This past Wednesday, September 23 at 1:30pm, a grand jury in Louisville, KY acquitted all of three officers in the case of the murder of Breonna Tayler, and merely indicted Det. Brett Hankison for wanton endangerment for the shots fired into neighboring apartments, but not for the murder of Breonna Tayler. 65 years to the day that an all-white jury found Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam not guilty of Emmett Till's kidnapping and murder.
We arrive to Shabbat intimately aware of the cavernous space between the world as it is and the world that we long, and we walk along a very narrow bridge, brave and scared at the same time.
The rabbis have much to say about the holiness of the space between. One midrash famously describes Torah as white fire on black fire. Which is to say the space between the letters and the words, it too is Torah.
Nowhere is this more visible than in biblical poetry. In poetry, the absence of words says as much as their presence. And when we are in the depths, the absence is what is present. At the end of his life, bereft and longing Moses turns to poetry for his final teaching.
Our parsha begins,
הַאֲזִ֥ינוּ הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וַאֲדַבֵּ֑רָה וְתִשְׁמַ֥ע הָאָ֖רֶץ אִמְרֵי־פִֽי׃
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!
יַעֲרֹ֤ף כַּמָּטָר֙ לִקְחִ֔י תִּזַּ֥ל כַּטַּ֖ל אִמְרָתִ֑י כִּשְׂעִירִ֣ם עֲלֵי־דֶ֔שֶׁא וְכִרְבִיבִ֖ים עֲלֵי־עֵֽשֶׂב׃
May my discourse come down as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, Like showers on young growth, Like droplets on the grass (Deut. 32:1-2).
But it is not just the words that are themselves spacious, it is the page of Torah itself. You can see it here! It is laid out in two columns, with a cavernous space between, the words calling out across the void. But also leaving space. Space for weeping and for longing, for our voices and our vision, for connection.
Rabbi Alan Lew writes,
"When we lose touch with a sense of nefesh, of space, of emptiness, we feel overwhelmed, overstressed, overburdened. So for many of us the question is, How do we find our way back to heaven? How do we relocate that spaciousness out of which we emerged? How do we connect with our nefesh?" (121).
In honor of Moses the poet, I offer you another poem written by Shelby Handler, "The Day the World is Born":
...Here is the way to start again: let heaven
slither in through the holes this year
left in you. Everything you've lost is enough
space for your wholeness to return into. Every day
is someone's birthday. Today is everything's
birth day. We're all here together: holding our breath
in the delivery room. We're tugging at the curtain,
eager to catch it all in our tired and wild arms.
This Shabbat Shuva, in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I invite you to take this page of Torah to heart. To make space in your day and in yourself. May you emerge renewed, as we sing in V'Shamru, "shavat va'yinafash" - with a new sense of nefesh.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
According to Jewish mystics, throughout the month of Elul, HaMelech ba'sadeh - The King is in the field. The King of course, referring to HaShem, The Ineffable Name, The Mystery, Our Source, Our Sovereign. This sentiment is meant to convey a kind of divine availability in this great turning. God is right here with you, in your field (in your alley, as the case may be), in your midst.
But at face value, this is hardly compelling. What do we know of Kings or Rulers that would suggest we want them close by. In these times, this has echoes of martial law and undercover federal agents in our midst, demonstrating the far reaching powers of fascist governments.
But not just in our times. For all of time, Jews have strived to live in spiritual quarantine under conditions imposed by empire and emperor. And so, throughout rabbinic literature we find a genre of midrash that begs the question, In what ways is Melech Malchei HaMelachim, The Holy One, Sovereign of Sovereign Sovereignties, distinct from Melech Basar v'Dam - A king of flesh and blood (a political ruler, if you will)? This is a genre of midrash that has long held my attention. It is this theological conversation that has allowed me to be in ongoing relationship with The Holy Blessed One or Holiness itself.
One such midrash begins with a question (Yalkut Shimoni Psalms #700):
"Who is the King of Glory? (Psalms 24:10a)
Answer: The one who gives glory to those who are in awe of them, 'Adonai Tzeva'ot.' (Ps. 24:10b)"
Which is to say, what makes God different from a regular King?
God doesn't hoard the power and prestige. God shares their glory with those who fear them.
The midrash continues:
"How do we know this is true?
A king of flesh and blood: one cannot sit on their throne. But God sat King Solomon on his throne, as it says: Solomon sat on the throne of YHVH (I Chron 29:23)."
"A king of flesh and blood: one cannot ride their chariot. But God caused Elijah to ride their horse – since storms and whirlwinds are God's horse. As it says: God, in the whirlwind and in the storm is God's way, and the clouds are the dust of God's feet. (Nahum 1:3) and it says: Elijah rose in the storm (II Kings 2:11)."
The midrash goes on, but you get the idea. There is nothing that God has that they would not share with us. So when we say HaMelech ba'sadeh, what we mean is that the well of our resilience is nearby; our spiritual resources are even more available to us.
I bring you this text this week, as we read Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech, the parsha in which we are taught, this thing, this thing called Torah, called Teshuvah, called G!D is not in the heavens. It is right here with you, in your very midst. It is intimacy itself. It is presence and connection. Do not think you need to travel far to find it. It is sheltering in place with you. In your heart and in your mouth.
May you take time this Shabbat to journey outside, to converse with the trees and the wind, to be present with your inner storm and to to hum in your heart the words of the Kedushah:
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה' צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ
Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz'vaot M'lo Khol Ha'aretz K'vodo
Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Name Above, The whole world is filled with G!D's Glory.
Rabbi Ari Lev
For reasons that I barely understand, I would rather be late than early, to just about anything. Meetings, airports, doctor's appointments. (This is certainly on the list of things I need to do teshuvah for. For the people I have kept waiting because I did not leave enough travel time.) I have recently come to understand that this is motivated by a kind of existential anxiety about being early. What will I do with that time? Will it be uncomfortable? Who else will arrive early? These are not rational questions. And inevitably, when I arrive late, I am even more stressed by what arises from rushing to get somewhere without enough time. Recently, I have tried to arrive early to the few things I can still "arrive" to. And what I have noticed is a kind of ease only made possible by sufficient transition time.
There is a story in the Talmud (Sotah 22a) of a certain widow who lived next door to a synagogue, yet went daily to participate in prayers in the study-hall of Rabbi Yohanan. One day he said to her: "My daughter, don't you have a synagogue in your neighborhood?" To which she answered: "My master, do I not benefit from taking steps?" Rabbi Yohanan took her very seriously, and taught the widow's answer to his students.
What he learned from her is the importance of transitioning into prayer, of taking real physical and mental steps towards your practice. This widow, who sadly is not named, seeks out a more distant praying place in order to benefit from the transition time in which she has stepped away from other occupations and is taking steps towards her prayer.
About this story my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader writes, "I doubt that this widow used her walking time to have another meeting on the phone... But if cell phones changed the nature of the walk to prayer, COVID-19 eliminated it. Unless we pay attention to it, there is likely to be no transition time from everything happening around us to the prayer service, no period of taking steps towards prayer..."
One of the challenges of COVID has been the collapse of time and its invisible structures. Some days I feel that there is barely a breath between the end of one Zoom meeting and the beginning of another. Quite literally they end and start at the exact same moment. I need to remind myself to drink water, to use the bathroom, to have a body. Two minutes can feel like an eternity in a Zoom waiting room if a meeting starts "late."
Rabbi Leader continues, "This is one of the important lessons of the Jewish calendar that teaches us to begin preparing for Pesach a week before the month of Adar, to begin preparing for Shavuot on Pesach, to begin preparing for Tish'a b'Av on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and in relation to our current season - to begin preparing for Yom Kippur and Sukkot at the beginning of the month of Elul."
Which is where we find ourselves now, beneath the full moon of Elul. It is time to begin our preparations. Literally. To think about where we might physically be on Rosh Hashanah. What chair might we sit on or what tree might we lean against. To make a list of the people we want to connect with before September 18. To consider if we need to borrow any ritual items or order any special foods or sign up for Shofar in the Park.
At this moment it is important to discern between planning and preparation. While planning has become futile. There is still much to be gained from preparing. In the words of the prophet Amos, "Prepare for the presence of your Source" (4:12-13). We learn over and over again from Jewish time that preparation is in fact what makes the presence of the Holy One possible.
My teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader has written a full-length letter about how to prepare for the Days of Awe this year. It is a generous offering that I am grateful to be able to share with all of you. May it support you to ask: What do I need to be doing now to prepare for Rosh Hashanah?
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.