I must be honest, I never aspired to homeschool my children. And if only you could see the short video of one of our "morning meetings" -- one kid bouncing on the trampoline upside-down while Shosh tries to read the schedule, and the other kid reminding us we are already behind schedule while I cry a new-to-me kind of tears, where I literally don't know if they are tears of laughter or fear. After a few days, we called in some reinforcements. And since that tearful morning, Shosh's mother, the amazing Rabbi Gila Ruskin, has been running morning meetings, which we should actually rename Circle Time because it has no fixed hour and often happens midday.
The most important hiddush (innovation) of her morning meeting is a Mad-Libs-style fill in the blank schedule. Rather than worrying about what time we will do anything, she asks them things like, "What is our act of hesed today?" This can be anything from writing a letter to their great grandmother or recording a video for someone's birthday or making a heart out of sticks in front of a friend's house. For me personally it has profoundly changed my days to orient around the question, "What act of hesed can I do today?" And it has helped me to orient to this entire quarantine with that same question. What acts of hesed can we do in this time?
Every year the second night of Passover brings in the counting of the omer, as we seamlessly weave from one sacred cycle into another. In the mystical imagination, each of the seven weeks of the omer corresponds to a sephira, a divine emanation. And we began last week with hesed. How fitting. The Talmud teaches us that the Torah begins with hesed and ends with hesed. "How so," you might ask?
Rabbi Simlai taught: In the beginning of Genesis, the Holy One makes garments for Adam and Eve, and at the end of Deuteronomy, the Holy One buries Moses (B.T. Sotah 14a). For Rabbi Simlai, the whole of Torah is filled with acts of hesed. And if the Torah is the blueprint for the world, then so too the world begins and ends with hesed. These days, that seems increasingly true.
In response to a culture of "cancel everything" I have witnessed the rise of its spiritual corollary, "share everything." This has proliferated at Kol Tzedek, in the wider West Philly community, and in the world beyond. It has been true at car protests to free folks from jail and waiting in line for essentials like groceries and banking. Mutual aid, loaves of bread, boxes of matzah, face masks, baseball mitts, projectors, seeds, books, gardening tools. The world has become the lending library it was always meant to be. Canceling everything has loosened our grip on the material world and given way to a culture of generosity that can only be understood as hesed.
One of my beloved mentors, Rabbi Rim Meirowitz taught me that in a community everyone is a member of the hesed committee. This is our fundamental calling as humans. To reach out and support one another. In the words of Ashrei, "Poteach et yadecha u'masbia l'chol chai ratzon - Reach out your hand and sustain all life." The mishnah teaches that there is no upper limit on gemilut hesed/acts of kindness. And this feels increasingly obvious, evident, and necessary in these times. I am so grateful to everyone in our community who has been extending care and phone calls and increasing our interdependence. It was a powerful reminder to sing of this profound hesed every morning of Pesach during Hallel, calling out - Ki l'olam hasdo - Hesed is what endures.
In a quiet moment after a rainstorm earlier this week I went on a run. As I meandered through the vacant parks on this warm spring night, a feeling arose inside me: "I miss the world and all of you in it." The feeling gave way to a spacious softness inside. Something I can only describe as a well of hesed. A longing to share the world with each of you. And I thought of the words of the inspired poet Rabbi Mónica Gomery:
"To say I choose the world, and you in it.
Wide and blasted through
and bleeding light, I don't
know how else to name it..."
I know Rabbi Mó wrote this poem about a very personal grief. And I know for me in this moment it touches a vast abyss of collective loss. Which is to say, I miss you all. I choose the world with you in it. As we journey into Shabbat, may we merit to begin and end our days with acts of hesed.
However you choose to connect and spend shabbat, know you are in my heart.
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.