It is a custom for the rabbi to deliver a long sermon on Shabbat HaGadol, which precedes the festival of Passover. Some have been known to go on for six hours or more. I share with you here the words I will offer tonight. Longer than usual, but hopefully not unreasonably so. Thank you in advance for reading and receiving them. They come from my heart. May they be blessed to enter yours.
I am not by nature a joiner. I am generally not good at going with the flow. I don't like sleep-overs unless it's a very familiar place. I am forever trying to be more flexible and easy going. To trust that I will be able to get my needs met in any given situation. To trust that if I show up somewhere I will feel seen and safe in my body. Each and every year I am leaving the narrow place of seeing myself as "the difficult" child.
Being part of the Kol Tzedek community has been one of my greatest teachers in the spiritual practice of joining. It has taught me how vulnerable, how risky, and how healing this joining is. What holds us back is often directly correlated to the many layers of identities we each hold that may not be easily seen, appreciated, or respected in communal space.
This coming Saturday and Sunday nights, Jews and our beloveds around the world will gather to tell a story of liberation. A story that is specifically designed to be at once mythic and personal, collective and intimate. Some might describe it as the central Jewish story. And the Haggadah is perhaps a masterpiece in the spiritual pedagogy of transmitting this story. A multi-sensory, multilingual journey intended to free us from the constrictions of our time.
Every year when we arrive at the section of Maggid, when we describe the four prototypical children (classically sons), I am quick to identify with the rasha, the "wicked" child. I imagine I am not alone in this at Kol Tzedek. I have done a lot of fancy footwork to retranslate what in Hebrew is the rasha, a word that does in fact mean evil or wicked. I have been generous and said this is the skeptical child, the critical thinker, the iconoclast, the boundary-crosser. And I have been less generous and said this is the contrary child, the stubborn, inflexible, "difficult" child I so often felt like.
Now I do not want to take for granted what I know to be true in my own soul. That the four children -- imperfectly translated as the wise, the wicked, the quiet, and the one who does not know how to ask -- are not archetypes but aspects within each of us. Each of us has the capacity to embody these qualities. And perhaps the Haggadah is inviting us more intentionally to remember that. To try on being each of these characters in different contexts and to notice how it shifts. In what parts of my life am I the one who doesn't know how to ask and in what parts of my life do I have wisdom to share?
And at the same time, the Haggadah suggests, we also have habits, shaped by lifetimes of experiences, that deeply impact how we are in the world and how we perceive ourselves. And for me, that habit usually defaults to identifying with the rasha.
What really is so bad about the rasha after all? What makes the character deserving of this title?
We read in the Haggadah:
רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר?
The Rasha, what does he say?
מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם.
'What is this worship to you?' (Exodus 12:26)
For me this reads like a helpful, reasonable and engaged question. What's so wicked about this question?
The Haggadah critically elaborates,
לָכֶם – וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר.
[The Rasha said] 'To you' and not 'to him.' He excluded himself from the collective and therefore denies our essence.
What makes the wicked child wicked (according to the Haggadah and thousands of years of commentary)? The fact that he excluded himself from the community.
As someone for whom joining and the trust it requires does not come easily, these words sting and they resonate. For Mordecai Kaplan there were three major forms of Jewish identity -- believing, behaving, and belonging. For Kaplan himself, the primary form of identity was belonging. Neil Gilman explains that according to Kaplan, "To exclude oneself from the community is to abandon the relationship that above all makes one a Jew and to forsake the responsibility for the fate of Jews."
For Kaplan and for the Haggadah, to be able to see ourselves in this Jewish story, b'chol dor v'dor, in each and every generation, is itself a defining spiritual practice.
וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר.
For to exclude ourselves from the collective is to deny our essence.
What defines Jewishness, says the Haggadah, is our willingness to choose each other and our traditions, year after year.
This has never been easy. And it does not come naturally to me.
I remember years ago, early in rabbinical school. I generally did not feel like I fit in. And I struggled to claim the community as my own.
