after the first death
The poet Dylan Thomas writes, "After the first death, there is no other."
Which death counts as the first? Genesis 5:5 reads, "All the days that Adam lived came to 930 years, then he died." Certainly our existence as humans has been forever altered and shaped by our own mortality.
And yet I think Thomas is describing something much more intimate than even our own death. He points to the reality that our first experience of death, as in our first personal and significant loss, is a threshold that cannot be undone.
In this week's parsha, we read of the death of two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu. Upon hearing of these deaths, in a moment of remarkable biblical brevity, the Torah reads, "וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃ / Aaron was still." In the stillness, I hear the words of the poet Dylan Thomas, "After the first death, there is no other."
The stillness of this moment invites infinite commentary. Was he in shock? Was he at peace? Did he accept the Divine verdict? Did he weep? Did he wail? Did he sit in silence?
Yes, yes to all of it. Death is a kaleidoscope of emotions that flood our entire being beyond words and reason.
Not a week goes by that a member of our community does not lose a loved one. After the first death, death is ever-present. An elder, a sibling, a student. Some of our losses are more public than others. This week alone I have written four condolence cards.
One of the most challenging parts of my role as a rabbi has been unlearning my own fear of death. I remember driving away from a funeral for a KT member weeping. I pulled over and called a colleague, "You mean to tell me I am supposed to fall in love with each of these people and then bury them?!" They listened as I cried. And Aaron was still. After the first death, there is no other.
The Torah is full of detailed accounts of our ancestors' deaths. Jacob and Joseph. Miriam and Moses. From each of these stories we have learned how to grieve, as people and as a people.
As a congregational rabbi, I am constantly reminded by members of our community, what a gift Jewish mourning rituals are. How supportive it is to have rote actions and daily routines when one is immersed in grief.
Rabbi Ari Lev
purim passes the baton to passover
Yesterday afternoon I rode my bike around West Philly delivering mishloach manot - little Purim goodie bags with edible treats and DIY crafts. I arrived at the home of a KT member dressed like a piece of bacon. I handed her the paper tote and said, "Happy Purim!" In exchange she asked me to wait a moment as she went inside to retrieve an even larger brown paper bag. She handed it to me and said, "Happy Passover!" Her bag was filled with burlap "plague bags," which contained little toy models of each plague to be used at our seder.
In an instant I thought of the words that Flory Jagoda sings in our Song of The Month, Purim lano, Pesach ala mano. "As soon as Purim is over, Passover is imminent!" Literally in Ladino, Passover is at hand or in our hand. And in my case it was literally like a Jewish holiday hand-off, relay race style.
It is sweet to imagine that Purim passes the baton to Passover. And easy to make meaning of it as though it was by design. But then we remember that the festival of Passover comes from the Torah itself. Passover is one of the shalosh regalim - the three pilgrimage festivals described in parashat Emor, along with Shavuot and Sukkot.
But Purim gets no mention in the Torah. It is a "rabbinic" holiday - which means it was established much later. Which is why the mitzvot associated with Purim are so qualitatively different from the shalosh regalim. There are no prohibitions around cooking or commerce. In fact quite the opposite. We are instructed to eat and drink and give tzedakah with wild abandon!
The Jewish ritual calendar may not be intentionally relentless, but it is very effective. These holidays were born at different times in Jewish history, with different textual origins. But as far as we are concerned, we have inherited a season of celebration. For thousands of years, Jews have been participating in this festival relay race. Purim initiates the spring holidays cycle. Hands off the momentum to Passover. And Shavuot is the spiritual closer. (There is a very brief pause before the next cycle begins with the breach of the walls on the 17th of Tammuz. But that is the subject of another email).
When Adar comes, joy increases. The natural world reflects this truth in her colorful blooms, and we echo this need in our insistent frivolity. One KT member wrote to me today, "Purim festivities definitely helped me exhale a bit." Someone else shared, "Let us continue to bring joy into each other's lives." I think that's all we can ask for from the opening round of Spring holidays.
