This past week, the Kol Tzedek staff ended our staff meeting by sharing the books we are reading. (If you are looking for inspiration, I will post a selection in the P.S.) We are no doubt a bookish bunch! I myself just finished reading a book called Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg. I highly recommend it.
I have been on a journey this year to understand the idea of faith more fully, so that I can articulate my own experience and teach about it. In English, the word faith feels risky, as in "a leap of faith." There is no certainty or ground beneath it. The Hebrew word most often used to describe faith is Emunah. A word that perhaps most fully means something like truth or trustworthy. In Hebrew, this essential spiritual concept exudes confidence. It's a sure bet. It's an unshakable knowing. Emunah is reliable. Which is precious and pronounced in a world that of uncertainty, chaos, and change.
What I discovered in my own learning is that there is tremendous resonance between Buddhist conceptions of faith and my own Jewish understanding. In the book, Sharon explores three concepts of faith: bright faith, verified faith, and abiding faith. I will define them each briefly in my own words. Bright faith is the spiritual ignition, the falling in love, the beginning of a relationship that has the potential to become foundational in our lives. Verified faith emerges through the necessary process of doubt and challenge. Having put our faith to the test (and not vice versa!), we can know for ourselves that our faith can endure rigor and reality. Which leads us towards abiding faith, which is a steady companion we can rely on.
As far as I can tell, the opening parshiyot of the Book of Exodus tell the story of the ancient Israelites' emerging bright faith. It exists in both personal and collective narrative, which are ultimately inseparable. It begins with the Israelites crying out from their own depths (Ex. 2:23). A cry that is heard on high, and perhaps just as importantly, deep within. It arises again with Moses at the burning bush, quite literally encountering a blazing bush (Ex. 3:2). If that ain't bright faith, what is?! And it is confirmed in the opening of this week's parsha, Vaera, when the Holy One affirms I hear your cries and I will help you. I will free you (Ex. 6:5-6).
וְגַ֣ם ׀ אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃
I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.
לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃
Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.
Except in my own theology, the Holy One is inseparable from us and so the call and response is internal. It is the awakening of bright faith within us that has the potential to free us. It is the force that allows us to know that we are inseparable from our Source and deeply rooted in a community that cares for us and a tradition that supports us. Bright faith is what allows us to manifest ourselves in the world. In the words of Sharon Salzberg, "With bright faith we act on our potential to transform our suffering and choose a different way" (29).
In this next New Year, may we have the courage to align our lives and arise with bright faith.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year!
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. And for the KT staff book list: An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I've Loved) by Kate Bowler, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg, and Gathering Blue (from The Giver Quartet) by Lois Lowry.
fuming with love
I just got back from a week-long meditation retreat. It has been a core practice and refuge for me for 15 years and it was incredibly nourishing to return to silence after nearly two years. For most people, including my children and my mother, the idea of being silent for an extended period of time is shocking and even overwhelming. My kids have asked me some hilariously practical questions, like, "How do you get food if you can't talk?" In truth, the silence is the easiest part. The hardest part is being with everything that arises in the mind and in the body when all other distractions and variables are removed.
The lineage of meditation that I practice comes from Burma and the Thai Forest traditions. It is very methodical and didactic, and includes several different meditation techniques. One of the core practices is called Metta, which is a Pali word meaning lovingkindness that very closely maps onto the Hebrew word Hesed. Metta is a practice that cultivates lovingkindness in the heart through a series of phrases that can be addressed towards oneself or another and ultimately towards all beings.
May you be happy.
May you be protected from harm.
May you live with ease and well being.
May you awaken and be free.
The recitation of these phrases, which are in many ways aspirational wishes, nurtures a loving heart for the one who says them, regardless of whom they are directed towards. Metta is the quality that allows us to stay connected to love in the face of so much uncertainty and suffering.
Each afternoon of the retreat, following a period of metta practice, there was time for question and answer with the teachers.
Twice during one of the Q&A sessions, the question was asked: "What is the difference between sending metta and prayer? Are these phrases prayers?"
To which the teacher responded, "I don't know, I don't pray."
The teacher then (very unconventionally) asked the student, "When you pray, who or what are you praying to?"
And the student responded, "I don't know, I don't pray either." The room silently chuckled.
You can imagine how hard it was for me to hold back. My mind was saying, "Pick me, pick me!"
If not for a vow of noble silence I would have interjected myself into this conversation. But instead I just noticed my own answers and my desire to respond and teach.
The confusion amidst this room full of meditators was palpable. What is prayer? To whom or what are we praying? And I know this confusion extends well beyond that room, through our community, probably in some way to all of us. These are questions I have explored in countless classes at Kol Tzedek and continue to return to personally.
I think some of the confusion arises from our own ancient terminology for prayer itself. In Hebrew, we refer to prayer as tefilah, from the root פלל, meaning to intercede, petition, or intervene. Because of the ineffable and polymorphous nature of the Divine, it often appears like this intercession is externally focused. As though when praying we are asking some external source to intercede and make a change on our behalf. We pray for healing; we express gratitude; we express longing; we pray for wholeness and peace.
But prayer, in my understanding, is actually not externally focused. Prayer, like meditation, is a concentration and purification practice. Just flip through the pages of the Honeybees Companion to see this truth reflected and refracted.
In the words of Indigenous Poet Laureate Joy Harjo,
"To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you."
Or in the words of Mary Oliver, Praying,
"...just pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak."
And Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,
"Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, and falsehood."
Prayer is meant to open the heart. And one way to do that is by expressing our most genuine expressions of care for other human beings.
We see this longing for caring connecting unfolding in the journeys of our ancestors throughout the book of Genesis. This week we read from the final Parsha. But before we end the book, I want to take us back to the early chapters in parashat Vayera when Abraham calls out to the Holy One on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is surely a moment of holy chutzpah, as Abraham rebukes the harsh intentions of the Holy One to destroy entire cities.
Many people cite this as a moment of spiritual protest, as Abraham learns to call in the Divine. And while that may be true, I think folks miss a larger teaching here. The profound impact of this heated argument between Abraham and the Divine is not on the Divine. After all, the Holy One destroys the cities regardless. The power of these prayers is on Abraham, whose heart opens to a town full of strangers - and realizes that it's worth saving for even 50, 10, 5, even 1 person. How much more compassionate is Abraham for having realized the value of a single life.
As we have been journeying through the last third of each parsha in this triennial year, we have read aloud the burial of almost every ancestor. Never before have I realized that Genesis takes so much care to narrate the way each of our ancestors leaves this world.
This week we read Parashat Vayechi, the concluding stories in the book of Genesis. This parsha narrates the death of Jacob and then finally of Joseph. These final chapters of their lives and of Genesis are in many ways one long expression of metta, prayers, wishes, expressions of Jacob's deepest hopes for his children and grandchildren.
And in the process we experience a very tender Jacob, quoting,
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף רְאֹ֥ה פָנֶ֖יךָ לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי וְהִנֵּ֨ה הֶרְאָ֥ה אֹתִ֛י אֱלֹהִ֖ים גַּ֥ם אֶת־זַרְעֶֽךָ׃
"And Israel said to Joseph, 'I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well'" (Genesis 48:11).
Both death and prayer have this effect on us. They soften us.
Call them prayers. Call them blessings, aspirational wishes, expressions of care. Jacob concludes his life with what I now understand to be a metta meditation. Extending his care first towards Joseph and his sons, and then ultimately to his entire lineage before drawing his final breath and being gathered to his people.
הַמַּלְאָךְ֩ הַגֹּאֵ֨ל אֹתִ֜י מִכׇּל־רָ֗ע
וְיִקָּרֵ֤א בָהֶם֙ שְׁמִ֔י וְשֵׁ֥ם אֲבֹתַ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם וְיִצְחָ֑ק
וְיִדְגּ֥וּ לָרֹ֖ב בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃
The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm--
Bless the lads.
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth (Genesis 48:16).
These are profound expressions of care which we need not wait until the end of our lives to articulate. And yet are so hard to access amidst the callouses we grow to buffer our hearts in this hurting world.
To quote the venerable poet Rabbi Mónica Gomery, in one of her poems, "What I love about death is the way everything else falls away...fuming with love."
Know that while on retreat I called to mind the ever-widening circle of connection at Kol Tzedek and held you all in my heart and offered you metta.
May you be happy.
May you be protected from harm.
May you live with ease and well being.
May you awaken and be free.
Together may we remember the profound kindness of our ancestors (zocher hasdei avot) and have the courage to draw on every poem, every prayer, every breath in our bodies to live lives that fume with love.
Rabbi Ari Lev
to be of use, and to be useless
Growing up, we only lit one menorah. It is a special menorah that was hidden in a secret room in Rome throughout World War II. In 1947, my great grandfather Nonno Arturo returned to Rome and brought it back to New York with him. It is made of intricate silver with a depiction of the tablets that contain the Ten Commandments, and little doors that swing on delicate hinges. It resembles an aron, the ark in the synagogue that contains the Torah itself. (You can see a picture of it here.) I have only ever seen one other menorah like it. And it was in a museum attributed to the Jews of Rome. It is iconic. Each night we would gather with anticipation and melt the bottom of the candles into the little tarnished dish that was designed to hold a spot of oil with a loose wick. Bending time, merging worlds.
