All week I have been falling asleep and waking to the resonant song of the crickets singing me through the thick heat. And then this morning, the heat broke. According my kids this is the coldest day of the summer. They even asked if it might snow. And isn't this exactly what the crickets have been trying to tell us.
In the words of Charlotte's Web, "The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer's ending, a sad, monotonous song. 'Summer is over and gone,' they sang. 'Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.' The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year--the days when summer is changing into fall--the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change" (113).
In truth, it is not just the crickets singing the song of change. With summer's end, the Jewish calendar is calling us home and reminding us that change is part of every return. Next week is Rosh Hodesh Elul. We will sound the great shofar, the school year will resume, and along with it will come the intensity of increased routine and the relief of cooler days.
The crickets are not wrong. Summer is just about over and gone, which is sad, but it is also cause for celebration. According to the Hasidic masters, the most deeply honored day of all days is the day of death -- even more important than the day of birth. For them the day of death is turned into a day of celebration. So much so, that they don't typically use the term death. Rather they refer to it as the day of departure. I quite like to imagine these next two Shabbatot as a great celebration of summer's departure.
Our sacred texts are full of descriptions of the departures of tzaddikim, righteous teachers. Especially wondrous and soul-shaking is the description of the departure of Moshe Rabbeinu (Deathbed Wisdom, 5-7). In these final days of summer, as we read the Book of Deuteronomy, I invite you to hear it as the voice of a teacher who knows his final days are coming.
With summer's departure, may we create space for the sadness and the celebration, the anticipation and the excitement for what's to come. And may the crickets be our companions, reminding us we are part of something so much bigger.
Wishing you all a shabbat shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Tomorrow morning, communities around the world will rise in body or spirit as the 10 Commandments are read aloud. Now you might be thinking, the 10 Commandments? Didn't that happen at Sinai, way back in Exodus after the Israelites crossed the sea? Among other things the book of Deuteronomy is a retelling of Torah, some even say it is our earliest midrash, others refer to it as the mishneh torah, the second Torah (a name most attributed to the Rambam's law code). The story reads more personally this time, most often as a firsthand account in the voice of Moses. And most notably in this week's parsha, rather than the great blasts, the chaos of thunder and lightning that accompanied the 10 Commandments in Exodus, here we have a much more intimate revelation, described in the text as a face to face encounter (Deut. 5:4).
While there are several notable differences between the renderings of the 10 Commandments, much remains consistent. Including the fact that it is very difficult to understand how one actually tallies up these mitzvot. What counts as a mitzvah? The list, which spans 13 verses, is hardly a checklist and would not fit neatly in a spreadsheet. Don't steal, don't lie, those seem more obvious. But things like "I am God" are a bit more amorphous. How many mitzvot are there anyway?
I was always taught 613. 248 positive commandments (Do!), and 365 negative (Don't do!). Now twice these lists have been uttered within the Torah itself and neither time suggests anything close to 613. Maybe someone somewhere can recite a list that long, but for the most part I see the number as mystically meaningful and spiritually aspirational. And I think that the rabbis understood that to be true.
My teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe explains it this way. The reason we have so many mitzvot is not because we are meant to fill our hearts with the guilt of inadequacy for all the mitzvot we don't do, or don't even know to do, but because they are meant to help us collectively aspire to be a community rooted in kindness and compassion. No single person is responsible for all 613 mitzvot. We are each obligated to do our part. One midrash describes the person whose sole mitzvah is Sukkot. All year long she prepares for Sukkot. Growing shakh, inviting guests, waving her lulav. She is holding down Sukkot knowing that other people in her community might not have space for a sukkah. Meanwhile, in this vision, they might be holding some other mitzvah, visiting the sick or thrice daily prayer, baking challah, attending to the needs of the community.
We are seven weeks away from Rosh Hashanah. The process of Heshbon HaNefesh, of our inner reflections, has begun. This Shabbat I invite you to consider which mitzvot are yours to observe in the coming year. Which mitzvot do you want to learn more about? And in so doing I invite you to lay down the old story, that your are not enough. As the Holy One says to Moses in this week's parsha, Rav lakh! You are sufficient just as you are (Deut. 326).
