More than once this week, a member of our community remarked to me, "Kol Tzedek folks do so many mitzvahs." This week alone I am aware that members have been making food for each other, visiting each other in the hospital, picking up latkes for the Hanukkah party, cataloguing the library, giving each other rides to an event, hosting each other for meals, and the list goes on.
But what really is a mitzvah?
Growing up I was taught it was a good deed and sometimes a commandment. Which have really different connotations that Jewish theology manages to make one. Twice we invoke the root of mitzvah in our standard blessing formula, which begins:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם. אֲשֶר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וִצִוָּנוּ
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu
Blessed are You, Source of Life, Sovereign of the universe, Who makes us holy through mitzvot and v'tzivanu...
Perhaps the best way I know how to translate "v'tzivanu" is by imagining The Holy One as a loving teacher. This is a pedagogical word, which I translate as instructed us...
Which is to say that a mitzvah is a (Divine) instruction. And in that way it is both a good deed - something good to do - and a commandment - something we might want to consider ourselves obligated to fulfill.
Some of you may be familiar with the idea that there are 613 mitzvot. And you may be wondering, "Where is that master list? Is there a Google doc with the Jewish mitzvah checklist?" Not really. According to the Talmud, the negative commandments (don't do this!) number 365, which coincides with the number of days in the solar year, and the positive commandments (do this!) number 248, a number ascribed to the number of bones and organs in the human body (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b–24a). But needless to say, it is an aspirational concept more than a rule book.
My rabbi and teacher Benay Lappe puts it this way. We are not meant to fulfill 613 mitzvot a day, by ourselves. Don't think of this as a forever unfilled list of deeds undone, resting in a guilty pile with the house projects I never get to. Rather, she insists that there are 613 mitzvot that we are instructed to fulfill, collectively.
There are so many different ways to access holiness and embody Jewish practice. Some of us are going to pray three times a day and some of us are going to visit someone in the hospital, and some of us are going to study Talmud and some of us are going to greet folks at services. Some of us are going to bake challah and others are going to light Shabbat candles. And together, all of us, are going to fulfill the mitzvot of our Creator.
And together we already do.
Thank you to everyone who makes this community holy through their mitzvot. I am in awe of your generosity, kindness, and caring. Bearing witness to your mitzvahs is the most profound aspect of serving as your rabbi.
Shabbat Shalom and almost Happy Hanukkah (which starts on Sunday Night)!
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week's Torah portion begins, "Va-yetzei Ya'akov," which is typically translated as "Jacob left" or "Jacob departed" (Gen. 28:10). But the root of the Hebrew verb y-tz-a is significant; it is the same as in the "Motzi" blessing for bread ("brings forth") and "Yetzi'at mitzrayim," the Exodus from Egypt. According to Rabbi Yoel Kahn, the true meaning of this phrase: "Va-yetzei Ya'akov" is "And Jacob came out."
For both contemporary and classical commentators alike, it is not a stretch to read Jacob as a queer character. Like the trickster in folklore, Jacob is the marginal figure who lives on wits and subterfuge to control his stronger brother. Defying masculine stereotypes, known for his soft skin and domesticated ways, we read last week of Jacob's attempt to pass as his older brother Esau in order to secure his father's blessing.
When he realizes that his father knows the truth, Jacob runs from his home...Va-yetzei Ya'akov...And Jacob comes out. For queer and trans people, coming out is both a formative moment and an iterative process of identity development. But it is not exclusively for queer and trans people. The Torah is full of ancestral coming out moments. God says to Abram, Lech Lech - Go to yourself, Come out to yourself. Leave your comfort zone and your family's expectations and your preconceived notions of what a life might look like, and go become yourself.
In his book Halakhic Man, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, "Judaism declares that a person stands at the crossroads and wonders about the path they shall take. Before them there is an awesome alternative - the image of God...herein is embodied the entire task of creation and the obligation to participate in the renewal of the cosmos...The most fundamental principle of all," Soleveitchik writes, "is that a person must create themself. It is this idea that Judaism introduced into the world."
Va-yetzei Ya'akov - And Jacob came out.
Next week we will read of Jacob's wrestling with an angel in which he is blessed and renamed Yisra'el. Yet another moment of coming out and self-formation from which we all descend.