One afternoon I was standing in an auditorium with about 50 students waiting for a community program to start and a teacher was trying to get everyone's attention. I walked over and silently stood next to this teacher, trying to be helpful. He looked at me with some amount of surprise. Clearly he had not seen me as the most cooperative student. I remember him looking over and saying these words: "Nice job not perpetuating your own marginalization."
Those words stung.
And they resonated.
We learn in Pirkei Avot (2:4),
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר
Hillel says: 'Do not separate yourself from the community.'
As I said in the beginning, I am not, by nature, a joiner. I return to these words often. They have become central to my theology. That might be why I wanted to be the rabbi at Kol Tzedek. To create a community that we might all feel proud and comfortable belonging to. This might have been, and might continue to be, overly ambitious. And yet I cannot stop imagining the power and importance of all of us being tethered to each other, to these stories, to something beyond ourselves. This is central to my own theory of change -- personal and political. It is core to my own understanding of joy. It continues to be what sustains me.
For some of us this year, our sense of belonging has been strengthened. And for others it has frayed. As an extrovert, I so miss strangers. I miss just showing up to shul and meeting new people. The very essence of what makes a strong community is radical hospitality and a wide web of relationships. And this has not been safe or possible for us in person over the last year. Just about everything we were trying to do at Kol Tzedek was about bringing together large groups of random people to sing and breathe deeply together in close proximity (oy!).
In different ways, what we have needed to do to survive physically has been at odds with what we need to thrive spiritually and emotionally. We have learned to fear each other's company, which has felt at times like denying our essence. And I can imagine we are all feeling tender as we look ahead at the prospect of returning to some amount of in-person anything. Feelings of isolation and exclusion are present and inevitable.
For those of us who have felt distant from community, what will it take to rebuild a sense of connection to the collective?
For those of us who have felt more connected than ever, what will it take to stay connected as things continue to change?
Neither I, nor Torah, are naive about the nature of community. It is a messy web of relationships. Like all enduring relationships, it is full of heartbreak, disappointment, and harm. And it is a powerful source of interdependence, transformation, and healing.
I am forever inspired by the image that is referenced three times in the Exodus story. The Israelites crossed in the midst of the sea on dry ground.
To which a midrash asks,
"If it was in the midst of the sea, then how could it be dry ground?
And if it was dry ground, how could it have been in the midst of the sea?"
If we have learned anything from this year, it is the truth of this contradiction. We have learned how to be dry ground for each other in the midst of the sea. In song, in study, in countless ways. Thank you.
This teaching was further transformed for me this week when one of my teachers, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, shared an excerpt from a letter written by Franz Rosenzweig. For me, Rosenzweig speaks to the power of community in the face of unending uncertainty, which has certainly defined the time from last Pesach to this one.
"Each of us can only seize by the scruff whoever happens to be closest to us in the mire. This is the 'neighbor' the Bible speaks of. And the miraculous thing is that, although each of us stands in the mire of our self, we can each pull out our neighbor, or at least keep him from drowning. None of us has solid ground under our feet; each of us is only held up by the neighborly hands grasping us by the scruff, with the result that we are each held up by the next one, and often, indeed most of the time...hold each other up mutually. All this mutual upholding (a physical impossibility) becomes possible only because the great hand from above supports all these holding human hands by their wrists. It is this, and not some nonexistent 'solid ground under one's feet' that enables all the human hands to hold and to help. There is no such thing as standing, there is only being held up." [From a letter to his sister-in-law, p.92 of Franz Rosenzweig --His Life and Thought by Nahum Glatzer]
May we continue to find the courage to reach for each other, to hold each other up.
May our inner children be forever liberated from the stories we tell that are no longer serving us.
May we know that even as we bravely cross the sea on dry land we are also being carried.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Kasher v'Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Marcia Falk's Kaddish begins:
Praise the world
praise its fullness
and its longing,
its beauty and its grief.
