No matter how hard I try to reframe it, it is undeniable that there exists a strain of Jewish theology that is deeply hierarchical. In which The Holy Blessed One dwells above us, amplified by the image of God sitting in judgement of us on Rosh Hashanah. And we, God's people, long to feel a closeness to the Divine.
But even for those who believe in this vertical metaphor, subvert it during the month of Elul. In Elul it is said that "The King is in the field" (Song of Songs 6:3). Now I ask you for a moment to set aside your ambivalence about a Divine throne of glory and God as King, those are topics for a later date - namely Rosh Hashanah.
For the mystics, to say that the King is in the field, is to say that during this transitional month, God has gotten off of the high horse and is meeting us where we are at. In this time when we are called by the shofar to reflect on our shortcomings and missed connections, The Holy One is holding our hand in a field of wild flowers. I picture lush green rolling hills as glorious as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. And The Holy One is running towards me, arms wide open, eager to listen, beaming with love.
In the words of Rumi,
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
On this long weekend, I invite you to carve out some time for the Hasidic practice of Hitbodedut - literally, being actively with yourself. Find a place, a field, a beach, a tree in Malcolm X Park, and speak stream of consciousness as if The Holy One is listening, right there, in ear's shot. 'Cuz just maybe she is.
What would you tell The Holy One if you had her undivided attention?
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past July I spent a lot of time swimming in rivers. And one of my favorite things to do was to collect rocks. Not just any rocks, but special rocks. Rocks that people at Kol Tzedek would hold in their hands during the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur as they share a name or a story of someone they have loved and lost. This Yizkor tradition at Kol Tzedek has had a profound impact on me personally. And I took great pride in filling old yogurt containers with just the right variety of rocks.
This week has been full of both birth and death for members of the Kol Tzedek community. It seems to me that the month of Elul is that kind of time, a time of transition, cool nights and warm days, when life and death are in close proximity. I think it is for this reason that there is a custom in the month of Elul to visit the graves of those we mourn.
In his daily Elul reflection, Rabbi Jordan Braunig writes:
"Moments of transition, like moving from one year to the next, can be stark reminders of the people who aren't at our side. Grief is odd and unpredictable, we are as likely to feel the sharpness of loss in happy moments as we are at proscribed times of somberness. That said, I am often caught off guard by the way that stepping up to a gravestone can level me. Somehow the proximity tends to overwhelm our defenses, allowing us to feel all the sorrow that we manage in the day to day.
"The task of visiting the cemetery within a month's time is not always feasible. We live far from where we grew up, families are spread out, or loved ones have chosen not to be buried at all. Yet, even at a distance it is possible to feel the sense of closeness and accompaniment. In particular, in the midst of the self-examining work of teshuvah we can often hear the voices of those who have loved us, coaching us on, reminding us of who they knew us to be. The poet Gail Mazur, writes about this ongoing instruction in her work entitled, Unveiling:
"'I say to the named granite stone, to the brown grass,
to the dead chrysanthemums, Mother, I still have a
body, what else could receive my mind's transmissions,
its dots and dashes of pain? I expect and get no answer,
no loamy scent of her coral geraniums. She who is now
immaterial, for better or worse, no longer needs to speak
for me to hear, as in a continuous loop, classic messages
of wisdom, love and fury. MAKE! DO! a note on our fridge
commanded. Here I am making, unmaking, doing, undoing.'
Today I invite you to use your writing or reflection to 'visit the grave' of someone whose loss you mourn. Perhaps you knew this person intimately or maybe it's someone you never met but whose death calls to you in this season of reflection. What has happened this year that you want to tell them about? What messages, as the poet wrote, do they not need to speak for you to hear?"
Some of you may already be receiving the Elul writing prompts from Rabbi Jordan. But for the benefit of all of us, I shared with you today's prompt with the hope that you will make some time in in the coming days "to visit the grave" of someone whose loss you mourn. I know for me personally there is someone who died a few years ago before I had a chance to ask for forgiveness. I am eager to share some words of teshuvah with her in my heart this Shabbat.
Wishing you all a shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
I am thrilled to share that the new machzors arrive this afternoon! And I just spent the last hour leafing through the crisp pages. I stopped on the Unetane Tokef, and this line called out to me:
"You will open the Book of Remembrances — it will read itself – and each person's signature is there. And the great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin voice will be heard."
I have never in my life been any good at playing an instrument, although as a young person I attempted guitar, piano, and drums. And as I have shared in the past, it has been a lifelong journey to accept the sound of my own voice. Perhaps one of the most amazing side effects of six years of voice lessons is my surprising ability to blow the shofar. (I am told this is due to my increased control of my diaphragm.)
Having always wanted to play a musical instrument, I find tremendous joy in blowing shofar. Which is why I am particularly excited that it is not just a rite reserved for Rosh Hashanah. It is a tradition to hear the sound of the shofar every day (except Shabbat), starting with the first of Elul. Now for those of us who don't own our own shofar, Reb Ezra just taught me about a nifty app you can download called "Shofar" or I am excited to say that we have put the shofar call on our homepage for you to visit daily.
The passage above from the Unetane Tokef, recited during the additional Mussaf service on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in one breath references both kol shofar, the sound of the shofar, and kol demamah dakah, the still, thin voice.
This suggests to me that while the sound of the shofar is our wake up call, it is meant to not just jostle our senses, but actually direct our attention to an inner listening. Which made me think about our namesake, Kol Tzedek, the voice of justice. Sometimes the voice of justice looks like bullhorns and protest chants, and sometimes it is silent meditation and reflecting listening.
As we deepen our journey into Elul and prepare for the High Holidays, I invite you to take on the practice of listening to the shofar daily. But more so, to listen for the silence that follows. What is the quiet wisdom within you waiting to be heard?
Rabbi Ari Lev
Prior to last week in the desert, my main association with the concept of samaritans was in this week's parsha, Re'eh. It opens with an intimidating theology, asserting God's power to bless or curse you. And situates itself on two mountains, Mt. Gerizim (blessed) and Mt. Ebal (cursed).
In 2006, I actually visited Mt. Gerizim, on my way to the Balata Refugee Camp, which borders the town of Nablus on the south side in the West Bank. It is the highest peak in the West Bank (higher than its cursed cousin Mt. Ebal) and is home to and the holy site of the only continuous community of Samaritans, who trace themselves back to a pre-rabbinic Judaism and follow biblical instruction. Most notably, according to Samaritan tradition, to this day they still publicly sacrifice a lamb on Passover.
The term "samaritan" was made famous by "The parable of the good samaritan," a story told in the Gospel of Luke. In it, a lawyer asks Jesus, when it says "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19;18), "Who is my neighbor?" In response Jesus tells the story of a traveler is who is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead alongside the road. And the samaritan is the only person who stops to help.
All of these stories crystallized for me last week when I worked alongside Ajo Samaritans, people of faith and conscience who are responding directly, practically, and passionately to the crisis at the US/ Mexico border.
I will be sharing more reflections tonight during services and again on the High Holidays. Sunday begins the Jewish month of Elul, a season of reflection, introspection, and transformation. For the mystics, Elul is an acronym, corresponding to the Hebrew phrase from the Song of Songs, "אני לדודי ודודי לי, Ani L'dodi, V'dodi Li, I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" (6:3). What has stayed with me amidst the devastating suffering in the desert was the deep well of kindness; the samaritan spirit if you will. May we all have the courage to be and receive such kindness.
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For those looking for ways to prepare for the High Holidays, sign up to receive daily Elul writing prompts and check out the full KT High Holiday Schedule.
I am sitting in the Phoenix airport awaiting my flight home. What feels most true is that I can't figure out which story to tell you first. Please excuse these unedited reflections. Over the coming weeks and months I will be processing the experience and I look forward to figuring out how to integrate it. We completed the action yesterday and things went smoothly. I am sharing some Facebook reflections from yesterday and additional thoughts below.
