Last Sunday was Rosh Hodesh Elul. I didn't sleep well, I think because I was genuinely so excited to blow shofar. I scurried to drop each of my kids off at friends' houses so I could join in the Hallel minyan at Kol Tzedek. I arrived at 9:59am, feeling grateful that I had a minute to spare and settle. But when I got there, a few folks were talking in a huddle and the energy was calm. Where was the anticipation and urgency that usually accompanies the beginning of things?
Even though on some level it was obvious, my brain didn't quite compute what was going on. I was still thinking the minyan was starting late, rather than the more obvious truth: I had missed it.
I went to my office and began to wrap my tefillin, in preparation for prayer of one kind or another. Our shammes came in to return my computer stand, and then it really hit me. Hallel was over. I had mistakenly thought it started at 10am, when in fact it had been called for 9am.
I was disappointed. Hallel is arguably my favorite service. And I can't really sing it alone.
Rabbi Mó walked into my office, also realizing what had happened. She apologized for having misremembered the start time during Shabbat announcements the day before. (Never mind the fact that I obviously could have checked the KT calendar myself!) But then in all her wisdom, she said, "I am grateful for the chance to give you the opportunity to forgive me on the 1st of Elul."
And it really did feel like a gift. To say, I forgive you. To begin that way. And then I said, "Thank you, for giving me just the story for my upcoming Friday email."
The poet David Whyte writes, "Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving...generosity in an individual life, a beautiful way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves."
Throughout the Days of Awe we will sing about a God who is erekh apayim, slow to anger and quick to forgive, with the hopes that we too may be cool in our temper and rav hesed, full of compassion. But we don’t need to wait. Forgiveness is a skill. And today, in the earliest days of Elul, is just the time to practice.
Before the sun sets and invites in this first Shabbat of Elul, I invite you to extend your forgiveness to someone. It could even be yourself. And through this practice, may we come closer to the future we want for ourselves.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past Sunday morning, I rode my cargo bike to the Kol Tzedek office to pick up a box of weekday prayer books for a shiva minyan and the Torah for a baby naming ceremony. I knew both lifecycle events were in the neighborhood and I planned to courier the ritual items. It was not until I arrived in the back alley where the shiva minyan was gathered that I fully realized that the baby naming was exactly across the street, in a parallel alley. I stayed for a few minutes as family members and KT members gathered to say Kaddish. And then I rode my bike across the street, where another gaggle of KT members were preparing to welcome a new baby into community and covenant.
Each of the gatherings were beautiful unto themselves. But knowing they were both happening simultaneously, filled me up completely. Cosi revaya - my cup overflows.
Yehuda Amichai writes in his poem "A person in his life",
A person in his life has no time to have
Time for everything.
He has no room to have room
For every desire. Ecclesiastes was wrong about that.
A person has to hate and love all at once,
With the same eyes to cry and to laugh
With he same hands to throw stones
And to gather them...
If this is true for a person, how much more so for a community. I am in awe of our ability "with the same eyes to cry and to laugh." To comfort mourners and welcome babies. To pray for healing and dance a hora, all at once.
This year has been full to the brim, often overflowing, with grief and joy. Together we have stretched ourselves to honor the fullness of life, often all at once. Daily I learn from this community the profound and sustaining gifts that come from being connected to a web of care and connection. You all help me to feel there is time for everything. Thank you!
Today, in addition to being the last day of June, is also the first day of the month of Tammuz. The new moon brings with it the possibility of everything. As I prepare to take some time off, that is what I want to bless you with. Everything.
May the month of Tammuz and the summer days ahead bring renewal. May you be blessed with a life of goodness. A life of nourishment, and a life of sustenance. A life of healing and of good health. A life in which you experience awe for the Divine and a love of Torah. A life free from shame and full of integrity, honor, and clarity of mind. A life in which you continue to have the courage to cry and to laugh, to care for others and be cared for.
May it be so.
And may we go from strength to strength.
Hodesh Tov! Happy Summer! Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
One of my favorite things about being Jewish is the catalog of greetings and salutations to mark the seasons and the seasons of our lives. Shabbat shalom. Shanah Tovah. Mazal Tov. HaMakom yenachem etchem. I remember the first time I learned that the greeting for a person who is pregnant is B'sha'a Tova, which translates to "in a good moment" or "in its right time."
I also remember the first time I realized how important this greeting is. A friend called to share the news that they were unexpectedly pregnant. And before they had a chance to share that they were planning to have an abortion, I jumped in and said, "Mazal tov." Mistaking the stressful moment for one of celebration. As they shared that it was not the right time for them to have a child, I emotionally backpedaled and found the ritualized response that Jewish tradition had prepared for me all along. I shifted my tone and said, "B'sha'a tova." Which is fitting to say when learning someone is pregnant and when learning someone is having an abortion.
There are many reasons someone may decide to have an abortion, and certainly timing is among them. I know this has been true for members of Kol Tzedek who I have supported through their own decisions to have an abortion. It is precisely because Judaism values life so highly that it also understands that abortion is healthcare. Abortion saves lives.
In the midst of our rage and our grief at the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, I want to reiterate that abortion is still legal in Pennsylvania. I want to share with you the brave words that a KT member shared last Shabbat in their Dvar Torah about abortion. And this amazing toolkit created by the Abortion Liberation Fund of PA.
And finally, I want to share with you a few words of Torah on the subject of redemption in its right time. In addition to many other blessings, this weekend, we will invite the blessings of the new moon of Tammuz. Known as Shabbat Mevarchim, this is the blessed Shabbat that immediately precedes the coming of the new moon. The new moon of Tammuz signals the arrival of summer and the season of harvest.
Rabbi Jill Hammer writes,
"Before the last of the harvest is gathered in, there will be hot days, maybe drought. The summer of the Jewish calendar is tinged with sadness and anxiety. National tragedies are remembered at this time, as are personal failings. Summertime is not necessarily an easy time...
"A midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah 8:14) compares the redemption of Israel to four kinds of harvest: grain, grapes, spices, and children. Each of these precious fruits must be gathered in at the right time (b'sha'a tova) or else not gathered at all..."
The midrash explains that if the grapes are gathered before their time even their vinegar will not be good. If spices are gathered when they are soft and moist, their smell will not carry. Timing, says the midrash, is everything. Both in our personal lives and our collective story.
Underneath the agricultural metaphor, is the existential wondering,
How long must we wait for a world that is whole and just?
For redemption from violent rulers and regimes?
I am reminded of where our story as a people begins. With the midwives who bravely saved the babies from drowning in the Nile, despite Pharaoh's decree. The violent control of women's bodies has been a tactic of dictators and slave masters since the beginning of human existence. And our capacity as people to organize, undermine, and overthrow such violent regimes is in our DNA.
Lastly, I want to send you off into Shabbat with the wise words of AOC:
"Many of our biggest problems are the result of massively scaled up isolation from others. That means many of our solutions can be found in creating community...
"You are allowed to be scared. To grieve. To be angry. But you are also allowed to create good, to be soft and enjoy the small reprieves. Struggle lasts as long as we do."
I have faith in us. In our capacity to create good and bring about redemption in this world.
B'sha'a tova - may redemption come to us in its right time.
Shabbat shalom u'mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
I woke this past Thursday morning around 5:30am to booming thunder. It was an unbelievable storm that lasted for more than two hours. The thunder and lightning were so loud and so clear it felt as though they might be coming from within our house. Somehow, my children slept through it. But I could not. I found myself laying in bed utterly terrified. Many times I actually said thank you for my house, for its shelter and protection. I thought of folks who are insufficiently housed and the utter chaos of a storm like that.
I felt viscerally scared to the bone. This was not a rational fear. It felt like some kind of primordial terror. And though the circumstances were entirely different, and I risk sounding like a parody of myself, I could not help but think of the Israelites at Sinai.
Let's journey back several months, way before the books of Numbers and Leviticus, to the middle of Exodus where the Israelites find themselves at the foot of the mountain. Exodus 19:16 reads,
וַיְהִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֜י בִּֽהְיֹ֣ת הַבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְהִי֩ קֹלֹ֨ת וּבְרָקִ֜ים וְעָנָ֤ן כָּבֵד֙ עַל־הָהָ֔ר וְקֹ֥ל שֹׁפָ֖ר חָזָ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃
On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.
