True confessions in times of COVID:
During Passover, I would listen to the Mutual Aid Hallel service while wrestling with my kids in bed underneath a tallit. It was the best way to meet all our needs at once. Call it my quarantine “"prayground," if you will. At one point, I jokingly said aloud, "We are wrestling with G!D," which I personally got a kick out of. Fast forward to this morning, when my kids jump in my bed. I tell them excitedly it's Rosh Hodesh, which means we get to sing Hallel. Without skipping a beat my three-year-old responds, "Yay, wrestling with G!D!"
Mind you, he knows nothing of Jacob's encounter with an angel. And he has yet to explore his own existential ambivalence about the existence of Divinity at large. So as far as he is concerned, nothing is more fun than wrestling with G!D. And as far as I am concerned, nothing is more necessary. I have been wrestling with G!D all week. How else could it have been? This was the week marked in the cycle of the omer by gevurah, which draws on the qualities of strength, discipline, boundaries, power. And never have I felt less disciplined, less in control, less fit for the world. Where as hesed is associated with the right hand, gevurah is associated with our left hand. And in so many ways we are living in what Gloria Anzaldúa describes as El Mundo Zurdo, the Left-handed World. A world of radical imagination, blurred boundaries, multiple truths, self-sovereignty, and transformative connections. For Anzaldua, El Mundo Zurdo holds redemptive power. In the defining collection, This Bridge Called my Back, she writes:
"The pull between what is and what should be. I believe that by changing ourselves we change the world, that traveling El Mundo Zurdo path is the path of a two-way movement – a going deep into the self and an expanding out into the world, a simultaneous recreation of the self and a reconstruction of society. And yet, I am confused as to how to accomplish this" (208).
This is why I pray. To journey inward and expand outward. To connect to my own vulnerability and agency. Every time I put on my tallit, I find myself in the pull between what is and what should be, connected to this two-way movement inward and expanding outward, to this left-handed world of gevurah.
אַתָּה גִּבּור לְעולָם אֲדנָי
Atah gibor l'olam Adonai...Your power endures within and beyond me.
מְכַלְכֵּל חַיִּים בְּחֶסֶד
Mechalkel hayyim b'hesed...You sustain all life with loving kindness.
Anzaldúa continues, "I'm trying to create a religion not out there somewhere, but in my gut. I am trying to make peace between what has happened to me, what the world is, and what it should be."
It is through this embodied peacemaking, this wrestling with G!D, this sacred mixing of hesed and gevurah, that we are able to pivot from El Mundo Zurdo to the world of Tiferet - a world of balance, harmony, equanimity; a striving for beauty. In the words of poet-laureate Joy Harjo:
"The sung blessing of creation
Led her into the human story.
That was the first beauty...
There were many beauties in this age
For everything was immensely itself:
Green greener than the impossibility of green,
the taste of wind after its slide through dew grass at dawn,
Or language running through a tangle of wordlessness in her mouth..."
This is the invitation of tiferet.
On this new moon of Iyyar, may we have the courage to lay down our fight (however playful or prayerful it may be), and rest in the beauty of the dark night sky, the greener than green of Spring, and everything that is immensely itself.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. Please enjoy this week's Torah reading brought to you by KT leyners, such a gift!
I must be honest, I never aspired to homeschool my children. And if only you could see the short video of one of our "morning meetings" -- one kid bouncing on the trampoline upside-down while Shosh tries to read the schedule, and the other kid reminding us we are already behind schedule while I cry a new-to-me kind of tears, where I literally don't know if they are tears of laughter or fear. After a few days, we called in some reinforcements. And since that tearful morning, Shosh's mother, the amazing Rabbi Gila Ruskin, has been running morning meetings, which we should actually rename Circle Time because it has no fixed hour and often happens midday.
The most important hiddush (innovation) of her morning meeting is a Mad-Libs-style fill in the blank schedule. Rather than worrying about what time we will do anything, she asks them things like, "What is our act of hesed today?" This can be anything from writing a letter to their great grandmother or recording a video for someone's birthday or making a heart out of sticks in front of a friend's house. For me personally it has profoundly changed my days to orient around the question, "What act of hesed can I do today?" And it has helped me to orient to this entire quarantine with that same question. What acts of hesed can we do in this time?
Every year the second night of Passover brings in the counting of the omer, as we seamlessly weave from one sacred cycle into another. In the mystical imagination, each of the seven weeks of the omer corresponds to a sephira, a divine emanation. And we began last week with hesed. How fitting. The Talmud teaches us that the Torah begins with hesed and ends with hesed. "How so," you might ask?
Rabbi Simlai taught: In the beginning of Genesis, the Holy One makes garments for Adam and Eve, and at the end of Deuteronomy, the Holy One buries Moses (B.T. Sotah 14a). For Rabbi Simlai, the whole of Torah is filled with acts of hesed. And if the Torah is the blueprint for the world, then so too the world begins and ends with hesed. These days, that seems increasingly true.
