Last Friday night, we experimented with holding Friday night services at 707 [our office space]. The goal was to create a more intimate, resonant prayer experience. There is much to be said for the power of proximity in prayer. I personally refer to the space as the KT Beit Midrash, a community learning space. But many others call like it is, "the storefront." However mundane it may sound, it is undeniably true that it was built as a storefront, half a block off of Baltimore Ave, placing our prayers in the public domain. After services, more than one person commented they felt overexposed. It was vulnerable in this political climate to gather as Jews and pray in "public."
I have been holding these sentiments throughout these nights of Hanukkah. One of the core mitzvot of Hanukkah is to light the menorah in public, literally "to publicize the miracle." This is why many of us place menorahs in our front windows.
As we learn in the Talmud:
ת"ר נר חנוכה מצוה להניחה על פתח ביתו מבחוץ
It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one's house on the outside, so that all can see it.
אם היה דר בעלייה מניחה בחלון הסמוכה לרה"ר
But if one lives upstairs, they place it in the window adjacent to the public domain. (Later commentaries add it should only be but a handbreadth from the window!)
(B.T. Shabbat 21b)
As we can see, the original intention was something akin to lighting the menorah in front of city hall, to make it known and visible for all to see. I hear there are some places where people still place little tables in front of their homes to light the menorahs outside.
But the Talmud is not naive, and this is hardly the first Hanukkah to be observed in a politically hostile context. And so it goes on to teach:
ובשעת הסכנה מניחה על שלחנו ודיו
And in a time of danger, one places it on the table (inside their home) and that is enough.
This year, for the first time in my adult life, I hesitated for a moment at the idea of placing a menorah in the window. Is this such a time of danger? The rise of antisemitic violence is destabilizing at best. And then I remembered this old photo that has been circulating on social media, the image of a menorah proudly burning in a window with a nazi flag hanging (perhaps equally proudly) from a house across the street.
It seems to me that this is precisely the moment to remind ourselves of the miracles in their days that are possible in our time too. This is precisely the moment to affirm our connection to hope through this communal practice. This is precisely the moment to sing and play and eat and advertise our joy in the public domain as a sign of our resistance and our resilience.
This Shabbat marks not only the sixth night of Hanukkah, but also the new moon of Tevet. Both holidays call for us to recite the extra-special psalms of Hallel (113-118), singing:
לֹ֤א לָ֥נוּ יְהוָ֗ה לֹ֫א לָ֥נוּ
Not just for our sake,
כִּֽי־לְ֭שִׁמְךָ תֵּ֣ן כָּב֑וֹד עַל־חַ֝סְדְּךָ֗ עַל־אֲמִתֶּֽךָ׃
But for the sake of our collective dignity;
for the sake of living in service to a world full of compassion.
עָזִּ֣י וְזִמְרָ֣ת יָ֑הּ
Our strength comes through our song, it is our shield.
Open, open up the gates of justice.
זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ׃
Let us rejoice fully!
Let the new moon, the bright lights of Hanukkah, and the songs of Hallel call us to our higher purpose. Let us light our menorahs in our windows proudly.
Hodesh Tov, Hag Urim Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For centuries people have participated in the practice of Daf Yomi, reading a page of Talmud a day. At this rate it takes 7.5 years to study the entire Talmud. A new cycle of study begins on January 5. For those interested in getting a daily teaching on the first masechet, Brachot (Blessings!), you can sign up here on My Jewish Learning.
For about a month now, my older kid has been saying he can't wait for Hanukkah. And every time he says that, I ask him what he's most excited about - it's pretty consistently the latkes, and then other fun things follow like playing dreidel and eating gelt. This recurrent conversation has allowed me time to think about what I am most excited about Hanukkah. And the answer also has emerged with similar clarity.
My favorite thing about Hanukkah is sitting in front of the lit menorah, savoring the dancing lights and their reflections in the window. Last year I remember lighting candles around 5pm with my kids, and then more than once relighting the candles after my kids had gone to bed so I could actually sit and drink a cup of tea, and bask in their presence. As it turns out, it is in fact an ancient Jewish mystical practice to meditate on the Hanukkah candles.
This practice is actually rooted in the most unexpected of places, the laws of Hanukkah. In the Halakha we learn:
אין לנו רשות להשתמש בהן
We are not permitted to use them (O.H. 673: 1).
This stands in strong contrast to the candles of Shabbat, which are intentionally lit before Shabbat and are intended to serve as the functional light available on Shabbat.
So what is different about Hanukkah?
The Rambam teaches that we are not intended to "use" the light so that we can actually bear witness to it, so we can manifest the miracle. This is actually the reason why we have the shamash candle. This extra special candle is necessary because the Hanukkah lights themselves should not even be used for kindling other candles.
In this way, Hanukkah comes to remind us that miracles are possible if we take the time to witness what is. This requires taking time to be with and observe, without trying to change or put to "use." This is the invitation of both Shabbat on a weekly basis, and Hanukkah during this dark, cozy time of year. To pause, notice, and bask in the light of the world as it is. And from that place, invite the miraculous insights that arise from not trying to make it otherwise.
I offer you this practice for this coming Hanukkah festival. May it be filled with gratitude, presence, and the unexpected.
Happy Solstice, Shabbat Shalom, and Hag Urim Sameach!
Rabbi Ari Lev
The weight of this week has felt enormous. Among the many things happening in the wide world, this week marks the first yahrzeit of the passing of my dear friend and mentor Ray Fischler, z"l. Ray was a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust. Born in 1925 in Kazmierza Weilka, a small town near Krakow, Poland. When WWII started he was 14 years old. Ray spent two years in Plaszow, the concentration camp featured in Schindler's List. He spent the last five months of the war on death marches traveling to four different camps, including Auschwitz. After he was liberated on May 9, 1945, he emigrated to the US in 1949 and worked in the garment industry. I met Ray when I was 16 years old on the March of the Living. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of officiating at his unveiling, which was truly like getting an infusion of his incredible spirit.
Some of you had a chance to read his story in his memoir Once We Were Eight. It begins, "I believe that I'm a lucky man." It then begins to chronicle a life of what he calls "senseless loss, a nightmare of death and devastation." But throughout his narrative, there are countless moments in which he could have died. Repeatedly what spares Ray is his capacity for human connection, which is why at the end of it all, he felt to be a lucky man. There is much I want to teach in his honor, but it is this truth which called to me from this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach.
Tomorrow morning we will read the famous story of Jacob wrestling through the night with a being which results in his being blessed with a new name.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
Said he, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed." (Genesis 32:29)
And skipping but a verse, the Torah explains,
וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃
So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, "I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved." (Genesis 32:31)
For me, it is this verse that most highlights the Torah of Ray's life. His capacity to be present with everyone he encountered, to search out their humanity, to struggle, to survive because of the power of being face to face. So many times his memoir says, "I was lucky because I knew X person..." The Russian cook who saved him rations he shared with the 20 other tailors; Sorensen, the Nazi soldier whom he made a special pair of wool pants; Miller, the SS guard who supervised the scientists. He remembers them all by name with the clarity that is only possible when you are truly panim el panim/face to face, completely present.
The unfolding news of this week, the antisemitic violence in Jersey City, Trump's Executive Order, has my set off our personal and collective sirens. On the one hand, I thought to myself, I really should get passports for my children. And on the other hand, I have been thinking of Ray, and the power of real relationship. The newsreel is utterly dehumanizing, it diminishes our sense of self until we are asking, pleading, desperate to figure out, Who are we? What does it mean to be a Jew? Are we a people? A nation? A religion?
I have resisted issuing a statement on the matter, because it is my sense we should heed the wisdom of Jacob and talk about these questions face to face. Which we will be doing tomorrow morning at services. So come with your love and your fear, your questions and your desire to be in community, and encounter these existential questions about identity that have been used against us. That we may reimagine the answers in ways that empower us to see ourselves as whole.
Here are three resources I am reading for those interested in understanding more about what is at stake in the Executive Order:
An article in the Atlantic explaining the Executive Order, the law it addresses and its problems.
Understanding Antisemitism: A resource created by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
Reconstructing Peoplehood: A Dvar Torah by Rabbi Toba Spitzer
As the full moon fills the dark winter sky, may you take the time to rest, reconnect, and remember it is the effort, the engagement, the not letting go of the question that makes us Israel, wrestlers with God.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Welcome to the season of dreams. This dark and cozy month of Kislev opens with the story of Jacob's Ladder and closes with the stories of his son Joseph's dreams. It calls us to pay attention to the subconscious, to cultivate a kind of inner cocoon. And it all begins with Jacob leaving his parents' home. Avivah Zornberg notes, "This is a journey that is pointedly different from his grandfather's originating journey: the lekh lekha wandering to the place yet to be shown, the promise of place and destiny. Jacob does not simply "go" (lekh); he leaves (va-yetzei)" (Genesis of Desire, 180).
And yet, what touches me most this week is the echo, the constant reminder, that we are a people in motion. Migration is encoded in our bodies, our histories, and our mythologies. Jacob's journey in particular may be distinct in that he knows both where he is coming from (Beer Sheva) and where he is going (Padan Aram). But it is unique in that he does not know why he is journeying.
More than once we hear of his encounters in the fields. In Genesis 29, Jacob resumes his journey and comes to the land of the Easterners. And we read:
וַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלֹשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר׃
"There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large."
Now, we know for desert wanderers wells are by nature places imbued with meaning. For the midrashic imagination, the world is but a barren, overgrown wilderness. We live much of our lives in the weeds, in the thick of things, longing for spacious perspective.
And then comes Shabbat. Says the Song of Songs, "Come my beloved, let us go out into the field." Meaning, come meet me in this spacious fertile time. In the words of Art Green, "Shabbat is a magical time, a moment when the world that often seems a barren wilderness is transformed into a field waiting to be planted" (Language of Truth, 46).
About this particular well that Jacob encounters, the Sefat Emet teaches, in the name of Rabbi Isaac Luria, that when it says there is a well in the field, it reminds us that on Shabbat a source of living water is opened to us. To which Green responds, "The well is open. But that magic is still only potential, waiting for us to plant the seed and nurture it to grow. Only we can do that. The true miracle is that of our ability to open in response."
May we choose this Shabbat to leave behind the work of the week and enter into the magic of Shabbat, to drink from the well of connection and community, to quench our thirst for presence and create space for dreaming.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.