why we are here
I got an amazing text message last week. It read, "Do you have time to talk about big questions that have no answers?" That night I was anonymously recounting this to my family as the highlight of my day, and my six-year-old said, "Like, Why are we here?"
I was verklempt. Yes, precisely a question like that. The moment we enter this world we learn to wonder about the mystery and sit with the limits of what we can know. It is in our bones.
As it turns out my six-year-old had been listening to a podcast earlier that day in which they explored the question "Why are we here?" Which is, in and of itself, amazing.
Fast forward to this week, I was able to meet with this person via Zoom. As you can imagine we asked questions about life and death. I offered my best guesses at the ineffable, which provided very little solid ground and didn't attempt certainty. But what mattered much more to both of us was the space to voice the questions, to name the mystery, and to sit with the overwhelming feelings underneath the questions. And that space actually offered itself up as a kind of solid ground for both of us.
The conversation reminded me of a memoir I read a few months ago written by a young mom who dies of cancer, called The Bright Hour. On her deathbed, Nina Riggs writes:
"I am reminded of an image...that living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But that living without disease is also like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a bit more -- sometimes the wind blowing it off a little, sometimes a nice dense cover."
The last six months have certainly revealed the abyss, that is, was, always there. We have been personally and collectively called to dig deep to find the source of our resilience in the face of wildly scary circumstances.
As I prepare for summer vacation, what I am taking with me is the awe and gratitude for our capacity to ask big questions that have no answers. And to keep seeking the answers, not so much for the certainty, but for the solid ground of companionship.
Thank you for your trust and your questions, and for being in this with me when the cloud cover is thin and the depths of fear, injustice, and impermanence are revealed. Perhaps this is why we are here. To walk this tightrope together.
I wish for each of you spacious moments this summer, when you can feel into the expanse that is also always present as we traverse the depths.
Rabbi Ari Lev
seeing and seeing oneself
In recent days, as the light is growing longer, my 6-year-old has become fascinated with shadows, specifically the shadows our bodies cast. In particularly proud moments he remarks, "Look my shadow is as big as yours." I am quick to remind her that it is almost inevitable that he will in fact be taller than me in just a few years. This youthful fascination with his shadow seems to accompany her quickly evolving self-perception. How do we understand ourselves relative to others? How do other's perceptions of us affect our self-perception?
We read in this week's parsha, Shlach, the consequential story of the Spies which lies at the very heart of Sefer Bamidbar. This is a story about fear. And its lethal consequences.
What I am drawn to this week -- as we celebrate Juneteenth Shabbat and the liberation of Black people from slavery, as we celebrate the riots at Stonewall that led to the possibility of pride -- the feeling even more than the march -- is a moment of reckoning in this ancient story that speaks directly to the moment of reckoning we are living through.
As the story goes, Moses sends out spies to scout the land of Canaan. When the spies return, Caleb makes the case that they can indeed inhabit the land. But the others refuse, saying:
לֹ֥א נוּכַ֖ל לַעֲל֣וֹת אֶל־הָעָ֑ם כִּֽי־חָזָ֥ק ה֖וּא מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
"We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we...
וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֙ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶֽם׃...
-- and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Num. 13:31,33).
Mind you, these are slaves who have just been emancipated, who crossed a sea and are in search of a safe place to settle. About this moment, Avivah Zornerberg writes, "...seeing and seeing oneself precipitate the narrative into a dynamic of madness, of images, fantasies, and projections."
In Midrash Tanchuma, God frames a critique of the Spies' inner world:
"They said, 'We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes.' God said, 'This I can overlook. But, "And so we looked in their eyes" -- here I am angry! Did you know how I made you look in their eyes? Who told you that you didn't look like angels in their eyes?'"
Zornberg explains, "Apparently, it is legitimate to imagine oneself as a grasshopper in the presence of a giant. This is how human beings begin life, small and powerless in the presence of immense powers...To see a world of giants is to remind oneself of a primal sense of things. But to project one's own fantasy onto the giant is to limit the possibilities of fantasy and of otherness...Here in the Tanchuma passage, God is angered at their fatal constriction of imaginative possibility" (122).
At times, we too may see ourselves as small in the shadow of the other. But, says God, "You know nothing of how they see you." In this moment pregnant with possibility, we can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. Let this not be a story written by fear. Let us not confuse the limits of self-perception with the limits of possibility.
Rabbi Ari Lev
be a lamplighter
Be a lamplighter!
Our parsha begins with the instruction for Aaron to not just kindle, but actually "raise up" (be'ha'alotcha) the menorah, invoking the image of flames shooting up. Rashi offers insight into this unexpected choice of words. He teaches us that Aaron must "keep lighting until the flame ascends on its own" (Num. 8:2).
