I just checked.
Over the last seven years, I have drafted nearly 100,000 words across 221 pages of unformatted Google Docs, cut-and-pasted into hundreds of Friday blog posts. This practice started out of an instinct to connect across time and space, in a time when Kol Tzedek only met once or twice a month for Shabbat services. It continued out of a desire to share Torah that could support and sustain us through narrow times. And it has persisted because every week another person writes back and reminds me that we are in an ongoing conversation, for which I am profoundly grateful. Thank you for reading my reflections each week.
Shabbat Hanukkah is a very auspicious time in the Jewish mystical traditions, marked by the new moon of Tevet. The new moon is the darkest time of the month. With the solstice behind us, we know the light is returning, but the dark is still predominant. We read the story of Joseph and his many dreams and the words of the prophet Zachariah, "Not by might, and not by power, but by spirit alone!"
But my favorite thing about Shabbat Hanukkah is that we recite the psalms of Hallel. And this year we do it for two reasons. We do it because it is Hanukkah. And because, this year, the sixth day of Hanukkah, which is always Rosh Chodesh, also falls on Shabbat.
Hallel is a journey through the full range of human experience. Through ancient poetry, the psalmist teaches us to find a way to say thank you when we are in the narrowest of places. Min HaMeitzar Karati Yah - from the narrows I call out to You. And to say thank you when we feel a deep sense of safety and abundance. Ozi v'zimrat Yah - You are my Song and my Shield. We humble ourselves and say, lo lanu - this is not about us, but about something much greater than ourselves. Ani avdecha, we offer ourselves up as sacred vessels, eager to be of service. And then we say, Ana Adonai, Hoshia Na as we call out for support and for strength.
Every time I sing Hallel, I am struck by the words of Psalm 115, "Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah / The dead cannot say Halleluyah." As if the psalmist is saying that part of what it means to be alive is to praise, to express Hallel, to connect to gratitude.
It seems like a gift and no coincidence that we will recite Hallel on my final Shabbat before I go on my first sabbatical. You all have taught me the meaning and importance of Hallel. You have taught me how to connect to and praise the full range of human experience. I am so grateful.
The words of Psalm 118 are written in a circle around the text of the ketubah that Shosh and I designed. The chorus of this psalm is repeated four times in the repetition of Hallel, Hodu Ladonai Ki Tov, Ki l'olam chasdo, which literally means, "Give thanks to The Eternal, whose love is everlasting." But I think a more theologically accurate translation might be, "Acknowledge that which is beyond and between us, the thread of connection that binds us."
On Saturday morning, I will sing these words full throttle. And I will be thinking of each of you. It has been a challenging seven years in the life of the world. I began my tenure just before Trump was elected. Those four years were followed by three years of pandemic, which is ongoing. You have taught me how to find dry ground in the midst of the sea. For which I am so grateful. You have brought me closer to everything I know to be holy.
I am so profoundly grateful for the opportunity to serve and care for you as a community. Thank you for allowing me the privilege to teach you Torah and lead you in prayer. This sabbatical comes as an ot - a sign - that we are deeply invested in each other. I am grateful for the opportunity to turn inwards, to care for my mind and body, to exercise and meditate, to study Torah and work on a writing project. And I am so excited to reconnect upon my return.
My hope is that you take really good care of each other. That you show up for each other's simchas and accompany each other in grief. That you are slow to anger and quick to forgive, and abounding in acts of kindness.
I have so much gratitude for and confidence in the Kol Tzedek clergy and staff, board, and entire community to carry this community through this milestone and thrive. I am also super excited for all the things you will create in my absence that will have been beyond my imagination. I am already dreaming about what I will learn from you upon my return and what new Torah I will be able to share. I am so excited for you and for me, and really for us!
This will be my last Friday blog post for many months.
We learn in Pirkei Avot, Ain kemach, Ain Torah. No flour, no Torah. I invite those of you who are able, who have not already, to consider making a donation to Kol Tzedek's 18th Anniversary L'chaim! Campaign. Your generosity will make a huge difference and help us reach our goal of finding an accessible spiritual home in West Philly.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy Kwanzaa!
