After months of preparation, weeks of writing, and days of singing, what I am left with in my own heart is a fullness for which I am very grateful. And the echo of the closing words of the Unetane Tokef, which read:
We are fragile as pottery, so easily shattered,
like the grass that withers, like the flower that fades,
like the fleeting shadow, like the vanishing cloud,
like the wind that rushes by, like the scattered dust,
like the dream that flies away.
The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is designed to draw us close to our own vulnerability. To remind us how precious, precarious, and impermanent it all is.
Some of us take comfort in imagining that we are the clay and the Holy One is our potter. To imagine there is a Source who shapes our destiny. But all of us know that our agency is primarily limited to the here and now. To how we live our days. Not how many days we live.
It is easier to be flush with this truth through poetry. Where there is more breath and something left unspoken. Humor and levity also help a lot.
In her poem, "Zucchini Shofar", Sarah Lindsay writes:
No animals were harmed in the making of this joyful noise:
A thick, twisted stem from the garden
is the wedding couple's ceremonial ram's horn.
Its substance will not survive one thousand years,
nor will the garden, which is today their temple,
nor will their names, nor their union now announced
with ritual blasts upon the zucchini shofar.
Shall we measure blessings by their duration?
Through the narrow organic channel fuzzily come
the prescribed sustained notes, short notes, rests.
All that rhythm requires. Among their talents,
the newlyweds excel at making
and serving mustard-green soup and molasses cookies,
and taking nieces and nephews for walks in the woods.
The gardener dyes eggs with onion skins,
wraps presents, tells stories, finds the best seashells;
his friends adore his paper-cuttings--
"Nothing I do will last," he says.
What is this future approval we think we need;
who made passing time our judge?
Do we want butter that endures for ages,
or butter that melts into homemade cornbread now?
Even as we imagine ourselves passing before the judge, we are invited to ask ourselves who made passing time our judge. Nothing we do will last.
For a moment, maybe even just a breath, we come flush with this truth.
We are fragile as pottery, so easily shattered.
Like a zucchini shofar, we too will become compost.
May our practice of tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah
allow us to melt like butter
as we journey through the Days Between.
תָחֵל שָנָה ובִרכותֶיהָ
Let the year and her blessings begin!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week, a new album of Jewish music was released entitled, Tishrei: the end is the beginning. I have been obsessed with it all week. But not because the music is gorgeous (which it is!). But because of the title. The end is the beginning has somehow been the spiritual teaching I have needed to propel me through a busy and stressful week.
To lean into the infinite, spiral-nature of time. To lean into the practice of teshuva, returning anew to the place we once were, eager to begin again.
The image brought me back to my happy place. A salt marsh at the very edge of Cape Cod, along the protected National Seashore.
Every summer my family makes the trip to this remote point. We love to go there about one hour before high tide. To roll down the sand dunes and plop into the warm, salty water, letting the current carry us away. Until it doesn't. Until it reaches that magic time just on the other side of high tide, when the tide begins to turn. And you can for a brief moment float, still, in the water, and literally see and feel the currents changing. It only lasts about 20-30 minutes. Until you are suddenly carried the other way, inward.
So too with yesterday's equinox. For a brief moment the Earth was tilting neither toward or away from the sun, and there was equilibrium between day and night. But before we can even bless the balance, we can feel the waning light. The end is the beginning.
As we approach the final days of 5782 and the final parshiyot of the Book of Deuteronomy, we are called to be present, to bear witness. To honor that which is everlasting (Holiness and the Holy One). And the reality that everything else is changing - the tides, the seasons, our own soul.
For the past month, Rabbi Mó and I have been teaching Hilchot Teshuva every morning. Yesterday we concluded the second chapter of the Rambam's teachings. And today we gathered to celebrate and glean all we had studied. But I couldn't help myself. I decided to close with the very first line of the third chapter. Because the end of one chapter is also an opportunity to begin the next.
כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִבְּנֵי הָאָדָם יֵשׁ לוֹ זְכֻיּוֹת וַעֲוֹנוֹת. מִי שֶׁזְּכֻיּוֹתָיו יְתֵרוֹת עַל עֲוֹנוֹתָיו צַדִּיק. וּמִי שֶׁעֲוֹנוֹתָיו יְתֵרוֹת עַל זְכֻיּוֹתָיו רָשָׁע. מֶחֱצָה לְמֶחֱצָה בֵּינוֹנִי.
Every person is full of merit and every person misses the mark.
If a person has more merit, they are considered a tzadik (righteous).
And if a person has missed the mark more than they have merited, they are considered rasha (wicked).
If it's 50/50, they are benoni (in between) (Hilchot Teshuva 3:1).
The Talmud goes on to assert that basically every single one of us arrives at the gates of the New Year benoni, in between, 50/50. The scales are balanced. The tide is high. But it doesn't stop moving. What we do and say over the course of the next 10 days really matters. How we end will impact how we begin.
I offer you these words. That they may guide us through the gates of the New Year with as much humility, grace, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion as possible.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!
Rabbi Ari Lev
In the last few weeks I have been asked the same question by several KT members. It goes something like this: "I know what I need to do if I have caused someone harm, but what does Judaism have to say about someone who has caused me harm?" In other words, as my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe explains it, "How do I get my friend (read: neighbor, parent, child, teacher, student, co-worker, etc.) on the teshuva train?"
If there was a rabbinic FAQ for the month of Elul, I would list this question first. How do we forgive someone who has not even acknowledged that they hurt us, never mind apologized and committed to not repeat the action?
As it turns out, Judaism does have a lot to say about this topic. The first mention of Tochecha comes directly from Torah itself. We will actually read it aloud on Yom Kippur afternoon in The Holiness Code.
Leviticus 19:17 reads:
לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃
You are not to hate your fellow in your heart, you should absolutely rebuke your friend, but not in a way that causes you to miss the mark.
In other words, when someone causes harm, you should (must?!) give them Tochecha. You are obligated to give them feedback, lest you harbor resentment. But you also must not do so in a way that causes more harm.
This is easier said than done. I have been on the giving and receiving end of a meaningful amount of Tochecha this week. And I have wept in almost every conversation. Feedback is as difficult to give as it is to receive. It is a profoundly vulnerable experience to have someone, especially someone I love, reflect back to me my own mistakes. It burned my eyes to look in the mirror and see myself. It was equally tender to try to coax the words to share with someone I love the ways in which they had missed the mark. I felt a desperate longing to not want to cause them further shame.
Tochecha is such an important, delicate, spiritual practice. Even when we get it right, it's hard. There is some wisdom in this week's Torah reading that can support those of us who need to receive feedback and those of us who need to offer it.
This week we read Parashat Ki Tavo, which comes near the very end of the book of Deuteronomy. It begins with a series of blessings and rewards for your spiritual diligence. "Blessed be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed are your comings and your goings..."
But then come the curses, consequences for our spiritual negligence. The "curses" will be read tomorrow morning in the extra long fifth aliyah. The 55 verses (Deut. 28:15-69) are known as the Tochecha, verses of rebuke and warning.
Setting aside the theology for a moment, I am interested in the choreography of this moment. The calendar I follow says, "Chant this section in a somewhat subdued voice to symbolically minimize the trepidation that the congregation experiences upon hearing the message of these verses." We are meant to receive these words almost in a whisper, lest the tone scare us.
The calendar continues, "However, for verses 7-14, voicing the promise of God's protection and reward, chant as usual." Despite the anachronistic order of these instructions, verses 7-14 are actually read first.
This one aliyah offers us two important teachings to support us in the practice of Tochecha. First, it is important to value and protect the relationship despite the need for Tochecha. Just as God begins by sharing words of blessing and protection, so too should we. And second, pay attention to the tone of your voice and the quality of care that it expresses. Allow the warmth and love you feel for this person to be received as much as the words themselves. From my own experience, the spiritual challenge of Tochecha is that it needs to come from a place of love. (For more Torah about Tochecha, here is a sermon I gave several years ago on Yom Kippur.)
In this season, may we be quick to forgive and caring in our sharing of rebuke. May blessings rain down upon each of us, in the city and in the field, upon the fruits of our labor and the work of our hands. And may we all feel these blessings of protection as we wade into this vulnerable time.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Sitting around the dinner table with my kids last night I had an embarrassing rabbi moment, but kept it to myself (until now!). We are coming to the end of their second week of school. Every day I ask for details. What was something fun about your day? Something you learned? Something new? I try to find different ways to solicit a morsel of information to give me a window into their experience. I am hoping for something of content that we can discuss and geek out about.
Thus far, the main things I have heard about are their systems for behavior management. One kid is quite excited to be earning five points a day on ClassDojo. With the promise of a $30 shopping spree on Amazon. (Is that true?!) I have heard a lot about the Wiffle ball and bat she might pick out. The other kid is motivated by the prospect of earning a pom-pom everyday and filling up an entire jar. It's not entirely clear from his description if it's a personal win or for a small group.
Don't get me wrong, I have a deep respect and appreciation for the importance of establishing classroom norms and creating a positive learning environment. And I am very appreciative that both teachers seem to be drawn towards praise rather than punishment. But there is an extent to which my kids' desire to behave and be "good" becomes the focus of their learning, rather than critical thinking and creative problem solving. Which is where my embarrassing rabbi moment comes into play.
As my younger kid was going on at length about pom-poms, I was thinking about how to redirect him to share something else he might have learned that day. But then I realized that perhaps this was quite a fitting area of focus for a rabbi's kid in the month of Elul. What if ClassDojo and pom-poms were part of this season's Heshbon HaNefesh, the accounting of our soul? These are opportunities for my kids to increase awareness about of how their actions impact those around them - albeit their classmates and teachers.
I knew if I responded with this very Jewish idea, my kids would roll their eyes (they are so good at it!) and say, "Babbo!" So I kept it to myself.
Those of us who are grown don't have the benefit of external mentors setting up sticker charts and promising rewards. So we have to do it for ourselves. To hold ourselves accountable; to train ourselves to be the most generous, compassionate, forgiving people we can be. Perhaps we can all learn something from the dedicated teachers in our lives.
Jewish tradition offers us both the language and the structure to reward ourselves. And it goes big. Way bigger than a Wiffle ball bat, if you ask me. It promises the Book of Life!
In the words of Rabbi Suzanne Offit as she reflects on the ancient words of the Unetane Tokef,
"We are beckoned to become our own judge.
There is time.
And now is the time.
We are not here to try to accrue bonus points in some kind of cosmic ledger.
We are not here to try to escape death by gaining favor with an unforgiving God.
We are here to listen to the question that calls out softly,
From within and beyond us:
What do you want to do with the time you have left?"
As we journey into the second Shabbat of Elul, consider what tangible tools might support you in the work of Heshbon HaNefesh in your own life. Do you need a pom-pom jar (so satisfying to the senses!) or a sticker chart? Do you need to make a laminated checklist of all the people you want to call before Rosh Hashanah to say, "If there are any ways I have missed the mark, I ask your forgiveness?" And then check them off one at a time with a dry erase marker.
Don't worry about the cosmic ledger. Wonder about who you want to be with the time you have left. May we have the wisdom to approach our inner accounting with the gentle levity of pom-pom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Last Sunday was Rosh Hodesh Elul. I didn't sleep well, I think because I was genuinely so excited to blow shofar. I scurried to drop each of my kids off at friends' houses so I could join in the Hallel minyan at Kol Tzedek. I arrived at 9:59am, feeling grateful that I had a minute to spare and settle. But when I got there, a few folks were talking in a huddle and the energy was calm. Where was the anticipation and urgency that usually accompanies the beginning of things?
Even though on some level it was obvious, my brain didn't quite compute what was going on. I was still thinking the minyan was starting late, rather than the more obvious truth: I had missed it.
I went to my office and began to wrap my tefillin, in preparation for prayer of one kind or another. Our shammes came in to return my computer stand, and then it really hit me. Hallel was over. I had mistakenly thought it started at 10am, when in fact it had been called for 9am.
I was disappointed. Hallel is arguably my favorite service. And I can't really sing it alone.
Rabbi Mó walked into my office, also realizing what had happened. She apologized for having misremembered the start time during Shabbat announcements the day before. (Never mind the fact that I obviously could have checked the KT calendar myself!) But then in all her wisdom, she said, "I am grateful for the chance to give you the opportunity to forgive me on the 1st of Elul."
And it really did feel like a gift. To say, I forgive you. To begin that way. And then I said, "Thank you, for giving me just the story for my upcoming Friday email."
The poet David Whyte writes, "Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving...generosity in an individual life, a beautiful way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves."
Throughout the Days of Awe we will sing about a God who is erekh apayim, slow to anger and quick to forgive, with the hopes that we too may be cool in our temper and rav hesed, full of compassion. But we don’t need to wait. Forgiveness is a skill. And today, in the earliest days of Elul, is just the time to practice.
Before the sun sets and invites in this first Shabbat of Elul, I invite you to extend your forgiveness to someone. It could even be yourself. And through this practice, may we come closer to the future we want for ourselves.
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.