These days, my family has filled an entire window sill with hanukkiot. Most of them are handmade. Mosaic depictions of baseball fields (there are conveniently nine players), a ceramic snake, and other assorted craft projects that have slowly accumulated such that each person (including guests) can light their own menorah. I think there are seven of them this year.
The thing is, this year I only bought four boxes of candles. On the first night, we put a candle in each and then set aside a shamash to accompany each menorah. Then I thought to myself, well, maybe we can share the shamash. I started rationing out the candles. Maybe we don't have to light all of them every night? And in an instant, I found myself having the most Hanukkah feeling of all: It would be a little miracle if these four boxes of candles could last all eight nights.
And then my kids asked, well does each menorah need its own shamash?
A question I joyfully did not actually know the answer to. So I went digging in the sources. And it returned me to a more essential question. Why do we have the shamash at all?
We have a shamash because we are forbidden to derive any benefit from the Hanukkah lights, which is a rabbinic way to say, to make use of them. This applies in two ways. First, we cannot use one of the eight candles to kindle any of the others. And second, we cannot use the light of the candles as a source of functional light, say, to read or write or cook. They exist for their own ritual sake, to just be light. They cannot be put to any other use.
As we learn in the Talmud (m. Shabbat 21b),
אָמַר רָבָא: צָרִיךְ נֵר אַחֶרֶת לְהִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ לְאוֹרָהּ
Rava said: One must kindle another lamp in addition to the Hanukkiah in order to use its light, since it is prohibited to use the light of the Hanukkiah.
The idea that Hanukkah candles cannot be used to generate light (lo l'hishtamesh bahem l'orah) took me back to the words of the poet Marge Piercy, in her poem, "To be of use."
"I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again."
I have been so shaped to understand myself as an ox pulling a heavy cart, to value my ability to pull like water buffalo, though perhaps with less patience. This is a deeply held value. The idea of being of service, of supporting the collective, of doing my part. But the Hanukkah candles come and they say, perhaps we are not here for any reason other than our essence, to glow.
And perhaps that is also true of us.
In the words of Proverbs,
נֵ֣ר יְ֭הֹוָה נִשְׁמַ֣ת אָדָ֑ם חֹ֝פֵ֗שׂ כׇּל־חַדְרֵי־בָֽטֶן׃
The lifebreath of a person is the lamp of The Ineffable
Revealing all the inner mysteries of our Source (20:27).
On the one hand we long to be of use. And on the other hand, to be useless.
This idea, that the candles can have no other use, is reinforced each week as we cease from the work of creation and celebrate Shabbat. And it is amplified in the yearly cycle. I returned to our communal reflections throughout the Days of Awe on the themes of Shmita. The idea of letting the land rest and lay fallow, and by extension our own personal means of production. It returned me to the call of Miriam Stewart on the second day of Rosh Hashanah: "What can you do to make yourself useless to capitalism?" Allowing ourselves to be useless, or rather, to just be, is so aspirational, so helpful, so rooted in the wisdom of disability justice organizers and so difficult for me personally.
I can barely honor this quality in the Hanukkah candles. Imagine in my own life! Once we have lit them all, the room glows and for a moment it feels like we have a fireplace. I want to curl up with a book and read by the light of the fire. But that would be putting them to use, deriving some kind of other benefit from them.
One night this week, I actually had the chutzpah to turn on the overhead light so that we could read in the same room as the hanukkiot. Understandably, my kids revolted. "The candle light is so pretty. We just want to see that." I put the book down, picked up a dreidel, and spun it upside down. Allowing everything to just glow and be.
Now for those who are wondering about my original question, it is preferable to have one shamash per menorah, especially if the hanukkiot are in different rooms. If they are in the same room, there is some rabbinic discrepancy about whether each one requires its own shamash or whether they can share. It is my own sense that it is preferable to have one shamash per menorah, but not for any practical reason. Rather for the sake of hiddur mitzvah - that there is value in making things more beautiful, indulging the spirit, generating more light.
To close, I want to share one last beloved teaching on Hanukkah from Sefat Emet, an 18th century Hasidic master. He writes,
"Especially at this season, when lights were miraculously lit for Israel even though they did not have enough oil (or candles!), there remains light even now to help us, with the aid of these Hanukkah candles, to find that hidden light within." (Hanukhah 1:5, Translation by R. Art Green)
This Shabbat Hanukkah, beneath the new moon of Tevet, you might ask yourself if you are feeling called to be the candle or the shamash? Do you need a chance to let your light shine? Or an opportunity to be of use, to share your light with others?
Together may we collectively reveal more of the hidden light in this world.
Shabbat shalom, Hodesh Tov, Hanuka Alegre, and Hag Urim Sameach!
Rabbi Ari Lev