In response to a culture of "cancel everything" I have witnessed the rise of its spiritual corollary, "share everything." This has proliferated at Kol Tzedek, in the wider West Philly community, and in the world beyond. It has been true at car protests to free folks from jail and waiting in line for essentials like groceries and banking. Mutual aid, loaves of bread, boxes of matzah, face masks, baseball mitts, projectors, seeds, books, gardening tools. The world has become the lending library it was always meant to be. Canceling everything has loosened our grip on the material world and given way to a culture of generosity that can only be understood as hesed.
One of my beloved mentors, Rabbi Rim Meirowitz taught me that in a community everyone is a member of the hesed committee. This is our fundamental calling as humans. To reach out and support one another. In the words of Ashrei, "Poteach et yadecha u'masbia l'chol chai ratzon - Reach out your hand and sustain all life." The mishnah teaches that there is no upper limit on gemilut hesed/acts of kindness. And this feels increasingly obvious, evident, and necessary in these times. I am so grateful to everyone in our community who has been extending care and phone calls and increasing our interdependence. It was a powerful reminder to sing of this profound hesed every morning of Pesach during Hallel, calling out - Ki l'olam hasdo - Hesed is what endures.
In a quiet moment after a rainstorm earlier this week I went on a run. As I meandered through the vacant parks on this warm spring night, a feeling arose inside me: "I miss the world and all of you in it." The feeling gave way to a spacious softness inside. Something I can only describe as a well of hesed. A longing to share the world with each of you. And I thought of the words of the inspired poet Rabbi Mónica Gomery:
"To say I choose the world, and you in it.
Wide and blasted through
and bleeding light, I don't
know how else to name it..."
I know Rabbi Mó wrote this poem about a very personal grief. And I know for me in this moment it touches a vast abyss of collective loss. Which is to say, I miss you all. I choose the world with you in it. As we journey into Shabbat, may we merit to begin and end our days with acts of hesed.
However you choose to connect and spend shabbat, know you are in my heart.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Written in collaboration with Rabbis Joseph Berman, Avi Killip and Micha'el Rosenberg.
As we prepare to celebrate Passover isolated in our homes, separated from loved ones, and struggling against the grave injustices of our society, now so clearly unmasked, I am thinking of a teaching from Rabbi Arthur Green about the central tension of the Seder. Rabbi Green explains that the tension is between the contradictory claims in the Haggadah, which contains the words "now we are slaves" and then, moments later, "we were slaves to Pharaoh in Mitzrayim (the narrow place)…" The Haggadah seems to be saying that we are both enslaved and free.
This year the whole world is in a narrow place - mitzrayim - as we are living through what many people are describing as a plague. We often sing as our prayer for healing at Shabbat services the words of the Three Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra: "when the world is sick/can't no one be well." How acutely we know this to be true. But then we sing another line: "and I dreamt we were all beautiful and whole." These last words capture for me both the yearning for a world of wholeness, healing, and liberation along with the truth that we are in fact beautiful and whole, even if we might not feel that way. More than one thing is true at once says the Haggadah.
For those who were not present online during Friday night services, I wanted to take a few moments (as a break between cleaning my fridge and my stove) to share some brief reflections on preparing for Passover this year.
This is the first time we have experienced seder in the midst of a pandemic, but it is not the first time Jews have celebrated this holiday in a moment of danger and fear. We have celebrated Passover in narrower times. All week I have been thinking of a photo published in the NY Times, of women baking matzah in the oven they built beneath the Lodz Ghetto in 1943. We may be physically distant, but we must remind our bones that this is not World War II. We may never have seen a solo seder as something that might happen to us, but Maimonides did and we know this because he taught us that one is required to ask themself the Four Questions. Our seders this year will become a link in a chain of seder throughout Jewish history that offered Jews comfort, ritual, and joy in uncertain times.
Perhaps you too have been wondering how best to prepare for Passover this year. I've had moments in the past few weeks where I thought I should say to our community, don't worry about Passover this year. Only focus on what is urgent and what you most need to do. The last thing you need to be worrying about is purchasing matzah and making charoset. This may in fact be necessary for some of us and that is OK! And, with the help of my chevruta and teacher, I'm now thinking about the process of observing Passover as an opportunity to move through our present narrowness.
Part of what has been anxiety provoking about this pandemic is that we've lost many of the mechanisms by which we structure time. This might be a commute, in person meetings, "going" to school, or "going" to work. Part of the gift of Judaism is that we still have the possibility of structuring, of texturing, of sanctifying time. It can help our mental health and create joy. While we are spending so much time at home, we can still do a serious Spring cleaning and put away the chametz. Whether at home or on Zoom, we can tell stories and ask questions. The Haggadah also says, one who expands upon the Exodus story, harei zeh meshubach - that person is worthy of praise. Because in truth, the Exodus from Mitzrayim never ends. This year's story is ours to tell.
This doesn't mean you are going to necessarily observe Pesach this year the way you have in previous years. In fact, that is likely impossible. Passover is at its heart a night of questions. And so it seems fitting that my primary instruction on how to prepare for Passover this year comes in the form of a question. I invite you to ask yourself:
What are the core principles or observances of Passover for me?
Maybe that means having a seder, maybe it means calling the mayor to demand he decarcerate PA jails, prisons, and detention centers, maybe it means asking big questions about freedom and justice and dreaming up even bigger answers, maybe it means eating matzah, maybe it means avoiding bread or all chametz or even kitniyot. AND, at the same time, ask yourself:
What are the adornments and practices that in other years I have put attention on, that might not make sense in this time?
For example, I am still committed to deep-cleaning behind my stove. But unlike previous years, I am planning to eat kitniyot.
Many of us associate Passover with a heightened attention to practice, going above and beyond what we typically do. There is a culture, particularly in Ashkenazi communities, of leaning into stringencies, a kind of strictness of observance. For some of us this will still feel meaningful, in which case I invite you to see this as core to your practice. But for those who feel ourselves retreating at the idea of Pesach this year, overwhelmed by the prospect of having to figure it out, approach Pesach with gentleness, let go of things you might have done in previous years, and focus on the core principles and observance. Give yourself permission to prepare in ways that are meaningful and to know you are allowed have a shvach seder. And please do not put yourself at increased risk or danger for the purpose of ritual observance.
I must admit, when I looked at the ritual calendar just before Purim, I could never have imagined this moment. To imagine that all plans and projects could evaporate. And on the one hand, it is unnerving and utterly disorienting. On the other hand, it seems infinitely hopeful. To realize that change is not only possible, but inevitable. It means that liberation is also not only possible, but inevitable. That oppressive forces will also one day cease and desist. And this is why we celebrate Passover, every year. Not just to remember it, but to live it, to breathe life into the potential this ancient story represents. In the words of the Haggadah:
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יֶָָצֶָא מִמִּצְרַָים
"In every generation each of us is obligated to see ourselves as though we had gone through Mitzrayim."
Rabbi Shai Held taught this morning, Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) is a paradigm for the truth that there is no status quo that cannot be overturned. So let this be the year you have the strength to tell a story that takes you from bitterness to joy, because if it is possible for us to adapt and make the great changes these times require of us, liberation is also possible. I am grateful for the reminder from my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader: "Closed in our homes as we were in Pesach Mitzrayim, may this night again be a gateway to redemption." May it be so, speedily and in our days.
May it be a uniquely meaningful, liberatory, and healthy Passover for you and your loved ones.
Chag Kasher v'Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
הא לחמא עניא די אכלו אבהתנא בארעא דמצרים.
כל דכפין ייתי ויכל
כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח.
Our Passover story famously begins, Ha Lachma Anya, "This is the bread of affliction/poverty (lechem oni) that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, come and eat. All who are in need, come and do Pesah."
This teaching embodies the Haggadah's aspiration for true liberation for everyone – no matter one's income level. Everyone deserves to celebrate being free at Passover. The Mishnah even teaches us that even the poorest of the poor are required to have four cups of wine at their seder (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1).
Every year, this profound declaration challenges us to imagine a kind of hospitality and economic justice that is ever-expansive and all-inclusive. Most years I wonder how I can say these words and mean them. Could I be inviting folks I meet on the street, especially folks who ask me for money, to literally come join me in my house? Could I be posting on listservs or social media, gathering folks who are looking for a seder at the last minute? Could I be spending the morning cooking Food Not Bombs-style and serving a meal in a public space?
But this year, even more so, as we prepare for a Passover like none other, what might it mean to say, "Let all who are hungry come and eat," when I literally cannot invite anyone to my house for seder?
As it turns out this line has been the cause of sufficient curiosity for centuries. I learned with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer this week that throughout Jewish history our teachers have interpreted this statement in different ways.
Three different, relatively literal interpretations suggest the following:
Take a moment to note that the latter two are actually quite possible this year. And yet, I think there is important spiritual insight in another interpretation from the Talmud to guide us in our seder preparations.
אמר שמואל: לחם עני (כתיב) - לחם שעונין עליו דברים.
Shmuel teaches: "The bread of affliction [lehem oni]" refers to the bread over which one answers [onim] questions, (i.e., one recites the Haggadah over matzah) (B.T. Pesachim 115b).
Passover is, at its heart, a night of questions. And matzah is our magic 8-ball. It is meant to inspire in us generative thinking and creative problem-solving. We are instructed to be abundant with our answers. This feels like an essential practice this year. Most of us have not had the time or presence of mind to sit and luxuriate around a table, to get lost in conversation about freedom and justice. To imagine our way out of these narrow times. To imagine what new things are now possible.
What it means to be free, says the Haggadah, is to spend a night, reclining, pontificating, asking and answering questions big and small. To know that the work of the world can wait. Tonight we are free to wonder. To allow a spaciousness to descend in our homes that might lead us toward clarity.
How will this night be different from all other nights?
How will this Passover be different from all other Passovers?
We will each answer these questions differently. But as we learn from Shmuel, the real mitzvah is in our courage to lean back and indulge our curiosity. Whether you are celebrating alone (and the Haggadah is your companion), with your housemates, or on Zoom, may the questions you ask and the answers they inspire bring you closer to freedom and may you have a zisn Pesach, a sweet and joyful Passover. May we all pass through these narrow times together.
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.