May redemption come.
One of my favorite things about being Jewish is the catalog of greetings and salutations to mark the seasons and the seasons of our lives. Shabbat shalom. Shanah Tovah. Mazal Tov. HaMakom yenachem etchem. I remember the first time I learned that the greeting for a person who is pregnant is B'sha'a Tova, which translates to "in a good moment" or "in its right time."
I also remember the first time I realized how important this greeting is. A friend called to share the news that they were unexpectedly pregnant. And before they had a chance to share that they were planning to have an abortion, I jumped in and said, "Mazal tov." Mistaking the stressful moment for one of celebration. As they shared that it was not the right time for them to have a child, I emotionally backpedaled and found the ritualized response that Jewish tradition had prepared for me all along. I shifted my tone and said, "B'sha'a tova." Which is fitting to say when learning someone is pregnant and when learning someone is having an abortion.
There are many reasons someone may decide to have an abortion, and certainly timing is among them. I know this has been true for members of Kol Tzedek who I have supported through their own decisions to have an abortion. It is precisely because Judaism values life so highly that it also understands that abortion is healthcare. Abortion saves lives.
In the midst of our rage and our grief at the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, I want to reiterate that abortion is still legal in Pennsylvania. I want to share with you the brave words that a KT member shared last Shabbat in their Dvar Torah about abortion. And this amazing toolkit created by the Abortion Liberation Fund of PA.
And finally, I want to share with you a few words of Torah on the subject of redemption in its right time. In addition to many other blessings, this weekend, we will invite the blessings of the new moon of Tammuz. Known as Shabbat Mevarchim, this is the blessed Shabbat that immediately precedes the coming of the new moon. The new moon of Tammuz signals the arrival of summer and the season of harvest.
Rabbi Jill Hammer writes,
"Before the last of the harvest is gathered in, there will be hot days, maybe drought. The summer of the Jewish calendar is tinged with sadness and anxiety. National tragedies are remembered at this time, as are personal failings. Summertime is not necessarily an easy time...
"A midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah 8:14) compares the redemption of Israel to four kinds of harvest: grain, grapes, spices, and children. Each of these precious fruits must be gathered in at the right time (b'sha'a tova) or else not gathered at all..."
The midrash explains that if the grapes are gathered before their time even their vinegar will not be good. If spices are gathered when they are soft and moist, their smell will not carry. Timing, says the midrash, is everything. Both in our personal lives and our collective story.
Underneath the agricultural metaphor, is the existential wondering,
How long must we wait for a world that is whole and just?
For redemption from violent rulers and regimes?
I am reminded of where our story as a people begins. With the midwives who bravely saved the babies from drowning in the Nile, despite Pharaoh's decree. The violent control of women's bodies has been a tactic of dictators and slave masters since the beginning of human existence. And our capacity as people to organize, undermine, and overthrow such violent regimes is in our DNA.
Lastly, I want to send you off into Shabbat with the wise words of AOC:
"Many of our biggest problems are the result of massively scaled up isolation from others. That means many of our solutions can be found in creating community...
"You are allowed to be scared. To grieve. To be angry. But you are also allowed to create good, to be soft and enjoy the small reprieves. Struggle lasts as long as we do."
I have faith in us. In our capacity to create good and bring about redemption in this world.
B'sha'a tova - may redemption come to us in its right time.
Shabbat shalom u'mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
the angels are alarmed
I woke this past Thursday morning around 5:30am to booming thunder. It was an unbelievable storm that lasted for more than two hours. The thunder and lightning were so loud and so clear it felt as though they might be coming from within our house. Somehow, my children slept through it. But I could not. I found myself laying in bed utterly terrified. Many times I actually said thank you for my house, for its shelter and protection. I thought of folks who are insufficiently housed and the utter chaos of a storm like that.
I felt viscerally scared to the bone. This was not a rational fear. It felt like some kind of primordial terror. And though the circumstances were entirely different, and I risk sounding like a parody of myself, I could not help but think of the Israelites at Sinai.
