The second blessing of the Amidah is all about the powers of life and death, birth and rebirth, seasons, sustenance, and survival. Themes that are ever-present in our lives, perhaps even more pronounced in these times.
מִי כָמֽוֹךָ בַּֽעַל גְּבוּרוֹת וּמִי דּֽוֹמֶה לָּךְ
Who is like you master of many powers and who has your restraint,
מֶֽלֶךְ מֵמִית וּמְחַיֶּה וּמַצְמִֽיחַ יְשׁוּעָה:
Sovereign One who causes death and creates life and cultivates salvation.
In a recent interview on the podcast "Finding Our Way," Prentis Hemphill asks Lama Rod Owens, "How would you describe where we are right now?"
Lama Owens responds, "For me, this time feels like being in labor. Our culture, our lives, the world, the country, our communities, we are in labor, we are in the process of trying to give birth to something." Lama Owens does not romanticize labor or birth. They are states of hopeful potential, and also suffering and loss.
And this is not just where we are in our world, but in our Torah too. This week's parsha describes Rebecca's difficult pregnancy with twins and the eventual birth of Jacob and Esau. In a moment of both embodied and existential crisis, she calls out:
אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי
"If this is how it is, why do I exist?"
I can imagine we each have or will have our moments this pandemic of calling out in existential angst about the state of things. So much has been revealed and so much has been lost. But as the recitation of the Amidah reminds us daily, we are called to hold birth and death in one breath.
This Shabbat falls on Trans Day of Remembrance, a day in which we honor our dead, its own epidemic. This year alone we know of 37 trans and gender non-conforming people have been murdered, mostly Black and Latinx transwomen. And we are called to say their names, to remember them.
And then in an act of Divine power,
וְנֶאֱמָן אַתָּה לְהַחֲיוֹת מֵתִים:
We faithfully give life to the dead by claiming our resilience in the face of so much loss.
I invite you to join us tonight, as we weave life and death, celebrating Shabbat and the resilience of trans lives. We will be led by a small multitude of trans voices in our community. May we all have the strength to connect to everything within our power, to sustain ourselves in the face of so much being born and so much being lost.
Rabbi Ari Lev
These weeks have been a whirlwind of emotion. Rebecca Ganetzky describes it well in her teaching about the emotional contours of Torah trope. Last weekend the city of Philadelphia felt like the Simchat Torah celebration that never was. And following moments of much needed joy, the painful reality that we continue to live through a pandemic returned. As the number of daily cases of COVID continues to set new records, we long for ways to care for our community members who are sick and isolated.
More and more I find myself turning to prayer, carving out mere moments, maybe ten minutes, to punctuate the day with a single Amidah. First and foremost, I pray for refuah shleimah, for healing of body and mind for all those impacted by this pandemic. I take a moment to call to mind all those in my orbit in need of healing. But the truth is, these days, that does not feel like enough. There is a profoundly communal nature to our suffering.
A dvar Torah published way back in March begs the question:
How widespread does disease have to be in order to pass the threshold and trigger a communal response of prayer or fasting?
The Shulhan Arukh, a 16th century law code, writes:
"Just as we fast...in times of drought, we also fast for other disasters...and so for plague. What is considered a plague? If a city of 500 inhabitants has three deaths a day (from plague) for three consecutive days, this is defined as a plague" (Orah Hayyim, 576).
I am not sure how this would correspond to the CDC's definition and metrics relative to how many cases per 100,000 people in a given population. But I do know that it reveals a longstanding rabbinic sensitivity to a threshold in the definition of an epidemic. One, that in my own bones, I feel we have crossed.
While I am not yet prepared (nor authorized!) to call for a public fast day, I do want to posit that it might be time that we each personally, and even more so communally, begin to orient ourselves toward prayer as a response to this plague. The aforementioned dvar Torah actually shares such examples across time and place, from cholera to the coronavirus.
Some even reference the evocative words of Avinu Malkeinu:
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ כַּלֵּה דֶּֽבֶר וְחֶֽרֶב וְרָעָב וּשְׁ֒בִי וּמַשְׁחִית וְעָוֹן וּשְׁ֒מַד מִבְּ֒נֵי בְרִיתֶֽךָ
Avinu Malkeinu, remove pestilence, sword, famine, captivity, destruction, iniquity, and religious persecution from the members of Your covenant.