"Starting at sunrise beneath the brilliant waning moon, I ventured into the desert with 70 clergy and humanitarian aid facilitators. In each of them I saw a face of the Divine.
Together we delivered 125 gallons of water to some of the most remote parts of the West Desert of Arizona, which involved 1.5 hours on a dirt road by car and then another 1.5 hours by foot. The desert was devastatingly hot and the elements were relentless. Several people experienced heat exhaustion after an hour of exposure. I cannot imagine what a day or a week or a month would do to a person.
As we placed the water, we wrote messages of love and hope for our amigos migrantes to encounter so that they know it is safe to drink. I offered a blessing that has new clarity and resonance for me. The blessing over the Source that gives life to the dead.
These gallons of water are life saving measures. They are necessary humanitarian aid in the face of life threatening conditions. It is an act of a faith and a testament to the presence of the Holy One to place water in the desert.
ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העילם מחיה המתים
Blessed are you, who revives those on the verge of death."
Overall, law enforcement was present and on their best behavior. They were wearing body cameras and working overtime on Sundays (both of which have never happened before). They took our names and may give us citations (it will take six months to know). I was deeply reminded of my work in prisons and interactions with corrections officers, all of whom are human beings with families and systematically trained to fear and dehumanize the populations they are regulating. In the remote desert of southwest Arizona, law enforcement is the major industry. We encountered Border Patrol, Bureau of Land Management rangers, Fish and Wildlife police officers, as well as the Pima County Sheriff. All concerned with a group of clergy caching water under the scarce shade of ironwood bushes (see Facebook for photos and videos).
There are two things I want to highlight in this moment. First, we humans are a giant interconnected ecosystem. And this applies to our actions and our oppressive systems. From Standing Rock to Flint to the U.S. Border, everyone is fighting for access to water because Water is Life/Agua es Vida.
The second thing is that the government is attempting to repress humanitarian aid by criminalizing it. One of the reasons it was essential and strategic to have clergy present is that one of the defendant's arguments in court will be that this is an act of faith and religious conviction. That we as human beings and people of faith cannot not do everything we can to save lives.
I will close with the reflections of my colleague Rabbi Salem Pearce who said it so well:
"I am overwhelmed by my experience today with No More Deaths/No Más Muertes going into the Cabeza Prieta nature preserve with a dozen other clergy (including four other rabbis) to drop off water for those crossing the desert. We hiked about three miles, knew exactly where we were going, and had all the supplies we needed, plus extensive medical support. And it was still one of the hardest things I've ever done (mostly because of the heat, 107+). I still can't wrap my head around what it would be like to do that for a hundred miles, without what you need, without knowing where to go, while being hunted by Border Patrol. I'll share more soon after I've had a chance to process more. For now, we're all safe and hydrated. #dropthecharges #waternotwalls #floodthedesert"
Looking forward to coming home and sharing more with you on Friday night. Thank you for your words of support. If you want to support financially you are invited to donate to my discretionary fund to help underwrite this trip and to No More Deaths/No Más Muertes for their righteous, rigorous work.
Rabbi Ari Lev
TLDR: There are two ways you can support #FloodtheDesert:
I am writing from Ajo, Arizona. It's an old mining town in the remote desert southwest of Tucson that has become home base for Border Patrol in this region. It's about 100 degrees at 9pm. They claim it's the humid time of year, but it feels bone dry on my East Coast skin.
I am here with 50 other clergy, including four other rabbis, and about 20 other local folks who regularly bring water to the desert in this region. We spent the day learning and preparing for action. Ajo rests between 100 miles of barren wilderness and 100 miles of Native Reservation. There are Border Patrol checkpoints on every highway leading out of town. It is probably the most remote place I have ever been.
