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
These weeks have been a whirlwind of emotion. Rebecca Ganetzky describes it well in her teaching about the emotional contours of Torah trope. Last weekend the city of Philadelphia felt like the Simchat Torah celebration that never was. And following moments of much needed joy, the painful reality that we continue to live through a pandemic returned. As the number of daily cases of COVID continues to set new records, we long for ways to care for our community members who are sick and isolated.
More and more I find myself turning to prayer, carving out mere moments, maybe ten minutes, to punctuate the day with a single Amidah. First and foremost, I pray for refuah shleimah, for healing of body and mind for all those impacted by this pandemic. I take a moment to call to mind all those in my orbit in need of healing. But the truth is, these days, that does not feel like enough. There is a profoundly communal nature to our suffering.
A dvar Torah published way back in March begs the question:
How widespread does disease have to be in order to pass the threshold and trigger a communal response of prayer or fasting?
The Shulhan Arukh, a 16th century law code, writes:
"Just as we fast...in times of drought, we also fast for other disasters...and so for plague. What is considered a plague? If a city of 500 inhabitants has three deaths a day (from plague) for three consecutive days, this is defined as a plague" (Orah Hayyim, 576).
I am not sure how this would correspond to the CDC's definition and metrics relative to how many cases per 100,000 people in a given population. But I do know that it reveals a longstanding rabbinic sensitivity to a threshold in the definition of an epidemic. One, that in my own bones, I feel we have crossed.
While I am not yet prepared (nor authorized!) to call for a public fast day, I do want to posit that it might be time that we each personally, and even more so communally, begin to orient ourselves toward prayer as a response to this plague. The aforementioned dvar Torah actually shares such examples across time and place, from cholera to the coronavirus.
Some even reference the evocative words of Avinu Malkeinu:
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ כַּלֵּה דֶּֽבֶר וְחֶֽרֶב וְרָעָב וּשְׁ֒בִי וּמַשְׁחִית וְעָוֹן וּשְׁ֒מַד מִבְּ֒נֵי בְרִיתֶֽךָ
Avinu Malkeinu, remove pestilence, sword, famine, captivity, destruction, iniquity, and religious persecution from the members of Your covenant.
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ מְנַע מַגֵּפָה מִנַּחֲלָתֶֽךָ
Avinu Malkeinu, withhold the plague from Your inheritance.
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Chayei Sarah, following the trauma of the Akedah, of a father's near sacrifice of his son, Isaac goes out into the field to meditate.
Va'yetze Yitzchak lasu'ach ba'sadeh lifnot arev.
And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the turning of evening (Gen. 24:63).
About this moment, the Talmud exclaims: What is meditating in a field if not prayer (Berachot 26b). And from this we learn that we should pray in the evening.
Rebbe Nachman, z"l, digs deeper into these words and notices that the word lasu'ach - meaning to meditate, pray, or converse - is also the root of si'ach, a bush, a shrub, even a blade of grass. It refers to green and verdant growing things.
One of my mentors, Rabbi Victor Reinstein, translates Rebbe Nachman's teaching this way:
"Know, that when a person prays in a field, then all of the grasses come within the prayer, and aid the one praying, and give to the one praying strength in their prayer. In this way, prayer is called 'sicha' (in all of its layers of meaning, prayer, meditation, and shrub)" (Likutei Moharan Tinyana 11).
L'cha dodi, come beloveds. Let us go out to meditate in the field that is Shabbat. May we feel supported from within and around as we pray for the cessation of all disease, war, famine, exile, destruction, and this very real plague. And may we know that the natural world is praying alongside us, aiding and strengthening us in this time of isolation. On this November Shabbat, we need only look out our windows and take note of the colorful leaves to join in the conversation (lasu'ach ba'sadeh).
Rabbi Ari Lev
Many truths have emerged this week. Painfully high on the list is the reality that we live in a deeply divided country, as we watch the vote roll in county by county, city by countryside. The battle for the soul of this nation has revealed that there is no unifying understanding of freedom, democracy, or justice. Perhaps the unifying force this week is that we have all been waiting, anxiously, (im)patiently. And the whole world has been watching and waiting with us.
This week has been marked by a profound sense of anticipation followed by a need for real patience as we wait for every vote to be counted. I must admit, I have refreshed the news more times than ever before in my life. I have at moments felt like a dog chasing its tail. I have also felt a kind of unexpected hopefulness; knowing that our waiting would show that years of organizing, movement building, and voter enfranchisement would reveal a new horizon.
But waiting does not come naturally or comfortably. And most often we look for a way out. Over and over again this week I have turned to these words:
כִּי לִישׁוּעָתְ֒ךָ קִוִּֽינוּ כָּל הַיּוֹם:
For your help/salvation, I wait all day long!
The line comes from the 15th blessing of the weekday Amidah, in which we beseech God to bring about the sprouting of salvation. I have taken refuge in its imagery and the long view of time it offers. The blessing begins with grassroots language, literally expressing a desire for redemption to sprout up like a shoot from the earth. It is an image of what is possible linked to a deep longing for it to come true.
Much of Jewish liturgy is actually born of longing and waiting and hoping. In fact, the word in this prayer, kivinu, from the root קוי, means all of that - to hope, to long, to wait. Waiting, says this prayer, is fertile ground.
At its core the Amidah reaches for a vision for a world that is entirely whole and just. A vision bigger than any election or even any lifetime. It connects us to the long view of history which points us toward the world to come. We name our hope for it every time we pray. And we cultivate a taste of it every shabbat.
The poet David Whyte writes,
"Longing has its own secret, future destination, and its own seasonal emergence from within, a ripening from the core, a seed growing in our own bodies; it is as if we are put into relationship with an enormous distance inside us leading us back to some unknown origin with its own secret timing indifferent to our wills, and gifted at the same time with an intimate sense of proximity, to a lover, to a future, to a transformation, to a life we want for ourselves, and to the beauty of the sky and the ground that surrounds us" (Condolences, 137).
We arrive at this Shabbat with a more intimate sense of proximity to the life we want for ourselves; the adrenaline of waiting pulsing through our blood and a long-awaited hopefulness in our hearts. I invite you to take a deeper breath. To allow the exhale to slowly bring you to a halt. And to never stop hoping for what's possible and necessary.
I gift you this song, recorded by my beloved colleague Rabbi David Fainsilber. May it guide your heart to keep waiting and longing and dreaming of a world that is whole as our ancestors have done for millennia.
Rabbi Ari Lev
The poet Rilke writes,
God speaks to each of us as [she] makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
All week I have been feeling pushed to the limits of my longing. I can imagine I am not alone. And sitting with the words of this week's Torah portion I realized this is what is meant when the Holy One calls to our ancestor Abraham: Lech lecha! Go forth, out beyond your recall; from a place of comfort and belonging, into the vast unknown of this world. Go to the limits of your longing!
Abraham heeds the call and heads out into the wilderness. In a famous midrash, beautifully recounted for us by Rivka Cohen in this morning's Torah reading, Abraham's journey is likened to a person who is traveling, a person who is all of us, and comes upon a bira doleket, a burning palace (Gen. Rabbah 39:1).
The traveler cries out, "Does this palace have an owner? Who is its caretaker?" On hearing this, the owner of the palace leans out the window and calls from amidst the flames, "I am its caretaker."
We, like Abraham, are in the midst of a world on fire, stunned by the magnitude of injustice; betrayed by the malice and negligence of those in power and ever aware of our own power and responsibility to take care of each other and our world.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
In the wake of the murder of Walter Wallace, Jr., on the second anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, on the eve of this crucial election, we must heed the wisdom of our ancestors. Lech lecha! Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don't let yourself lose your center, your Source, your dignity, your power.
As we enter this Shabbat, I encourage you to carve out time to both go forth and go inward. Make a plan for how you will vote and how you will make sure every vote is counted. AND make a plan for how you will care for yourself this Shabbat and in the coming week. The journey forward and the journey inward are simultaneous and inseparable. May we all have the courage, calm, and capacity to make our lives a blessing in this burning world.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Here we go again...
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the beginning, when the Holy One began to create the sky and the earth.
Every year our tradition invites us to assume a posture of beginner's mind, a state of curiosity and uncertainty, as we re-encounter these dog-eared stories and see what arises this time around.
Most years I am drawn to the very first days of creation. The light and the luminaries, the spirit hovering over the face of the deep. Or I find myself jumping ahead to the final days, the creation of human beings each holy, in the image of the divine and the invitation to rest in the glory of it all on Shabbat.
But this year I am lingering on the often under-appreciated fifth day of creation.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים יִשְׁרְצ֣וּ הַמַּ֔יִם שֶׁ֖רֶץ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֑ה וְעוֹף֙ יְעוֹפֵ֣ף עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ עַל־פְּנֵ֖י רְקִ֥יעַ הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
And the Holy One said, "Let the waters swarm with sheretz nefesh chayah/living creatures and let the birds fill the horizon of the skies" (Gen. 1:20). Not to mention on the fifth day the Holy One creates sea monsters and all kinds of creepy crawly critters (See v. 21)!
What is a sheretz? From Genesis we know that it is a living creature that swarms the earth. Then in Leviticus we get a list of eight kinds of shratzim -- the mole, the mouse, and lizards of every variety, the gecko, the crocodile, more lizards, and the chameleon (11:29-30). But what's more, the Torah asserts that each of these creatures is fundamentally and categorically impure (tameh). Which means that anyone who comes into contact with one of their corpses, a dead sheretz, needs to immerse in a mikveh to become ritually available again.
The sheretz reappears in rabbinic discourse in the most unexpected of places, as the rabbis are discussing the requirements for who should be able to sit on the highest rabbinic court, the Sanhedrin. And as it so happens, we too are in the midst of a national conversation about who is worthy of such power and responsibility. A matter the rabbis take very seriously!
As Bennett Decker explains:
"Rabbi Yochanan suggests a number of requirements. They must be tall, wise, good looking, and old. They also must have mastered sorcery and all 70 languages. In short, these requirements are specifically designed to exclude all but a select class of men. It sets the Jewish 'ideal' as a nigh unattainable goal."
But Rav Yehudah, in the name of Rav, presents another idea. Rav argues that one is only placed upon the Sanhedrin if they are able to metaher et ha sheretz min hatorah, to declare a sheretz pure by Torah law. Which is to say, the judges on the Sanhedrin must be so skilled at logical reasoning that they could even produce a convincing argument that creeping animals, which the Torah states explicitly are ritually impure, are actually pure.
In the words of Laynie Soloman, "A requirement for rabbinic leadership, power, and authority, then, is to use the Torah to declare pure something that the Torah itself defines as fundamentally and unchangeably impure. To be a judge on the Sanhedrin is, in short, to be able to overturn the Torah itself—even, or perhaps especially, where the Torah seems least able to be overturned."
We learn in Pirkei Avot that the purpose of Torah is to increase freedom in the world (6:2). By extension we can understand that the purpose of any system of law should be to increase freedom and uphold justice. This is fundamentally the role of everyone in power, most especially the rabbis of the Sanhedrin and the justices of the Supreme Court; to be bold and brave and willing to transform the law when it does not align with freedom.
As we begin this new Torah cycle, may we draw strength and courage from the rabbis to be willing to overturn and transform Torah when it misses the mark. And may we merit to live in a world where we can hold those in power to this standard.
Shabbat shalom u'mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Each morning of this week has been infused with the psalms of Mutual Aid Hallel (Thank you Rabbi Mó!). I have sat in my sukkah and sung along, swaying my body and the lulav in the brisk but inviting fall air. And each morning I have allowed myself to linger with a different phrase, to notice how many different ways there are to praise the mutilated world. The many hallelujahs of our tradition. In truth many of my most favorite words to pray appear in Hallel:
לֹ֤א לָ֥נוּ יְהוָ֗ה לֹ֫א לָ֥נוּ
This is not about us...but about something larger and ineffable...
וַאֲנַ֤חְנוּ ׀ נְבָ֘רֵ֤ךְ יָ֗הּ מֵֽעַתָּ֥ה וְעַד־עוֹלָ֗ם הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃
And we will continually bless the Source of our resilience...
הוֹד֣וּ לַיהוָ֣ה כִּי־ט֑וֹב כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
Grateful for the goodness that comes our way and the kindness in our lives...
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽהּ׃
From the narrow place we call out towards the expanse which awaits us...
אֶ֭בֶן מָאֲס֣וּ הַבּוֹנִ֑ים הָ֝יְתָ֗ה לְרֹ֣אשׁ פִּנָּֽה׃
The stone that the builders rejected is the foundation of our beginning...
זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ׃
This is the day, no matter what kind of day it is, let's choose to live it joyfully.
But today, beneath the waning quarter moon bright in the blue sky, on this seventh day of Sukkot, which is also known as Hoshanah Rabbah, the great crying out in which we circle seven times and beat our willow branches against the earth, another line landed.
אָנָּ֣א יְ֭הוָה הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א
Please mysterious, ineffable, breath of all beings, save us!
There is something raw and relieving about singing out a series of praises, expressing awe and gratitude for the mountains and the miracles, and then getting to just give into the desperate impulse to beg for help.
As my attention turns more fully from the Days of Awe to election season, I feel this impulse.
אָנָּ֣א יְ֭הוָה הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א
Deliver us from this time!
אָֽנָּ֥א יְ֝הוָ֗ה הַצְלִ֘יחָ֥ה נָּֽא׃
Allow us to be on the side of victory.
But then I feel a deeper desire - a longing to know that whatever happens in November, we will have what it takes to dream big and to take care of one another. To continue to cry out and praise the world, to root deep in prayer and community, and to hold fast to that which has sustained our ancestors for millennia.
If you too are feeling this demanding combination of celebration and desperation, come to Simchat Torah on Saturday night so we can conclude this holiday season together as a community. Over and over again we will call out to the many names of the Holy One,
Strengthen us, so that we know that we have what it takes!
Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Each year I am grateful for the direct instruction to begin building a sukkah as soon as Yom Kippur ends. How else would we manage to climb down from the lofty heights of endless song and prayer, if not for the obligation to climb up a new, actual ladder; to set hammer to nail and build an intentionally impermanent and permeable structure.
The days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot are tender and alive. I can feel that I have removed the calluses on my soul. My heart has been stretched open to meet the horizon. I am able to notice a profound contentment, a kind of grateful release, a resting into what is that is itself joyful. Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, describes this special Sukkot joy as "the joy of being stripped naked, the joy of being flush with life, the joy of having nothing between us and the world" (265).
He then recounts this amazing parable from the Talmud:
"It is the unusual way of human beings to feel secure and unafraid while under the shelter of their own roofs. On emerging from their homes, their sense of security is diminished and they begin to feel fear. [Jews], however, are different. While in their homes the whole year, they are apprehensive. But when Sukkot comes and they leave their homes and come under the shadow of the sukkah, their hearts are full of trust, faith, and joy, for now they are protected, not by the protection of their roofs, but by the shadow of their faith and trust in God.
"The matter may be compared to a person who locks themself up at home for fear of robbers. Regardless of how many locks they use and how strong these locks may be, they remain afraid lest the locks be broken. Once they hear the voice of the King approaching and calling, 'Emerge from your chamber and join me,' they are no longer afraid. They immediately open their doors and emerge joyously to join the King...trust and joy never depart from them" (267).
We are once again invited to take refuge in impermanence; to trust that in our comings and our goings, the Shekhina will accompany us. To know a joy that can contain our tears. To remember that security does not lie in locks and policing, but that through our shared vulnerability and care we keep each other safe.
We began this journey on Tisha b'Av, when we invite the wall to crumble as the first step in waking up to our lives. And we conclude it on Sukkot, as we rebuild, raw and revealed. The journey invites us to not only inhabit our sukkot, but to more fully inhabit our lives. In the words of Rabbi Lew, "any moment fully felt, any immersion in the depth of life, can be the source of deep joy" (267).
After so many months of being afraid, contracted in my own home and in my own soul, I am so full of awe and gratitude for having made it through the experience of the Yamim Noraim this year; for the courage of this community to feel it all fully and immerse so deeply. It was more transformative and more joyful than I ever could have imagined. And I know from my inbox, that we all needed it. And there is still more to come!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past Wednesday, September 23 at 1:30pm, a grand jury in Louisville, KY acquitted all of three officers in the case of the murder of Breonna Tayler, and merely indicted Det. Brett Hankison for wanton endangerment for the shots fired into neighboring apartments, but not for the murder of Breonna Tayler. 65 years to the day that an all-white jury found Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam not guilty of Emmett Till's kidnapping and murder.
We arrive to Shabbat intimately aware of the cavernous space between the world as it is and the world that we long, and we walk along a very narrow bridge, brave and scared at the same time.
The rabbis have much to say about the holiness of the space between. One midrash famously describes Torah as white fire on black fire. Which is to say the space between the letters and the words, it too is Torah.
Nowhere is this more visible than in biblical poetry. In poetry, the absence of words says as much as their presence. And when we are in the depths, the absence is what is present. At the end of his life, bereft and longing Moses turns to poetry for his final teaching.
Our parsha begins,
הַאֲזִ֥ינוּ הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וַאֲדַבֵּ֑רָה וְתִשְׁמַ֥ע הָאָ֖רֶץ אִמְרֵי־פִֽי׃
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!
יַעֲרֹ֤ף כַּמָּטָר֙ לִקְחִ֔י תִּזַּ֥ל כַּטַּ֖ל אִמְרָתִ֑י כִּשְׂעִירִ֣ם עֲלֵי־דֶ֔שֶׁא וְכִרְבִיבִ֖ים עֲלֵי־עֵֽשֶׂב׃
May my discourse come down as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, Like showers on young growth, Like droplets on the grass (Deut. 32:1-2).
But it is not just the words that are themselves spacious, it is the page of Torah itself. You can see it here! It is laid out in two columns, with a cavernous space between, the words calling out across the void. But also leaving space. Space for weeping and for longing, for our voices and our vision, for connection.
Rabbi Alan Lew writes,
"When we lose touch with a sense of nefesh, of space, of emptiness, we feel overwhelmed, overstressed, overburdened. So for many of us the question is, How do we find our way back to heaven? How do we relocate that spaciousness out of which we emerged? How do we connect with our nefesh?" (121).
In honor of Moses the poet, I offer you another poem written by Shelby Handler, "The Day the World is Born":
...Here is the way to start again: let heaven
slither in through the holes this year
left in you. Everything you've lost is enough
space for your wholeness to return into. Every day
is someone's birthday. Today is everything's
birth day. We're all here together: holding our breath
in the delivery room. We're tugging at the curtain,
eager to catch it all in our tired and wild arms.
This Shabbat Shuva, in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I invite you to take this page of Torah to heart. To make space in your day and in yourself. May you emerge renewed, as we sing in V'Shamru, "shavat va'yinafash" - with a new sense of nefesh.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
According to Jewish mystics, throughout the month of Elul, HaMelech ba'sadeh - The King is in the field. The King of course, referring to HaShem, The Ineffable Name, The Mystery, Our Source, Our Sovereign. This sentiment is meant to convey a kind of divine availability in this great turning. God is right here with you, in your field (in your alley, as the case may be), in your midst.
But at face value, this is hardly compelling. What do we know of Kings or Rulers that would suggest we want them close by. In these times, this has echoes of martial law and undercover federal agents in our midst, demonstrating the far reaching powers of fascist governments.
But not just in our times. For all of time, Jews have strived to live in spiritual quarantine under conditions imposed by empire and emperor. And so, throughout rabbinic literature we find a genre of midrash that begs the question, In what ways is Melech Malchei HaMelachim, The Holy One, Sovereign of Sovereign Sovereignties, distinct from Melech Basar v'Dam - A king of flesh and blood (a political ruler, if you will)? This is a genre of midrash that has long held my attention. It is this theological conversation that has allowed me to be in ongoing relationship with The Holy Blessed One or Holiness itself.
One such midrash begins with a question (Yalkut Shimoni Psalms #700):
"Who is the King of Glory? (Psalms 24:10a)
Answer: The one who gives glory to those who are in awe of them, 'Adonai Tzeva'ot.' (Ps. 24:10b)"
Which is to say, what makes God different from a regular King?
God doesn't hoard the power and prestige. God shares their glory with those who fear them.
The midrash continues:
"How do we know this is true?
A king of flesh and blood: one cannot sit on their throne. But God sat King Solomon on his throne, as it says: Solomon sat on the throne of YHVH (I Chron 29:23)."
"A king of flesh and blood: one cannot ride their chariot. But God caused Elijah to ride their horse – since storms and whirlwinds are God's horse. As it says: God, in the whirlwind and in the storm is God's way, and the clouds are the dust of God's feet. (Nahum 1:3) and it says: Elijah rose in the storm (II Kings 2:11)."
The midrash goes on, but you get the idea. There is nothing that God has that they would not share with us. So when we say HaMelech ba'sadeh, what we mean is that the well of our resilience is nearby; our spiritual resources are even more available to us.
I bring you this text this week, as we read Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech, the parsha in which we are taught, this thing, this thing called Torah, called Teshuvah, called G!D is not in the heavens. It is right here with you, in your very midst. It is intimacy itself. It is presence and connection. Do not think you need to travel far to find it. It is sheltering in place with you. In your heart and in your mouth.
May you take time this Shabbat to journey outside, to converse with the trees and the wind, to be present with your inner storm and to to hum in your heart the words of the Kedushah:
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה' צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ
Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz'vaot M'lo Khol Ha'aretz K'vodo
Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Name Above, The whole world is filled with G!D's Glory.
Rabbi Ari Lev
For reasons that I barely understand, I would rather be late than early, to just about anything. Meetings, airports, doctor's appointments. (This is certainly on the list of things I need to do teshuvah for. For the people I have kept waiting because I did not leave enough travel time.) I have recently come to understand that this is motivated by a kind of existential anxiety about being early. What will I do with that time? Will it be uncomfortable? Who else will arrive early? These are not rational questions. And inevitably, when I arrive late, I am even more stressed by what arises from rushing to get somewhere without enough time. Recently, I have tried to arrive early to the few things I can still "arrive" to. And what I have noticed is a kind of ease only made possible by sufficient transition time.
There is a story in the Talmud (Sotah 22a) of a certain widow who lived next door to a synagogue, yet went daily to participate in prayers in the study-hall of Rabbi Yohanan. One day he said to her: "My daughter, don't you have a synagogue in your neighborhood?" To which she answered: "My master, do I not benefit from taking steps?" Rabbi Yohanan took her very seriously, and taught the widow's answer to his students.
What he learned from her is the importance of transitioning into prayer, of taking real physical and mental steps towards your practice. This widow, who sadly is not named, seeks out a more distant praying place in order to benefit from the transition time in which she has stepped away from other occupations and is taking steps towards her prayer.
About this story my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader writes, "I doubt that this widow used her walking time to have another meeting on the phone... But if cell phones changed the nature of the walk to prayer, COVID-19 eliminated it. Unless we pay attention to it, there is likely to be no transition time from everything happening around us to the prayer service, no period of taking steps towards prayer..."
One of the challenges of COVID has been the collapse of time and its invisible structures. Some days I feel that there is barely a breath between the end of one Zoom meeting and the beginning of another. Quite literally they end and start at the exact same moment. I need to remind myself to drink water, to use the bathroom, to have a body. Two minutes can feel like an eternity in a Zoom waiting room if a meeting starts "late."
Rabbi Leader continues, "This is one of the important lessons of the Jewish calendar that teaches us to begin preparing for Pesach a week before the month of Adar, to begin preparing for Shavuot on Pesach, to begin preparing for Tish'a b'Av on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and in relation to our current season - to begin preparing for Yom Kippur and Sukkot at the beginning of the month of Elul."
Which is where we find ourselves now, beneath the full moon of Elul. It is time to begin our preparations. Literally. To think about where we might physically be on Rosh Hashanah. What chair might we sit on or what tree might we lean against. To make a list of the people we want to connect with before September 18. To consider if we need to borrow any ritual items or order any special foods or sign up for Shofar in the Park.
At this moment it is important to discern between planning and preparation. While planning has become futile. There is still much to be gained from preparing. In the words of the prophet Amos, "Prepare for the presence of your Source" (4:12-13). We learn over and over again from Jewish time that preparation is in fact what makes the presence of the Holy One possible.
My teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader has written a full-length letter about how to prepare for the Days of Awe this year. It is a generous offering that I am grateful to be able to share with all of you. May it support you to ask: What do I need to be doing now to prepare for Rosh Hashanah?
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.