This week has been defined by new life, having just officiated at the Bris of our newest member Isaiah Raphael Joffee (Mazal Tov Aviva!). This week has been defined by the death of several member’s grandparents and more than one difficult cancer diagnosis, constant reminders that we are mortal, that life is fragile.
This week has also been defined by the slow drip of hope, with the release of 110 Israeli hostages and 240 Palestinian political prisoners. If you are like me, you have tracked the release of every single person. I have studied the faces of 4 year old Abigail Edan and 22 year old Ahed Tamimi. I keep returning to the images of them embracing their families. I am focused on their eyes. The hurt they harbor. The long road to healing ahead of them. The sounds of war all around them.
I am struggling to digest so much violence and injustice. I keep returning to prayer. What does it mean to pray for peace in a time of war? What might make our prayers effective?
A teacher shared with me a teaching of the great 18th century Hasidic rebbe, Noam Elimelech. It begins, “It is known that a tzaddik’s prayer is answered when praying for a sick person or for others in need. But why? … Why is a tzaddik’s prayer more effective than the prayer of any other person?”
To which he explains,
“This is because a tzaddik loves both God and every person in the world….Most people are not like this…Only a tsaddik who loves everyone has that power.”
I am struck by this ancient aspiration to love God so fully that we actually love absolutely everyone. When we open our hearts fully to the Holy One or Holiness, we are reminded of our fundamental interconnectedness to all life. And when we pray from that place, transformation is possible.
In the words of the poet Cathy Cohen, When Sorrows Come,
…I once dreamed of starlings
flying in patterns,
pulled to each other,
yet with space to maneuver
when threatened by hawks,
by danger. But lately I’m dreaming
of others who suffer – those close
and strangers, whose souls
we must touch
so prayers might flow more quickly from our lips
when sorrows come, when joys –
when sorrows come.
May we have the courage to try to love every person so fully that our prayers for peace and healing flow more quickly and are answered immediately.
Here are two spiritual resources that brought me comfort this week. A new Let My People Sing! Playlist and this beautiful dvar Torah by Ms. Ezra Furman.
The last time I was in Israel and Palestine was in the summer of 2006. It was a very formative time in my life. I have been thinking about it a lot lately. The experience that has been coming back to me this week was the morning I sat with a Palestinian civil rights lawyer. We were asking him questions and one friend asked, “How do you maintain your hope in the face of so many decades of occupation?” To which he seemed to easily respond, “We have no choice. We must be hopeful so that we are ready for freedom when it comes.”
The truth is that this has the potential to feel like a hopeless moment. We are on day 41 of a very violent war that is tearing at the fabrics of family and community. So many people have expressed to me despair about what comes next and how this war ends. In these moments I go back to that conversation in Palestine and remind myself we are each obligated to figure out where our hope comes from.
I spent this past Monday praying for a deescalation of violence and ceasefire at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. We were a weekday pop up shul, complete with a real ark and three Torahs. It was a bright sunny morning and it felt good to pour my whole heart into prayer. I sang so loud for so long that I actually lost my voice. Some of you were there with me and Rabbi Mó. Some of you watched the livestream.
As we were led through the morning psalms by Rabbi Yosef Berman of the New Synagogue Project, I found myself lingering on Psalm 121.
I lift my eyes…to the Capitol.
From where does my help come? …
But rather than help, my mind keeps substituting hope. As this devastating war enters its second month, I am asking myself, From where does my hope come?
Just last week I was teaching the monthly Teen class at KT Torah School. We were studying the famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot that asks, “ I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when?” We were talking about this teaching in the context of the war in Israel and Gaza. And one student remarked, “I think people don’t have enough empathy for people who are different from them.” That gave me hope.
This past Wednesday I joined KTTS+ for tefillah. The students have a rotation and they take turns leading the prayers. As we sang Ufros Aleinu we paused and the kids called out places and people they wanted to send protection. Gaza, Israel, Palestine, the West Bank, the whole world. Their hearts are so wide. I am so grateful to be part of a synagogue where our children are praying for both Israeli and Palestinian safety. They give me hope.
And just yesterday I led a text study with Molly Sand and her fellow organizers of the Penn Freedom school on the Torah of Lo Yisa Goy. Molly dedicated her learning to her grandfather’s memory. It was a brave and gentle multi faith space. After I taught, the Muslim chaplain recounted the story of Moses and Pharoah. I was honored to be there. They give me hope.
My favorite image from this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, is about the wells that Isaac digs.
Genesis 26:19 reads,
“Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.”
Hope is an act of resistance. It is a spiritual practice. Jewish author and poet Grace Paley is famous for having said, “The only recognizable feature of hope is action.”
If the only recognizable feature of hope is action, I see a reason to believe Isaac was hopeful. Despite a life of trauma and familial trouble, despite the despair one might feel when traveling in the desert with no reliable source of water, he redug the wells. And the Torah goes on to say that he found in each one a well spring of water.
Tomorrow is our final Bar Mitzvah of the fall season and our last regularly scheduled B’nei Mitzvah at Calvary. The young people in our community are kind, empathetic, curious, critical thinkers. They are equally passionate about playing games and pursuing justice.
I have the privilege of working with each and every B’nei Mitzvah student one on one. I imagine that when we first sit down to write their divrei Torah, they look at the Torah and think, I have to find water here?! But without fail or complaint they find a way to redig the well and draw forth their own unique wisdom. They give me hope.
Since Wednesday I have been signing my emails “Shabbat Shalom”, anticipating the rest on the horizon. But these weeks it feels like it takes on new urgency and meaning. As if to say, May there be peace by Shabbat. May there be peace on Shabbat.
Each week, no matter the violence and suffering that has ensued, we find a way to greet Shabbat. In the words of Lecha Dodi,
לִקְרַאת שבָּת לְכוּ וְנֵלְכָה. כִּי הִיא מְקור הַבְּרָכָה.
“Let us go to welcome Shabbat, for she is the source of blessing.”
And then in the next verse we sing,
רַב לָךְ שבֶת בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא. וְהוּא יַחֲמול עָלַיִךְ חֶמְלָה.
“For too long you have been dwelling in the valley of tears.
May the One who is compassionate, bestow compassion.”
The past four weeks have been a valley of tears.
As I prepare for this shabbat, I find myself longing for respite. The rabbis describe shabbat as a taste (literally: the unripe fruit) of the world to come (Genesis Rabbah 17:5). This teaching has drawn me back to the Days of Awe and our dreams of the world to come.
One of the many beautiful teachings about the world to come describes 10 things that will be renewed or made true in Olam Haba (Exodus Rabbah 15:2). The list reads:
In this moment of profound destruction, these visions of healing and rebuilding are soothing to my system. It is not lost on me that this list was likely written by someone who knows what it feels like to see a world full of weeping and wailing and to long for that to end.
I feel called by this teaching to devote my shabbat to imagining a world without weeping and anguish; to create a day together that is full of joy and connection; to eat from the tree of life that will one day bear this fully ripe fruit; to feel in my bones a shabbat shalom so that I can be truly refreshed for the week to come.
I invite you to lay down the news, turn off your phones, and find a way to join me for at least some part of the next 25 hours. May we have the wisdom and courage to be joyful. For 6 days a week we work to build toward an everlasting day when these 10 things are true. But tonight “Let us go to welcome Shabbat, for she is the source of blessing.”
Among the pieces of art in my office, there is a small colorful print in a metallic turquoise frame
that intentionally hangs in my direct line of sight. It is a drawing done by my beloved friend Micah Bazant that says, “Honor our dead & fight like hell for the living.” They made this image to support CeCe McDonald and all trans women of color who are fighting for their lives. Micah made it on Transgender Day of Remembrance 2013, to reframe the event towards supporting the survival and leadership of trans feminine people of color.
As Janet Mock, a transfemme activist puts it: “It’s a state of emergency for trans women and trans feminine folk of color”… "The disproportionate levels of violence trans women of color face pains me, and so does the pervasive framing of trans womanhood being directly linked to images of victimhood and tragedy. It hurts that our names are often amplified only when we are dead, gone, inactive.”… " We can’t only celebrate trans women of color in memoriam. We must begin uplifting trans women of color, speaking their names and praises, in their lives.”
As we enter the month of November and approach another Trans Day of Remembrance, I have been holding these words close like an amulet and an oracle.
They have also been an anthem at the many protests I have attended calling for a ceasefire. Janet Mock’s words invoke my own feelings about Palestinian lives as well. As progressive Jewish communities, we are growing accustomed to reading their names at Kaddish and less practiced at building trusting relationships with Palestinians.
There is grounding for this imperative in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. Not once, but twice, Abraham argues with God and insists that the Holy One reach deeper and find more compassion to save innocent lives. The first occurrence is on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. God wanted to wipe out the two cities in their entirety and Abraham implores God!
וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם־רָשָׁע׃
Abraham approached God and said,
“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?
Abraham then begins to bargain with the Holy Blessed One: “What if I can find 50 righteous people? Will you save the city? How about 40 righteous people? 20? 10? 5?”
