on dry ground
Every year I get to visit the Kol Tzedek kindergarten class at Torah School to study the story of creation. I have developed a love of one method of telling the story using the tools of Godly Play, in which each day is depicted on a 4x6 wood card. And as I tell them about what was created on that day, I set the card out. Once all of the cards are lined up, we are invited to wonder about the days of creation. I always begin, "I wonder which day is most important?"
It is amazing to hear their answers. Their little bodies jumping off their shevet spots, eager to share which day they think is most important. Since this lesson is part of a unit about Shabbat, it might be easy to imagine that the hidden punchline is always that Shabbat is the most important. But that would be too prescriptive an approach. And speaking from personal experience, it wouldn't be honest. I find that my own answer changes year to year.
This year, I am personally captivated by the third day of creation, when the waters below the sky are gathered together revealing the yabasha - dry ground (Gen 1:9). This moment always invites me to reset my imagination, reminding me that all of existence was once water. That dry ground was not a given.
My love of the third day is not contained to the third day. It is because the creation of dry ground on the third day makes so many other biblical triumphs possible. Throughout the Torah, the presence of yabasha, dry ground, is a sign of real hope.
Most recently, we read the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, in which the wayward prophet finds himself praying to God in the belly of a whale who then spits him out onto dry ground (2:11).
Perhaps most famously dry land appears in the midst of the sea as the Israelites fled from Pharaoh's army. The phrase b'toch hayam b'yabasha - in the midst of the sea on dry land actually appears three times in the Exodus story (14:22, 14:29, 15:19).
Dry ground also makes an appearance in this week's Torah portion. In the story of Noah the Holy One brings on flooding rains so that water once again covers the surface of the earth. But when the floodgates of the deep and the fountains of the sky were stopped up (8:2), the waters began to recede from the earth. Noah sends out a dove three times, until the dove doesn't return, confirming that the earth was dry again - יבשה הארץ - yavsha ha'aretz (8:14). And only then, does the Holy One instruct Noah to leave the ark.
The dry ground of the third day is a spiritual seed for so many other moments in Torah when dry ground will be needed. And it is also an invitation for all of us to remember, in the midst of our own overwhelm, that dry ground is possible. Sometimes it requires measured patience, as in the story of Noah. Other times we are forcibly hurled onto it, as in the story of Jonah. And yet other times, it miraculously appears in the moment we need it most, as it did for our ancestors in the Exodus story.
Each of these Torah stories invites us to trust that we will find our way to dry ground so that we can live a life of purpose and possibility. This is a key part of our spiritual journey. I would be remiss if I didn't also mention this is a key part of winning the World Series. To quote one sports columnist, "A key part of becoming a championship team is believing it and feeling it," Schmidt said. This week, the Torah boldly invites us to believe.
Shabbat Shalom and Go Phillies!
Rabbi Ari Lev
the generative kernel
For the past few months my family has had a new awesome housemate who happens to not be Jewish. This was her first time experiencing the epic journey that is the the Days of Awe. There was truly no way to prepare her for the marathon of holidays.
This past Tuesday morning, as we were making breakfast in the kitchen, I told her the holidays were officially over (despite the Sukkah still being up). She looked at me with concern and asked, "Does that mean we don't get to celebrate Shabbat?"
"Oh no!" I assured her. "We get to celebrate Shabbat every week. In fact, in the upcoming month of Cheshvan, Shabbat will be the only holiday."
Living with her has helped me appreciate that for a person who is not Jewish the idea of having a holiday every week is rather absurd. And also quickly becomes essential.
To quote one of my teachers, Rabbi Nehemia Polen, "Shabbos is the generative kernel at the center of the Jewish spiritual universe."
And at the center of this week's Torah portion.
This is the week when everything is possible. The week we begin the Torah again, from the beginning, with parashat Bereishit. The week that includes both the six days of creation and the instruction to cease from creation on the seventh day.
Rabbi Polen's new book is entitled Stop Look Listen: Celebrating Shabbos Through a Spiritual Lens. In it he explains that Shabbat is an uninterrupted, immersive, full-day spiritual practice that leads us to full presence.
Shabbos enables us to feel hibbat hakodesh – the sweet, precious embrace of the sacred. A textured landscape of indescribable beauty, Shabbos is the greatest, most noble gift we can give to the world, to our communities, to ourselves, and to God" (xxxvii).
