One of the highlights of my week was meeting with a Kol Tzedek B'nei Mitzvah student. I asked them what I always ask in our initial meeting. "What is Torah?" Their eyes lit up as we discovered the difference between the Five Books of Moses and the entire Tanakh. It was magic to show them how to find Psalms and Esther tucked away in the chapters of Ketuvim. They got so excited when they realized that the Talmud was not in the Torah, but was also Torah!
I take very seriously the responsibility to cultivate a love of Torah in our B'nei Mitzvah students. To teach them to love the words and even more to love studying Torah. I want each of them, and by extension all of us, to understand that our relationship to Torah matters. That our study of Torah has an effect on us and therefore an effect on the world around us. And perhaps even more importantly, that our study of Torah changes Torah itself.
I remember the first time I understood what it meant that Torah is alive. That a single word can mean many things and a sentence can be read many ways. Torah is indefinite and it is infinite. Without vowels and punctuation, it is on its own indecipherable. For Torah to be meaningful, it requires that we pronounce it. And we have agency in how we do that. I always tell our B'nei Mitzvah students, Torah is a tree of life. And your Dvar Torah will be its newest leaf. Every time you teach Torah you are directly contributing to the wisdom of our tradition.
As you can see, I have a very romantic relationship with Torah. I love transmitting this sense of wonder to my students. But as I approached this week's parsha, I was reminded that Torah is also vulnerable. The fact that it is forever open to human interpretation means that it is also available for misinterpretation, exploitation, and manipulation.
This week, in parashat Acharei Mot, we read the words of Leviticus 18:22. Often translated as "Man shall not lay with man. It is an abomination." These words, as they appear in Hebrew, are obscure in both meaning and context. It is ambiguous what this verse means. And yet it has resoundingly been used as the biblical justification for homophobia across religious traditions and cultural contexts. There is no question this verse has harmed many of us personally and Judaism at large.
It should be some comfort to consider that the very fact that Leviticus 18:22 has caused so much pain and harm is also proof that our relationship to Torah and our study of it matters. And yet, I rarely study the painful verses of Torah with my B'nei Mitzvah students. I neglect to tell them that it is not all magic and mystery. That Torah is infinite which means it is also hard and harmful.
There have been times in my life when I have wanted to cross out every problematic verse in Torah. I even have a copy of the Tanakh where I started this project with scissors and a sharpie. Trying to redact this sacred text to make it less harmful. To remove the promise of colonial conquest and the rape of Dinah and even the opening verses of Genesis where it appears human beings might have been made male and female, exclusively.
But then I discovered the world of Midrash. Stories about the Torah, which are also Torah! Stories that retell, reclaim, and often redeem our stories. Take as an example the midrash of the first human being, describing Adam HaRishon as neither male nor female, but rather androginos, which we can imagine as a Hellenistic non-binary identity. Had I torn the pages from my Tanakh, I might have missed the chance to study these words and all of the stories they have generated.
So the question arises existentially and usually very practically in my inbox: What do we do with these verses? Do we read them out loud on Shabbat? Do we bless them with an aliyah?
There was a time when I would have said no, let's skip them. Let's bury them. But these days I am using these hard moments in Torah to embrace a larger spiritual practice of being present with hard things. This includes working with pain in the body and not wishing it away; noting anger and judgment and not reacting to it immediately. I am actively trying to get better at being physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Not because I prefer it. But because it allows me to be present for more of life. And in this case, to be in relationship with more of Torah. Our power as human beings is our vulnerability; our ability to feel the full range of human experience. So too with Torah.
May our presence and patience with these ancient words lead to healing, insight, and transformation for all of us.
Shabbat Shalom and (almost!) Hodesh Tov,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Next week at this time I will undoubtedly be scrambling to be ready for seder. If there even is such a thing as being ready. I take comfort thinking of our Israelites ancestors who left in a haste. Our rushed preparations have mythic precedent. So I am going to take this opportunity to share some seder Torah in anticipation.
The Haggadah famously teaches, "In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we personally went out from mitzrayim." Years ago I learned a beloved Sefardi custom from my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader that I think most honestly fulfills this teaching. Every year at our seder, when we arrive at the Maggid section, we physically go outside and find the famous full moon of Nisan. And then we walk by its light around the block. Like all good rituals, it begins as a theatrical moment, inviting our kids to reenact a mythic story. But inevitably it becomes part of our story too.
Certainly the journey from the front door of our row home to the backdoor is hardly a sea-crossing. But nonetheless, there is a felt sense of this collective leave-taking. And certainly a cry of "Dayenu!" from the little ones.
While the Israelites left b'hetzi ha'lailah - in the middle of the night - we are more likely to be doing this at 6pm than midnight. Nonetheless, I am already anticipating the magnetic pull of that luminous moon, which, according to some, has the power to turn day into night.
The song of this month, as curated in our newsletter by Rabbi Mó, is called "Karev Yom." Its haunting melody attributed to the Baal Shem Tov draws on the closing words of a 6th-century piyyut by Yannai that appears in the concluding Nirtzah section of the Haggadah:
Karev yom / Bring close the day
A-sher hu lo yom v'lo layla / which is neither day nor night...
Ta-ir k'or yom chesh-kat layla / Illuminate, like the light of day, the darkness of night.
Every year as I stand beneath the full moon, I Imagine the desert headlamp it must have been, and still is for so many. So strong was its light, that it was able to transform the darkness of night into the light of day.
The full poem is actually called "Vayehi bahatzi HaLayla" / "And so it will be in the middle of the night" and it is actually a reworking of a midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 20, which describes all the miracles that took place in the middle of the night. Moments like Jacob wrestling with the angel, Israel's escape from Mitzrayim, King Ahashverosh's decision to save Mordechai and the Jews, to name a few. The poem goes on to make the bold claim that רב נסים בחצי הלילה / "most miracles happen in the middle of the night."
Most often I think of night as a time of increased danger and profound vulnerability. Our liturgy calls on the Holy One to spread over us a canopy of protection as we descend into the dreamworld. Eager to wake and express gratitude for the return of breath to our bodies.
But here this poem reminds us that night can also be a time of miraculous transformation. This should be a comfort to those of us who struggle to sleep. It is in the middle of the night that the seams of the world are loosened and more things are possible. Not to mention, most births happen at night.
As we sit around our seder tables this year, I invite you to call close the day that is neither day nor night, the liminal time where miracles abound. Just as the haste of our ancestors made way for unimagined freedom, may our hurried preparations bring us closer to a world that is entirely just and peaceful.
Shabbat Shalom and wishing you each a Zisn Pesach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
One of the most important moments of my week is when we pray for healing as a community during the Torah service. This practice began for me during the years when I worked at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan. As an LGBTQ synagogue that was forged during the AIDS epidemic, they lost an entire generation of gay men in their community. Prayers for healing were essential and complex. It was there that I learned to pray for a refuah shlemah - a complete healing of mind, body, and spirit. And to acknowledge that if a complete healing is not possible, may we be surrounded by care and community.
Disease, illness, and healing are at the center of the Torah portions we are reading this week and next – Tazria and Metzora. They are infamously known for their nuanced teachings about skin afflictions and priestly practices. But since March 2020, these parshiyot have taken on new resonances. Resonances that the two brave B'nei Mitzvah students that we will be celebrating this week and next will be speaking directly to.
About these parshiyot, my teacher Rabbi Art Green writes:
"All of us who read these words are survivors. We have lived together through terrible years of plague. Many of us have lost people we loved or cared about. Readers beyond a certain age are also likely to see themselves as survivors of various other events in the course of our lives: cancers, road accidents, addictions, and lots more sorts of plagues. In the course of this, we have all sought out healers, whether professionals, spouses, or friends. Is there any wisdom for healers or for those needing to be healed (that includes all of us, of course) that might be found in these very obscure chapters of Va-Yikra? Let’s try."
Having had COVID last month, I felt the wisdom and challenge of this parsha's instructions around communicable diseases and quarantine. So deep was my desire not to infect anyone else. When was it safe to emerge? How can I be sure not to transmit this virus? But also my longing to be taken care of. To have someone bring me a cup of soup and sit at my feet. I can relate to the biblical fear of having an illness that we do not fully understand. This is not unique to COVID. And ever more pressing for the many people in our community living with chronic illness.
At the end of this week's parsha we shift from illness to wounds and we receive this instruction:
או בשר כי יהיה בעורו מכות אש...וראה אותה הכהן
"If a person has a burn by fire in the skin...the kohen shall look at it. Has the hair turned white in it? Is it deeper than the skin (13:24-25)?"
Rabbi Green explains, "Here we are talking about an affliction that comes from without, a burn by fire. Let us see it as referring to any sort of wound that has come about due to some external event. We call this trauma...The healer has to look – perhaps 'looking' has to be expanded to listening – carefully before deciding how to go about helping to heal. There are cases when the healer will then be able to move forward, doing or prescribing something that will help. But there are also cases when that ve-ra'ahu ha-kohen, 'the healer sees – or hears – the person,' is itself a great act of healing."
To move beyond the specific sensory language, it seems that the work of the healer is to bear witness, so as to acknowledge the suffering of another. In truth I think this applies to wounds and illnesses, from within and without. I think this parsha points to the power we all have to be kohanim, to be healing presences for one another.
Each week we lean into our priestly duties as we pray for healing, as we offer ourselves as listening companions, visit each other in the hospital, and cook meals for one another. This care work is holy, it is ancient, and it, too, is a great act of healing.
May the one who brings healing and wholeness on high, bring healing and wholeness to everyone who dwells on Earth. And when a complete healing is not possible, may we be surrounded by a community of people to bear witness and be with us to ease our suffering.
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.