This week marks a collective anniversary, a yahrzeit of sorts. It has been one year since COVID shut down the world and the global pandemic took hold of our daily lives. It has also been one year since Breonna Taylor's death, may her memory be a blessing.
This week also marks the end of another chapter, a book in fact. The book of Exodus. A story of miracles and liberation woven into the world's imagination, shaping our sense of what is possible, pushing up against the limits of the very premise of impossible.
Traditionally a yahrzeit is marked by lighting a candle that will burn for 24 hours and reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, which we will do tonight. As is the way of death and grief, the past year has brought into stark relief existential questions about what matters most in our lives. In the words of the High Holiday machzor:
מה אנו ומה חיינו
מה חסדינו מה צדקינו מה כוחינו מה גבורותינו.
Who are we and what is our life?
What is our kindness? Our righteousness? Our resilience? Our powers?
In this week's parshiyot, Vayakel-Pekudei, we witness the creative genius and generous offerings of the ancient Israelite community as they construct the mishkan, and invite holiness into their midst. Blue, purple, and crimson handspun wools, precious stones, special spices, and aromatic incense. It was truly a celebration of the senses.
And once they had collected all of the raw materials, the Holy One singles out one artisan and calls him by name.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רְא֛וּ קָרָ֥א יְהוָ֖ה בְּשֵׁ֑ם בְּצַלְאֵ֛ל בֶּן־אוּרִ֥י בֶן־ח֖וּר לְמַטֵּ֥ה יְהוּדָֽה׃
And Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Holy One has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah (Exodus 35:30).
There is abundant commentary on the specificity of the Holy One's words here. What is it to be seen and called upon by our name?
One midrash explains that every time a person performs a good deed, a mitzvah, it adds to our shem tov, our good name. And according to Ecclesiastes, "A good name is better than precious oil; and the day of death better than the day of one's birth" (7:1). Why? Because even the best oil spoils, while a good name is everlasting. (Tanhuma, Vayakel 1:1).
And why is the day of death better than the day of one's birth?
When a person is born, no one knows who they will become,
but when a person leaves this world with a good name, good deeds become abundant because of them.
When we rise tonight, in body or in spirit, to praise the world, its fullness, its longing, its beauty, and its grief, may we be inspired by the gifts of the mishkan, the skills of Bezalel, and our experience of the past year, to do as many good deeds as possible that we may be called upon and remembered by that which endures -- our good name.
May the names of the 2.63 million people that have died from COVID worldwide be lifted up and honored.
And may we remember Breonna Taylor's good name as an inspiration to pursue justice and to love kindness.
Hazak hazak v'nithazek.
Strength, strength, grant us inner strength.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I still remember the first time I tried to sit still. Not in an elementary school way, but in meditation. I was nearly 20. Myself and two friends, relatively spontaneously, decided to join a sit at the San Francisco Zen Center. We were each given a cushion and a cubicle of sorts. We were instructed to sit still for 30 minutes. If we needed to move, we were told to first bow and then move with awareness.
All I remember is spending what felt like an eternity repeatedly bowing to myself, until I had literally given myself the giggles. After a few minutes I ran out of the room and completely unraveled into a ball of nervous laughter. I am confident I was a complete distraction to everyone present, most of all myself.
And yet I was also encouraged. The unparalleled simplicity of the instruction to sit still has captured my spiritual attention for nearly 20 years. This is not a posture that comes easily to me. Yet one that most ancient spiritual traditions point to.
Over the years I have come to understand that Shabbat is to time as meditation is to being human. We sing of this stillness every week on Shabbat afternoon and read them aloud in this week's parsha, Ki Tissa:
וְשָׁמְר֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת לַעֲשׂ֧וֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֛ת לְדֹרֹתָ֖ם בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם
The Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.
בֵּינִ֗י וּבֵין֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל א֥וֹת הִ֖וא לְעֹלָ֑ם כִּי־שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבַיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ׃
It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Holy One made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day ceased and was refreshed (shavat vayinafash) (Exodus 31:16-17).
According to these words, Shabbat is not just stillness for its own sake, but it also contains a sense of promise. Not exactly the enlightenment of meditation, but the possibility of being re-souled, refreshed, renewed (shavat vayinafash).
For the rabbis, the promise of renewal and the mitzvah to observe Shabbat is so important they say it is tantamount to observing all other mitzvot combined. The first mention of Shabbat comes famously on the seventh day of creation. And then there is relative radio silence. We never hear about our ancestors observing shabbat in Genesis. Until parshat Beshallach, just about a month ago, when Shabbat reappears in regards to manna in the desert. And from then on, Shabbat appears in every parsha in Exodus. Shabbat is mentioned relative to all the instructions to build the mishkan. Perhaps most famously in the Ten Commandments in Yitro. And in particular in this week's parsha as we get the second set of tablets, once again inviting the instructions around observing Shabbat.
One midrash offers us an aspirational image from the natural world.
נְהַר סַמְבַּטְיוֹן מֵעִיד שֶׁבְּכָל יָמִים הוּא מוֹשֵׁךְ אֲבָנִים וָחוֹל וּבְשַׁבָּת נִנּוֹחַ.
Even the river of Sabbtyon testifies to the power of Shabbat for it carries stones and sand throughout the week, but on Shabbat it is still (Tanhuma, Ki Tissa 33).
Shabbat is a time in which the current ceases and the rocks settle. And for a moment the world is still. Yet nothing about this stillness comes naturally to me. And nothing about it is supported by popular culture or capitalism. To borrow an image from the poet Ross Gay, Shabbat is at its best a day for loitering.
"The Webster's definition of loiter reads thus: 'to stand or wait around idly without apparent purpose,' and 'to travel indolently with frequent pauses.' Among the synonyms for this behavior are linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey. Any one of these words, in the wrong frame of mind, might be considered a critique or, when nouned, an epithet ('Lollygagger!' or 'Loafer!')...All of these words to me imply having a nice day. They imply having the best day. They also imply being unproductive. Which leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America, and more explicitly criminal depending upon any number of quickly apprehended visual cues."
Ross Gay goes on to say that loitering is delightful. And wouldn't you know it, so is Shabbat. To quote the liturgy of the Mussaf Amidah,
יִשמְחוּ בְמַלְכוּתְךָ שׁומְרֵי שַׁבָּת וְקורְאֵי ענֶג.
They will rejoice, those who keep the Sabbath and call it a delight (v'korei oneg).
For me delight conjures a tender, easeful kind of joy. It has tones of spontaneity and the unexpected. Not feelings that have primarily been present for me in meditation, nor necessarily on Shabbat. If I am honest, some weeks I dread Shabbat during the pandemic. The days are long and the distractions are few, and I miss being physically together. I quickly recover the spirit of myself 20 years ago, looking for the eject button from this spiritual practice. There must be a way out.
And so I am grateful for the wisdom of Ross Gay. His essay continues:
"Which points to another of the synonyms for loitering, which I almost wrote as delight: taking one's time. For while the previous list of synonyms allude to time, taking one's time makes it kind of plain, for the crime of loitering, the idea of it, is about ownership of one's own time, which must be, sometimes, wrested from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is."
And I am grateful for the repetitive instructions of Exodus which seem at times to be like pounding a nail into wood, and in other moments, like an abundant gift.
V'shamru et yom hashabbat
Protect this day. For it is precious.
V'nei u'vein b'nei yisrael ot hi l'olam
It is what binds us together.
Ki sheshet yamim asa adonai et hashamayim v'et haaretz
For all week we are busy and time is not our own
U'vayom hashevi'i shavat vayinafash
But on this day, we cease and refresh.
Whatever your Shabbat practice includes and excludes, I invite you to linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey.
May you have the courage and discipline to take your time this Shabbat, to go slow enough to conjure delight and to know that you are connected to many concentric circles of people who are doing so with you.
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.