the waves of grief
"Vayidom Aharon." And Aaron was silent. (Lev 10:3)
These are perhaps some of the most profound words in all of Torah.
These are two words that follow the moment when Aaron learns of the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu.
Some understand this as the silence of shock. Others say it is the silence of acceptance. But for me it is all of that and more. It is the silence which results when the range and depth of one's emotions are too overwhelming to express in words. Which is why Jewish tradition offers a proscriptive response upon hearing that someone has died - Baruch Dayan HaEmet - Blessed is the Source of Truth and Justice.
In Jewish tradition, there is a recognition that grief is neither linear nor singular. There is a period of time immediately following someone's death, referred to as aninut. In aninut, time is suspended. One does not even yet recite kaddish. We are not responsible for anything but attending to our grief and honoring our dead. That is personally where I have been these past few days.
And then this morning I saw the list of funerals that have been scheduled throughout this week for the victims of the shootings in Pittsburgh and Kentucky. And it hit me all over again. The process of preparing a body for burial and the funeral itself shift the grieving from something very personal to a communal responsibility. In this moment, once again potentially short on words, we are instructed to offer each other words of comfort. HaMakom Yenachem Etchem - May the Place comfort you. In precisely the moment when we feel most unmoored, these words anchor us in a kind of divinity that is wherever you are.
Time is no longer suspended as we begin counting the 7 days of shiva, and then 30 days of shloshim and the 11 months of kaddish and the annual yahrzeits. Grief textures time. And time transforms our grief.
This week, each in our own time and in our own ways, I imagine we are moving through stages of grief and shock. It has been a devastating week and we must work extra hard to stay connected to love, to each other, and to hope.
I took the advice of this poem written early this morning by Hila Ratzabi, How to Pray While the World Burns:
Find a patch of grass, sand, dirt.
Sit, kneel, place a hand or just
A finger to the soft earth.
Feel it pulse back...
The earth hears your prayer.
There is nowhere for God to hide.
Get down on your knees and let
This precious earth soften for the weight of you."
I sat and ate lunch under a big red oak tree in Cedar Park and thought to myself, it is on fire; it could have been the burning bush. It was so alive in its transformation. I inhaled its life force and exhaled my grief into the big, firm earth beneath me. And the cool crisp air cleansed my broken, fearful heart, for a moment. And I returned to my old friend Lucille Clifton and the Lesson of the Falling Leaves:
"the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves"
In a world that feels bereft of grace, go sit by some falling leaves.
In a world overflowing with violence, be extra loving.
Please take gentle care of yourselves. Please be quick to forgive and slow to anger, with yourself and your loved ones. And please consider doing one extra thing this week to get out the vote.
If anyone would like some individual pastoral support this week, please be in touch with our Rabbinic Intern, Eli, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those looking to sending money and resources, here are some places I recommend:
And please, come sing and cry and be in community this Shabbat, November 2-3. We have services on Friday at 6:30pm and Saturday at 10am. We will not let them take Shabbat from us. We will out live them.
Rabbi Ari Lev
strive to be human
In this week's parsha, Vayera, Abraham's relationship with God takes a turn. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God threatens to destroy the entire towns because they have been overrun by senseless hatred. And Abraham pleads and protests, "Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there are fifty kind-hearted righteous people within the city? Will you save it for their sake?" (Genesis 18:23). To which God agrees to save the city for the 50 people.
Abraham then bargains with God, some might even say rebukes. "Far be it from You to do such a thing," says Abraham, "killing innocent and wicked alike ... Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" (Genesis 18:25). What if there are 40? 30? 20? What if there are 10 righteous people? Ultimately Abraham convinces the Eternal to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if as few as 10 righteous people can be found.
And this, say the rabbis, is true prayer. To speak back to power when it is unjust. To challenge ourselves and the Holy One, to see the good in people.
This has been a raw week. This week the government is attempting to erase the existence of transpeople and the hard won protections that make our survival more possible. And in response many of you joined with thousands of people across the country to gather in protest.
Whether in response to a caravan of 7,500 Honduran refugees making their way towards the U.S./Mexico border seeking asylum or in the blatant identification with nationalism, it is fair to say that this administration is overrun by senseless hatred. And is on a path to destroy the planet. By every measure, this administration strives to scare, isolate, and dehumanize us.
And for this reason, we learn in Pirkei Avot,
ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש
"In a place where no one is human, strive to be human" (2:5).
This is perhaps our most profound resistance, our true embodiment of prayer. To strive to be human with each other in the face of so much hatred. And we are resisting beautifully. I saw our humanity tenfold this week, as everyone gathered to support Claire and Naomi at shiva. I saw our humanity in the acts of hesed to support a chronically ill community member. I saw our humanity at City Hall in support of trans lives and in the streets demanding protection for threatened gardens.
Thank you all for living into your humanity and for inspiring me to do the same.
I hope you each find time this shabbat to rest, rejuvenate and re-soul.
Rabbi Ari Lev
part of a greater whole
This past Monday, my teacher Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld was installed as the first woman president of Hebrew College. Some of you may remember her from my installation as the rabbi of Kol Tzedek.
In her remarks, she explored the deep grammar that opens this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha. This mysterious alliterative command is often translated as "go forth" or "go to yourself."
To begin, she notes that this curious repetition, Lech Lecha, is written in the singular second person. On the one hand, we must feel personally summoned, connected, called. I am speaking to you, each and every one of you. And yet
on the other hand, why does the journey of the collective begin in the singular? Are we really meant to go it alone?
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld teaches:
"We're living in a time when so much conspires
To make us feel alone and untethered
In a world that is fractured and frayed.
We are — we must be — witnesses to a deeper truth.
One of connection and compassion.
One of humility and hope."
She concludes by teaching a text from Pirkei Avot:
Eyzehu ashir? Hasameach b'chelko.
Her interpretive translation:
"Who is content?
The one who rejoices in knowing that she is part of a greater whole."
We each are part of a greater. Connected to creation and community, through the air we breath. We are each personally called. But not to some singular task, rather to a greater collective purpose. Let this be the antidote to our despair, our fear, and our shame. May we all know in our bones that we are worthy. And may we have the courage to heed the call, to journey into the unknown in search of a deeper truth.
Rabbi Ari Lev
a green line and slimy stones
The other day I was closing my garage and I noticed the most amazing dandelion growing right out of the cracks in between the driveway and the foundation of my house. I know on some level this is not a desirable thing. It indicates water seepage and will ultimately crack the cement further.
But isn't that amazing!? A tiny green weed is stronger than the solid rock that holds up my house. Halleluyah!
These days I have been drawing tremendous inspiration from the fierce weeds bursting forth all over my back alley; tearing up driveways with sheer abandon and sprinkling the pavement playground with lush growth. These volunteer plants are testimony to the power of creation.
This week the Torah begins again at the very beginning.
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
When God began to create the skies and the earth--
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
The earth being tohu va'vohu, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God hovering over the water--
It seems in the beginning, the earth bared some resemblance to right now - tohu va'vohu. There are thousands of years of debate about how to translate this mysterious alliteration. Unformed and void. Astonishment and desolation. An empty howling waste to follow worthless things.
One mystical text, Sefer Yetzirah, suggests the words mean that God made nothingness into somethingness. And more so defines tohu as "a green line" and Vohu as "slimy stones." A green line and slimy stones. That looks a lot like my driveway these days, full of weeds and wet rocks.
And this is hopeful because what comes next in the Torah is light.
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃
And the Holy One said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.
Out of an abyss of chaos, came light. Out of nothingness, came something. Out of rock, against the odds, with the help of light, grows vibrant detoxifying medicinal plants.
Let us be light.
Rabbi Ari Lev