May this week's recitation of the 10 Commandments inspire within us curiosity, commandedness, and commitment to the practices which we feel personally bring greater holiness into our lives and our communities.
Rabbi Ari Lev
It is really good to be back. And it seems I came back just in time for the Gravitron ride that is the High Holiday season.
Last weekend we celebrated Rosh Hodesh Av, the new moon which comes with a tender epithet, known by the rabbis as Menachem Av, may this month bring your comfort. Who does not need a bit of solace these days? Rosh Chodesh is usually a time of joy and hope for renewal. It is in fact one of my favorite holidays. But the rabbis tell us, "Mishenichnas av mema'atin besimchah / When the month of Av arrives, we diminish our joy." This stands in strong contrast to Rosh Hodesh Adar, which calls in the season of Purim, when we are told to "marbin b'simcha / to up our joy."
Rosh Hodesh Av marks the beginning of the Nine Days, considered a period of heightened communal mourning leading up to the 9th of Av, known in Hebrew as Tisha B'Av. Considered by the rabbis to be the saddest day of the year. Think of it like Yom Kippur meets shiva. Its customs include fasting from food and water, not wearing leather footwear, not washing ourselves (washing only until the knuckle when mandated by halakhah), not applying ointments or creams, not having sex, not sitting on a normal-height chair, only studying really sad Torah, like Lamentations (seriously!), not sending gifts, or even greeting one another (you may respond to greetings), not engaging in outings, trips, or similar pleasurable activities (not a beach day!), and not wearing fine, festive clothing (typically not an issue at Kol Tzedek).
To be honest, I have never really been a fan of Tisha B'av. If I am really honest about it, it is not for some theological problem with centering the Temple in Jerusalem. That would make too much sense. It is a much more mundane aversion. I simply just love summer too much. I love swimming and ice cream and laying in a hammock in the park, fresh peaches and picking berries. In the midst of all that fun, it really feels like a spiritual buzzkill to concentrate on every bad thing that ever has, is, or will happen. I mean, can't we put Tisha B'av in January? Maybe trade it for Tu Bishevat. I can actually plant a tree in August.
But perhaps that is precisely the point.
Because in truth, who could sustain an even deeper dive into despair in the depths of winter. Perhaps the moment when the earth is in full bloom is precisely the time also to hold that the world is utterly broken, families are shattered, whole species have been lost, violence and cruelty are routine. This is precisely what Rabbi Alan Lew describes as "the great crumbling."
Somehow only this year did I realize that maybe only once the hot (and oh so humid!) summer fun has opened our pores and nourished our hearts, only then can we bear the heartbreak that is also ever present; only then can we actually let ourselves fall apart.
Tisha B'Av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah. It begins the process that culminates on Yom Kippur, some might even say on Simchat Torah. Tisha B'Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and courageously face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives and in our world (Lew, 41-42).
In many ways Tisha B'Av is the answer to another question I have been asked, emailed, and texted repeatedly this summer. To paraphrase, "How is one supposed to find joy, take a vacation, relax at the beach, go out dancing in the face of so much violence and cruelty?"
Which is to say, the rabbis understood that catastrophic loss has, is, and will be part of the human experience. For them, the destruction of the Temple was truly the worst-case scenario. They understood the human need to mourn and grieve, and they also understood the need to contain the grief. And so they appointed a time in which we would open to the wound of existence with discrete practices and finite time constraints. Such that we could also return.
We learn in the very beginning of Genesis, in the beginning the world was tohu va'vohu, crass and chaotic. So too now. Tisha B'Av suggests perhaps it always is. And we are once again called to journey into the chaos and construct something beautiful.
If you are able to come to services tonight, I will be sharing more about why in fact Shabbat and Tisha B'Av are equally necessary and ultimately incompatible. As a result, even though tonight begins the ninth of Av on the Hebrew calendar, we observe the fast of Tisha B'Av Saturday night and Sunday.
Wherever you are this weekend, I wish you a shabbat shalom and a gentle turning.
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.