Here we go again...
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the beginning, when the Holy One began to create the sky and the earth.
Every year our tradition invites us to assume a posture of beginner's mind, a state of curiosity and uncertainty, as we re-encounter these dog-eared stories and see what arises this time around.
Most years I am drawn to the very first days of creation. The light and the luminaries, the spirit hovering over the face of the deep. Or I find myself jumping ahead to the final days, the creation of human beings each holy, in the image of the divine and the invitation to rest in the glory of it all on Shabbat.
But this year I am lingering on the often under-appreciated fifth day of creation.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים יִשְׁרְצ֣וּ הַמַּ֔יִם שֶׁ֖רֶץ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֑ה וְעוֹף֙ יְעוֹפֵ֣ף עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ עַל־פְּנֵ֖י רְקִ֥יעַ הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
And the Holy One said, "Let the waters swarm with sheretz nefesh chayah/living creatures and let the birds fill the horizon of the skies" (Gen. 1:20). Not to mention on the fifth day the Holy One creates sea monsters and all kinds of creepy crawly critters (See v. 21)!
What is a sheretz? From Genesis we know that it is a living creature that swarms the earth. Then in Leviticus we get a list of eight kinds of shratzim -- the mole, the mouse, and lizards of every variety, the gecko, the crocodile, more lizards, and the chameleon (11:29-30). But what's more, the Torah asserts that each of these creatures is fundamentally and categorically impure (tameh). Which means that anyone who comes into contact with one of their corpses, a dead sheretz, needs to immerse in a mikveh to become ritually available again.
The sheretz reappears in rabbinic discourse in the most unexpected of places, as the rabbis are discussing the requirements for who should be able to sit on the highest rabbinic court, the Sanhedrin. And as it so happens, we too are in the midst of a national conversation about who is worthy of such power and responsibility. A matter the rabbis take very seriously!
As Bennett Decker explains:
"Rabbi Yochanan suggests a number of requirements. They must be tall, wise, good looking, and old. They also must have mastered sorcery and all 70 languages. In short, these requirements are specifically designed to exclude all but a select class of men. It sets the Jewish 'ideal' as a nigh unattainable goal."
But Rav Yehudah, in the name of Rav, presents another idea. Rav argues that one is only placed upon the Sanhedrin if they are able to metaher et ha sheretz min hatorah, to declare a sheretz pure by Torah law. Which is to say, the judges on the Sanhedrin must be so skilled at logical reasoning that they could even produce a convincing argument that creeping animals, which the Torah states explicitly are ritually impure, are actually pure.
In the words of Laynie Soloman, "A requirement for rabbinic leadership, power, and authority, then, is to use the Torah to declare pure something that the Torah itself defines as fundamentally and unchangeably impure. To be a judge on the Sanhedrin is, in short, to be able to overturn the Torah itself—even, or perhaps especially, where the Torah seems least able to be overturned."
We learn in Pirkei Avot that the purpose of Torah is to increase freedom in the world (6:2). By extension we can understand that the purpose of any system of law should be to increase freedom and uphold justice. This is fundamentally the role of everyone in power, most especially the rabbis of the Sanhedrin and the justices of the Supreme Court; to be bold and brave and willing to transform the law when it does not align with freedom.
As we begin this new Torah cycle, may we draw strength and courage from the rabbis to be willing to overturn and transform Torah when it misses the mark. And may we merit to live in a world where we can hold those in power to this standard.
Shabbat shalom u'mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Each morning of this week has been infused with the psalms of Mutual Aid Hallel (Thank you Rabbi Mó!). I have sat in my sukkah and sung along, swaying my body and the lulav in the brisk but inviting fall air. And each morning I have allowed myself to linger with a different phrase, to notice how many different ways there are to praise the mutilated world. The many hallelujahs of our tradition. In truth many of my most favorite words to pray appear in Hallel:
לֹ֤א לָ֥נוּ יְהוָ֗ה לֹ֫א לָ֥נוּ
This is not about us...but about something larger and ineffable...
וַאֲנַ֤חְנוּ ׀ נְבָ֘רֵ֤ךְ יָ֗הּ מֵֽעַתָּ֥ה וְעַד־עוֹלָ֗ם הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃
And we will continually bless the Source of our resilience...