The journey to freedom is iterative and annual. These holidays are sprints that energize what is otherwise a daily practice of opening up and letting go. This week's parshah, Tzav, describes both the persistence and patience required as we tend our inner ner tamid - our connection to the sacred and to the truth that everything is one. May our festival and daily practices bring us closer to each other and to freedom.
Rabbi Ari Lev
the memory keeper
Earlier this week I returned a call from a KT member I knew had lived in Ukraine as a child and still had family there. He began, "I had called you when things were still feeling like 1918 and now that things feel more like 1939 we have other things to discuss." It took me a moment to realize he was referencing two different historical markers – the Spanish Flu in 1918 relative to COVID-19 and the onset of World War II in 1939 relative to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Our current political reality was somehow in reference to several other key moments in centuries past all at once.
This week we read parashat Pekudei as we conclude the book of Exodus, the great liberation narrative of our people. But hardly a day goes by in Jewish ritual life that we don't reference it. We imagine ourselves crossing the sea singing Mi Chamocha before every Amidah. We call out from a narrow place in the verses of Hallel on Rosh Hodesh. And every Shabbat, as we make kiddush, we bless the day in remembrance of the work of creation and in remembrance of the Exodus / zecher l'tziyat mitzrayim. Each week we are at once back in the Garden of Eden and back in the Narrow Place.
Our prayers and blessings call to us. They are our memory keepers. Drawing connections across time and place. And in this way reminding us of what is enduring and sustaining.
Linguistically speaking, the reason the Israelites were freed from slavery is because God "remembered" them (Exodus 4:30). In the Hebrew it reads, "Adonai pakad et B'nei Yisrael." This is the same remembering that the Holy One does when Sarah gets pregnant at the age of 99. Our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading begins, "Adonai pakad et Sarah." This remembering can be personal and it can be communal.
This week as we read parashat Pekudei, I am returning to the power of memory. So many of us have family that were forced to migrate from Ukraine in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And some of us are ourselves refugees from Ukraine. It is devastating to think that 100 years later there is a Jewish president and another fascist invasion. I read a piece about how one rabbi in Odessa bought enough canned goods for his congregation to eat for a year. It is 1918 and it is 1939.
Earlier this week the member shared on our congregant listserv, "I was born in Kyiv and so were most of my family members for the previous three generations. I still have elderly family members there that survived the bombing by the Nazis 80 years ago only to be homebound and stuck in there apartment while the city is being bombed by the Russia today... I can't begin to describe sheer horror of what Putin has unleashed on the country where I was born and where I spent my childhood. I recognize every one of those subway stations that are being used as bomb shelters and every street where buildings are being blown up and tanks are driving down."
One midrash on the Exodus story tells of the power of remembering. Moses and Aaron are trying to impress the Elders of Israel. The elders go to visit Serah Bat Asher, the oldest woman in the Torah. (Her life spans the entire experience of enslavement and liberation, and some communities hold that she lives until the 12th century!) They tell Serah Bat Asher that Moses said, "G-d will remember you!" Upon hearing this, she said: "He is the man who will bring Yisrael out of Egypt, for I heard from my father 'Peh Peh Pakod Yifkod' are the magic words.
Serah Bat Asher, often referred to as the memory keeper, is the one person who knows where Joseph is buried. She is called upon so that B'nei Yisrael can fulfill their promise to carry his bones out of Egypt. She is invoked in moments when we need to look back, unbury truths, and unlock our courage to carry ourselves across the unknown.
In the words of the wonderful Marge Piercy,
"Bless the gift of memory
that breaks unbidden, released
from a flower or a cup of tea
so the dead move like rain through the room."
The stories we tell are themselves keepers of memory. We pass them down from generation to generation, from mouth to mouth (peh peh), from heart to heart, so that we can honor our dead and fight like hell for the living.
May the blessings of the new moon be upon us, and upon all of Yisrael and all who dwell on Earth. And may this Adar fulfill its promise to increase our joy.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev