Much ink is spilled over the nature of revelation at Sinai. Was it a thunderstorm or a whisper? What is just the tablets or the oral Torah too? But I think everyone would agree that at the very least there were ten utterances. Ten fundamental principles that we are obligated to live by. And while it is not first on the list that Moses brought down, there is one that is unequivocally primary in my theology.
Thou shalt not kill.
I imagine that your hearts are as heavy and broken as mine is with the recent events of police and citizen brutality against Black bodies in this country. None of this is new and all of it is devastating. At a time when everyone is feeling the impact of increased threat from COVID-19 (health-wise, financially, socially, etc.) we know that people of color, and Black people in particular, have always experienced an astronomically higher level of threat than white people. This moment is making this painfully clear yet again.
In the words of ada limón,
"You ever think you could cry so hard
that there’d be nothing left in you, like
how the wind shakes a tree in a storm
until every part of it is run through with
wind? I live in the low parts now, most
days a little hazy with fever and waiting
for the water to stop shivering out of the
body. Funny thing about grief, its hold
is so bright and determined like a flame,
like something almost worth living for."
We're approaching Shavuot, which means we're approaching Yizkor. It's so important to make space for grief, to mark it in time over and over again, to let it run through us like a current of water, changing everything, carving us anew. These days as mourning and mortality hang heavy over the whole world, and even more so in these days of devastation and fury over the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and thousands upon thousands of people who did not need to die. Who should not have died. Who should not have been lost to their families and communities.
Fierce, Black, Jewish prophetess of our times Yavilah McCoy shared this morning, "Tonight is Shavuot, and my belief and tradition will offer me a vortex that can transport me back to Sinai and a moment in time when all souls that ever were or ever would be a part of the Jewish people committed themselves - and their children, and their children, and their children's children - to the Torah. 'Thou shalt not kill!' is booming like thunder in my veins, and, like at Sinai, I am silent, I am listening, I am weeping in recognition, and I am committed."
The very first thing I did this morning was to call Mayor Jacob Frey to urge him to defund the Minneapolis Police Department, (612) 673-2100. And the very last thing I am going to do before I sign off is ask you to join me in taking tangible action. Here are important resources to guide you:
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past Wednesday, Rep. Ayanna Pressley tweeted:
Behind each number is a name, a story, a life, and a community grieving deeply.
This week we begin the book of Numbers. The book begets its name and so begins with a census of the people, an accounting of all those who made it through the great Exodus; a generation that would ultimately die in the wilderness.
I spent some time this week sitting vigil, as volunteers recited the names of nearly 100,000 COVID-19 victims. The 24-hour marathon reading, called Naming The Lost, was organized by clergy and community activists. It was an effort to humanize COVID-19's death toll and give space for those of us surviving to grieve.
About the book of Numbers, the great scholar Avivah Zornberg notes, "The people are in fact counted twice, once at the beginning of the book and once toward the end (ch. 26). These two moments are thirty-eight years apart; and both, ironically, are in preparation for the imminent wars of conquest of the Land of Israel. Between these two moments, a whole generation dies. What separates the two moments of counting is a total shift in population" (Bewilderments, 4).
We too are in a moment of accounting. Doubly so. Naming the lives lost to COVID-19. Registering the living with the federal census. Wondering how much of a generation this pandemic will claim. Knowing neither number is value-neutral. Knowing the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx communities. Knowing these are the same communities disenfranchised from the census, and therefore government funding.
But there is another name for the book, Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of In-the-Wilderness, as Zornberg translates it, noting, "The wilderness is more than context; it provides the tone and tension of a narrative of dying." It can be hard for some of us to remember that behind our daily stresses of sheltering in place is a broader communal narrative of dying. A narrative of dying in a context that does not easily allow us to access the primary tools we have for grieving. Most notably, gathering in community.
I encourage you to find a way to make space to name your losses. Personally and collectively. And in this time, our tradition offers tools and practices for paying attention to grief. On Friday morning of next week, we'll celebrate Shavuot with a Torah service and Hallel, followed by Yizkor. Yizkor is a service of remembrance recited four times a year, on Yom Kippur and Yom Tov. Jewish tradition understands that our resilience depends on our ability to allow for grief.
I was ever inspired by this rendition of Psalm 23 and offer you my own:
As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
we are afraid. and we are grieving.
And yet, we remember, that we are not alone
For You are with us.
The trees and the sky, they comfort me.
Compassion is all that makes sense. For ourselves first. And then for others.
And I shall dwell in the House of the Holy One
Sheltering in place
For as long as is needed.
Like the generation of the wilderness, may we be guided by the warm light of fire and sheltered beneath a protective cloud. May we feed on miracles and receive spiritual sustenance directly from our Source. And may we merit to receive Torah to the fullest extent.
Wishing you a shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Most days my kids ask me, "When will Coronavirus end?" By which they mean, when can we play with our friends and grandparents? When will life go back to normal? And most days I say, "I don't know when, but I know it will." In the way that parenting is full of benevolent lies, I hug my kids and swallow these false words of reassurance. My heartfelt words to my children are false because while shelter-in-place orders might end, the experience of this pandemic is meant to change us. Returning to normal will not serve us.
In the prophetic words of Sonya Renee Taylor:
"We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature."
In the Torah portion this week, the Jewish people receive the gift of shmitah, a time when we pause and recalibrate so that our land may be healthier and our society more equal. For nearly all of human existence, the concept of shmitah has been upheld as an idealistic and metaphorical paradigm, rather than a necessary part of reality. In her newly released essay, "The pandemic is a portal," the author Arundhati Roy writes, "Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could." Perhaps we are living through a kind of global shmitah, if not for the land specifically, certainly for the ozone. And I pray also that it may also come to be for the workers, as we watch more and more unions striking.
It is important to remember two simultaneous impulses for shmitah - it is at once a call for economic justice and for environmental sustainability. So much so that the rabbis warn us that there are four periods of time in each seven-year shmitah cycle when deathly plagues increase. As it turns out, each of these ominous periods is caused by systemic greed and inequity. The fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot reads, "It would happen in the fourth year because tithes were not given to the poor in the third year. It would happen in the sevent year because tithes were not given to the poor in the sixth year..." And so on. Today we find ourselves in the fifth year of the shmitah cycle living through a deathly plague that reveals the gross injustices of the world.
No part of me would choose this pandemic. But I do feel we have a choice in how we live through it and what we learn from it. Arundhati Roy continues, "Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."
Perhaps the daily question is not, "When will coronavirus end?" but rather, "What will it take to pass through this portal?" For the mystics, the concept of Olam Habah, often translated as the world to come, is not primarily about messianic end times. They return our focus to the here and now. It calls us to participate in the redemption of the world, as we together bring about the world that is coming.
As we travel through this portal, may we have compassion for ourselves and each other as we grieve our losses. And may we have the courage to walk through lightly as we fight for the world that awaits us.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Today is many things.
It is 55 days that we have been sheltering in place in Philly. 29 days in the counting of the Omer. The 8th day of May. And the 14th day of the month of Iyyar, which among other things means it is also Pesach Sheni. Quite literally Passover, Take 2. I must be honest: while I have heard of it, until this year I have had zero emotional or spiritual connection to Pesach Sheni, which apparently occurs every year exactly one month after the first night of Pesach (14th of Nissan).
More than a month ago, as the shelter in place orders took effect just days after Purim, conversations on rabbinic listservs about Zoom Seders quickly led to half-serious/half-kidding comments about observing Pesach Sheni this year. I now find myself nostalgic for a time when it seemed beyond reasonable that this quarantine would not last more than a few weeks. And also in awe of all the public health professionals who have been finding a way to gradually release us into the reality that this pandemic is not temporary.
Just as the Rambam reminds us that there is rabbinic precedent for solo sedarim (by teaching us who asks the four questions when only one person is present), Pesach Sheni reminds us that there is biblical precedent for rearranging sacred time to meet real-time realities.
The origins of the holiday come from Bamidbar.
In the words of Rabbi Ariana Katz:
"In Bamidbar 9:10, G!d is swayed by the workers who explain they could not bring a sacrifice on Passover due to caring for the dead. G!d immediately creates Pesach Sheni, the Passover Mulligan.
"Pesach Sheni shows us how the calendar, the world, our communal resources must be turned on their head when the essential workers, the ones who come closest to death, are endangered.
"In this heart-wrenching piece from Sujatha Gidla in the New York Times on May 5, she writes:
"'The conditions created by the pandemic drive home the fact that we essential workers — workers in general — are the ones who keep the social order from sinking into chaos. Yet we are treated with the utmost disrespect, as though we're expendable. Since March 27, at least 98 New York transit workers have died of Covid-19. My co-workers say bitterly: "We are not essential. We are sacrificial."'
"Pesach Sheni calls us to create space for sacrifices to be brought--not made of the people themselves."
In many ways our holiday cycle, our festive times enumerated in this week's parsha, Emor, are the essential workers of Jewish tradition. They are the ones that knit us together through a shared understanding of sacred time, they keep communal practice from sinking into chaos.
Core to my personal theology is a belief in collective liberation. Which means that we must commit to building a world in which we are all treated as essential. This points me to a larger spiritual tension I am holding. To what extent are we called to sustain ourselves and each other in these times? And to what extent must we focus on supporting those beyond our personal orbit, especially those who are most vulnerable and at risk? The unhoused, the uninsured, the incarcerated. This tension is not new. This pandemic has taken a sledgehammer to societal injustice. It has crushed any facade that ever existed. And we are called to lift up the shards, to find the sparks of holiness, to be the broken vessel in which G!d can dwell.
On this Pesach Sheni, may we have the clarity and courage of heart to call on the miracles of Passover. To lift up the dignity of every person. If the sea could part then, it will again. May it be so, speedily and in our days.
Rabbi Ari Lev
The book of Leviticus is the Torah of touch. It is the Torah of intimacy and connection, sacrifice and ritual readiness. It is all about how to best prepare ourselves to be in connection - with ourselves, community, and Divinity. What new insights arise as we dwell in these words that focus on spiritual practices of closeness in this time of physical distance?
This week we read the pregnant parshiyot of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. We return to the world of Aaron after a period of grieving the death of two of his sons (narratively interrupted by the timeless teachings of Tazria-Metzora). But as I opened my Tanakh to study, my heart kept being pulled back to the moment in parashat Shemini when Aaron learns about the death of Nadav and Avihu. Leviticus 10:1-3 reads:
וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜בוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃
Now Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.
וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה ׀ לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃
Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people." And Aaron was silent.
Ain Mukdam u'Meuchar baTorah - Torah is not linear. And certainly grief is not linear. And these days, time doesn't even feel linear, if it ever did. Here Aaron, the high priest, the great teacher of sacred intimacy, teaches us the importance of stillness, which may just be the korban/the offering/the pathway to connection in these times.
With gratitude to Koach Frazier, who pointed me to the wise words of Dr. Valerie Bridgeman:
"All these 'extra' things people and organizations are doing to be in touch tells me that we (writ large) are afraid. We are doing way too much because we are afraid we may never get to see/touch one another again. People's hearts are failing them because of fear.
"We actually need to sit still to stop us from all this 'busy,' designed to keep us from feeling the fear, the dread, the anxiety, the angst, the uncertainty...We have to sit still so that it won't rule over us. So we can slow our heartbeat. So we can hear our breath. So we can find our connections - to ourselves, our people, to our God.
"We are doing too much because we are afraid.
And Aaron was still.
This is what we sing about on Shabbat morning Kiddush in V'shamru. "שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ / shavat vayinafash - The Holy One ceased and was resouled" (Ex 31:17).
May we all have the courage to seek out more moments of stillness and to trust that it will lead us back to ourselves, to each other, and to a sense of holiness that connects us all.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.