הוֹד֣וּ לַיהוָ֣ה כִּי־ט֑וֹב כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
Grateful for the goodness that comes our way and the kindness in our lives...
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽהּ׃
From the narrow place we call out towards the expanse which awaits us...
אֶ֭בֶן מָאֲס֣וּ הַבּוֹנִ֑ים הָ֝יְתָ֗ה לְרֹ֣אשׁ פִּנָּֽה׃
The stone that the builders rejected is the foundation of our beginning...
זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ׃
This is the day, no matter what kind of day it is, let's choose to live it joyfully.
But today, beneath the waning quarter moon bright in the blue sky, on this seventh day of Sukkot, which is also known as Hoshanah Rabbah, the great crying out in which we circle seven times and beat our willow branches against the earth, another line landed.
אָנָּ֣א יְ֭הוָה הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א
Please mysterious, ineffable, breath of all beings, save us!
There is something raw and relieving about singing out a series of praises, expressing awe and gratitude for the mountains and the miracles, and then getting to just give into the desperate impulse to beg for help.
As my attention turns more fully from the Days of Awe to election season, I feel this impulse.
אָנָּ֣א יְ֭הוָה הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א
Deliver us from this time!
אָֽנָּ֥א יְ֝הוָ֗ה הַצְלִ֘יחָ֥ה נָּֽא׃
Allow us to be on the side of victory.
But then I feel a deeper desire - a longing to know that whatever happens in November, we will have what it takes to dream big and to take care of one another. To continue to cry out and praise the world, to root deep in prayer and community, and to hold fast to that which has sustained our ancestors for millennia.
If you too are feeling this demanding combination of celebration and desperation, come to Simchat Torah on Saturday night so we can conclude this holiday season together as a community. Over and over again we will call out to the many names of the Holy One,
Strengthen us, so that we know that we have what it takes!
Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Each year I am grateful for the direct instruction to begin building a sukkah as soon as Yom Kippur ends. How else would we manage to climb down from the lofty heights of endless song and prayer, if not for the obligation to climb up a new, actual ladder; to set hammer to nail and build an intentionally impermanent and permeable structure.
The days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot are tender and alive. I can feel that I have removed the calluses on my soul. My heart has been stretched open to meet the horizon. I am able to notice a profound contentment, a kind of grateful release, a resting into what is that is itself joyful. Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, describes this special Sukkot joy as "the joy of being stripped naked, the joy of being flush with life, the joy of having nothing between us and the world" (265).
He then recounts this amazing parable from the Talmud:
"It is the unusual way of human beings to feel secure and unafraid while under the shelter of their own roofs. On emerging from their homes, their sense of security is diminished and they begin to feel fear. [Jews], however, are different. While in their homes the whole year, they are apprehensive. But when Sukkot comes and they leave their homes and come under the shadow of the sukkah, their hearts are full of trust, faith, and joy, for now they are protected, not by the protection of their roofs, but by the shadow of their faith and trust in God.
"The matter may be compared to a person who locks themself up at home for fear of robbers. Regardless of how many locks they use and how strong these locks may be, they remain afraid lest the locks be broken. Once they hear the voice of the King approaching and calling, 'Emerge from your chamber and join me,' they are no longer afraid. They immediately open their doors and emerge joyously to join the King...trust and joy never depart from them" (267).
We are once again invited to take refuge in impermanence; to trust that in our comings and our goings, the Shekhina will accompany us. To know a joy that can contain our tears. To remember that security does not lie in locks and policing, but that through our shared vulnerability and care we keep each other safe.
We began this journey on Tisha b'Av, when we invite the wall to crumble as the first step in waking up to our lives. And we conclude it on Sukkot, as we rebuild, raw and revealed. The journey invites us to not only inhabit our sukkot, but to more fully inhabit our lives. In the words of Rabbi Lew, "any moment fully felt, any immersion in the depth of life, can be the source of deep joy" (267).
After so many months of being afraid, contracted in my own home and in my own soul, I am so full of awe and gratitude for having made it through the experience of the Yamim Noraim this year; for the courage of this community to feel it all fully and immerse so deeply. It was more transformative and more joyful than I ever could have imagined. And I know from my inbox, that we all needed it. And there is still more to come!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
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.