Today on an early morning commute on my bike, I rode past a giant old church at 43rd and Chestnut that is actively being demolished. It was quite a sight to see - mounds of rubble that once held such sacred structure; mangled wires and exposed rusted iron beams. Putting aside the inanimate truth of this old building for a moment, it looked painful. I winced. And I took refuge, for a moment, in the fact that it takes so much effort to destroy something. Tearing down old structures that are no longer serving us is gnarly and time consuming.
On the heels of the heart-opening community infusion of Yom Kippur, this week has been a deep dive into the painful ever-present reality of patriarchy and the extraordinary courage and effort it is taking to dismantle its foundation.
The Ford-Kavanaugh hearings were excruciating and nauseating and infuriating and awful. I am seeing and hearing online the pain they are causing so many of us, the reopened wounds, the anger and hurt. I see your courage to write your own testimony and tell your stories of truth and assault. If you're needing to talk about any of this, I'm available, and/or can help connect you with others who can help listen and support. Please contact me privately. Your story matters, your experience matters, your pain matters, you matter.
Throughout the past year I have been searching far and wide for Torah that would speak to this moment, the Torah of #metoo if you will. The Torah has within it horrific stories of rape and assault. And the rabbis work hard to name it, redeem it, and transform it. But none do it justice for our times.
Falling asleep last night, I was thinking about how on Sunday we will unroll the whole of Torah and peer into its crevices. I recalled my favorite teaching that each morning the Holy One looks into the Torah and creates the world anew. And I realized that this will be the year that we write the Torah that will redeem the suffering of Dinah and Anita and Christine and ourselves.
To get our midrashic imaginations started, I offer you an excerpt of this poetic rendering of the V'ahavta, written by Aurora Levins Morales:
"When you inhale and when you exhale
breathe the possibility of another world
into the 37.2 trillion cells of your body
until it shines with hope.
Then imagine more.
Imagine rape is unimaginable. Imagine war is a scarcely credible rumor
That the crimes of our age, the grotesque inhumanities of greed,
the sheer and astounding shamelessness of it, the vast fortunes
made by stealing lives, the horrible normalcy it came to have,
is unimaginable to our heirs, the generations of the free.
Don't waver. Don't let despair sink its sharp teeth
Into the throat with which you sing. Escalate your dreams.
Make them burn so fiercely that you can follow them down
any dark alleyway of history and not lose your way.
Make them burn clear as a starry drinking gourd
Over the grim fog of exhaustion, and keep walking.
Hold hands. Share water. Keep imagining.
So that we, and the children of our children's children
Ufros aleinu sukkat Shlomekha
ופרש עלינו סכת שלומך
On this shabbat of Sukkot, may the Holy One spread over every single one of us a canopy of wholeness and peace and safety.
Rabbi Ari Lev
On Friday night, after the blessings, my family went around the table and everyone shared something good about their week. Nearly everyone said Yom Kippur was so much fun. (This made my sephardic blood very happy.) I have personally been on a hovercraft since neilah, not quite ready to touch down to reality and having fun building a sukkah...and here comes Sukkot, already preparing for takeoff.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes about this sensation in her poem "So much happiness":
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to...
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.
As we journey from the Days of Awe to Sukkot, we allow our joy to carry us away, to hold it and share it and hopefully to feel more known through it. The many Sukkot events are a great way to be in more intimate, potentially less crowded community. I encourage you to pick at least one gathering to attend.
Wishing you all a Hag Sameach, a joyful Sukkot,
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. A note on Jewish greetings and salutations: In the days between the formal beginning to the holiday (tonight!) and Simchat Torah (which starts next Sunday), so from Tuesday to Saturday, it is customary to greet someone by saying Moadim L'Simcha (May your holy time be joyous) and to respond Hagim U'zmanim l'Sasson (May your festival season be joyful).
What an incredible journey of song and spirit the High Holidays have been. Thank you, to each and every person, who made it and made it happen - who sang and prayed and greeted and moved chairs and food shopped and so many more things. In particular to Jeremy, Leor, and Nadav and the entire High Holiday committee. I have been riding a wave of gratitude and awe.
When I was a kid, I had a bumper sticker on my journal that read, "Change is the only constant." I am not sure where I got it, or even why I chose it at the time. I certainly did not really understand it. And I have spent my entire adult life trying to reconcile and accept this fundamental truth. Many of you heard me wrestle on Kol Nidre with its deepest implication, our mortality.
In Buddhist terms this truth is best captured in the teachings of impermanence. And in Jewish terms, Rabbi Michelle lifted up this wisdom during children's services on Rosh Hashanah with the phrase, "גַּם זֶה יַעֲבֹר , (gam zeh ya'avor), this too shall pass." We picked up on that at the first day of Torah school when we made mind jars full of glitter and talked about how our feels themselves are fleeting. And I have noticed that I don't want this feeling of awe and gratitude to pass.