Rabbi Yoel Kahn concludes, "The story of Jacob lends itself to being read as a classic coming-out narrative, but even if were were to retell it stripped of its campy details, the story remains appealing because of its truth and resonance with so much of human experience: the yearning to uncover and realize the authentic self...and the lifelong tasks of acceptance, integration, and connection." (Torah Queeries, p. 45).
As we enter the shabbat that precedes Trans Day of Remembrance/Resilience, I am a grateful to be part of a religious community in which so many of us feel safe and seen and able to come out. I do not take that for granted. And more so, to be part of a community in which so many of us have left some aspect of our ancestral homes, constantly coming out and into ourselves, in search of acceptance, integration, and connection.
Wherever we are on our journeys, may we each of us have a Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Today is Rosh Hodesh Kislev, the first day of the month of Kislev. Kislev, according to the mystical text Sefer Yetzirah, is the month of dreams, when the sun sleeps, when roots sleep deep in the earth. And when we are called to sleep and dream more than usual. The rabbis of the Talmud say that a dream is one sixtieth of prophecy and that an uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter.
The Talmud even provides a ceremony to interpret one's dreams and turn a bad dream into a good one. The dreamer convenes a beit din, "a court of three," and this improvised court declares that the dream is a good dream, thus nullifying any of its ill effects. You can even find such a practice in an orthodox prayerbook. And I have myself participated in such a court.
As we move away from the intensity of this election season and the nightmare of Pittsburgh, we can draw wisdom from this ancient practice. It is time to nullify its ill effects. As we gather this Shabbat, imagine we are ourselves convening this improvised court to reinterpret what this moment can mean for all of us. It is time to turn inward toward the quiet darkness of winter, to let our bones rest, to dream up the world as we want it.
Let this new month inspire a season of dreaming, of turning from what is, to what is possible. I offer you this song, offered to me by Sam Shain, as a gift to get you ready for Shabbat. I am honored to be known by the company that we keep at Kol Tzedek.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week we read in the Torah about the death and burial of our ancestor Sarah in the cave of Machpelah; the same place where Abraham is also later buried. As a shared ancestor with fellow Muslims, this grave is a holy site for both Jews and Muslims. In recent decades, the site has been one of unspeakable violence. Which begs the question, how do we honor our dead?
Earlier this week, I shared some of the Jewish responses we say to each other in time of grief. There is one final greeting that gets spoken about the dead - זיכרונם לברכה / zikhronam livrakha, may their memories be a blessing. This is the highest calling of Jewish tradition, to lift up the memories of our loved ones as sources of blessing, as vessels of love, as legacies of purpose.
This morning a group of us gathered for shiva in the streets. As we read the name of each person who had been killed in Pittsburgh and Kentucky, we shared a short snippet of their life. They were people who volunteered in dental clinics and cared for people living with HIV/AIDS. They were people who arrived early at synagogue to greet people at the door. They were siblings, spouses, and grandparents, they were pillars of their communities.
I have had moments this week of incapacitating grief. I have had moments of fortified courage. And most profoundly, I have felt so inspired by the response of Pittsburgh Jewish leaders.
Dove Kent writes:
"Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh had the resolve to write a letter to Trump that set fire, changed the national conversation, and unmasked Trump for the white nationalist that he is. For this public bravery and resolve, we all know there are risks. There is every reason in the world for them to go silent and retreat. And yet they were completely committed to planning an action, a ritual to heal their community's grief and to use whatever energy they had left and the critical moment they knew they were in -- to strike a blow against the violent white nationalist movement that killed 11 of their beloved neighbors and friends...
With shaking hands and hearts of purpose, they did what was needed. They led 5,000 people in a beautiful rebuke of Trump. They had the Mayor and a slew of elected officials joining them to say Trump is not welcome in Pittsburgh. They caused Trump to change his plan and end his visit early, with no public statements whatsoever -- in effect kicking him out of town. They changed the story. They have made things possible that seemed impossible."
What did the Jewish community in Pittsburgh do with their grief?
They came together in community, in prayer, in song, in resistance to white nationalism, to shape history.
What will we do with ours?
Grief, sadness, and fear are potent, visceral energies in our body.
How can we direct them towards justice? How can we channel the intensity of this moment to make their memories a blessing?
I encourage you all to come sing, mourn, and draw strength from our community. And then to spend whatever time and energy you have getting out the vote!
May this truly be a shabbat shalom,
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.