This week we find ourselves pregnant with Torah. This is how the rabbis refer to doubled Torah portions, as in Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. [Another week I will share how and why this happens.] The second portion begins with a declaration from Moses to the people on Behalf of the Holy One, "קדשים תהיו (Kedoshim Tihiyu) You shall be Holy!" And while its a rather simple instruction, much ink has been spilled about what it might really mean.
The verses that follows are often referred to as the Holiness Code. Lists of instructions, AKA mitzvot, that might guide us toward Holiness. Things like, Honor your parents; don't steal; don't place a stumbling block before the blind. And perhaps most famously, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19: 18). The text is so important, that many liberal communities (including KT) read it on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
But holiness is not an easy concept to internalize. While I actually find these mitzvot to be useful instructions (as compared to some pretty offensive ones in the previous chapter), they also seem so concrete that I find it hard to conceive of holiness whole-cloth.
And so I offer you (once again) a piece of my morning prayer practice, words from the poet Marge Piercy, that help me connect to a clarity of purpose and the truth of our interdependence which I believe is at the heart of holiness.
"All living are one and holy, let us remember
As we eat, as we work, as we walk and drive.
All living are one and holy, we must
make ourselves worthy.
We must act out justice and mercy and healing
as the sun rises and as the sun sets,
as the moon rises and the stars wheel above us,
we must repair goodness...
We will try to be holy,
We will try to repair the world given us to hand on.
Precious is this treasure of words and knowledge and deeds that moves inside us,
Holy is the hand that works for peace and for justice,
Holy is the mouth that speaks for goodness
holy is the foot that walks toward mercy.
Let us lift each other on our shoulders and carry each other along.
Let holiness move in us.
Let us pay attention to its small voice,
Let us see the light in others and honor that light...
Praise the light that shines before us, through us, after us, Amen.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Tomorrow concludes the third week of the Omer, which means we are deep in the wilderness. The shores of the red sea are out of sight, but so is the foot of Mt. Sinai. At this point in the Journey, the Israelites are relying on miracles for signs of hope. The Torah teaches, "Remember the long way that the Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years...The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these 40 years" (Deut. 8:1,4).
Their clothes did not wear out? I don't know about you, but my kids seem to outgrow a pair of shoes almost monthly. The medieval commentator Rashi explains, "The clouds of glory would rub up against their clothes and clean them, just as clothes are pressed in a laundry. Their children--as they got bigger, their clothing would grow with them, just like the covering of a snail, which grows as the snail grows."
Rabbi Jill Hammer notes in The Jewish Book of Days, "For the rabbis, the wilderness is a miraculous place where surprising things happen. The clouds of Divine Presence rub up against clothes to wash out the dirt, and the clothes of children are like living things, growing like the bark of trees, or the house of a snail...The midrash also hints that when we are truly on a journey, we are liable to grow without realizing it" (p. 261).
As we deepen our journey into the Omer, we embrace this time of wilderness and wandering, which for the mystics, was a time of great growth. We read of the Israelites wandering in the desert in the springtime, which echoes the miracles and surprises of spring itself. Tomorrow morning, we will pick up on a conversation we began last Friday night, studying more deeply the midrashim that ask, why was Torah revealed in the wilderness. And even more so, we will attempt to notice the surprising ways we have grown as we emerge from the dormancy of winter.
Rabbi Ari Lev
How do you feel about being in the middle?
Middle seat on the plane? Middle school? Midterms?
As a middle child, I have a personal fondness for being in the middle. But it seems to me that the middle has largely gotten a bad wrap. Its squishy and indeterminate. It can lack motivation and inspiration.
Billy Collins writes in his poem, Aristotle writes:
"This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore...
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent...
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward's child...
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things..."
Unless of course, it is the heart of things. Which is more how the rabbi's, specifically the priests, tend to see it. As it turns out, this week's Parsha, Shmini, marks the midpoint of the Torah.
The rabbi's explain:
"The letter vav in the word “belly [gaḥon]” (Leviticus 11:42) is the midpoint of the letters in a Torah scroll. The words: “Diligently inquired [darosh darash]” (Leviticus 10:16), are the midpoint of the words in a Torah scroll. And the verse that begins with: “Then he shall be shaven” (Leviticus 13:33), is the midpoint of the verses" (B.T. Kiddushin 30a).
All week I have been captivated by this letter vav, a part of speech, that has no definite meaning itself. In the Torah the vav functions as a vowel with various pronunciations. It can also serve as a prefix, meaning "and" or "but" - and it is often hard to know which.
This I think speaks to the fundamental power of being in the middle. The midpoint, embodied in this one little vav, is about positionality. It is a point of agency; Do we want to be conjunctive or disjunctive? Is this a moment of contention or continuity?
Even more so, are these middle words, darosh darash [diligently inquire], or my colloquially, really drash it. Interpret and meaning making, say the rabbis, are at the heart of Torah.
As I approach the end of my second year as the rabbi of Kol Tzedek, I hardly feel we are in the middle of my time here. But things are starting to feel less like the beginning. So perhaps we are entering the expansive, complicated, sometimes disappointing, endlessly fertile middle. A place that call us to make meaning together.
Come to shul tonight hear the full drash and find out why in fact none of these midpoints are even exactly in the middle.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
I want to let you all in a secret Jewish handshake that happens only twice a year. There is a special greeting for the middle days of the festivals of Passover and Sukkot, known has Hol HaMoed (the "regular" part of 7 day festivals). Growing up I always said Chag Sameach -- and it wasn't until I got to rabbinical school that I realized it wasn't actually the chag, the festival itself.
And that's when a friend who had went to Jewish day school (that is where this handshake is most often taught) explained to me that you can say, "Moadim L'Simcha!" This special greeting for the middle days of Passover and Sukkot means 'Joyous Festivals!' And then the person can respond: "Chagim u'zmanim l'sasson" which means "Joyous holidays and seasons!"
These greetings can create both intimacy and alienation. They can texture time and cue us towards joy. And they can also send us deep into a spiral of Jewish inadequacy. For this reason, I am going to dedicate a session in May as part of Judaism as a Spiritual Practice to learning about different Jewish greetings and salutations, and what they teach us about Jewish time and community. To get a sneak peak, check out this video Rabbi Michelle just sent out to the Torah School (you can use this song to practice!).
While we can't make ourselves feel happy, we can use the greeting as a reminder to exit our daily routine and integrate an extra moment of things that genuinely bring us joy. And this is what I mean when I say to each of you, Moadim L'Simcha! Carve out an extra moment of joy for yourself.
Very much looking forward to being together this Shabbat!
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.