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ מְנַע מַגֵּפָה מִנַּחֲלָתֶֽךָ
Avinu Malkeinu, withhold the plague from Your inheritance.
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Chayei Sarah, following the trauma of the Akedah, of a father's near sacrifice of his son, Isaac goes out into the field to meditate.
Va'yetze Yitzchak lasu'ach ba'sadeh lifnot arev.
And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the turning of evening (Gen. 24:63).
About this moment, the Talmud exclaims: What is meditating in a field if not prayer (Berachot 26b). And from this we learn that we should pray in the evening.
Rebbe Nachman, z"l, digs deeper into these words and notices that the word lasu'ach - meaning to meditate, pray, or converse - is also the root of si'ach, a bush, a shrub, even a blade of grass. It refers to green and verdant growing things.
One of my mentors, Rabbi Victor Reinstein, translates Rebbe Nachman's teaching this way:
"Know, that when a person prays in a field, then all of the grasses come within the prayer, and aid the one praying, and give to the one praying strength in their prayer. In this way, prayer is called 'sicha' (in all of its layers of meaning, prayer, meditation, and shrub)" (Likutei Moharan Tinyana 11).
L'cha dodi, come beloveds. Let us go out to meditate in the field that is Shabbat. May we feel supported from within and around as we pray for the cessation of all disease, war, famine, exile, destruction, and this very real plague. And may we know that the natural world is praying alongside us, aiding and strengthening us in this time of isolation. On this November Shabbat, we need only look out our windows and take note of the colorful leaves to join in the conversation (lasu'ach ba'sadeh).
Rabbi Ari Lev
Many truths have emerged this week. Painfully high on the list is the reality that we live in a deeply divided country, as we watch the vote roll in county by county, city by countryside. The battle for the soul of this nation has revealed that there is no unifying understanding of freedom, democracy, or justice. Perhaps the unifying force this week is that we have all been waiting, anxiously, (im)patiently. And the whole world has been watching and waiting with us.
This week has been marked by a profound sense of anticipation followed by a need for real patience as we wait for every vote to be counted. I must admit, I have refreshed the news more times than ever before in my life. I have at moments felt like a dog chasing its tail. I have also felt a kind of unexpected hopefulness; knowing that our waiting would show that years of organizing, movement building, and voter enfranchisement would reveal a new horizon.
But waiting does not come naturally or comfortably. And most often we look for a way out. Over and over again this week I have turned to these words:
כִּי לִישׁוּעָתְ֒ךָ קִוִּֽינוּ כָּל הַיּוֹם:
For your help/salvation, I wait all day long!
The line comes from the 15th blessing of the weekday Amidah, in which we beseech God to bring about the sprouting of salvation. I have taken refuge in its imagery and the long view of time it offers. The blessing begins with grassroots language, literally expressing a desire for redemption to sprout up like a shoot from the earth. It is an image of what is possible linked to a deep longing for it to come true.
Much of Jewish liturgy is actually born of longing and waiting and hoping. In fact, the word in this prayer, kivinu, from the root קוי, means all of that - to hope, to long, to wait. Waiting, says this prayer, is fertile ground.
At its core the Amidah reaches for a vision for a world that is entirely whole and just. A vision bigger than any election or even any lifetime. It connects us to the long view of history which points us toward the world to come. We name our hope for it every time we pray. And we cultivate a taste of it every shabbat.
The poet David Whyte writes,
"Longing has its own secret, future destination, and its own seasonal emergence from within, a ripening from the core, a seed growing in our own bodies; it is as if we are put into relationship with an enormous distance inside us leading us back to some unknown origin with its own secret timing indifferent to our wills, and gifted at the same time with an intimate sense of proximity, to a lover, to a future, to a transformation, to a life we want for ourselves, and to the beauty of the sky and the ground that surrounds us" (Condolences, 137).
We arrive at this Shabbat with a more intimate sense of proximity to the life we want for ourselves; the adrenaline of waiting pulsing through our blood and a long-awaited hopefulness in our hearts. I invite you to take a deeper breath. To allow the exhale to slowly bring you to a halt. And to never stop hoping for what's possible and necessary.
I gift you this song, recorded by my beloved colleague Rabbi David Fainsilber. May it guide your heart to keep waiting and longing and dreaming of a world that is whole as our ancestors have done for millennia.
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.