Just weeks ago we recalled this story as we prepared for Shavuot. And while I might have been aware of the fear and trembling of revelation, I was much more connected to the magic of that moment.
But you simply need to ask anyone who has ever read Torah, particularly any of our recent Adult B'nei Mitzvah. Being in the presence of the open Torah and reciting those ancient words off of the parchment scroll is terrifying. Don't get me wrong, it is also exhilarating. But that is not what people remark. They often talk to me about how much more scared they were than they thought they would be. In this way, everyone who reads and receives Torah is standing again at Sinai.
The account of the Israelites at Sinai is also linked to the most awesome and terrifying moment in our holiday cycle. In the beginning of the Unetaneh Tokef on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as we plead for our lives, we hark back to this moment of revelation at Sinai:
וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע. וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע.
The great shofar is sounded and the still small voice is heard.
וּמַלְאָכִים יֵחָפֵזוּן. וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יֹאחֵזוּן.
the angels are alarmed, pangs of fear and trembling seize them...
This is how I felt on Thursday morning – seized by pangs of fear and trembling. Which led me to wonder, why would whoever wrote the Torah want this sensation to be associated with the revelation of Torah at Sinai?
On the one hand, it was not an empowering feeling. It gave me great empathy for those among us who have experienced this kind of religious terror. And on the other hand, fear is also an invitation to have courage.
The poet David Whyte writes,
"To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world..." (Consolations, 40).
The thunder and lightning that were present at Sinai, and this past Thursday morning, invite us to make conscious those things we already deeply feel and to live in relationship to our unending vulnerabilities. So too with our study of Torah and our observance of Shabbat. May it give us the courage to feel deeply and to live in a greater relationship with ourselves, our bodies, and the world.
May it be so.
In honor of Juneteenth, I am completely honored to share with you the words of Rabbi Sandra Lawson. May we merit to be a community that increases Black joy in the world.
Rabbi Ari Lev
A few months ago, parents of the Kol Tzedek Torah School's kindergarten class were invited to come and celebrate the conclusion of their unit about Shabbat. I typically teach this family education session. But this year, I also happened to have a child in the class so I got to participate as a parent. Jess, who teaches the class, taught about the practice of Birkat Yeladim, blessing children on Friday nights.
Some of you may remember that my older child has for years protested this otherwise tender ritual. Such that we largely forgot about it. Until we were invited to study it with our five year old. I was reminded again that these ancient words are at once magical and theologically awkward.
May God bless you and protect you. What if my idea of the Divine lives in my heart?
May God illuminate their face towards you. Wait, does God have a face?
May God lift their face towards you and place within you peace. A face, again?!
Then Jess invited us to write a three-part blessing based on what our kids actually wanted to be blessed with. With some prodding, my five year old was able to realize his three deepest prayers:
"May you be as sweet and as green as nettle cake.
May you have so much fun on Naim planet.
May you be kind."
And laughed inside. What a silly kid. (In another email I will explain the origins of nettle cake.)
The priestly blessing holds a very important place in my heart. I still remember the first time I ever said the words to another person. I offered the blessing to a classmate in rabbinical school. The words crawled off my tongue. I was a little embarrassed. It was obvious the words were new to me. And also I was excited to finally utter the oldest blessing in our tradition.
I have said these words countless times since then. It is with these very same words that we bless each other on Yom Kippur. The very same words that we bestow upon every B'nei Mitzvah in our community. The very words I offer to every couple under the chuppah.
But every time, I translate it a little differently. Depending on the people and the moment. It is, after all, poetry. But never have I quite translated it like Naim!
It was not until this week, as I was studying Parashat Naso, where these words originate, that I understood the authenticity of Naim's rendition.
Haamek Davar, a 19th century Hasidic teacher, comments on the opening line:
"'May God bless you.' Included in this is whatever is appropriate for each person to be blessed with...For one who deals in Torah, in his study. For one who deals in commerce, in his merchandise."
And so for a child who loves sweet things and imaginary play, may they both be in abundance.
While I always felt this to be true, it is freeing to see what my child understood instinctively expressed so clearly in the words of a teacher in the great yeshiva of Volozin. The priestly blessing is a placeholder, or perhaps a portal, into our core longings. No one, after all, wants a compulsory blessing of something undesirable.