Today we learned about the political policies of the U.S. government in relationship to Mexico and Latin America that have created a crisis of disappearance and death in the borderlands. We learned about the policy of "Prevention Through Deterrence," which has forced migrants to take dangerous desert routes to escape poverty and violence, and in turn transformed the rugged desert into a weapon of Border Patrol. We learned about the practices of Border Patrol to undermine and criminalize those offering humanitarian aid, largely in the form of gallons of water. These are life saving measures in the face of extreme heat and 100 miles of rugged terrain. And we learned about volunteer search and rescue efforts to find migrants lost in the desert. All in all, the violence and suffering is immense, as are the compassionate efforts to undermine government policy. You can watch these videos to learn more.
Tomorrow we will wake at dawn and drive two hours deeper into the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness. What feels especially important to share is that the goal of this action, even more than delivering hundreds of gallons of water, is to draw attention to the criminalizing of the humanitarian aid. This is essential because at the moment nine volunteers with No More Deaths have been charged with misdemeanors and one person has three felony charges. The misdemeanor charge that our action directly tries to leverage is the claim that leaving water jugs in the desert is abandonment of property (i.e., littering). The threats of these charges effectively deter humanitarian aid and increase the risk of death for those traveling through the western desert. The hope is that either the police will give us all citations, in which case we will leverage the courts to question whether they are going to really charge 59 people with abandonment of property, or that they will leave us alone, which would set a precedent that in fact it is not a criminal offense.
Given that either outcome has political leverage, what the organizers need most is massive media attention. I will be documenting in the field and plan to post to social media tomorrow afternoon. CNN and NPR are here with us and the organizers are hoping the action will go viral to draw major attention to the criminalization of humanitarian aid for folks crossing the border. Please sign on to their call and boost all media as you are able. The relevant hashtags are #floodthedesert, #waternotwalls, and #dropthecharges, and you can follow No More Deaths/No Más Muertes on Twitter and Facebook.
Driving through the desert I simultaneously felt terrified and captivatingly alive. Being here I feel acutely aware that fear and awe, the concept of Yira, are the same thing. And that if a cloud were following me in the desert providing much-needed shade and keeping me warm with fire at night, I would most definitely believe in God.
Shavua tov to you all,
Rabbi Ari Lev
These final weeks of the book of Deuteronomy are a desert recap. Moses recounts the suffering and misguided steps of the Israelites, always with an eye towards something hopeful; something beyond the dry desert; land that is fruitful and flowing; a relationship with our Source that is mutual and responsive. But this week the misery of the desert and the fear of migration has captured my imagination.
I am currently headed to Arizona to join an interfaith clergy delegation called Faith Floods the Desert. I will be joining with humanitarian aid workers who provide food and water in the desert and together resist government repression of this life-saving work. Nationwide, immigration justice organizers are being targeted by federal agencies. As religious people, we answer to a higher law of love and justice: we know that humanitarian aid is not a crime. Migration is not a crime. So in our direct action this Sunday, we will assert the right to save lives by stocking water caches, and so risk the same charges facing No More Deaths activists. If we are charged, we will contest those charges.
The planning has been going on for some time, but I just got a call yesterday saying they could use another rabbi. I will be carrying all of you with me in sacred witness. I plan to share stories of my experience throughout the coming month. I invite you to learn along side me. Here and here are articles I am reading about the interference with and criminalization of humanitarian aid on the U.S./Mexico Border.
Grace Paley said, "The only recognizable sign of hope is action." After a month of deep rest and play, I am heeding her words and preparing for direct action with 60 other faith leaders in the Sonora Desert. Please keep us all in your prayers. And even more so, the lives that are forced to leave home and cross the hot, barren desert. In the words of the poet Warson Shire,
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well...
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
I understand the Torah, both written and lived, as a search for a place we can belong, for home, for a place of safety and dignity, a journey towards liberation. I am humbled by the opportunity to bear witness to the Torah of migration and provide some manna in these desert times.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,
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.