One of the most amazing traditions at Kol Tzedek is the epic nigun jam at the end of Neilah. I know at least some if not many of you are thinking at that point, aren't these people hungry? Hasn't there been enough singing? And while on the one hand I agree, what most of me knows is that "this too shall pass." The desire to be fully immersed in song and spirit is only possible after weeks, days, hours, so many minutes of song and prayer. And the desire, the palpable pull and energy itself, will pass. But for a moment, let's let it linger. And we do, for, say, 15 or 20 amazing minutes.
Which is precisely why Jewish tradition teaches that you should put the first nail in your sukkah when you get home from Yom Kippur. There is a wise desire to capture that energy and stay with that spirit. Sukkot is described as Tzman Simchateinu - Our joyful season! Through Sukkot we get to celebrate not only the harvest of the earth, but the spiritual harvest of the Yamim Noraim. And we get to savor it all. Knowing, that it too shall pass.
Because, ultimately, Sukkot is also a celebration of impermanence. We build temporary houses in this liminal season and camp out in community, lingering in the joyful expression of our souls that Teshuva makes possible.
I wish you all a restful Shabbat and look forward to seeing you in the Kol Tzedek sukkah in the week to come. Eager to reenter the loving community that we generated together on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. Many of you have asked for copies of my High Holiday Divrei Torah. You can find them all here, thanks to Rowan! Please feel invited to share them with people in your lives.
Without fail, once a week or so, not to mention, twice this week already, someone comes to me and confesses.
"Rabbi, I am such a bad Jew...I work on Shabbat or I eat shrimp or I don't know what Simchat Torah is..."
These statements often come with a shameful tone and bear no resemblance to the confessions of Yom Kippur. While they may not be looking to be absolved, I simply cannot bear to be complicit with this paradigm.
I do not believe in good Jews and bad Jews. Just like I don’t believe in the good Arab, or its corollary, bad Arabs. Nor do I believe in good white people or good black people.
The implicit message we absorb from living as liberal Jews in relation to historical trauma, forces of assimilation, and the the orthodox majority is: "I'm a bad Jew." And the explicit message I often hear from the the Jewish left is: "Judaism has been bad to me." As different as those two statements are, maybe they're two sides of the same coin?
Tonight at services we will be discussing and hopefully debunking the myth of the bad Jew, inviting us all to make teshuva with ourselves and Judaism.
Thank you all for the depth of song and presence you each brought to create a joyful, meaningful Rosh Hashanah. It was enlivening.
Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Hatimah Tova,
May we all be sealed for a life of sweetness,
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. In that spirit, take a look at our incredible opportunities for Adult learning this year. Classes are an awesome way to meet people, deepen your practice, and cultivate community.
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim (which happens to be my favorite!), we are given a little bit of reassurance that the essence of Torah is not beyond our reach.
"For this commandment (hamitzvah hazot) which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off...[It] is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deut. 30:12, 14)
It? What's it?
I have always inferred the subject of these verses to be intentionally and necessarily abstract. It creates space for the mystery and possibility of spiritual Mad Libs. Perhaps God is very close? or Torah? or doing the right thing?
Picking up on this same ambiguity, the commentators opted for a more specific read. They recognized that hamitzvah hazot (in the singular) must be in reference to a single mitzvah. For a group of the Medievals, Ramban amongst them, there is an assertion that the one commandment being referred to in this verse is...teshuvah. And, best of all, it's within our grasp! Lo b'shamayim hi - it's not in the heavens, or beyond the sea; no, [teshuvah] is in our mouths and in our hearts.
It makes sense to me that the Ramban would want to say so - because it is so the opposite of most of our experiences. As one member said to me this week, "Maybe I will figure out this Elul thing next year." Even if we can envision Teshuvah in the abstract, it can be hard to understand the practicalities.
With the new year just around the shabbes corner, I am taking the instructions of this week's parsha to heart. I want to extend my own teshuvah practice to each of you. If there is any way in the past year that I have missed the mark as your rabbi, please know that it was absolutely unintentional and I am sorry. I welcome the opportunity while the gates of forgiveness are swinging wide open to make teshuvah with you.
At my installation in April 2017, I shared some wisdom from Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber, founder of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. She hosts a monthly brunch for her new members. At it Bolz Weber explains,
"At some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down. Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God's grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And [it's] too beautiful to miss. Don't miss it."
Bolz Weber is saying, stick around, because the opportunity to do teshuvah is too beautiful to miss. I am very grateful for the opportunity to heal, reconnect, be honest, forgive, let go, and grow together. As all the details come into focus, I am feeling fully that these High Holidays are going to be too beautiful to miss.
Wherever you find yourself for Rosh Hashanah, I wish you a Shana Tova U'Metukah, a year of sweetness and liberation.
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.