Please know that every time we offer this blessing at Kol Tzedek, and call upon the Holy One to bless you and protect you, we are expressing our deepest hope that we each be blessed and protected in the ways we uniquely need.
I think Marcia Falk got it right when she translated this ancient blessing as follows:
"Be who you are!
And may you be blessed in all that you are."
Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
It is said that when the Israelites stood at Sinai, Torah was revealed. The written word--well, really the engraved word--carved into two stone tablets. And also the oral Torah, the expansive conversations that surround the written words, which emerged like a whisper from the first silent aleph of Anochi.
But the question arises: which is more important? The written Torah or the Oral Torah? Which carries more weight? And really, which one is "right"? By which I mean, when they contradict, which one takes precedence?
On the one hand, I would argue that the oral Torah is more important, because it is what gives life and meaning to the written word, lest it ossify in time. Torah exists in the transmission of ideas across generations, in conversations, in relationships, in study halls and in our hearts. The oral Torah is a survival strategy.
On the other hand, I would argue that the written Torah is more important, because it is our origin story. It is a shared reference point. We turn and return to it for wisdom and insight. Like the wells our ancestors dug and redug, it is a gathering place. It literally brings us together, to sit and study its words. In this way it is more accessible, because it is concrete.
The tension between the written and the oral Torah doesn't just belong to the Five Books of Moses. It exists in family folklore and urban planning, And it certainly exists at Kol Tzedek.
Not surprisingly, we as a community have some preference for the oral Torah. We are a community that is empowered to define ourselves. For many of us Naomi Segal and Rie Brosco are the keepers of our traditions. They, along with other founding members, transmit the oral Torah of our community nearly every time we gather. Reminding us what has come before us to allow us to arrive at each moment. But there have also been moments when we have wanted to point to the written word and say, this is who we are. And we have been limited by the absence of the written word.
Over the course of the last six months, the Strategic Planning Task Force has taken on the bold task of writing down Kol Tzedek's purpose, vision, and priorities. This process has been its own kind of revelation.
Typically in Jewish tradition, we go from the written Torah and seek to expand its meaning through the oral Torah. But in this process, we have attempted to reverse engineer our origin story. To finally write down that which has been living between us, to make explicit that which has been implicit. It has been a tremendous labor and we all owe tremendous gratitude to Elana Baurer, Tania Isaac, Hillary Blecker, Abby McCartney, John Argaman, Candice Thompson, and our consultants Roz, Dr. Renaya, and Ellen.
We have disagreed with care and conviction. We have clarified the places where there is alignment amidst infinite competing and sometimes contradictory ideas. We have generated ideas, debated over Slack threads that run nearly 70 messages deep. We have worked on countless Google Docs with the thesaurus tab by our side. We have searched for the perfect words, which we now understand to be words that are honest and true. Which has required that we searched our hearts for the truth about who we are and who we can be.
I can only imagine the heavenly hosts pouring over those very first 10 utterances. What allowed them to be sure they were ready for revelation?
What I have learned through this process is that the written word is powerful because it is so clear. It is defining and dividing. It sets boundaries. And the oral tradition is powerful because it is infinite and alive. Everything is possible. Quite literally, nothing is written in stone. In that way it can be massaged and manipulated to meet the moment.
I am so grateful that we have both paradigms of Torah to learn from. We need them both.
And so I am honored to give you a preview of the written Torah that hundreds of KT members have helped to shape over the past six months. You can check out our purpose, vision, and priorities here and our community's values here. We will be studying these together on June 12 at the congregational meeting.
It is said that in the moment that Torah was revealed at Sinai, an angel whispered into the ear of everyone present - which was all of us. It is my hope that as we prepare to receive Torah as a community, that the words we have written down land like a whisper, summoning us forward together.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
The poet Khalil Gibran writes, "Your children are not your children. They are the [children] of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts..." These words are forever sung in my heart by the harmonies of Sweet Honey in the Rock.
I have two kids who are now 5 ½ and 8 years old. These days I have been asking myself, "Are my children really my children?" They are both profoundly different from me and from each other. There is a story from our second night Passover seder that I think captures it best.
We were eating dinner. It was getting late. But I had told my kids that they got extra dessert for every question they asked. They took the challenge seriously and the questions just kept coming, until one of them asked the most existential question of all. "Where did the world come from?" Without skipping a beat and in near unison, one kid emphatically said "God!" and the other kid emphatically said, "The Big Bang!" There you have it. Each of them, with their own clarity and thoughts.
What followed was theological outrage that the very God who created the world also caused the Israelites and the Egyptians to suffer the horrors of the plagues. I can still hear them asking, "Why did people have to die?!"
I have been asking this question myself all week. In the wake of the Buffalo shooting, which is but the latest anti-Black violence in a 400-year litany of racist plagues, "Why?" The horror of the violence and the fear that it inspires in Black bodies is truly cruel. Where is God in all of this?
As someone who believes in both God and the Big Bang, I am constantly searching for a relationship with God that I can reconcile with my postmodern sensibilities. Like my kids, I cannot relate to a God that caused the plagues to fall. And these days I am not drawn to a Divine that can redeem us with an outstretched hand, as the book of Exodus promises. For me, God does not need to be rational or tangible, but it does need to be comforting.
This past week I had the privilege to study Torah with Rabbi Julia Watts Belser. She shared a midrash that I want to share with all of you, which provides a pathway into a God that can't get us out of a jam, but can surely be with us in our pain and our pursuit of liberation.
Exodus 3:2 reads,
"An angel of God appeared to [Moses] in a blazing fire out of a thornbush."
One midrash imagines about this moment (Shemot Rabbah 2:5),
"Rabbi Yannai says,
Just as with twins,
If one suffers an ache, the other feels it."
In the world of this midrash, we B'nei Yisrael / Children of Israel are the children of Life's longing for itself. We come through God but not from God. The Burning Bush is God's origin story as much as it is our own.
So the midrash continues,
"The Holy One said to Moses:
Even if you do not feel that I live in pain when Israel lives in pain–
Know it from the place from which I spoke to you, from within the thorns.
As if to say, I share their pain with them..."
While I have often thought about the burning bush, I have never before called attention to the bramble-like quality described here. Not just a bush, but a thornbush.
And so the midrash asks,
"Why from within the thornbush?
To teach you that there is no empty space devoid of divine presence,
Not even a thornbush...
Just as the thornbush is the hardest of all the trees,
And no bird (read: people) that enters within the thornbush is able to go forth whole..."
The midrash then explains the relationship between God and Israel, saying,
"It is like one who takes up a lash and strikes two people
Both of them receive the lash and know the pain."
I am so moved by the image of a God so radically enmeshed in the world, even as they are so limited in their power to prevent our suffering. A God who experiences the pain of the slave-master's whip. It is not just that God knows our suffering, but God feels our suffering. This midrash reminds me that God has a visceral stake in our liberation.
As I reflect on the thornbush that has been this week, I am drawing strength and comfort from this ancient wisdom. Our journey is to emerge from the thicket as whole as possible. And to remember that the Holy One is pressed up against the thorns with us, working to realize real freedom with us.
Rabbi Ari Lev
One of the highlights of my week was meeting with a Kol Tzedek B'nei Mitzvah student. I asked them what I always ask in our initial meeting. "What is Torah?" Their eyes lit up as we discovered the difference between the Five Books of Moses and the entire Tanakh. It was magic to show them how to find Psalms and Esther tucked away in the chapters of Ketuvim. They got so excited when they realized that the Talmud was not in the Torah, but was also Torah!
I take very seriously the responsibility to cultivate a love of Torah in our B'nei Mitzvah students. To teach them to love the words and even more to love studying Torah. I want each of them, and by extension all of us, to understand that our relationship to Torah matters. That our study of Torah has an effect on us and therefore an effect on the world around us. And perhaps even more importantly, that our study of Torah changes Torah itself.
I remember the first time I understood what it meant that Torah is alive. That a single word can mean many things and a sentence can be read many ways. Torah is indefinite and it is infinite. Without vowels and punctuation, it is on its own indecipherable. For Torah to be meaningful, it requires that we pronounce it. And we have agency in how we do that. I always tell our B'nei Mitzvah students, Torah is a tree of life. And your Dvar Torah will be its newest leaf. Every time you teach Torah you are directly contributing to the wisdom of our tradition.
As you can see, I have a very romantic relationship with Torah. I love transmitting this sense of wonder to my students. But as I approached this week's parsha, I was reminded that Torah is also vulnerable. The fact that it is forever open to human interpretation means that it is also available for misinterpretation, exploitation, and manipulation.
This week, in parashat Acharei Mot, we read the words of Leviticus 18:22. Often translated as "Man shall not lay with man. It is an abomination." These words, as they appear in Hebrew, are obscure in both meaning and context. It is ambiguous what this verse means. And yet it has resoundingly been used as the biblical justification for homophobia across religious traditions and cultural contexts. There is no question this verse has harmed many of us personally and Judaism at large.
It should be some comfort to consider that the very fact that Leviticus 18:22 has caused so much pain and harm is also proof that our relationship to Torah and our study of it matters. And yet, I rarely study the painful verses of Torah with my B'nei Mitzvah students. I neglect to tell them that it is not all magic and mystery. That Torah is infinite which means it is also hard and harmful.
There have been times in my life when I have wanted to cross out every problematic verse in Torah. I even have a copy of the Tanakh where I started this project with scissors and a sharpie. Trying to redact this sacred text to make it less harmful. To remove the promise of colonial conquest and the rape of Dinah and even the opening verses of Genesis where it appears human beings might have been made male and female, exclusively.
But then I discovered the world of Midrash. Stories about the Torah, which are also Torah! Stories that retell, reclaim, and often redeem our stories. Take as an example the midrash of the first human being, describing Adam HaRishon as neither male nor female, but rather androginos, which we can imagine as a Hellenistic non-binary identity. Had I torn the pages from my Tanakh, I might have missed the chance to study these words and all of the stories they have generated.
So the question arises existentially and usually very practically in my inbox: What do we do with these verses? Do we read them out loud on Shabbat? Do we bless them with an aliyah?
There was a time when I would have said no, let's skip them. Let's bury them. But these days I am using these hard moments in Torah to embrace a larger spiritual practice of being present with hard things. This includes working with pain in the body and not wishing it away; noting anger and judgment and not reacting to it immediately. I am actively trying to get better at being physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Not because I prefer it. But because it allows me to be present for more of life. And in this case, to be in relationship with more of Torah. Our power as human beings is our vulnerability; our ability to feel the full range of human experience. So too with Torah.
May our presence and patience with these ancient words lead to healing, insight, and transformation for all of us.
Shabbat Shalom and (almost!) Hodesh Tov,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Next week at this time I will undoubtedly be scrambling to be ready for seder. If there even is such a thing as being ready. I take comfort thinking of our Israelites ancestors who left in a haste. Our rushed preparations have mythic precedent. So I am going to take this opportunity to share some seder Torah in anticipation.
The Haggadah famously teaches, "In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we personally went out from mitzrayim." Years ago I learned a beloved Sefardi custom from my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader that I think most honestly fulfills this teaching. Every year at our seder, when we arrive at the Maggid section, we physically go outside and find the famous full moon of Nisan. And then we walk by its light around the block. Like all good rituals, it begins as a theatrical moment, inviting our kids to reenact a mythic story. But inevitably it becomes part of our story too.
Certainly the journey from the front door of our row home to the backdoor is hardly a sea-crossing. But nonetheless, there is a felt sense of this collective leave-taking. And certainly a cry of "Dayenu!" from the little ones.
While the Israelites left b'hetzi ha'lailah - in the middle of the night - we are more likely to be doing this at 6pm than midnight. Nonetheless, I am already anticipating the magnetic pull of that luminous moon, which, according to some, has the power to turn day into night.
The song of this month, as curated in our newsletter by Rabbi Mó, is called "Karev Yom." Its haunting melody attributed to the Baal Shem Tov draws on the closing words of a 6th-century piyyut by Yannai that appears in the concluding Nirtzah section of the Haggadah:
Karev yom / Bring close the day
A-sher hu lo yom v'lo layla / which is neither day nor night...
Ta-ir k'or yom chesh-kat layla / Illuminate, like the light of day, the darkness of night.
Every year as I stand beneath the full moon, I Imagine the desert headlamp it must have been, and still is for so many. So strong was its light, that it was able to transform the darkness of night into the light of day.
The full poem is actually called "Vayehi bahatzi HaLayla" / "And so it will be in the middle of the night" and it is actually a reworking of a midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 20, which describes all the miracles that took place in the middle of the night. Moments like Jacob wrestling with the angel, Israel's escape from Mitzrayim, King Ahashverosh's decision to save Mordechai and the Jews, to name a few. The poem goes on to make the bold claim that רב נסים בחצי הלילה / "most miracles happen in the middle of the night."
Most often I think of night as a time of increased danger and profound vulnerability. Our liturgy calls on the Holy One to spread over us a canopy of protection as we descend into the dreamworld. Eager to wake and express gratitude for the return of breath to our bodies.
But here this poem reminds us that night can also be a time of miraculous transformation. This should be a comfort to those of us who struggle to sleep. It is in the middle of the night that the seams of the world are loosened and more things are possible. Not to mention, most births happen at night.
As we sit around our seder tables this year, I invite you to call close the day that is neither day nor night, the liminal time where miracles abound. Just as the haste of our ancestors made way for unimagined freedom, may our hurried preparations bring us closer to a world that is entirely just and peaceful.
Shabbat Shalom and wishing you each a Zisn Pesach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
One of the most important moments of my week is when we pray for healing as a community during the Torah service. This practice began for me during the years when I worked at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan. As an LGBTQ synagogue that was forged during the AIDS epidemic, they lost an entire generation of gay men in their community. Prayers for healing were essential and complex. It was there that I learned to pray for a refuah shlemah - a complete healing of mind, body, and spirit. And to acknowledge that if a complete healing is not possible, may we be surrounded by care and community.
Disease, illness, and healing are at the center of the Torah portions we are reading this week and next – Tazria and Metzora. They are infamously known for their nuanced teachings about skin afflictions and priestly practices. But since March 2020, these parshiyot have taken on new resonances. Resonances that the two brave B'nei Mitzvah students that we will be celebrating this week and next will be speaking directly to.
About these parshiyot, my teacher Rabbi Art Green writes:
"All of us who read these words are survivors. We have lived together through terrible years of plague. Many of us have lost people we loved or cared about. Readers beyond a certain age are also likely to see themselves as survivors of various other events in the course of our lives: cancers, road accidents, addictions, and lots more sorts of plagues. In the course of this, we have all sought out healers, whether professionals, spouses, or friends. Is there any wisdom for healers or for those needing to be healed (that includes all of us, of course) that might be found in these very obscure chapters of Va-Yikra? Let’s try."
Having had COVID last month, I felt the wisdom and challenge of this parsha's instructions around communicable diseases and quarantine. So deep was my desire not to infect anyone else. When was it safe to emerge? How can I be sure not to transmit this virus? But also my longing to be taken care of. To have someone bring me a cup of soup and sit at my feet. I can relate to the biblical fear of having an illness that we do not fully understand. This is not unique to COVID. And ever more pressing for the many people in our community living with chronic illness.
At the end of this week's parsha we shift from illness to wounds and we receive this instruction:
או בשר כי יהיה בעורו מכות אש...וראה אותה הכהן
"If a person has a burn by fire in the skin...the kohen shall look at it. Has the hair turned white in it? Is it deeper than the skin (13:24-25)?"
Rabbi Green explains, "Here we are talking about an affliction that comes from without, a burn by fire. Let us see it as referring to any sort of wound that has come about due to some external event. We call this trauma...The healer has to look – perhaps 'looking' has to be expanded to listening – carefully before deciding how to go about helping to heal. There are cases when the healer will then be able to move forward, doing or prescribing something that will help. But there are also cases when that ve-ra'ahu ha-kohen, 'the healer sees – or hears – the person,' is itself a great act of healing."
To move beyond the specific sensory language, it seems that the work of the healer is to bear witness, so as to acknowledge the suffering of another. In truth I think this applies to wounds and illnesses, from within and without. I think this parsha points to the power we all have to be kohanim, to be healing presences for one another.
Each week we lean into our priestly duties as we pray for healing, as we offer ourselves as listening companions, visit each other in the hospital, and cook meals for one another. This care work is holy, it is ancient, and it, too, is a great act of healing.
May the one who brings healing and wholeness on high, bring healing and wholeness to everyone who dwells on Earth. And when a complete healing is not possible, may we be surrounded by a community of people to bear witness and be with us to ease our suffering.
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.