On Rosh Hashanah, I shared some stories about my beloved Nonna, Alice Notrica Fornari. She was my father's mother after whom I was named. I shared how she was born on the island of Rhodes and grew up speaking Ladino. What I didn't share was that she left Rhodes in 1940 at the age of 24 in anticipation of a Nazi invasion.
She first went to Antwerp and stayed as long as she could until it was clear that they were no longer safe in Belgium. Her uncle's wife had a brother who had married a German woman named Hilda. Hilda escorted them all by train through Germany in the summer of 1940, flirting and playing cards with the Nazi soldiers on the train, using their Italian passports. Because of Hilda no one suspected they were Jewish. They told stories about giving out cartons of cigarettes and silk stockings to the soldiers at every stop. It was a very tense crossing, playing cards and telling jokes and acting like they weren't scared. Until they arrived in Bologna Italy. Italy had not yet joined the war. Mazliah proceeded with his family to Rome where they took a boat to Barcelona, and from Barcelona a train to Lisbon and in Lisbon they waited for departure. On October 8, 1940 they left Lisbon and what should have taken five days, took 20 days to get to Cuba because of all the mines in the sea placed by the Germans. When they arrived in Cuba they waited for approval to come to the United States. They arrived in New York City on Thanksgiving day 1940.
I think of her every year at this time. And even more so this year, as I just started reading a new book called Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World. Stella is my Nonna's second cousin. They grew up together in Rhodes. The other night my father called and told me that reading this book is like talking to his mother. Stella captures the world of superstition and close-knit family that my father grew up with. A world where when you fall down and scrape your knee, you mix three teaspoons of sugar into a glass of water and then drink three sips.
This is a world I am longing to know full of traditions I am hoping to recover and reconnect with.
This longing is as ancient as it is personal. We read in this week's Torah portion, Toldot,
וְכׇל־הַבְּאֵרֹ֗ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ עַבְדֵ֣י אָבִ֔יו בִּימֵ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֑יו סִתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים וַיְמַלְא֖וּם עָפָֽר׃
And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which [Isaac's] father's servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth... (Genesis 26:15).
So much is loss from generation to generation, especially at the hands of oppressive governments.
And the parshah continues,
וַיָּ֨שׇׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו
Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham (Genesis 26:18).
So much of our own spiritual journeys are about digging anew the wells of our ancestors. Recovering what has been lost. Remembering their superstitions. Studying their languages. Receiving their wisdom. Recreating their recipes.
May we be like elephants on this journey, paying attention to the scent of water deep in the earth; patient and persistent; caring for loved ones, honoring their memories and digging anew the living waters.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week's Torah portion begins,
וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃
"Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah's life—came to one hundred years and twenty years and seven years" (Genesis 23:1).
I have spent the past two week as a juror on a criminal trial where a person was charged with five charges, including murder. (If I haven't responded to your email, this is why!) We were tasked with coming to a unanimous decision about each charge. And as a result, we spent many hours reading through each charge and reviewing the evidence. Throughout the many hours that I spent in deliberations, I kept hearing the echo of this week's parsha.
This is the life of the defendant – each charge charting the years he might spend in prison.
It was devastating to be up so close to so much pain and injustice. It was exhausting to try to come to a unanimous decision with a room full of strangers. And it was incredibly powerful and empowering to know that my vote was essential to the process. It was a profoundly impactful experience that I imagine I will process and preach about more than once.
Torah commentators for thousands of years have been puzzled about the opening line of this week's parsha, Chayei Sarah. Why doesn't it just say, Sarah was 127 years old? Why divide up the years of her life into seemingly random segments? Even my kids, who have been known to be overly exacting when sharing their ages, will say something like, I am 6-and-11/12ths. But never, I am three years and three years old.
There is no one answer. Perhaps these are the notable years in Sarah's life. Starting with the fact that she becomes pregnant at the age of 100. (Undeniably noteworthy!)
As I thought about the defendant on trial, a Black man from North Philly being prosecuted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I wondered about the notable years of his life. I wondered how old he was when he first laughed? I wondered how old he was when he was first stopped and frisked? How old was he when he first fell in love? How old was he when he was first arrested? I wondered how many years he has already served? I wondered if he is a parent? I wondered at what age the police stopped assuming that he was no longer innocent until proven guilty?
As many of you know, I am an abolitionist. What this means to me is that I do not believe that police are the answer to community safety. And I do not believe that prisons are means of establishing justice. I welcome your disagreements, debate, and objections to these ideas.
I was distressed but not surprised by my experience of jury duty. (Well, maybe I was surprised by the fact that you don't get a lunch break during deliberations.) But more so I have been surprised by how many members of the KT community have shared with me that they never serve on a jury because they don't pass the initial juror survey.
In my case, the survey asked two questions that essentially wanted to know if I would be inherently biased for or against the testimony of a police officer. Don't get me wrong - I paused. But then I understood that I do believe I am able to listen carefully and assess fully the testimony of any person, including a police officer. Which is not to say I don't hold critiques of our criminal justice system. But I can be critical and still be impartial. As impartial as those who are loyal to the system are able to be. I truly believe this question is designed to intimidate and eliminate potential jurors who might be critical of the police. And sadly, I think it is effective.
Here are some important resources to read and review in advance of any summons for jury duty.
What I feel most strongly from this experience is that I hope you will each do what you can to find yourself on a jury. Our cities need people like each of you, people with integrity and compassion, to be determining the years of someone's life.
May the prayers of our hearts and the words of every Amidah be heard in the highest court:
...מְכַלְכֵּל חַיִּים בְּחֶֽסֶד מְחַיֵּה מֵתִים בְּרַחֲמִים רַבִּים סוֹמֵךְ נוֹפְ֒לִים וְרוֹפֵא חוֹלִים וּמַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים
May the One who sustains the living with compassion, animating all life, supporting those who are falling and healing those who are sick, free all who are imprisoned...speedily and in our days!
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past week I joined the first-graders at the Kol Tzedek Torah School and then stayed for tefilah (prayer) time. I listened as the students took turns translating the words of the Shema. When they got to the word "Adonai," one student eagerly piped up, "God doesn't have a name!" And then another kid clarified, "God has many names!" There was a lot of resonance in the room and affirming ASL "me too" hand gestures that these kids clearly learn to use in school. I joined in myself.
God is not a Jewish name for the Divine. It is an anglicized Germanic placeholder for that which is ineffable and ultimately beyond us, but somehow also inseparable from us. I have so many favorite names for God. It changes like the weather to help me meet the moment.
This week, I have been meditating on one particular name, Yodea Ta'alumot - the Knower of Secrets. I can imagine that for some people, this phrase might evoke an uncomfortable sense of spiritual surveillance, especially in a world that is increasingly digitized and documented.
But for me, this emanation of the Divine calls me to account in a way that feels supportive, inviting me to bring care and attention to my actions and my thoughts. And that there is a witness to my inner experience. I am not alone with my mind.
It is not uncommon that above the Ark in the sanctuary of a synagogue, one might find the phrase, "Da lifnei mi atah omed," which translates to "Know before whom you stand." I think the rabbis imagine this as a way to set intention for the Amidah - the "standing" prayer. Though it always lands larger for me personally. Know before whom you stand, not just in prayer, but in life (and maybe even in death too).
While I think the short phrase can be intimidating, I have always experienced it as an invitation to live a life of integrity; to be reminded that the One before whom I stand Knows all secrets. It echoes another name for the DIvine, the Blessed Judge of Truth. For me, these emanations of the Divine invite me into a relationship of spiritual accountability.
What works about this relationship of spiritual accountability is that it is mutual.
There is a striking moment in this week's Torah portion, Vayera. The Holy Blessed One is disappointed in the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. So much so, that They plan to destroy the entirety of the two cities. This comes on the heels of having said to Abraham, "Lech lecha" - go, leave everything you know and love, and I will bless you.
The Holy One remembers this promise and wonders aloud (Genesis 18:17),
(יז) וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃
"Can I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?"
What does the Holy One mean by this question?
Can I hide? - as in, Is it possible? Or is it ethical? Is the Holy One really worried about what Abraham might think? Might Abraham judge the Holy One for causing destruction, for acting without compassion and integrity?
And after wondering aloud, the Holy One seems to arrive at the immediate conclusion that They can't hide from Abraham and immediately proceeds to explain to Abraham the intention to destroy the two cities.
One commentary writes, "This is a verse of supreme importance in the Book of Genesis. God promises to have a special relationship with Abraham and his children, so that they will be inspired to do what is right and just..."
The worth of this promise is in the real mutuality of this relationship. God's relationship with Abraham also inspires God to do what is right and just, as Abraham pleads, prays, and protests that God not wipe out the innocent with the guilty. This verse seems to suggest that God knows before whom They stand (the children of Abraham), just as we strive to know before whom we stand.
The Talmud teaches, "The descendants of Abraham are characterized by three traits: a capacity for kindness, a sense of honor, and a commitment to do what is right."
According to this week's parsha, we are more able to do what is right when we remember before whom we stand and to whom we are accountable, and have the courage to speak truth to (our highest) power. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week's Torah portion begins with the Holy One's bold command to Abraham, "Lech Lecha..." Go, get going! Journey from the place you were born, leave everything and everyone you know, and brave the unknown. There is not much explanation as to why Abraham should or would do this. No real justification. Only a promise that it will be worthwhile.
Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, in his book about the High Holidays, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, writes, "But here is the $64,000 question: Why do biblical figures all have to leave home in order to find home in order to leave again? More to the point, why do we?" (20).
The Torah offers Abraham's journey as a paradigm for each of us. Spiritually and physically, Abraham embodies the courage we each need to live the life that is uniquely ours. And the promise that if we take leave, blessings await us.
Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, continues, "The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams. Certainly it is the most ancient dream of the Jewish people..." (23).
As you may have gathered over the years, I am a big fan of Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l. His book has made a big impression on me. I re-read it every year and have a tab on every other page. But what you may not know is that Rabbi Lew, z"l, was not only an insightful teacher of meditation and Torah, but he was also a big fan of baseball.
Just as he is musing about human nature and home, he unexpectedly writes, "And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases." (23).
Given how many innings of baseball I have watched in the last few weeks, it is validating to connect to the spiritual dimension of my new-found fandom; to imagine that each time a player comes to the plate, it is their own mini lech lecha moment. I certainly have been feeling the intensity and pressure of each pitch and play. I am not entirely convinced that literally circling the bases is transformative for the players. But it certainly is thrilling and clearly requires an incredible amount of fortitude and resilience.
It redeems the many late nights I have spent watching the World Series to imagine that the real goal of baseball is a kind of embodied teshuva; a conscious return to the place we started, transformed.
Rabbi Lew continues, "And the truth is, every time we come home, home is different." This is perhaps one of the unspoken obstacles to leaving. Abraham was not just journeying into the unknown, he was leaving home as he knew it. Such that even if he wanted to return to the place, it wouldn't be the same and neither would he. I know it certainly is an emotional hurdle to overcome in every move and coming out moment in my own life.
I have never before imagined Abraham's leaving as a kind of teshuva. He is at the very beginning of his journey, and yet every step leads him closer to home. Rabbi Joseph Solevetchik explains that if you are moving along the circumference of a circle, it might seem at first as if the starting point is getting farther and farther away, but actually it is also getting closer and closer.
There is so much longing in leave-taking. In fact longing is both the thing that gets us to actually go and that propels us to try to return. Soloveitchik writes, "Longing develops only when one has lost something precious..." (25).
Losing is such a big part of playing a game, especially baseball. Even the best teams lose a third of the time. Even the best baseball players only hit the ball 3 out of every 10 plate appearances. Our longing to circle the bases may be the thing that gets us back up at the plate, willing to hear the call of Lech Lecha inning after inning, year after year.
This Shabbat may we feel inspired by the Phillies quest to win the World Series, and their love of the queer anthem "Dancing on My Own" (which we will for sure be singing on Saturday morning!).
May we have the courage to hear our own still small voice, encouraging us to let go and get going. And may our losses and our longings lead us home.
Shabbat Shalom and go Phillies!
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.