watch the wind. Listen. The tribe is in trouble. Love the tribe. Feel. There is no other you."
There is no other you.
Whether you join us online for shabbat or take the opportunity to unplug, we are a kahal. We are all twitch fibers in a single, tensed muscle working to stay strong and responsive. Let this shabbat be an opportunity to unfurl, to release and let go. And may we all merit the blessing that comes with finishing the book of Exodus this week: Hazak Hazak v'Nithazek, May we be strengthened.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Biking down my alley this afternoon, the sun was warm and bright, there were birds chirping, and I thought to myself, "What a beautiful day." The two strangest things about this moment of awareness were that I was carrying an otherwise unreasonable amount of groceries and that I had not noticed the glorious spring day earlier.
For the past month or so I have been teaching a class called Chaos & Order. The original idea was to study Megillat Esther and the world of chaos it represents. And then to study the Haggadah, and the seder, or order, it prescribes. What became abundantly clear in the very first class is that chaos and order are inseparable, in the megillah, in the seder, and certainly in our daily lives. This is an extreme moment, when literally we realize that on 12 hours notice the world can be turned upside down, all routine and structure canceled. But it is not unique, in Jewish mythology and in human existence.
While we spent the last two weeks singing, "When Adar enters, joy increases," this Adar what feels more accurate is that uncertainty abounds. Truly, the month of Adar has shown us the power we have to turn the world upside down (na'afochu). As Rabbi Aviva Richman wrote, "This year, ushering in Adar doesn't correlate with ushering in more joy. As we look towards Purim with increased spread of illness and more and more people worldwide, including many American Jews, under quarantine, it doesn't really feel like a time of great joy. But then, the megillah itself isn't monolithically joyful. It is a drama of extremes, and most of the story is about being on the verge of disaster. Fear and uncertainty are right at home in the rhythm of this holiday."
And in truth, they are right at home in this week's parsha as well. Just after Moses ascends the mountain to retrieve the Divine word etched on stone tablets, the Israelites grow anxious. Fear and uncertainty abound. Will Moses return? Why hasn't he returned yet? Is there really a God up there? Why did we leave Egypt anyway? What was so bad about idols - at least I could see and touch them! The well of doubt grows wider and deeper, until the people have pooled all their gold and welded it into a golden calf.
While the soundtrack of fear and doubt sound different for us, surely they are playing on repeat these days. For the Israelites it was the lack of Moses' presence that led people to stray into old habits that otherwise didn't serve them. Meanwhile, we hear Moses in distress, literally begging to see God's face. He goes on to say, "Har'eini na et Kevodecha," "please show me your Presence" (Exodus 33:18). There is a lot of anxiety in our parsha, and in our hearts, about the nature of absence and presence, as it relates to chaos and order.
In our case, there is a lot of anxiety about both presence and absence. We are fearful to come close, lest we unwittingly contract or transmit this virus. And we are fearful to let go of each other, to take the needed social distance, lest we come to feel a larger absence in our lives.
What the students of the Chaos & Order class have taught me (which I think we are all surrogate students of these days) is that just as chaos and order are inseparable, so too are absence and presence. Even as we take physical space from each other, we are extending invisible lines of care and connection. And as we show up virtually, I feel confident we will feel a deep sense of presence and connection.
These are turbulent times and I am in awe of our collective capacity to be reflective, responsive and resilient. I take great comfort in knowing that we are reaching out to our neighbors and creating real systems for mutual aid. Our experience responding to this virus is helping us gain the skills we already need in order to be increasingly responsive to climate crises on the local level.
As we see in our parsha, fear itself is incapacitating, and not as useful as it feels. All of these cancelations are a concrete thing we can do, which makes them both powerful mitigants to both contagions and fear. But let us not let the scale of chaos inflate our fears further. I invite you to create as many opportunities in each day to come back to center, to the moment you are in, to notice the birds and the sun, and respond to that which is within your power.
Joy, ritual, and community are our superpowers.
For the next few weeks, in the absence of school and routine, let's imagine we are on a heightened retreat of sorts, deepening our collective practice and presence.
In the words of poet Jan Richardson,
Let there be
into the quiet
that lies beneath
where you find
you did not think
and see what shimmers
within the storm.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Among my earliest memories is one of a beloved caretaker taking me outside and pointing to the sky, saying, "Up there, up there, is our Creator." I hold this tender moment of spiritual connection close to me most days, as it was the first time anyone ever talked to me about God. While this person is not Jewish, she transmitted a kind of universal faith to me, one surely dependent on a transcendent understanding of the Divine as something above and beyond me.
I see this theology reflected throughout our liturgy and our Torah, as we allude to the Divine through vertical metaphors, singing Shochen ad marom - calling on The One Who Dwells On High and conjuring images of the Isrealites gathering at the foot of Mt. Sinai, awaiting revelation from the heavens above. We see this in our communal practices as well, as we refer to the honor of coming close to Torah as an aliyah, literally an ascent. And while mostly we focus on the elevation gain, in truth our tradition also values the depths. As we learn in the book of Psalms:
מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ יְהוָֽה
"Out of the depths I call to you" (130:1).
It is for this very reason that synagogues used to be built with the bima recessed into the ground. This is why when the Talmud describes the actions of the hazzan or shaliach tzibur (service leader) it will often say "Yored lifnei hatevah - He descends before the ark," because "from the depths we call out."
In truth, the deep has been calling my attention all year. For those of you who are new to Kol Tzedek, let me share a bit of necessary context. Way back in Tishrei, I had the rather absurd instinct to give a sermon on the High Holidays about the sinkhole on Baltimore Avenue. And then on Yom Kippur afternoon, we as a community continued our custom of diving deep into the connections between Yom Kippur and Purim (Yom k'Purim, the day that is like Purim). Now, in the spirit of na'afochu (the reversals and inversions of Purim), the Purim planning committee has flipped the script and brought us back to that sacred time of year, writing a shpil that prominently features a rabbi who falls into a sinkhole only to discover the magical world of resilient creatures.
This year, for me, sinkhole is the new Sinai. The mountain flipped on its head, the earth hollowed out by a rushing river of resilient life surging beneath us, diverting our attention (and our public transit), calling us to see what we can learn from the decay and the chaos; reminding us to not only look up, but to turn our gaze into the abyss. The revelatory joy of Purim invites us to connect a joy that comes not from on high, but from deep within us.
The sinkhole in our neighborhood revealed the buried river, powerful rushing waters of the Mill Creek and the ecosystems it sustains. When the bottom gives out, we too need to find the courage to yored lifnei hatevah, to descend courageously to the deepest of places, to call out to and from those depths, and allow the chaos and the injustice to reveal a deeper truth, a fuller joy, a flowing river that connects us to our Source.
משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה
The month of Adar obligates each of us to cultivate more joy.
Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
You can search Rabbi Ari Lev's blog below:
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.