As we begin this new year acharei hahagim, on the other side of the holidays, we find ourselves rediscovering the holiday that has been there all along. We enter Shabbat Bereishit where we receive Shabbat as our spiritual inheritance. This Shabbat plants the seed for the year ahead. To quote, Rabbi Adina Allen, it is the kernel of the yet-to-come.
May our exploration and practice of Shabbat in 5783 lead us each into a textured landscape of indescribable beauty and may we feel (even in moments) the precious embrace of the sacred.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
It is not enough to just build the sukkah
Many people have asked me, "What does a rabbi do after Yom Kippur?"
Believe it or not, my favorite thing to do is build my sukkah. I am so eager to do it that I have a standing date with a friend who comes over at 10pm after break-fast to help me carry the wooden panels from our garage to our deck. And that is usually enough to drain the remaining adrenaline from my system so I can sleep, eat, and hydrate, then repeat.
Our sukkah construction relies heavily on the magic of plastic zip ties. They are not the prettiest but are somehow able to withstand city winds (which has not always been the case when I have used screws and nails).
While the technical requirements for sukkah construction include at least two-and-a-half walls and enough schach so there is more shade than sun, I personally think a sukkah is not complete without a few decorative paper chains. I have such a strong cellular memory of stapling and stringing up these colorful crafts year after year. We have in recent years learned to make them from more durable materials like glittery pipe cleaners and fluorescent duct tape so they too can endure the rain and wind.
Decorating your sukkah may seem a bit extra, given the tight turn around between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. A mere few days beneath a waxing moon. But in fact, making your sukkah festive and beautiful is actually perhaps just as important as building it to begin with (don't be misled by my use of zip ties).
I was inspired this year when Rabbi Mó and Rabbi Michelle took it upon themselves to form a little ad hoc KT committee to make sure the KT sukkah was better decorated. Their intuition is supported by Talmudic wisdom. We learn in masechet Shabbat (133b),
עֲשֵׂה לְפָנָיו סוּכָּה נָאָה, וְלוּלָב נָאֶה...
Make a beautiful sukkah and a beautiful lulav. A sukkah na'eh and a lulav na'eh.
It is not enough to just build the sukkah. But also, we are instructed to make it pretty so that we really want to dwell inside of it.
Sometimes I overlook the power of aesthetics and the importance of beautiful things. But not during Sukkot. Not when one of the core ritual objects is known by its biblical name Pri Eitz Hadar, the fruit of a beautiful tree. It may in fact not even have a scientific counterpart.
One of the explicit functions of mitzvot in general and ritual objects specifically is to remind us how important it is to take care to make things beautiful in this world. In the hurry to build a sukkah or buy a lulav we might lose track of why we are doing these mitzvot, or any mitzvot, to begin with. So the Talmud reminds us:
הִתְנָאֵה לְפָנָיו בְּמִצְוֹת:
Mitzvot are an opportunity to make ourselves (and our world) more beautiful.
עֲשֵׂה לְפָנָיו סוּכָּה נָאָה, וְלוּלָב נָאֶה, וְשׁוֹפָר נָאֶה,
צִיצִית נָאָה, סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה נָאֶה, וְכָתוּב בּוֹ לִשְׁמוֹ בִּדְיוֹ נָאֶה,
בְּקוּלְמוֹס נָאֶה, בְּלַבְלָר אוּמָּן, וְכוֹרְכוֹ בְּשִׁירָאִין נָאִין.
Make your sukkah beautiful, and your lulav beautiful and a beautiful shofar;
Make the fringes of your Tallit beautiful.
The parchment for the Torah should be beautiful and so should the ink you use to write it, even the quill and the silk you use to wrap the sefer Torah.
This is the practice of hiddur mitzvah. Of taking care to make do mitzvot in ways that elevate our sensory experience of the world. Rather than a burden, these practices are meant to bring beauty into our lives. Both for the sake of honoring the Holy One, and also for the sake of honoring ourselves with dignity and beauty.
הִתְנָאֵה לְפָנָיו בְּמִצְוֹת:
May you delight in the details of the natural world that are inherently beautiful. And invite your own practice of mitzvot to make yourself and your life more beautiful.
Moadim L'Simcha and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev