Q: What do the phone number for a local queer carpenter, bunnies, a camping tent, and prescription meds at CVS all have in common?
A: These are all things you can access by emailing the Kol Tzedek community.
For hundreds of us, KT has been a lifeline, a source of tremendous interdependence and mutual aid. A recent search of my email revealed an amazingly long list of things we have asked of and offered to each other, with an almost instantaneous response. Meal trains, groceries, concert tickets, rideshares, sublets, legal advice, doctor referrals, childcare, protests meet-ups, pet-sitters, kittens. The list is entirely endless and endlessly varied.
At times it feels that KTdiscuss is in fact a chut shel hesed - one long email thread of kindness tethering us together through months of isolation.
Last week a friend was visiting and she initiated a little game called hello, goodbye, come-along. A few of us sat around and reflected on the past year and the year to come. What do we want to say hello to? What do we want to say goodbye to? And what do we want to come-along with us?
There is no question that I want the spirit of care and generosity that has defined us a community throughout the pandemic to come-along into the year to come.
This past 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
First, that he could envision a new world. An olam hadash. A world renewed.
Now the midrash offers a second answer, which this year has taught me is in no way secondary.
That he fed and sustained others. Zan um'farnes. Moses materially and spiritually sustained the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years.
The mere subject lines of KTdiscuss are proof that we too have materially and spiritually sustained each other. We have recalled the kindness of our ancestors (חַסְדֵי אָבוֹת) and allowed it to inspire generations of generosity. May this continue to be our legacy as a community and as a people.
Tonight at Kabbalat Shabbat we will take special care to honor many leaders of Kol Tzedek who have helped to sustain this community daily, weekly and all year long. And we will honor the health care professionals among us who have sustained others spiritually and physically throughout this pandemic. You are each heroes.
May this summer be full of connection and rejuvenation, and may you have a moment to consider what you want to say hello, goodbye, and come-along to!
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Summer!
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week I was in a training called Jewish Pathways to Abolition. It began with this question:
"When was the last time you felt safe?"
The question was provocative and stirred both emotional and physical responses in me. Ironically, rather than thinking of when I last felt safe, my mind raced to all the moments when I have felt unsafe. Some more recent and others in my past. I could feel my shoulders tense, my breathing grew shallow, my mind fogged. After a few beats I reconnected to my feet on the ground and encouraged a long slow inhale and exhale.
A longing for safety, for my own and for all people, has been front and center in my own heart these days. Any moment spent reading the news or scrolling through social media sends the message to my own nervous system that this world is an unsafe place. Certainly the news that QAnon is now as popular in the U.S. as some major religions is reason to be existentially concerned. The violence in Palestine continues. And so do the antisemitic chants, memes, and violent attacks in the U.S. and Europe.
The longing for safety is not just mine and not just modern, it is also mythic. There is a magical moment in this week's Torah portion, Beha'alotcha. The very last two verses of chapter ten of the Book of Numbers are punctuated (wait, the Torah doesn't have punctuation!?) by the presence of two inverted nuns.
It is thought that these backwards, misplaced letters are Greek or Masoretic markings intended to delineate this text in some special way. Many regard the two verses as the remnant of an entire missing book of the Torah.
For this reason the rabbinic tradition lifts up these verses and uses them to open and close the liturgical Torah service. (Since it has been a while, you can hear the tune here.) Numbers 10:35 reads:
׆ וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ׀ יְהֹוָ֗ה וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃
When the Ark would travel, Moses would say: Rise Up, Holy One! May those who wish to cause You harm be dispersed. And may those who hate You flee from Your presence!
It is incredible to imagine this moment when our ancestors would set out in the wilderness carrying the mishkan on their shoulders. This week, the words landed more tenderly. The desert wanderings of our ancestors and our sacred teachings, the ark itself and those who journeyed with it, were afraid, lest those who hated them cause them harm while they were on their way.
Now in the Torah service, after singing these words, we read from the sacred scroll. Then we lift up the Torah, re-dress it, and just as we place it back in the ark we sing the very next verse in our Torah portion, Numbers 10:36:
וּבְנֻחֹ֖ה יֹאמַ֑ר שׁוּבָ֣ה יְהֹוָ֔ה רִֽבְב֖וֹת אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ ׆
And when it came to a halt, he would say: Return, Holy One, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands!
Following these words, we sing Eitz Chayyim Hi:
"It is a tree of life to those who strengthen themselves in it" (Proverbs 3:18).
In this way these two verses have become the portable ark with the entire Torah service nestled within it, a container to hold our ancient stories, the rhythms of our own life and the world around us.
Like our ancestors, I too long for those who wish to cause us harm to be dispersed and disempowered. In this moment, I am holding three important personal truths alongside this longing.
First, it is possible and necessary for us to condemn antisemitism and be in solidarity with Palestinian liberation. Contrary to the Anti-Defamation League's definition, anti-Zionism is not a form of antisemitism. I feel acutely aware that antisemitic violence and hate speech are strategically used to divert and distract from what is happening in Israel/Palestine. The ADL actually counts critique of Zionism in its "uptick" of antisemitism (more here on that).
Second, we experience the prevalence of antisemitic hate speech and violence differently depending on the many identities we hold, including our proximity to state violence and white supremacist violence.
And third, I don't just pray that those who wish to cause us harm would disperse on our behalf as Jews, but on behalf of the many identities we hold, the communities we hold dear and everyone to whom they wish to cause harm. The same people and movements that are antisemitic are also anti-Muslim, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-queer and anti-trans.
Just as our ancestors trusted the Torah to guide them in the wilderness, we too continually remind ourselves to hold fast to its teachings. We are the descendants of brave, vulnerable, and fearful people.
But unlike our ancestors, we are not all alone in the desert. We have the capacity to cultivate lives full of interconnection and interdependence. Our sense of safety is not dependent on scattering our enemies, but on building relationships with our allies. I invite you to consider what is one thing you can do to connect to your community, your neighbors, or yourself to deepen your internal sense of safety.
It is a tree of life to those who strengthen themselves in it.
May our relationship to Torah, to this community, and to our wide web of interdependence help us stay connected to a vision of solidarity that makes real safety possible.
Ken yehi ratzon, may it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
One of the gifts of Jewish tradition is that it gives us incredible structure and clarity about how to create sacred time. But the lived experience is up to us, to make it our own, to embody it and give it life. The way we live out Jewish tradition is called minhag, often translated as customs.
I want to share with you one of my family's most beloved Friday night minhagim. Every week, after we light the candles and send light out into the world, we dance a full-on hora while we sing "Shalom Aleichem." It started by accident when Zeev was a toddler. We were waiting for guests to arrive and it was taking forever. The food was ready, the table was set, but our friends were still not here. We needed a distraction. So we took out a tiny chair and started dancing, hoisting Zeev into the air like it was a wedding or a B'nei Mitzvah. And as you can imagine, it stuck. Week after week for more than half a decade we have danced a hora, chair and all. Sometimes Shosh and I joke that by the time a big simcha rolls around our kids will say, going up in a chair, "What's the big deal?" But in truth, I don't think that's true. They love it every time. They ask for a second lift as we run out of words and switch to a nigun to keep the dancing going for a few more minutes. And that's all it is - a few minutes - but it's so good and I look forward to it as much as they do. I wonder how old they will be when they are too embarrassed or will we simply need many more adults to lift them year after year?
This peak moment is often followed by what I experience as its spiritual corollary, which might best be called "ritual refusal" or perhaps "blessing resistance." Each week I long to extend my arms towards my kids and everyone present, and for us to offer each other what is traditionally referred to as birkat yeladim - the children's blessing. And each week it has been met with a very whiny, "No blessing!" As both the children and grandchildren of rabbis, I'd say my kids have more than earned their right to refuse a blessing. A very reasonable expression of differentiation. To be honest, at this point I have stopped trying, lest they start to refuse any more of the rituals. I settle for the whispers of my own heart, "Be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are." And then we move on to juice and challah, the sensory experiences that make Shabbat taste like Shabbat.
This week, as we watched the unending death toll of human life in Palestine, including a horrific number of children in Gaza, my primal instinct to bless all children with protection and shalom has grown urgent. As of today, more than 230 people have been killed in Gaza, including 63 children, 11 of whom were taking part in a program to help them heal from the trauma of living under occupation. 1,500 Palestinians have been injured and 72,000 Gazans have been displaced from their homes. Twelve Israelis have been killed, including two children. Where is the forcefield of protection for all of these vulnerable people?
Earlier this week I watched the video (minute 26:30) of Nadeen Abed Al Lateef, a 10-year-old girl, speaking in front of a bombed out section of Gaza. In her own words: "Do you see all of this? What do you want me to do? Fix it? I'm only 10. I can't even deal any more. I just want to be a doctor or anything to help my people. But I can't. I’m just a kid. I don't even know what to do. I get scared, but not really that much. I'd do anything for my people but I don't know what to do. I'm just 10. I literally cry every day saying to myself, 'Why do we deserve this? You see all of them [pointing to the other kids gathered] we are just kids. Why would you send a missile to kill them?'"
Nadeen Abed Al Lateef's words returned me to the words of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American member of Congress, who courageously spoke these words on the house floor last Thursday:
"If our own State Department can't even bring itself to acknowledge the killing of Palestinian children is wrong, well, I will say it for the millions of Americans who stand with me against the killing of innocent children, no matter their ethnicity or faith. I weep for all the lives lost under the unbearable status quo, every single one, no matter their faith, their background. We all deserve freedom, liberty, peace, and justice, and it should never be denied because of our faith or ethnic background. No child, Palestinian or Israeli, whoever they are, should ever have to worry that death will rain from the sky..."
This touches the most core longing I have as a parent and human being, and the most ancient and urgent expression of Jewish prayer - the need to pray for peace and protection. A need as old as words.
In this week's Torah portion, Naso, we receive the words of the Birkat Kohanim, known in English as the Priestly Blessing (Num 6:22-26). It is considered the oldest blessing in Jewish tradition. (It predates what we now consider our blessing formula of Baruch Atah Adonai... by centuries.) At the heart of the blessing are the words with which the High Priest Aaron is instructed to bless b'nei yisrael, the children of Israel. The Priestly Blessing is a three-fold expression of our greatest longings. A blessing of protection and connection, that culminates in the deep wish for the Holy One to place upon and within each person shalom - wholeness and peace.
These past few weeks I have been asking, what is it to pray for shalom/peace?
I have received poetic renderings of prayers for peace, written by beloved teachers and colleagues. My real-time response has been a mixture of appreciation, envy, and distrust. I've wondered, why can't I sit and write a prayer for peace? One poem entitled, "It is possible to pray for peace" led me not to my own prayers but to skepticism. "But is it helpful? Does praying for peace get us closer to it?"
I do not consider myself so naive as to think that "thoughts and prayers" are a sufficient response to violence and death. (Even CNN thinks that "thoughts and prayers" has reached full semantic satiation, the phenomenon in which a word or phrase is repeated so often it loses its meaning.) But I also fear the moments when I have grown so calloused that there is not a place in my psyche to connect to my deepest longings and the full humanity of all people.
The need to pray for peace is so primal that it is the culmination of every single Amidah. It punctuates every Jewish ritual and prayer service. Is it the final declaration of the Mourner's Kaddish. I pray for peace all the time, if not every day. And every time I arrive at the words,
"Oseh Shalom bimromav, hi ta'ash shalom -
May the wholeness in the sky above, permeate here on earth."
I pause and collect my every hopeful, angry, aching dream for shalom and let it radiate and be true and possible, for a moment.
But this week it stung with disappointment, and rage, and grief.
Many of you have studied with me one my most beloved midrashim, in which the rabbis pontificate about the seven things that were created before the world was created. A version of that midrash exists in this week's parsha (Tanhuma, Naso 11). In this version the list includes "the throne of glory, the Torah, the Holy Temple, the ancestors of the world, Israel, the name of the messiah, and Teshuvah." Much of my own theology has developed from the idea that Teshuvah was created before the world was created. It is the energy of change and transformation in the world. It is what makes healing possible. The creation of Teshuvah is the antidote to a culture of perfectionism that plagues white supremacy culture.
Yet this week as I was studying this midrash, I got angry. Like heated, a knot in my stomach, angry. Where is Shalom on this list? Why is that not a necessary mechanism for the world to exist? Yes, we need to be able to transform but we also need to feel whole. We also need to know that death will not rain from the sky.
It is not enough to keep Palestine and Israel in our thoughts and prayers. And it is also necessary. Political transformation requires our spiritual imagination. We can't imagine a world that is whole if we cannot connect to it in ourselves.
In the words of Marcia Falk,
"It is ours to praise the beauty of the world, even as we discern the torn world. For nothing is whole that is not first rent, and out of the torn, we make whole again. May we live with promise
in creation's lap, redemption budding in our hands."
So this week, I extend my proverbial hands out beyond reasonable or rational reach, to the far corners of the earth, to the deep crevices of my own heart, to anyone willing to receive a blessing (don't tell my kids!).
יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהֹוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
May the Holy One bless you and keep you safe.
יָאֵ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
May you feel a pervasive sense of connection and know that you are not alone in this world.
יִשָּׂ֨א יְהֹוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
May we experience within us the wholeness and peace that is possible from living in a world that is entirely just.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This has been a painful week, full of devastating violence in Jerusalem, Gaza, and throughout the region. As we write this, the violence continues to escalate with massive aerial bombings of Gaza, and rockets targeting Israel. While Jewish communities began a new month in anticipation of the festival of Shavuot, Ramadan came to a close with the festival of Eid. Throughout the sacred month of Ramadan, Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement in the Old City escalated into a military attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most holy site in all of Islam. Simultaneously in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, Israeli authorities attempted to evict Palestinian families to make way for Israeli settlers. We understand all of this violence to be the result of nearly a century of Israel's systemic oppression, dispossession, and dehumanization of Palestinians.
It is overwhelming and heartbreaking.
On Wednesday morning, we gathered for a Hallel service to welcome in the new moon of Sivan. There is a deep emotional and spiritual dissonance in singing the celebratory words of Hallel during a time of such gravity and devastation. But among the Hallel liturgy, in Psalm 115 we read:
הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם לַיהוָה וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי־אָדָם׃
The heavens belong to the Holy One, but the earth, The Holy One gave to human beings.
These words call us into responsibility –– we are entrusted as human beings to care for what happens here, and for one another. The earth is our domain. As we prayed these words, we recommitted to the sacred duties of human interconnection, caring for the land, and all who dwell on it.
We, Rabbi Ari Lev and Rabbi Mó, write to you from a place of personal grief and responsibility. For the duration of our tenures at Kol Tzedek we have not directly talked about Israel and Palestine as leaders of this community. We are a congregation where a diversity of opinions and lived experiences are held and embodied. We have censored ourselves out of fear that we couldn't do it in a way that would not cause harm within our community. The challenge to talk about Israel and Palestine is not unique to Jewish communities, though it is particularly fraught.
In this moment of crisis, we feel the impact and inadequacy of this silence. We each have our own personal relationships and experiences that we bring to this moment. And we know that you do too. We wanted to take a moment to share from our own hearts with you. We do this knowing that what we share runs the risk of disappointing you, angering you, or betraying your expectations. But we want to share transparently with you, both because it's what allows us to authentically serve as your rabbis, and in order to model the personal sharing we'll need to do as a community in order to talk more directly about Israel and Palestine.
I, Rabbi Ari Lev, have spent weeks living in the West Bank and Jerusalem, experiencing both the hospitality of Palestinians and the untenable, pervasive fear of living under occupation. I have run from the gunfire of the Israeli army and taken refuge in the home of a Palestinian elder who fed me plums while I cleared the tear gas from my eyes. I remember playing soccer late at night in the narrow corridors of the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, unlearning my own internalized fears of Palestinians that had been transmitted to me as a young American Jew, letting the sounds of Arabic grow familiar and sweet in my ears, and realizing that amidst the terror and chaos, these are people with daily hobbies and hopes, longings for home and connection. I remember growing accustomed to the feeling that it was impossible to plan anything. Days metered by the looming presence of military checkpoints and bomb sirens. On Kol Nidre, when I shared about my experiences on 52nd Street this past summer, when West Philly was occupied by the National Guard in armored tanks, throwing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets. What I did not share is that the only other time I have had that experience was in Palestine. As a white Jew, Palestine is where I learned in my bones about the lived reality of state violence. It is where I learned that I wanted to become an anti-racist.
And I, Rabbi Mó, am a granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors who fled to Israel and to Venezuela after World War II. I continue to wrestle with the traumas that brought members of my family to Israel in the early 1950s, where they have continued to rebuild their lives and create a future for themselves. I feel worry, grief, and rage thinking about my cousins and their children, who have spent the week fearing for their safety amidst missiles raining down. And I am in sorrow and agony over the cycles of trauma that got us here –– how my own people came as refugees to Israel, and how multiple generations of Palestinians have been made refugees in that process. In these weeks I have felt my ancestors at my back, and I know that perpetuating a cycle of dispossession cannot truly honor their legacy. I know they longed for a world where I, their descendant, would be safe. I don't know exactly what they would make of me today, a rabbi whose Jewish values taught me to fight for prison abolition, to resist militarized borders, to long for a world without nationalism. Maybe I would be unrecognizable to them. But I know they longed for a world where I would be safe. And in that spirit, I carry on their longing, for everyone to be safe. I long, in their honor, for a world where no one is forced from their home, where no one is bombed in their mosque, where no one who needs refuge is ever turned away.
Just as we bring our lived experiences to this moment, we know that you do too. We know that Kol Tzedek members hold strong analyses and convictions about Israel/Palestine. That what happens in the land lives within our own personal narratives in a multitude of ways and that for many people, this is nothing short of questions of life and death, physical and existential. We know that Kol Tzedek members bring different political frames and understandings of the history, causes, and ways out of this crisis. So many in our community have people we love and care about on the ground, Palestinian and Jewish. This is personal and it is political.
As we approach the festival of Shavuot, known to the rabbis as zman matan torahteinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, we feel intimately aware that Torah, and religious texts writ large, are used by militaries, nation states, and nationalists to justify the dispossession of people throughout time, and Palestinians at this time. We know that Jewish holidays are marked in Palestine by heightened lockdown and repression.
This is antithetical to our understanding of Torah and Jewish traditions.
Each year at this time, Jewish tradition returns to the question, "Why was Torah given to us in the wilderness, mid-journey, in a time of tremendous suffering and uncertainty?"
A midrash on the first words of this week's parsha, Bamidbar, asks exactly this question. And offers this very personal answer:
כָּל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה עַצְמוֹ הֶפְקֵר כַּמִּדְבָּר, אֵינוֹ יָכֹל לִקְנוֹת אֶת הַתּוֹרָה
To be able to receive Torah, a person must make themself hefker: ownerless, available, unbounded like the wilderness. At its core, Torah, our sacred teachings, require that we embody a vulnerable and open-hearted posture. To learn Torah, says this midrash, is to open ourselves as widely as possible.
This is our gift and our call as a spiritual community. To truly make ourselves available, to carve out space in our hearts for listening and grieving, for learning and transforming. We come to embody true Torah when we are open and available, with each other and in our struggles for justice.
In the upcoming Shmita year, the Kol Tzedek board plans to engage in internal reflection and strategic thinking so we can create better communal processes for exactly these kinds of conversations. So that we don't have to default to silence around the hardest issues.
May these words guide us:
כָּל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה עַצְמוֹ הֶפְקֵר כַּמִּדְבָּר, אֵינוֹ יָכֹל לִקְנוֹת אֶת הַתּוֹרָה
We are called to journey into the terrain of our own hearts, that we may merit wisdom, clarity, and deeper understanding.
May our study of Torah and our connection to this community cultivate our open hearts and nurture our commitment to ending this violence, and the injustice at its foundation, as we pray for the safety and liberation of all who live in that, and on this, troubled land.
Rabbi Ari Lev & Rabbi Mó
www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.11.12Every seven years, every cell in the human body regenerates. This fact has always amazed me. I remember thinking on the seventh anniversary of my coming out as trans that every cell in my body is fully me now. When I officiate at a wedding, I often begin by sharing that the number seven represents wholeness and completion. This helps to explain why the ritual begins with seven circles. But what if the significance of seven is less about completion and more about regeneration?
In this moment in time, we find ourselves in the midst of three different cycles of seven.
The first of which is Shabbat.
The Torah begins with a creation story in which in six days the heavens and the earth and everything in it is created, and on the seventh day the Holy One ceased from the work of creation. This is our first paradigm for the (notably prime) number 7 as a unit of time.
The second cycle is the Omer.
We are instructed to count the days following the festival of Passover, a period of seven weeks of seven days, for a total of 49 days. And we are instructed that the 50th day, following this period of weeks, we are to observe the holiday of Shavuot (which is fast approaching and begins Sunday evening, May 16). Today is the 40th day of the omer.
The third cycle is that of the Sabbatical year, in which we are nearing the end of the sixth year in a seven-year cycle. We receive this teaching in the opening verses of this week's double Torah portion Behar-Behukotai. Leviticus 25 reads:
וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗ת שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַיהוָ֑ה שָֽׂדְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תִזְרָ֔ע וְכַרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תִזְמֹֽר׃
But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Holy One: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.
Much like the observance of Shabbat, in which we work for six days and rest on the seventh, we are instructed to work the land for six years and to let the land rest on the seventh. This cycle comes to be known as the practice of Shmita.
In fact, the Torah teaches us about this practice three times. Once in Exodus 23, in Leviticus 25, and then in Deuteronomy 15. In the first two occurrences, it describes an agricultural practice in which the land gets to rest. But in Deuteronomy, it actually describes a practice of economic justice in which all debt is forgiven. The word Shmita itself actually means release or letting go, and comes to be equally associated with both agricultural and economic practices.
And much like we count the Omer, our Torah portion explains that we should also count the weeks of years:
וְסָפַרְתָּ֣ לְךָ֗ שֶׁ֚בַע שַׁבְּתֹ֣ת שָׁנִ֔ים שֶׁ֥בַע שָׁנִ֖ים שֶׁ֣בַע פְּעָמִ֑ים וְהָי֣וּ לְךָ֗ יְמֵי֙ שֶׁ֚בַע שַׁבְּתֹ֣ת הַשָּׁנִ֔ים תֵּ֥שַׁע וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃
You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years...
וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵ֣ת שְׁנַ֤ת הַחֲמִשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ יוֹבֵ֥ל הִוא֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִ֚ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ׃
and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.
I would say this is yet a fourth cycle of counting, except that we don't quite know where we are within it or if its lofty visions have ever been realized.
What I do know is that we are preparing to enter a Shmita year in 5782. The practices of Shmita -- Release and Regenerate -- will be this year's High Holidays theme and we will have abundant opportunities to learn, engage, and reclaim them. There are a seemingly infinite number of interpretations of Shmita, so many I can hardly choose where to begin or how to define it. Given the proximity to Shavuot, let us begin here.
Rabbi David Seidenberg writes,
"The whole purpose of the covenant at Sinai is to create a society that observed Shmita... The Sabbatical year was the guarantor and the ultimate fulfillment of the justice that Torah teaches us to practice in everyday life, and it was a justice that embraced not just fellow human beings, but the land and all life... In modern parlance we call it 'sustainability,' but that's just today's buzzword. It's called Shmita in the holy tongue, 'release'—releasing each other from debts, releasing the land from work, releasing ourselves from our illusions of selfhood into the freedom of living with others and living for the sake of all life... This is what it means to 'choose life so you may live, you and your seed after you.' (Deut. 30:19) This is what it means to 'increase your days and your children's days on the ground for as long as the skies are over the land.' (Deut. 11:21)."
May we have the courage in all of the small moments to let go and release. And may the journey to Sinai and beyond lead us closer to a realization of this vision.
Rabbi Ari Lev
It is a custom for the rabbi to deliver a long sermon on Shabbat HaGadol, which precedes the festival of Passover. Some have been known to go on for six hours or more. I share with you here the words I will offer tonight. Longer than usual, but hopefully not unreasonably so. Thank you in advance for reading and receiving them. They come from my heart. May they be blessed to enter yours.
I am not by nature a joiner. I am generally not good at going with the flow. I don't like sleep-overs unless it's a very familiar place. I am forever trying to be more flexible and easy going. To trust that I will be able to get my needs met in any given situation. To trust that if I show up somewhere I will feel seen and safe in my body. Each and every year I am leaving the narrow place of seeing myself as "the difficult" child.
Being part of the Kol Tzedek community has been one of my greatest teachers in the spiritual practice of joining. It has taught me how vulnerable, how risky, and how healing this joining is. What holds us back is often directly correlated to the many layers of identities we each hold that may not be easily seen, appreciated, or respected in communal space.
This coming Saturday and Sunday nights, Jews and our beloveds around the world will gather to tell a story of liberation. A story that is specifically designed to be at once mythic and personal, collective and intimate. Some might describe it as the central Jewish story. And the Haggadah is perhaps a masterpiece in the spiritual pedagogy of transmitting this story. A multi-sensory, multilingual journey intended to free us from the constrictions of our time.
Every year when we arrive at the section of Maggid, when we describe the four prototypical children (classically sons), I am quick to identify with the rasha, the "wicked" child. I imagine I am not alone in this at Kol Tzedek. I have done a lot of fancy footwork to retranslate what in Hebrew is the rasha, a word that does in fact mean evil or wicked. I have been generous and said this is the skeptical child, the critical thinker, the iconoclast, the boundary-crosser. And I have been less generous and said this is the contrary child, the stubborn, inflexible, "difficult" child I so often felt like.
Now I do not want to take for granted what I know to be true in my own soul. That the four children -- imperfectly translated as the wise, the wicked, the quiet, and the one who does not know how to ask -- are not archetypes but aspects within each of us. Each of us has the capacity to embody these qualities. And perhaps the Haggadah is inviting us more intentionally to remember that. To try on being each of these characters in different contexts and to notice how it shifts. In what parts of my life am I the one who doesn't know how to ask and in what parts of my life do I have wisdom to share?
And at the same time, the Haggadah suggests, we also have habits, shaped by lifetimes of experiences, that deeply impact how we are in the world and how we perceive ourselves. And for me, that habit usually defaults to identifying with the rasha.
What really is so bad about the rasha after all? What makes the character deserving of this title?
We read in the Haggadah:
רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר?
The Rasha, what does he say?
מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם.
'What is this worship to you?' (Exodus 12:26)
For me this reads like a helpful, reasonable and engaged question. What's so wicked about this question?
The Haggadah critically elaborates,
לָכֶם – וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר.
[The Rasha said] 'To you' and not 'to him.' He excluded himself from the collective and therefore denies our essence.
What makes the wicked child wicked (according to the Haggadah and thousands of years of commentary)? The fact that he excluded himself from the community.
As someone for whom joining and the trust it requires does not come easily, these words sting and they resonate. For Mordecai Kaplan there were three major forms of Jewish identity -- believing, behaving, and belonging. For Kaplan himself, the primary form of identity was belonging. Neil Gilman explains that according to Kaplan, "To exclude oneself from the community is to abandon the relationship that above all makes one a Jew and to forsake the responsibility for the fate of Jews."
For Kaplan and for the Haggadah, to be able to see ourselves in this Jewish story, b'chol dor v'dor, in each and every generation, is itself a defining spiritual practice.
וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר.
For to exclude ourselves from the collective is to deny our essence.
What defines Jewishness, says the Haggadah, is our willingness to choose each other and our traditions, year after year.
This has never been easy. And it does not come naturally to me.
I remember years ago, early in rabbinical school. I generally did not feel like I fit in. And I struggled to claim the community as my own.
One afternoon I was standing in an auditorium with about 50 students waiting for a community program to start and a teacher was trying to get everyone's attention. I walked over and silently stood next to this teacher, trying to be helpful. He looked at me with some amount of surprise. Clearly he had not seen me as the most cooperative student. I remember him looking over and saying these words: "Nice job not perpetuating your own marginalization."
Those words stung.
And they resonated.
We learn in Pirkei Avot (2:4),
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר
Hillel says: 'Do not separate yourself from the community.'
As I said in the beginning, I am not, by nature, a joiner. I return to these words often. They have become central to my theology. That might be why I wanted to be the rabbi at Kol Tzedek. To create a community that we might all feel proud and comfortable belonging to. This might have been, and might continue to be, overly ambitious. And yet I cannot stop imagining the power and importance of all of us being tethered to each other, to these stories, to something beyond ourselves. This is central to my own theory of change -- personal and political. It is core to my own understanding of joy. It continues to be what sustains me.
For some of us this year, our sense of belonging has been strengthened. And for others it has frayed. As an extrovert, I so miss strangers. I miss just showing up to shul and meeting new people. The very essence of what makes a strong community is radical hospitality and a wide web of relationships. And this has not been safe or possible for us in person over the last year. Just about everything we were trying to do at Kol Tzedek was about bringing together large groups of random people to sing and breathe deeply together in close proximity (oy!).
In different ways, what we have needed to do to survive physically has been at odds with what we need to thrive spiritually and emotionally. We have learned to fear each other's company, which has felt at times like denying our essence. And I can imagine we are all feeling tender as we look ahead at the prospect of returning to some amount of in-person anything. Feelings of isolation and exclusion are present and inevitable.
For those of us who have felt distant from community, what will it take to rebuild a sense of connection to the collective?
For those of us who have felt more connected than ever, what will it take to stay connected as things continue to change?
Neither I, nor Torah, are naive about the nature of community. It is a messy web of relationships. Like all enduring relationships, it is full of heartbreak, disappointment, and harm. And it is a powerful source of interdependence, transformation, and healing.
I am forever inspired by the image that is referenced three times in the Exodus story. The Israelites crossed in the midst of the sea on dry ground.
To which a midrash asks,
"If it was in the midst of the sea, then how could it be dry ground?
And if it was dry ground, how could it have been in the midst of the sea?"
If we have learned anything from this year, it is the truth of this contradiction. We have learned how to be dry ground for each other in the midst of the sea. In song, in study, in countless ways. Thank you.
This teaching was further transformed for me this week when one of my teachers, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, shared an excerpt from a letter written by Franz Rosenzweig. For me, Rosenzweig speaks to the power of community in the face of unending uncertainty, which has certainly defined the time from last Pesach to this one.
"Each of us can only seize by the scruff whoever happens to be closest to us in the mire. This is the 'neighbor' the Bible speaks of. And the miraculous thing is that, although each of us stands in the mire of our self, we can each pull out our neighbor, or at least keep him from drowning. None of us has solid ground under our feet; each of us is only held up by the neighborly hands grasping us by the scruff, with the result that we are each held up by the next one, and often, indeed most of the time...hold each other up mutually. All this mutual upholding (a physical impossibility) becomes possible only because the great hand from above supports all these holding human hands by their wrists. It is this, and not some nonexistent 'solid ground under one's feet' that enables all the human hands to hold and to help. There is no such thing as standing, there is only being held up." [From a letter to his sister-in-law, p.92 of Franz Rosenzweig --His Life and Thought by Nahum Glatzer]
May we continue to find the courage to reach for each other, to hold each other up.
May our inner children be forever liberated from the stories we tell that are no longer serving us.
May we know that even as we bravely cross the sea on dry land we are also being carried.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Kasher v'Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Marcia Falk's Kaddish begins:
Praise the world
praise its fullness
and its longing,
its beauty and its grief.
This week marks a collective anniversary, a yahrzeit of sorts. It has been one year since COVID shut down the world and the global pandemic took hold of our daily lives. It has also been one year since Breonna Taylor's death, may her memory be a blessing.
This week also marks the end of another chapter, a book in fact. The book of Exodus. A story of miracles and liberation woven into the world's imagination, shaping our sense of what is possible, pushing up against the limits of the very premise of impossible.
Traditionally a yahrzeit is marked by lighting a candle that will burn for 24 hours and reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, which we will do tonight. As is the way of death and grief, the past year has brought into stark relief existential questions about what matters most in our lives. In the words of the High Holiday machzor:
מה אנו ומה חיינו
מה חסדינו מה צדקינו מה כוחינו מה גבורותינו.
Who are we and what is our life?
What is our kindness? Our righteousness? Our resilience? Our powers?
In this week's parshiyot, Vayakel-Pekudei, we witness the creative genius and generous offerings of the ancient Israelite community as they construct the mishkan, and invite holiness into their midst. Blue, purple, and crimson handspun wools, precious stones, special spices, and aromatic incense. It was truly a celebration of the senses.
And once they had collected all of the raw materials, the Holy One singles out one artisan and calls him by name.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רְא֛וּ קָרָ֥א יְהוָ֖ה בְּשֵׁ֑ם בְּצַלְאֵ֛ל בֶּן־אוּרִ֥י בֶן־ח֖וּר לְמַטֵּ֥ה יְהוּדָֽה׃
And Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Holy One has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah (Exodus 35:30).
There is abundant commentary on the specificity of the Holy One's words here. What is it to be seen and called upon by our name?
One midrash explains that every time a person performs a good deed, a mitzvah, it adds to our shem tov, our good name. And according to Ecclesiastes, "A good name is better than precious oil; and the day of death better than the day of one's birth" (7:1). Why? Because even the best oil spoils, while a good name is everlasting. (Tanhuma, Vayakel 1:1).
And why is the day of death better than the day of one's birth?
When a person is born, no one knows who they will become,
but when a person leaves this world with a good name, good deeds become abundant because of them.
When we rise tonight, in body or in spirit, to praise the world, its fullness, its longing, its beauty, and its grief, may we be inspired by the gifts of the mishkan, the skills of Bezalel, and our experience of the past year, to do as many good deeds as possible that we may be called upon and remembered by that which endures -- our good name.
May the names of the 2.63 million people that have died from COVID worldwide be lifted up and honored.
And may we remember Breonna Taylor's good name as an inspiration to pursue justice and to love kindness.
Hazak hazak v'nithazek.
Strength, strength, grant us inner strength.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.