Let's journey back several months, way before the books of Numbers and Leviticus, to the middle of Exodus where the Israelites find themselves at the foot of the mountain. Exodus 19:16 reads,
וַיְהִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֜י בִּֽהְיֹ֣ת הַבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְהִי֩ קֹלֹ֨ת וּבְרָקִ֜ים וְעָנָ֤ן כָּבֵד֙ עַל־הָהָ֔ר וְקֹ֥ל שֹׁפָ֖ר חָזָ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃
On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.
Just weeks ago we recalled this story as we prepared for Shavuot. And while I might have been aware of the fear and trembling of revelation, I was much more connected to the magic of that moment.
But you simply need to ask anyone who has ever read Torah, particularly any of our recent Adult B'nei Mitzvah. Being in the presence of the open Torah and reciting those ancient words off of the parchment scroll is terrifying. Don't get me wrong, it is also exhilarating. But that is not what people remark. They often talk to me about how much more scared they were than they thought they would be. In this way, everyone who reads and receives Torah is standing again at Sinai.
The account of the Israelites at Sinai is also linked to the most awesome and terrifying moment in our holiday cycle. In the beginning of the Unetaneh Tokef on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as we plead for our lives, we hark back to this moment of revelation at Sinai:
וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע. וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע.
The great shofar is sounded and the still small voice is heard.
וּמַלְאָכִים יֵחָפֵזוּן. וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יֹאחֵזוּן.
the angels are alarmed, pangs of fear and trembling seize them...
This is how I felt on Thursday morning – seized by pangs of fear and trembling. Which led me to wonder, why would whoever wrote the Torah want this sensation to be associated with the revelation of Torah at Sinai?
On the one hand, it was not an empowering feeling. It gave me great empathy for those among us who have experienced this kind of religious terror. And on the other hand, fear is also an invitation to have courage.
The poet David Whyte writes,
"To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world..." (Consolations, 40).
The thunder and lightning that were present at Sinai, and this past Thursday morning, invite us to make conscious those things we already deeply feel and to live in relationship to our unending vulnerabilities. So too with our study of Torah and our observance of Shabbat. May it give us the courage to feel deeply and to live in a greater relationship with ourselves, our bodies, and the world.
May it be so.
In honor of Juneteenth, I am completely honored to share with you the words of Rabbi Sandra Lawson. May we merit to be a community that increases Black joy in the world.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Be who you are!
A few months ago, parents of the Kol Tzedek Torah School's kindergarten class were invited to come and celebrate the conclusion of their unit about Shabbat. I typically teach this family education session. But this year, I also happened to have a child in the class so I got to participate as a parent. Jess, who teaches the class, taught about the practice of Birkat Yeladim, blessing children on Friday nights.
Some of you may remember that my older child has for years protested this otherwise tender ritual. Such that we largely forgot about it. Until we were invited to study it with our five year old. I was reminded again that these ancient words are at once magical and theologically awkward.
May God bless you and protect you. What if my idea of the Divine lives in my heart?
May God illuminate their face towards you. Wait, does God have a face?
May God lift their face towards you and place within you peace. A face, again?!
Then Jess invited us to write a three-part blessing based on what our kids actually wanted to be blessed with. With some prodding, my five year old was able to realize his three deepest prayers:
"May you be as sweet and as green as nettle cake.
May you have so much fun on Naim planet.
May you be kind."
And laughed inside. What a silly kid. (In another email I will explain the origins of nettle cake.)
The priestly blessing holds a very important place in my heart. I still remember the first time I ever said the words to another person. I offered the blessing to a classmate in rabbinical school. The words crawled off my tongue. I was a little embarrassed. It was obvious the words were new to me. And also I was excited to finally utter the oldest blessing in our tradition.
I have said these words countless times since then. It is with these very same words that we bless each other on Yom Kippur. The very same words that we bestow upon every B'nei Mitzvah in our community. The very words I offer to every couple under the chuppah.
But every time, I translate it a little differently. Depending on the people and the moment. It is, after all, poetry. But never have I quite translated it like Naim!
It was not until this week, as I was studying Parashat Naso, where these words originate, that I understood the authenticity of Naim's rendition.
Haamek Davar, a 19th century Hasidic teacher, comments on the opening line:
"'May God bless you.' Included in this is whatever is appropriate for each person to be blessed with...For one who deals in Torah, in his study. For one who deals in commerce, in his merchandise."