We too are living through a moment of rising up. And perhaps one of the most important questions we can be asking ourselves is, "What is my role?" For Aaron it was clear. He was called to light the menorah itself. And for some of us, our roles feel clear. But I have spoken with many of you this week who have described a sense of disorientation as we try to tap into the visionary potential of this unstable moment. You are not alone.
Deepa Iyer wrote back in March, "Lately, I've been stuck in a fog, cycling through periods of motivation and stillness, outrage and exhaustion, determination and grief. Even though I'm connected to various networks, mentors, and organizations, I couldn't figure out where I fit in, what my lane was, or how to begin."
Some of us have spent the last several weeks or months in the hospitals and in the streets as frontline responders. But that is not wise or possible for all of us. What else is needed? The antidote to Iyer's disorientation was her ability to see herself as part of a larger ecosystem. Her own self-reflection gave way to the creation of this insightful tool to map our roles in a social change ecosystem. There are so many roles to play in movements for justice and healing. Iyer writes, "This exercise can especially be helpful to re-align ourselves when we feel lost, confused, and uncertain in order to bring our fullest selves to the causes and movements that matter to us."
We as a community are healers and weavers, caregivers, storytellers, disrupters, guides, and visionaries. We are phone bankers and bakers, street medics and artists, media mavens and jail support providers. All of our voices and skills are needed. The question before each of us is "How can I be part of this movement for transformative change? What is my role?" In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, "You are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are you free to desist from it." (Pirkei Avot, 2:16)
The Sefat Emet, a Hasidic master, tells us that to be a lamplighter means the more we grow our own souls, the more Holiness is revealed in every place. As one mentor wrote to me earlier this week, "This Black-led uprising is pointing the way for all of us who love justice." Personal and collective transformation are inseparable in this moment, and always. I invite you to take some time this Shabbat to journey inward and consider in what ways have you been, and can you be, a lamplighter in this moment?
May we all know that we are contributing to and connected by something much greater than ourselves. May we have the courage and stamina to rise up for justice, until the flames of justice can ascend on their own. May this be a lasting fire, an eternal movement for racial justice.
Rabbi Ari Lev
unlock your holy imaginations
Mikolot mayyim rabim, the waters above and below are raging. For those of us in Philly, this week has been a tornado, spiritually, politically, and even physically. This is the week we received an emergency alert to retreat to our basements, while already sheltering-in-place, under citywide curfew, during quarantine. The week that people took to the streets by the thousands, and the city finally removed the Rizzo statue from City Hall Plaza, and multiple school districts around the country ended their contracts with police departments.
When I think back to Rosh Hashanah this past year, and the sermon I gave about the West Philly Sinkhole, I wonder, was that sinkhole a kind of prophet, preparing us for the kind of ground-shifting transformation that we are living through now?!
Deep continues to call unto deep.
Yesterday, I gathered with hundreds of people of faith at City Hall to kneel for nine minutes, the length of time it took Derek Chauvin to murder George Floyd, z"l. Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel AME Church invited all of us present to unlock our holy imaginations. He said: "Everyone has been asking, 'Who moved the Rizzo statue?' The people did! And if you can move a statue, you can move a mayor. If you can move a statue, you can move city policy." We are witnessing the rise of the Movement for Black Lives, made possible by decades of Black-led organizing and more than 400 years of fighting to end slavery and racism. What else is possible that we have been dreaming of for centuries?
What I have felt most in my bones this week, in addition to fear and grief, is the knowing that there is no normal worth returning to. We are living through destabilizing times, thank G!D. In the words of Pema Chodron, "Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found in us...It [is] all about letting go of everything." This time is all about letting go of everything. Another world is on her way. I can hear her breathing in the holy protests of Black people everywhere. We are witnessing a literal transformation of George Floyd's final words, "I can’t breathe." I invite you to wonder with me, what do we each need to let go of to join with the potential of this moment?
This week, as we enter Shabbat, I plan to pause from social media and reground myself. This is the work of lifetimes. I will be carrying the oldest blessing in our tradition, which comes from this week's Torah portion, Naso. And I offer you all this interpretation, based on my study of Midrash Tanhuma Naso, Siman 10. I offer it to you as a touchstone.
יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
May the Holy One bless and protect you, in the streets and in your home.
May there be a forcefield calling us to protect and care for each other.
יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
May the light of the Holy One shine upon you, giving you long years, and may you hear the prophetic calls of our times.
May there be an amulet around every Black person's body, in this time and always.
יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
May you find a way to stay connected to that which is whole in you.
May we have the courage to let go, and open to that which is indestructible in us.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev