Earlier this week, there was a debate on a rabbinic listserv. Should one recite Hallel (special joyful psalms) in honor of the new moon when the new moon falls on Thanksgiving, as it did this year? The concern behind this question is that it could appear as though we are reciting Hallel in honor of Thanksgiving itself. And while there is joy to be found in the rituals of family, food, and gratitude, the violent context that this federal holiday conceals is not worthy of celebration. So much so, that each year in Plymouth, MA Indigenous communities gather for a National Day of Mourning.
While not every year Rosh Hodesh falls on Thanksgiving, the tensions are nonetheless present. Last night before my family ate, a series of spontaneous toasts ensued. My brother got choked up, so grateful to be able to host 40+ members across four generations of my family. Then I nervously shared the names of the Indigenous people of Westchester County, including the Lenape tribes that also claim the territory of Philadelphia. And then my father spoke, sharing that his mother's family immigrated to the United States 79 years ago on Thanksgiving Day. Those two minutes worth of emotions and history were in and of themselves a lot to hold.
This week we read parshat Toldot, which chronicles the life of Isaac.
וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק
"And these are the generations of Isaac" (Genesis 25:19).
For me, family gatherings have a way of echoing the dynamics also present in our mythic stories. Stories of sibling rivalry, inheritance disputes, and family favoritism. Family is complicated, says the Torah. That is not new.
Last night, amidst the loud banter of a house full of New York Jews, I looked around and thought to myself, "These are the generations..." I found myself asking, what stories do I want to teach my children about how and why my family came to live on Turtle Island? What are we transmitting from generation to generation about the Thanksgiving? In what new ways can we learn to relate to the land we live on?
My favorite image from this week's parsha is that of Isaac digging wells on his new land. For which we learn that he re-dug the wells of his father Abraham. And he also dug his own new wells.
This year at Thanksgiving dinner, I felt a lot like Isaac, digger for a deeper truth; at once trying to connect to members of my family I rarely see and also trying to invoke the wisdom of Indigenous leaders who understand more fully how to live in sacred relationship to the earth.
Most of the rabbis agreed on Facebook, we should in fact recite Hallel. We live on Jewish time. And while we live in relationship to American holidays, we need not concede our sacred rhythms.
As we enter Shabbat and embrace the new moon of Kislev, I'm sitting with these words from Ohlone leader and activist Corrina Gould: "...Come onto this land in a humble way; this land is alive, there were people before you and there will be people after you. What does it mean for us, humans, to be the bridge between the past and present?"
L'dor v'dor, from generation to generation, may we have the courage to both pass on family traditions and instigate new ones. And may the stories we tell connect us more fully to each other, to the Earth, and to a deeper truth.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past Wednesday marked Trans Day of Remembrance/Resilience. That night I was teaching the Judaism for Everyone class and many of us dedicated our learning to the memory of trans people who have been killed or who have taken their own lives. We said a prayer that ends with "Blessed are they, who have allowed their divine image to shine in the world. Blessed is God, in Whom no light is extinguished." And then we closed class with the Mourner's Kaddish.
Of the many gifts that being trans has given me, developing a dynamic relationship with grief and loss is top of the list. When I first began to come out to myself as trans, grief - or, more specifically, my fear of loss - was my greatest internal obstacle. I had this idea that a liberated life did not include loss; that in fact, the "right decisions" by nature avoided loss, on all counts. Oh, you can imagine, it was a tearful realization to understand in the core of my being that there is loss in everything. There is no choice that does not involve loss. This truth is at once devastating and freeing. And has required me to make space in myself to grieve; to wrestle with and feel fully the loss.
Frances Weller writes, "We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled...There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive" (The Wild Edge of Sorrow, 1).
In recent years people have reframed and renamed Trans Day of Remembrance, calling it Trans Day of Resilience. This lifts up precisely this sacred exchange between grief and aliveness. We are called to honor our losses and live fully in their light.
This week's parsha, Hayei Sarah/The Life of Sarah, is itself an extended journey into our ancestral grief. It begins by honoring the life of Sarah. Dayenu, that would be enough. To wrestle with what it means to honor a life. But Rashi presses deeper, and claims that her death is a result of the grief she feels when she learns that Abraham nearly sacrificed her only son Isaac. She died of grief, claims a least three midrashim. And then Abraham grieves for Sarah.
In the words of Oscar Wilde, "Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground."
In the words of trans poet SA Smythe,
"To be righteously unashamed of this grief until the otherwise comes
Until that time when we may name ourselves whole, if not holy”
The less I fear loss, the more I am able to choose life.
Tomorrow morning we will be exploring our relationship to grief in the parsha and our own lives, deepening our capacity to embrace grief with grace and resilience.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Who among us has not wanted to yell at the heavens for the injustice in our world?
Who among us has not questioned their faith in the Divine who created the heavens and the earth, and along with it so much suffering?
This week's parsha, Vayera, captures Abraham shaking some proverbial sense into G?D. In short, G?D sees the transgressions of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and threatens to destroy the entire city. And Abraham engages in holy protest, a moment so important that the rabbis use it as a model for prayer, of crying out to the Holy One. He argues: "Are you really willing to sweep about the innocent with the guilty? Will you not save the city if I can find 50 righteous people? Will you not save it for 40 righteous people? 30? 20? 10?" At which point Abraham explodes in holy outrage:
חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט
"Shame on you! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly!?" (Gen. 18:25).
The midrashic imagination transforms Abraham's cry into a profound ultimatum: "The judge of the whole earth shall not do justice. As if to say, God, if it is a world You want, then strict justice is impossible. And if it is strict justice You want, then a world is impossible" (Bereishit Rabbah 49:9).
About which Avivah Zornberg clarifies, "Absolute standards of justice cannot be realized in this world as God has created it. To adhere to such standards is to destroy the world; in order to build the world, hesed, the generous perception of alternative possibilities, is necessary" (Desire, 110).
In my own heart, I feel so much compassion for both renditions of Abraham's plea. On the one hand, I want to believe in a forgiving God who would do anything to save the lives of the people of Sodom. And I am willing to beg God to remember that we are all made in the image of the Divine. And on the other hand, I am ever frustrated with the limitations of human beings and the injustice we perpetuate. I, like Abraham, wonder if we are compatible with a world that is just and whole. Underneath both readings is a desire to live in a world full of love and justice. And the question trembles, is it possible? And how do we get there?
Rabbi Ari Lev
I am a lover of names. Names are portals into connection, to people and places, across time and space. Names tell stories about who we are, who we've been, and who we might become. One of my favorite parts of being a rabbi at Kol Tzedek is helping people choose the right name, for themselves and their babies. As someone who has changed my name more than once, I can relate to the power of our names to call our truest selves into existence. For a long time I have understood the names I no longer go by as "dead names." But that has felt like a microaggression against my younger selves. I recently learned that we can instead say they are our "caterpillar names" - the names that invoke our molted lives.
In Jewish tradition, taking on a new name is an act of teshuva (B.T. Rosh Hashanah 16b). It has the power to call us home. It is at once an evolution and an act of return in the spiral of time. In this week's parsha, Lech Lecha, our mythic ancestors experience the power of being renamed as Abram sheds his caterpillar name and becomes Abraham and Sarai, Sarah.
God says to Abraham:
אֲנִי הִנֵּה בְרִיתִי אִתָּךְ וְהָיִיתָ לְאַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם: וְלֹא־יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת־שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָם וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם כִּי אַב־הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ:
Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
In fact, says Torah, names have the power to call us into sacred relationship, into covenant itself. [It is worth noting that according to the rabbis, we are to refer to Sarah and Abraham by their new names even when referring to events that precede these names (B.T. Brachot 13a).]
And it is not just us humans that are known by many names. Early on in God's relationship with Abraham, God introduces Godself saying, "I am El Shaddai," and later, when Moses asks God how he should refer to God when convincing the people of his holy mission, God says, "ehyeh asher ehyeh, I will be what I will be." Rabbi Avi Strausberg writes, "When asked for God's name, it's as if God refuses to be defined by any one name. Instead, God insists on the ability to continue to reinvent Godself, to be a God called by many names with many identities that cannot be defined by just one. I will be what I will be. I will keep defining and redefining myself. I cannot be limited by one name."
As we each hear the call of Lech Lecha and go forth in our own lives, extending beyond our comfort zones, in search of our purpose and our path, may we each have the courage to be who we will be. To allow ourselves to contain multitudes. And to honor the names others ask to be called by. In this way, may we merit to see others as they really are and be seen for who we really are.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week I was doing my least favorite chore - washing used plastic bags and hanging them to dry. I called a friend in California to keep me company. She was hiding out in her kitchen, venting about her inability to go outside because the air is not fit for breathing. We shared an uncomfortable laugh about living through the end times. The earth is burning, the earth is flooding, people are suffering - and here I am washing plastic bags.
Later in the week, I went for a walk in the woods with one of my mentors who was recounting an article in the New York Times, which suggests that by 2050 the land that 150 million people live on will be underwater during high tide. We similarly shared an uncomfortable sigh about living through Noah's flood. I asked her (kidding, not kidding): Might we really not have great-grandchildren?
What we know is that estimates continue to worsen. Even if we were to cut carbon emissions in half, we might be in irreversible trouble. And instead emissions are just increasing. It is at once hard to believe and also hard not to believe, as I am talking to a dear friend who for the second time this year doesn't have safe air to breathe.
In a D'var Torah she published this week, my hevruta, Rabbi Avi Killip, points us to wisdom from this week's parsha. "In Genesis chapter 7, verse 7, we are told that Noah and his family enter the ark 'מפני מי המבול - because of the flood waters.' Rashi lingers on the word 'because.' Noah shouldn't be boarding the ark because of the falling rain pooling at his ankles, maybe even his knees. He should have entered the ark 'because God said so.' If Noah had really believed, if he were a man of greater faith, Rashi implies, he would already be inside the ark when the rain begins."
And so Rashi tells us:
מפני מי המבול אַף נֹחַ מִקְּטַנֵּי אֲמָנָה הָיָה, מַאֲמִין וְאֵינוֹ מַאֲמִין שֶׁיָבֹא הַמַבּוּל, וְלֹא נִכְנַס לַתֵּיבָה עַד שְׁדְּחָקוּהוּ הַמָּיִם
Because of the flood waters Noah, also, was of little faith: he believed and did not believe that the Flood would come, and he would not enter the Ark until the waters forced him to.
Increasingly I feel a lot like Noah. I believe it and I don't believe it. I can't believe it. It is unbelievable. And yet how could I not believe it. Could it be that Noah is a man of little faith because he is hopeful? Perhaps Rashi is wrong. Perhaps Noah had so much faith in God that he too couldn't believe it was the end times. And we, too, have so much faith in our planet, in its resilience, that we can't believe it either.
Rabbi Killip concludes, "We must each find the balance between hope and fear, between belief and disbelief, that will allow us the strength and courage to move forward." May we be granted the courage and wisdom to know when to believe and and when not to believe, so that we, and our children's children, may live. May it be so!
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.