See you on the other side,
Rabbi Ari Lev
I offer this dvar Torah with gratitude to Rabbi Avi Strausberg who taught me this Torah.
A common Sefardic Hebrew name is Nissim, which means miracles. We knew this when we gave our younger child the middle name Niso, which is a diminutive of Nissim. He really is a delightful little miracle.
What we didn't know is that there would be a few other Nisos in the KT community. Which led my child to make up an entire fantasy basketball team called "Another Niso," where every player was named Niso. She would draw the players and narrate their games with endearing toddler pronunciations. "And then Another Niso shoots and scores...And the crowd goes wild!"
It has been a few years since this fantasy has been part of regular breakfast conversations. But I return to it every Hanukkah, when we sing Al HaNissim - and give thanks for the many miracles bestowed upon our ancestors in their days at this time.
Hanukkah is on the one hand a very humanist holiday. It is about creating light at the darkest time of year. It is a holiday about hope and resilience. The songs are mostly silly and accessible. Dreidel is arguably ritualized gambling.
But on the other hand, Hanukkah is a deeply religious holiday. It is about Divine salvation in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. It is about faith and miracles.
It is my sense that most of us don't quite know what to make of miracles. And we don't spend nearly enough time fantasizing about "another miracle."
Rabbi Avi Strausberg writes,
"The time of the Bible was a time brimming with miracles beyond human comprehension. Everywhere the Israelites looked, God's divine hand was discernible. In the Bible, Moses' rod miraculously transformed into a snake, the great Nile bled blood, rocks broke forth to bring water, and the sky brought down gifts of sustenance. This was a world in which, for better or worse, to our salvation or to our demise, great seas might part to save us, or the earth might open its mouth to swallow us whole. It was a world in which God’s clear and palpable presence could not be denied."
Despite my own desire to feel a sense of awe and connection to the natural world, this is not our world today.
Rabbi Strausberg continues,
"Rabbi Rabbi Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk, known as the Meshekh Hokmah, writes that this transition from a world driven by miracles to a world where we hardly see them anymore occurred when the Israelites left behind their wandering... (comments on Deuteronomy 29:3). The Isrealites were no longer dependent on an external force, on Divinity itself, to survive. To make food fall from the sky and part the sea. We developed agency and an ability to sustain ourselves. This is a good thing. 'For the Meshekh Hokmah, this move from divine interventions to human enterprise marks a healthy and necessary stage in the development of the Jewish people’s relationship with God.'"
But despite this overall transformation, we are still reminded daily in our prayers and every year at Hanukkah (and Purim), that the world is full of miracles. That the good in our lives is in part because of human creativity, but also in part because of something beyond us, something miraculous.
In the words of the poet Walt Whitman,
"To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the
ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?"
This Hanukkah, may we have the courage to fantasize about "another niso," little miracles, everywhere and always. To "Praise the light that shines before us, through us, after us." (Marge Piercy, "On our feet we speak to you").
Wherever you find yourself this week, shine bright!
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Tomorrow morning, in addition to celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, we will get to once again place a baby in the actual Torah and welcome her into the covenant of the Jewish people. It is incredible to imagine how many dozens of babies over the past seven years have been swaddled in the womb of Torah, quite literally wrapped in the letters of the parchment scroll.
I first wrote this ritual in my final year of rabbinical school. I had seen it done elsewhere but can't quite trace its lineage. Shosh was pregnant and I wondered how we might welcome a child in a way that felt true to our values as transfeminists.
Historically, babies assigned female at birth did not actually have a Brit, aka a Bris - a ritual to enter the covenant. Since ritual circumcision is not possible for all babies, I knew I wanted to create a ritual that would invite every baby to enter the covenant of the Jewish people regardless of their assigned sex. In the end, I researched and wrote three ritual options - and Brit Torah has been the most popular at Kol Tzedek.
What feels unique about tomorrow's naming is that it will coincide with the words of parashat Vayishlach, which in addition to recounting Jacob wrestling with an angel and getting blessed with the name Yisrael, also includes the birth of Jacob's only daughter, Dinah.
Genesis 29-30 reads, "And Leah conceived and bore a son...And she conceived again and bore a son...and she conceived again and bore a son...And she conceived again and bore a son...and she conceived again and she bore Jacob a fifth son...And Leah conceived again and bore a sixth son to Jacob...And afterward she bore a daughter."
As was shared last week at another B'nei Mitzvah, relative little is said about or by women in the Torah. Throughout the entire biblical story, Dinah never speaks. Her silence is painful. Which makes this brief mention of the birth of Dinah pronounced and important.
In a recently published collection, Dirshuni: Contemporary Women's Midrash, Rivkah Lubitch writes about this moment,
"What is 'and afterward'? After all these sons, she had a daughter.
Some interpreted 'afterward' as a language of pain, others of joy.
A language of pain, for Jacob made no feast when she gave birth to Dinah, and Jacob didn't come when her mother named her; rather the call went out, a daughter is born to Jacob, and the world went on as usual..."
Every time we ritualize the naming of a daughter or non-binary child at Kol Tzedek, we are redeeming Leah's pain. But even more so, we are remaking Jewish tradition. Even rewriting Torah. We are claiming the birth of a daughter is a reason to celebrate, a moment of joy.
My only regret is that this ritual tradition did not yet exist for my own kids. While I had written them before they were born, we were not yet embedded in a community that had a Torah where we could imagine fulfilling it. You all have taught me so much about the importance of ritual and community. I am proud of the ways that we have found truly meaningful ways to reclaim the concept of covenant so that it can include everyone.
It is said that the birth of a child brings with it the possibility of shalom in the world. Tomorrow morning, when we place a newborn baby inside the heart of the story of Dinah, may her cries be ones of joy and the beginning of so much Torah we hope to learn from her.
Rabbi Ari Lev
The Hebrew word makom has been the theme of my week for at least three reasons.
The first is because I have been teaching two simultaneous classes on Jewish custom related to mourning and comforting mourners. In class this past week, we discussed that a mourner is actually not permitted to greet people for the duration of shiva (seven days). As in, to say, "Hello, how are you?" And they are not permitted to answer the question for the first three days of mourning. So what, then, might a person say to someone deep in grief? Well, the rabbis authored a salutation for just this purpose. It begins, "HaMakom yenachem etchem..." May the Place comfort you... In this case Makom is a name for the Divine. God as a physical or metaphysical comforting space.
The second reason is because I have spent the last week looking extensively at commercial real estate in West Philly. As many of you know one of our community's priorities is to identify a new physical space that can house the majority of Kol Tzedek programs. We are actively looking for (and fundraising to afford!) a physical place to gather in the Cedar Park neighborhood that is ADA accessible, with working heat, air conditioning, and adequate ventilation, that can accommodate our growing community. As we tour different buildings, I find myself trying to feel into the felt sense of a place. Can I feel a sense of Makom, of presence, in this place?
And the third reason is that the word makom appears in two key moments in this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei. As Jacob leaves from Be'er Sheva and heads towards Haran, the second verse of the parsha begins,
"And [Jacob] encounters baMakom/the Place... (Genesis 28:11)"
In fact, the word makom actually appears three times in that very verse:
"He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones from that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place."
This moment takes on unexpected spiritual magnitude. The rabbis understand the encounter in this place to be a prayerful act, a precedent for the Ma'ariv/Evening service itself. To encounter a place is to really be there, is to be present, is to connect to holiness.
This moment in which Jacob lays down to rest his head on a few stones always reminds me of the words of the poet Mary Oliver in her poem "Praying":
"It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; 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."
In what ways is HaMaKom a place? And in what ways is it a doorway? An opportunity for comfort, for connection, for refuge, for rest, for deep sanctuary?
And then, a few verses later (Gen. 28:15-16), Jacob wakes from his slumber, and we see this magic word appear twice more:
"'Surely יהוה is present in this place, and I did not know it!' Trembling, he said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.'"
Is the Makom God or the doorway to the Divine? Or both?
Either way, it is my hope that every time we gather, whether in celebration or mourning, online and in person, at Calvary and in our new someday home, that we feel comforted by the power of the Place we are in together. That we are able to take refuge in being together and experience a doorway to the presence of HaMakom. That we are open to being surprised by our own spiritual experiences. Such that we, like Jacob, can say, "Wow, the Holy One is in this place, and I didn't expect it."
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.