Everything I know about birth I learned through the births of my two children. Their births were in many ways extremely different from one another. One was exceedingly long and the other reasonably short. One ended in a hospital and the other at home. One went as we had hoped and the other was a practice in resilience. One felt joyful and the other painful.
And yet, what stands out most in my mind is the way in which they are most similar to each other. There were moments in each birth, forever etched into my bones, in which the lintel between life and death disappeared. In which it was not clear who would live and who would die. Time evaporated. And on the other end of that suspended reality, I was skin to skin with new life.
After the birth of each of my children, I discussed these moments with our respective midwives, and they seemed unfazed. It was completely normal. Our transition earthbound, our tender and determined arrival into the world, birth itself, is inseparable from death.
Four years ago, Valerie Kaur, founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, begged this provocative question, "What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb – but the darkness of the womb?"
This past Thursday, I participated in the People's Inauguration, in which Kuar revisits that question and names what we all know in our bones. Certainly the past four years have been both womb and tomb. Much has been born and much has been lost. Too much to bear in one breath.
To quote the magnificent Amanda Gorman:
"The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We've braved the belly of the beast,
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn't always just-ice.
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it."
As I listened to both the President’s Inauguration and the People's Inauguration, I noticed an unexpected weepiness arise. We have been invited to unclench our hearts and risk hopefulness. To unfurl and remember that liberation is possible. Which is why it is so unbelievable that this week we also read parshat Bo. In addition to the last of the three plagues, we experience the miracle of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the exodus out of the narrow place.
This is one of those weeks when the Torah portion is a reflecting pool for our lived experience and we are once again reminded that Torah is only a tree of life if we hold on to it. And when we do, it can provide shade and sustenance, its branches can be our walking stick and its trunk a rooted resting place.
In both the rabbinic and feminist imaginations, yetziat mitrayim is its own birth story, midwives and all. The transformative experience through which Israelite slaves became Am Yisrael, the people Israel. Just as the Exodus story is about the birth of a nation through the waters of the Red Sea, so too Kaur says, "We find ourselves in this country's great transition. And what do the midwives tell us to do? Breath and Push!"
In every conversation about this pivotal moment in history, I have felt the ambivalence of relief and determination. Both are true. But before we commit ourselves to the next four years of community organizing and pushing for a world that is just and whole, I invite you to head the wisdom of our mythic and modern midwives. Breath, then push.
Let this Shabbat be the deep breath we all need and deserve.
So that we are ready for the labor that awaits us.
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.