And so for a child who loves sweet things and imaginary play, may they both be in abundance.
While I always felt this to be true, it is freeing to see what my child understood instinctively expressed so clearly in the words of a teacher in the great yeshiva of Volozin. The priestly blessing is a placeholder, or perhaps a portal, into our core longings. No one, after all, wants a compulsory blessing of something undesirable.
Please know that every time we offer this blessing at Kol Tzedek, and call upon the Holy One to bless you and protect you, we are expressing our deepest hope that we each be blessed and protected in the ways we uniquely need.
I think Marcia Falk got it right when she translated this ancient blessing as follows:
"Be who you are!
And may you be blessed in all that you are."
Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
It is said that when the Israelites stood at Sinai, Torah was revealed. The written word--well, really the engraved word--carved into two stone tablets. And also the oral Torah, the expansive conversations that surround the written words, which emerged like a whisper from the first silent aleph of Anochi.
But the question arises: which is more important? The written Torah or the Oral Torah? Which carries more weight? And really, which one is "right"? By which I mean, when they contradict, which one takes precedence?
On the one hand, I would argue that the oral Torah is more important, because it is what gives life and meaning to the written word, lest it ossify in time. Torah exists in the transmission of ideas across generations, in conversations, in relationships, in study halls and in our hearts. The oral Torah is a survival strategy.
On the other hand, I would argue that the written Torah is more important, because it is our origin story. It is a shared reference point. We turn and return to it for wisdom and insight. Like the wells our ancestors dug and redug, it is a gathering place. It literally brings us together, to sit and study its words. In this way it is more accessible, because it is concrete.
The tension between the written and the oral Torah doesn't just belong to the Five Books of Moses. It exists in family folklore and urban planning, And it certainly exists at Kol Tzedek.
Not surprisingly, we as a community have some preference for the oral Torah. We are a community that is empowered to define ourselves. For many of us Naomi Segal and Rie Brosco are the keepers of our traditions. They, along with other founding members, transmit the oral Torah of our community nearly every time we gather. Reminding us what has come before us to allow us to arrive at each moment. But there have also been moments when we have wanted to point to the written word and say, this is who we are. And we have been limited by the absence of the written word.
Over the course of the last six months, the Strategic Planning Task Force has taken on the bold task of writing down Kol Tzedek's purpose, vision, and priorities. This process has been its own kind of revelation.
Typically in Jewish tradition, we go from the written Torah and seek to expand its meaning through the oral Torah. But in this process, we have attempted to reverse engineer our origin story. To finally write down that which has been living between us, to make explicit that which has been implicit. It has been a tremendous labor and we all owe tremendous gratitude to Elana Baurer, Tania Isaac, Hillary Blecker, Abby McCartney, John Argaman, Candice Thompson, and our consultants Roz, Dr. Renaya, and Ellen.
We have disagreed with care and conviction. We have clarified the places where there is alignment amidst infinite competing and sometimes contradictory ideas. We have generated ideas, debated over Slack threads that run nearly 70 messages deep. We have worked on countless Google Docs with the thesaurus tab by our side. We have searched for the perfect words, which we now understand to be words that are honest and true. Which has required that we searched our hearts for the truth about who we are and who we can be.
I can only imagine the heavenly hosts pouring over those very first 10 utterances. What allowed them to be sure they were ready for revelation?
What I have learned through this process is that the written word is powerful because it is so clear. It is defining and dividing. It sets boundaries. And the oral tradition is powerful because it is infinite and alive. Everything is possible. Quite literally, nothing is written in stone. In that way it can be massaged and manipulated to meet the moment.
I am so grateful that we have both paradigms of Torah to learn from. We need them both.
And so I am honored to give you a preview of the written Torah that hundreds of KT members have helped to shape over the past six months. You can check out our purpose, vision, and priorities here and our community's values here. We will be studying these together on June 12 at the congregational meeting.
It is said that in the moment that Torah was revealed at Sinai, an angel whispered into the ear of everyone present - which was all of us. It is my hope that as we prepare to receive Torah as a community, that the words we have written down land like a whisper, summoning us forward together.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev