we are judged by water
The first and second Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah remind us that the month of Tishrei is the new year as it relates to land and food. The next Mishnah teaches that on the holiday of Sukkot the world water balance is determined.
וּבֶחָג נִדּוֹנִין עַל הַמָּיִם
"And on Sukkot, we are judged by water" (1:2).
Sukkot is at once a celebration of the Fall harvest and the time in which we pray for the winter rains, so that the wheat and barley we are planting will grow throughout the winter and be ready for their spring harvests. Sukkot is fundamentally a communal rain dance. We can hear in the echoes of the lulav the sounds of rain. And rain is no small thing. In a world of rising waters, melting ice caps, and toxic drinking waters, we know that our lives rest in the balance of water. We learn elsewhere in the Talmud, that a day of rain is greater than the giving of Torah (B.T. Taanit 7a). As we have learned over and over again from indigenous communities, water is life.
In the Jewish mystical imagination, water is associated with the quality of hesed. It is that which flows between us, that which nourishes and sustains us. This Sukkot, I invite us to imagine that we will be judged not by how productive we are, or even how much we have changed from one year to the next, but by our capacity for kindness. In this threadbare, broken world, I keep coming back to the words of Naomi Shihab Nye, "Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore." This is emerging as my motto for 5780. May it be what nourishes and sustains us as we begin this next journey around the sun.
Shabbat shalom and Moadim L'Simcha,
Rabbi Ari Lev
stop making sense
On this Fall Friday, I find myself at once empty and full, the echo of those words still resonating from our High Holiday services. I am so full of gratitude to be the rabbi of this community, a community that cares so deeply about our spiritual lives, about holiness, about pursuing wholeness. For most of the Neilah service, I just closed my eyes and listened to all of us singing together, to the fullness of our final shema. It was such a nourishing experience. Thank you for making it so.
And I also feel emptied out. There are no longer any words, there are no longer any promises. Lucky for us, our amazing Music Director, Rabbi Mónica Gomery, has much to say about the power of poetry in this week's parsha, Ha'azinu, and published a dvar Torah about it this week on Hebrew College's blog.
"In this week's parsha, Moshe's book-length speech switches genres--from prose oration to a shira, an epic poem--and Moshe takes up the project of poetic un-truth. In the first verse, he begins to twist our sense of what is real, proclaiming 'הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי-פִי' 'Listen, heavens, and I will speak. And let the earth hear the words of my mouth.' Even if we could say that the heavens contain the ears of God, Moshe here describes the land and soil itself as bearing witness by listening - consciously, actively. Newly a poet, and one verse in, Moshe teaches us, the Israelites gathered before him, to listen for something other than logic, to stop making sense.
God is a rock, Moshe tells us, God is a warrior. My words are dew, my words are rain. You are a blemish, you are God's child. God is an eagle, God is a mother. God wounds, God heals. God's wrath is fire, arrows, pestilence. God fed you honey from stone, God fed you the cream of a cow. The litany goes on...
...The journey through the un-truth of poetry can take us to the truth of it all, to the bright face of the shamayim that Moshe calls upon in the opening verse of Ha'azinu, to the color of the sky. As we stand, or perhaps scramble and tremble, as we march, as we build resilient communities, as we live into this foreboding new reality, let's remember to take along with us the illogical, the emotional, the intuitive and figurative--the truth that lives beyond truth, the poetry of our tradition and the poetry of our lives. Just as the Israelites stood hearing Moshe's final poem, shimmering with possibility, and transformation, becoming something new."
As you prepare for Shabbat, I invite you to read her beautiful dvar Torah in its entirety here.
In the wake of the utterly terrifying shooting in Germany on Yom Kippur, we will continue to pray for peace and safety for all of Yisrael, for all of Yishmael, and for all who dwell on earth.
Shabbat Shalom, May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
ecdysis : molting exoskeletons
I continue to feel the effervescent joy and vibrations of Rosh Hashanah. So full of gratitude for everyone who made that possible, which is everyone!
Yesterday I sent a draft of my Kol Nidre sermon to a friend to edit. When I opened it a few hours later I received a notification I never noticed before. There was a little blue box that read "Wow! This document has changed a lot. Do you want to reload?" I laughed and thought to myself, why yes I do! Here we are in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I keep wanting to look inside my soul and say, "Wow! This person has changed a lot." Alas, it is easier to reload a google doc than transform our well-worn habits.
For this reason, I draw most of my inspiration for transformation from the natural world. This past July I spent a few weeks swimming in the rivers of New England. At each new swimming hole, one of the things I learned to look for was signs of a healthy water supply. I learned that tracking the presence of macro-invertebrates (dragonflies, crayfish, stoneflies, etc.) is used in New Zealand to measure the water quality of fresh water.
One morning we arrived to the bend of a beautiful river. As we were hopping from rock to rock, we noticed the rocks were covered in what looked like dried skeletons of prehistoric lizards. I later came to learn they were in fact the exuvius skeletons of nymph stoneflies. In biology, exuviae are the remains of an exoskeleton and related structures that are left after ecdysozoans (including insects, crustaceans, and arachnids) have molted. This is true of all animals that grow by ecdysis, molting their exoskeleton. In fact, stoneflies can molt as many as 20-30 times in their lifetimes.
On that summer day, as I ventured upstream with my kids, we hopped from rock to rock. We came across a nymph stonefly that was actually mid-molt. We sat and watched as the shell cracked down the center spine, its body was in the process of breaking through, preparing to let go and emerge anew. It seemed simultaneously possible and impossible. Kind of like this moment. We too are called to molt and transform, hopefully hundreds of times in our lifetimes. And this moment in the calendar, we are trying to break through.
May we each have the courage to carve out some time before Yom Kippur for reflection, forgiveness, and letting go.
Gmar Hatimah Tova and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. Here is a copy of my sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It was an honor to share these words of Torah with our extended community. We are also working to get lay leaders vorts and Divrei Torah on our website as well.