I still remember the first time I tried to sit still. Not in an elementary school way, but in meditation. I was nearly 20. Myself and two friends, relatively spontaneously, decided to join a sit at the San Francisco Zen Center. We were each given a cushion and a cubicle of sorts. We were instructed to sit still for 30 minutes. If we needed to move, we were told to first bow and then move with awareness.
All I remember is spending what felt like an eternity repeatedly bowing to myself, until I had literally given myself the giggles. After a few minutes I ran out of the room and completely unraveled into a ball of nervous laughter. I am confident I was a complete distraction to everyone present, most of all myself.
And yet I was also encouraged. The unparalleled simplicity of the instruction to sit still has captured my spiritual attention for nearly 20 years. This is not a posture that comes easily to me. Yet one that most ancient spiritual traditions point to.
Over the years I have come to understand that Shabbat is to time as meditation is to being human. We sing of this stillness every week on Shabbat afternoon and read them aloud in this week's parsha, Ki Tissa:
וְשָׁמְר֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת לַעֲשׂ֧וֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֛ת לְדֹרֹתָ֖ם בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם
The Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.
בֵּינִ֗י וּבֵין֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל א֥וֹת הִ֖וא לְעֹלָ֑ם כִּי־שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבַיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ׃
It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Holy One made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day ceased and was refreshed (shavat vayinafash) (Exodus 31:16-17).
According to these words, Shabbat is not just stillness for its own sake, but it also contains a sense of promise. Not exactly the enlightenment of meditation, but the possibility of being re-souled, refreshed, renewed (shavat vayinafash).
For the rabbis, the promise of renewal and the mitzvah to observe Shabbat is so important they say it is tantamount to observing all other mitzvot combined. The first mention of Shabbat comes famously on the seventh day of creation. And then there is relative radio silence. We never hear about our ancestors observing shabbat in Genesis. Until parshat Beshallach, just about a month ago, when Shabbat reappears in regards to manna in the desert. And from then on, Shabbat appears in every parsha in Exodus. Shabbat is mentioned relative to all the instructions to build the mishkan. Perhaps most famously in the Ten Commandments in Yitro. And in particular in this week's parsha as we get the second set of tablets, once again inviting the instructions around observing Shabbat.
One midrash offers us an aspirational image from the natural world.
נְהַר סַמְבַּטְיוֹן מֵעִיד שֶׁבְּכָל יָמִים הוּא מוֹשֵׁךְ אֲבָנִים וָחוֹל וּבְשַׁבָּת נִנּוֹחַ.
Even the river of Sabbtyon testifies to the power of Shabbat for it carries stones and sand throughout the week, but on Shabbat it is still (Tanhuma, Ki Tissa 33).
Shabbat is a time in which the current ceases and the rocks settle. And for a moment the world is still. Yet nothing about this stillness comes naturally to me. And nothing about it is supported by popular culture or capitalism. To borrow an image from the poet Ross Gay, Shabbat is at its best a day for loitering.
"The Webster's definition of loiter reads thus: 'to stand or wait around idly without apparent purpose,' and 'to travel indolently with frequent pauses.' Among the synonyms for this behavior are linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey. Any one of these words, in the wrong frame of mind, might be considered a critique or, when nouned, an epithet ('Lollygagger!' or 'Loafer!')...All of these words to me imply having a nice day. They imply having the best day. They also imply being unproductive. Which leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America, and more explicitly criminal depending upon any number of quickly apprehended visual cues."
Ross Gay goes on to say that loitering is delightful. And wouldn't you know it, so is Shabbat. To quote the liturgy of the Mussaf Amidah,
יִשמְחוּ בְמַלְכוּתְךָ שׁומְרֵי שַׁבָּת וְקורְאֵי ענֶג.
They will rejoice, those who keep the Sabbath and call it a delight (v'korei oneg).
For me delight conjures a tender, easeful kind of joy. It has tones of spontaneity and the unexpected. Not feelings that have primarily been present for me in meditation, nor necessarily on Shabbat. If I am honest, some weeks I dread Shabbat during the pandemic. The days are long and the distractions are few, and I miss being physically together. I quickly recover the spirit of myself 20 years ago, looking for the eject button from this spiritual practice. There must be a way out.
And so I am grateful for the wisdom of Ross Gay. His essay continues:
"Which points to another of the synonyms for loitering, which I almost wrote as delight: taking one's time. For while the previous list of synonyms allude to time, taking one's time makes it kind of plain, for the crime of loitering, the idea of it, is about ownership of one's own time, which must be, sometimes, wrested from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is."
And I am grateful for the repetitive instructions of Exodus which seem at times to be like pounding a nail into wood, and in other moments, like an abundant gift.
V'shamru et yom hashabbat
Protect this day. For it is precious.
V'nei u'vein b'nei yisrael ot hi l'olam
It is what binds us together.
Ki sheshet yamim asa adonai et hashamayim v'et haaretz
For all week we are busy and time is not our own
U'vayom hashevi'i shavat vayinafash
But on this day, we cease and refresh.
Whatever your Shabbat practice includes and excludes, I invite you to linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey.
May you have the courage and discipline to take your time this Shabbat, to go slow enough to conjure delight and to know that you are connected to many concentric circles of people who are doing so with you.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Yesterday Zoom invited me to a webinar. As far as I can tell they had no idea it was Purim. The description read, "In this webinar you will learn pragmatic ways to embed disruption into your strategy, leadership, and culture." I stopped and laughed. At this point we don't need to embed disruption, it has become our pandemic status quo. And then I thought, Zoom just tried to repackage the wisdom of Purim in a webinar.
Every year on Yom Kippur, we ask ourselves in what ways is the Day of Atonement like Purim, inspired by the linguistic wordplay Yom k'Purim? During the mincha service we integrate the spirit of whimsy and carnival to further open the heart.
What if the opposite is also possible? This year I am drawing more connections and noticing the ways that Purim is a lot like Yom Kippur.
Now, on the surface they look antithetical to each other. On Yom Kippur we wear all white. On Purim we dress up in costume. On Yom Kippur we fast from food and water. On Purim we eat and drink until we can't tell the difference between right and wrong. And yet, both holidays are replete with seemingly opposite practices that point us towards change and transformation, towards teshuvah.
The Sefat Emet explains that teshuvah on Yom Kippur happens through "affliction" -- abstaining from food, water, sex, and other bodily functions, and focusing on prayer and introspection. The Sefat Emet then asserts that on Purim, the work of teshuvah takes place through simcha -- joy, happiness, and celebration.
The most outrageous mitzvah on Purim is surely the instruction to get so inebriated that we don't know the difference between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman." The prospect of letting loose and letting go so that we blur the boundaries of what we know to be true is risky and vulnerable. And a subversive way to access that which is hidden, yet persistent and possible. The combination of levity, libation, costumes, and carnival creates a sacred destabilization of reality, embedded disruption if you will. Not for its own sake, but because it leads us closer to our truest selves and to each other.
In the words of Yehudah Amichai:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
Or in the words of adrienne maree brown, "Laughter is important. Joy is important. It's not a guilty pleasure, it is a strategic move towards the future we all need to create."
May the laughter and joy of Purim soften our judgements and loosen our grip on what we know as fixed and true, ad d'lo yada, until we no longer know the place where we are right. And may the coming of spring be full of new possibilities and abundant growth for each of us.
Hag Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov famously said,
מִצְוָה גְּדוֹלָה לִהְיוֹת בְּשִׂמְחָה תָּמִיד
It is a great mitzvah to be happy always.
His words are often invoked in the month of Adar, especially as we approach the holiday of Purim. It is helpful to know that Rebbe Nachman was a person who suffered tremendously in his life. Lest we think these are the words of a naively and naturally joyous person. Quite the opposite.
Joy is existentially and practically very complicated. We long for it. We fear it. Reflecting on this teaching, I was reminded of a story in my own life.
About twenty years ago I was visiting a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan and found myself in an elevator with a group of nuns. There was an unspoken ethos of silence, even when not in formal sitting practice. But I couldn't help myself. I had the captive attention of these young nuns. They were at once peers and from another world, another way of life.
My impulsive western mind quickly asked them the first question that came to mind: "Are you happy?" I feel some shame for the judgement embedded in this question and also deep compassion for my young seeking self, trying to understand happiness.
The nuns responded, "Yes. But it is a different kind of happiness." This answer has surely stayed with me. Long before I had a meditation practice of my own, I had this sense that there are different kinds of happiness. Science has actually studied it. Whatever special machine measures the happiness of the brain has registered off the chart levels of happiness for monks and nuns coming off of extended retreats.
And Judaism knows this too.
We sing of the great varieties of human joy in the seven wedding blessings, gilah rinah ditzah v'chedvah, ahavah v'achavah v'shalom v'reut...Blessing the Source of Life who created joy and gladness, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing, love and harmony and peace and companionship.
And the list continues in a verse that comes from Megillat Esther, which is also sung weekly at the beginning of Havdalah, "Layehudim hayetah orah v'simcha v'sason vikar. Kein tehiyeh lanu. The Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor. May we have the same."
Jewish tradition is replete with teachings about it. The boost of Joy that characterizes the month of Adar and the holiday of Purim is also deeply linked to another Jewish holiday, Sukkot, referred to as zman simchateinu, the season of our Joy.
At this time of year, I often refer back to Alan Lew's teachings on Joy. He describes "the special joy of being flush with life...Joy as a deep release of the soul and it includes death and pain...any experience we give our whole being to...any moment fully inhabited, any feeling fully felt, any immersion in the full depth of life, can be the source of deep joy" (265,7).
I think this is the joy that the nuns were describing in that elevator. And the kind of joy that Rebbe Nachman is compelling us towards. And frankly, the kind of joy that is always and especially now accessible and necessary for each of us.
As we enter Shabbat, and come closer to the holiday of Purim, may we each have the courage to more fully inhabit even just one moment, to know our pain and gratitude so fully, that it fills us with deep joy.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Last night I brought home a very special gift in honor of Rosh Hodesh Adar. A case of 10 ripe mangoes. This is a beloved fruit in our house. The haul was met with cheers of joy. Just as we were eating the first juicy bites, fears of scarcity arose. My kids asked, "How many have we eaten? How many are left? Why didn't you get 20?" They started to ration. "We need to save some for tomorrow!" I tried to reassure them and encourage them to enjoy the bounty of this tropical fruit without much success. The fruit was after all finite.
My kids awoke this morning, remembered the mangoes, and asked the most important question: "Do we have enough to share with our friends?" As soon as I assured them of this, they were completely at ease. Over and over again, my kids remind me that the ability to share is actually what produces a sense of abundance, not the quantity itself.
Each year, at this time of year, as the sap begins to flow in the trees and the days grow ever so much longer, I return to a particular teaching about abundance from this week's parsha, Mishpatim. Amidst a litany of laws about how to create an ethical society, comes this holy instruction:
אִם־כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ תַּלְוֶ֣ה אֶת־עַמִּ֗י אֶת־הֶֽעָנִי֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ לֹא־תִהְיֶ֥ה ל֖וֹ כְּנֹשֶׁ֑ה לֹֽא־תְשִׂימ֥וּן עָלָ֖יו נֶֽשֶׁךְ׃
If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them (Exodus 22:24).
A beloved midrash on this verse opens up this conversation further (Tanhuma, Mishpatim 12):
"All of God's creations borrow from each other;
day borrows from night, and night from day...
The moon and the stars borrow from each other...
The night borrows from the sun, and the sun from the night...
Wisdom borrows from understanding, and understanding borrows from wisdom...
Mercy and righteousness borrow from each other...
Heaven and earth borrow from each other...
The midrash concludes:
"A person who charges interest once asked The Holy Blessed One:
'Don't you charge interest to all of your creations? From the earth that you irrigate; From the flowers that you grow; From the luminaries that you cause to shine; From the person into whom you breathed life?'
To which the Holy One replies, 'No, never! See how much I lend, and I never collect interest. The earth lends and she doesn't collect interest. I lend to the source of all lending, and the earth renews herself in it.'"
We live in a world of abundance, and yet we feel scarcity. The voice of God in this midrash reminds us that there is enough to go around. And sharing -- mangoes and money and time and love -- is actually how we come to feel that truth.
This is at the heart of the mitzvot of Purim. To share food and treats through mishloach manot. And to give money directly to those who need it through matanot l'evyonim.
About the power of sharing, the Sufi mystic Hafiz writes:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
Or in the words of Pirkei Avot:
אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ
Who is rich? A person who rejoices in what they have (4:1).
As we enter this new month, may we take every opportunity to share what we have and come to feel the joy of having enough.
Happy Lunar New Year, Hodesh Tov & Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi 🦁 Lev
For the past many months, I have been co-teaching a morning class on the weekday Amidah. We begin each class by listening to a song. Mechanically speaking, I share the sound from my computer and it seemingly magically can be heard through the participants' speakers.
This morning, for unknown reasons, the sound share worked for some students but not others. And people started to write in the chat, "I can't hear it." And then others responded, "I can hear it." I had little faith in my ability to solve this technological issue. But I did have the thought, this is feeling a lot like Sinai.
When I imagine the moment of revelation, as described in this week's parsha, Yitro, I imagine the crowd of Israelites full of anticipation and uncertainty. Some eager, some skeptical, some terrified. I imagine the confusion. The thunder and the silence. The wondering: Was that the voice of the Holy One or just a low pressure system passing through? It is so hard to trust our own experience of something so unprecedented.
One midrash tells the story this way (Shemot Rabbah 5:9):
כְּשֶׁנָּתַן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה בְּסִינַי הֶרְאָה בְּקוֹלוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל פִּלְאֵי פְּלָאִים, כֵּיצַד?
הָיָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְדַבֵּר וְהַקּוֹל יוֹצֵא וּמַחֲזִיר בְּכָל הָעוֹלָם...
"In the moment when the Holy Blessed One gifted Torah at Sinai, God's voice was revealed through wondrous miracles. How? The Holy Blessed One would speak and the voice (kol) could be heard from one end of the earth to the other..."
The midrash goes on to explain that the Israelites would hear the voice coming from the south and run towards it. And then they would hear it from the north and run towards it. The east, the west, the heavens, the earth. But every time they arrived, the sound was coming from somewhere else. Then the sound splits into 70 voices, in 70 languages, so that each and every person could receive Torah in their own way.
אֵצֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד לְפִי כֹּחוֹ
I am so conditioned to believe that if only circumstances were different, then I would have the capacity to make great changes or heed much-needed wisdom in my life.
But what if the opposite is true?
What if the revelation at Sinai can be received wherever we are in life, in whatever way we are most easily able to receive it?
What if we don't need to run beyond our reach, or wait for some better moment, or be anyone but who we are?
What if the clarity and connections we long for are in fact seeking us out, descending from the heavens, delicate as snowflakes?
This Shabbat, may we take the time to attune to the still small voice in our own hearts. And to know this too as Torah.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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
All week I have been wavering between competing headlines in my own heart. This is the end. And, This is the beginning. It is surely both. A moment of profound transition and transformation. A vulnerable moment for a vulnerable planet -- and for us, as people subject to the plagues greed has produced. A vulnerable moment for a vulnerable democracy -- and for us, as people subject to unjust laws and leaders its rotten joists have empowered.
This has been a long and tiring week, year, and term. I have felt fear and despair. And I have had to dig deeper, to meditate longer, to offer more gratitude, and to share more generously in order to sustain my own spirits. And from talking to many of you, I know you are digging deeper, too. Just as our ancestors have done for thousands of years in the wilderness, digging and redigging wells to sustain them in uncertain times.
Lucky for us, Jewish tradition is replete with stories about personal and collective transformation, stories in which what seemed completely impossible becomes reality. Stories in which our ancestors transcended the narrowest of circumstances and created the world anew.
And while sometimes we call this a miracle and credit it to the Holy One, more often than not the sages, of blessed memory, go out of their way to recognize it as human creativity and agency. Or perhaps more aptly, the sages understand that the miraculous is ever present in our world and in our actions.
In preparation for this Shabbat, I have been meditating on the power and perils of leadership which have been on full display this week. And I have been thinking about Moses, a tender-hearted leader who extracts us out of a narrow place and leads us through the wilderness. Moses' leadership is prominent in this week's parsha, Vaera.
On Kol Nidre I taught a midrash which wonders, "How did Moses go from fleeing from Pharaoh to plunging him into the sea?"
For which the midrash offers two answers:
אֶלָּא רָאָה עוֹלָם חָדָשׁ
That he could envision a new world. An olam hadash. A world renewed.
That he fed and sustained others. Zan um'farnes. Moses materially and spiritually sustaining the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years.
On the precipice of annihilation, our ancestors had the courage to dream big and take care of each other. And according to our sages, that is what sustained them.
And that is what will sustain us.
As we learn in Pirkei Avot, the world is sustained by three things: by Torah, by Avodah, and by Gemilut Hesed. By accessing the well of Jewish teachings, by spiritual practice, and by heaps of kindness.
The hesed, you may notice, is the only sustaining force with a quantitative measure. As if to say, be abundantly kind to yourself and abundantly kind to one another. Take really good care of yourself and really good care of each other. And trust in the prophecy of Arundhati Roy, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
May this Shabbat be that quiet day and may we find ourselves refreshed and renewed for the week to come.
Rabbi Ari Lev
All year long I look forward to Hanukkah. There are few things as peaceful as sitting in the dark and watching the Hanukkah candles burn. As a parent, I find myself wanting to light once with my kids for the raucous joy. And then again, after they are asleep, in the quiet of the night.
In many circles, Shabbat Hanukkah is one of the holiest nights of the year. It comes always in the winter solstice season, and always with the story of Joseph and his dreams. The darkest time of year is accompanied by lighting the greatest number of lights.
In fact, this is the only Shabbat of the year in which we get to observe all three mitzvot related to lighting candles - Hanukkah, Shabbat, and Havdalah. While there are other candles we are invited to light, like a shiva or a yahrzeit candle, only these three are accompanied by a blessing and in this way ritually obligated. What can we learn from the differences in practice associated with each of them?
In the case of Shabbat, the obligation is quite practical. Since one is traditionally forbidden to make fire on Shabbat itself, the light is meant to dispel the darkness on Friday night that would otherwise make it difficult to eat, read, and rejoice in each other's company. For this reason, it is considered a kind of shalom bayit, intended to increase the peace in our homes. This light is both meant to be used and internally focused.
In the case of Hanukkah however, the opposite is true. The light exists for its own sake and is meant to be dispersed. One is in fact forbidden lehishtamesh bo - to make use of it. Which is to say, while you can delight in its burning, you cannot use it to produce light for the purpose of doing any other activity. I must resist the urge to cozy up with a book beside my little menorah and read by its light. A second difference is that originally our menorot were lit in public gathering places. And even as we have moved them into our own homes, we are instructed to place them in our windows, to publicize the light. In this way the light is very externally focused, meant to be spread but not used.
What strikes me this year, as we gather in our own homes, is the specific instruction to not see the Hanukkah candles as dispelling the darkness, but rather existing within it. There is a quality of knowing and a clarity of mind that comes when we allow ourselves to be with the darkness.
One midrash teaches,
"You find that a [sighted] person who finds themself in the dark can observe what is transpiring in a lighted place. However, any [sighted person] who finds themself in a lighted place is unable to observe what is happening in the dark. The Holy Blessed One, however, can see in the dark or in the light, as it is said: 'God knows what is in the darkness…' (Daniel 2:22)" (Tanhuma Tetsaveh 8).
Or in the words of Mary Oliver,
The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
In these darkening days, I invite you to find companionship in the light that exists in the dark. To remember, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches, that a little light can permeate a lot of darkness. And to allow for the unexpected gifts of this season.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This week my kids and I have been reading the book Older Than Dirt: A Wild but True History of Earth. It explores how the world came to be over the course of billions of years. The vastness of time, the evolution of all things that live, and their precariousness. Mass extinctions, minerals, fossils. It's all rather miraculous.
Did you know there was half a billion years where the earth was a giant river of volcanic lava?! And that the moon was formed when it crashed into earth. At first it was so close to our planet that days were only five hours long. And every year it moves one inch further away. Perhaps most astonishingly, modern humans are but the last two seconds on the 24-hour clock of the earth! The entire book is in many ways a macro-meditation on our smallness.
As it turns out, this week's parsha, Vayishlach, offers a micro-meditation on our smallness. Jacob returns to the Holy Land after twenty years of absence. His first act is to send messengers to his brother Esau, with hopes of reconciliation. Jacob sends his family ahead as he waits for Esau. Fearful for his life, he prays to God, in what Avivah Zornberg describes as "the first quoted prayer in the Torah" (Desire, 216).
Having invoked the God of his father Abraham, he begins:
קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַחֲסָדִים֙ וּמִכָּל־הָ֣אֱמֶ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה וְעַתָּ֥ה הָיִ֖יתִי לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַחֲנֽוֹת׃
I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps (Genesis 32:11).
The word in Hebrew, ubiquitously translated as "unworthy" is actually the root קטן (k-t-n), meaning small or insignificant. It is the same word used to describe a minor and a younger sibling. It is a word of relative importance or size.
Ibn Ezra, known for his tendencies towards grammatical correctness, translates Jacob's prayer as "I am too small..." In this moment, Jacob assumes a posture of humility as he approaches the Holy One in prayer and praise for the goodness in his life.
So many times reading this book with my kids I thought to myself, "I am too small. I am unworthy of the kindness in my life." Given all of planetary existence, we are but specks of dust, sparks of light scattered about metabolizing light and water and trying to evolve. And in the process we are blessed in a myriad of ways with hesed and emet, kindness and truth, compassion and promises.
No doubt we are each responsible in some ways for the goodness that has come into our lives. But there is a deeper level on which we are unworthy recipients, humble servants of something larger and beyond ourselves.
In the words of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye:
"Since there is no place larger enough
To contain so much happiness (read: kindness, goodness, blessing)
You shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
Into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
For the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
And in that way, be known."
This Shabbat, may we be humbled by the clock of the earth and inspired by the prayers of our ancestor Jacob, to let the kindnesses in our lives flow into everything we touch. May we have humility and the courage to take no credit. And in that way be known.
Rabbi Ari Lev
The second blessing of the Amidah is all about the powers of life and death, birth and rebirth, seasons, sustenance, and survival. Themes that are ever-present in our lives, perhaps even more pronounced in these times.
מִי כָמֽוֹךָ בַּֽעַל גְּבוּרוֹת וּמִי דּֽוֹמֶה לָּךְ
Who is like you master of many powers and who has your restraint,
מֶֽלֶךְ מֵמִית וּמְחַיֶּה וּמַצְמִֽיחַ יְשׁוּעָה:
Sovereign One who causes death and creates life and cultivates salvation.
In a recent interview on the podcast "Finding Our Way," Prentis Hemphill asks Lama Rod Owens, "How would you describe where we are right now?"
Lama Owens responds, "For me, this time feels like being in labor. Our culture, our lives, the world, the country, our communities, we are in labor, we are in the process of trying to give birth to something." Lama Owens does not romanticize labor or birth. They are states of hopeful potential, and also suffering and loss.
And this is not just where we are in our world, but in our Torah too. This week's parsha describes Rebecca's difficult pregnancy with twins and the eventual birth of Jacob and Esau. In a moment of both embodied and existential crisis, she calls out:
אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי
"If this is how it is, why do I exist?"
I can imagine we each have or will have our moments this pandemic of calling out in existential angst about the state of things. So much has been revealed and so much has been lost. But as the recitation of the Amidah reminds us daily, we are called to hold birth and death in one breath.
This Shabbat falls on Trans Day of Remembrance, a day in which we honor our dead, its own epidemic. This year alone we know of 37 trans and gender non-conforming people have been murdered, mostly Black and Latinx transwomen. And we are called to say their names, to remember them.
And then in an act of Divine power,
וְנֶאֱמָן אַתָּה לְהַחֲיוֹת מֵתִים:
We faithfully give life to the dead by claiming our resilience in the face of so much loss.
I invite you to join us tonight, as we weave life and death, celebrating Shabbat and the resilience of trans lives. We will be led by a small multitude of trans voices in our community. May we all have the strength to connect to everything within our power, to sustain ourselves in the face of so much being born and so much being lost.
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.