At which point Abraham calls God in:
חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם־רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כׇּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט׃
“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25)
The echoes of this political moment are eerie and clear.
I too feel the desperate call to try to save every innocent life.
Later in the parsha, The Holy One comes to Avimelech in a dream and describes Abraham as someone willing to intercede. The use of the word intercede here is significant (Genesis 20:7). The hebrew word is וְיִתְפַּלֵּל / v’yitpallel, meaning to pray, is the same root as tefillah, as in Jewish prayer. For the rabbis, the core meaning of prayer itself is born of Abraham’s spiritual efforts in this week’s parsha to bring about a more just God, and therefore a more just world. So when we sing, “In hope, in prayer, we find ourselves here,” we should know that our ancestors are really with us.
The call I am hearing and amplifying is the call coming directly from Israeli families whose loved ones are being held hostage, “Everyone for everyone, Ceasefire Now!” Which I understand as: The fates of Israelis and Palestinians are intertwined. Jewish and Palestinian safety are not at odds. We are beseeching our governments and our God for a world in which we all keep each other safe. We are in mourning for so many righteous lives lost in Israel and too many more righteous lives lost in Palestine. And we are called to fight like hell for the living.
הֲשֹׁפֵט כׇּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט׃
May the Source of Justice for all lands, not withhold a just peace now.
This shabbat marks the fifth anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 beloved community members were murdered while praying. I have been in touch this week with their rabbi, as she has wrestled with how to call for a ceasefire while her community is also so deep in grief and trauma. And I have spoken to members of our community who have shared with me how unsafe they feel as Jews at this moment. We are navigating layers of trauma recessed in our bones and encoded in our DNA. Activated by very real and current anti-Jewish violence and the horrible massacre of 1,400 Israelis on October 7.
At the same time, more than 6,000 Palestinians have been killed, including an unspeakable number of children. One friend, who is also a KT member, received a text last week from a dear Palestinian friend sharing that his entire family had been killed in their sleep in an airstrike. 14 people perished in an instant. And I know that some of us are adding a new layer of fear. That the violence in Gaza will produce more antisemitic violence here in the U.S., in our synagogues and schools.
The song in my heart this week has been the refrain of one of our healing songs at Kol Tzedek, “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well.”
One person I spoke with shared honestly that when they feel this unsafe, they cannot even begin to think about the safety of others. It is perhaps the most core human need and right to feel safe in our own bodies and homes. A need and a right that is unjustly reserved for the privileged in our world. A need and a right that is systematically and routinely threatened by racism, transphobia and state violence.
Of the many articles and videos about this war that I have watched this week, one stands out. It is the moment when Yocheved Lifshitz, an 85 year old Israeli peace activist who was taken hostage on October 7, is being freed near the Egypt border.
“At the precise moment of her deliverance from a hellish ordeal Yocheved Lifshitz paused and turned to grip the hand of one of the masked Hamas militants who had kept her captive. “Shalom,” she said.
You can watch the moment here.
The care and tenderness in her grip is palpable. I feel proud to be part of a Jewish people that includes her. She is an elder who has just survived 16 days of captivity and still she reaches for a shared humanity with her captor. Yocheved is one of many Israelis who do not want revenge. You can read their pleas here.
I have spent many hours this week in honest, painful conversations with teachers, KT members and my own family. I feel in my own heart how hard it is to stay open, caring, connected to people with whom I disagree about the core nature of our safety in the world; what makes us feel safe, and how we can get there.
And yet I believe in the possibility of a world that is whole and just and so far from our reality that it can only be captured in my prayers.
Our healing song continues,
“When the world is sick, can’t no one be whole. Yet I dreamt we were all beautiful and whole.”
In this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, our ancestor Abram, is called upon to find his spiritual purpose in this world. One midrash (Genesis Rabbah 38:13) describes Abraham’s search for his own faith. In it he is wondering what might he worship, since he is abandoning the idol worship of his ancestors.
“His father and his brother suggest, let us worship fire.
To which Abraham counters: Instead let us worship water, for it extinguishes fire.”
We too are called to find our spiritual purpose in this world. For myself at this moment, that includes the unequivocal call for a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza. I know we do not all agree with this call. I do not expect or need our political alignment. I hope we can align on our commitment to reaching for our shared humanity. For the humanity in others.
In his poem Think of Others, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish reminds us,
“As you conduct your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace).”
May the Holy Blessed One who makes people possible in the heavens, bring it here on earth, speedily and in our days.
Everyone I have talked to this week is on edge. And collectively we are walking on eggshells.
I haven’t talked to anyone this week who hasn’t fought with someone they love. In each conversation we are trying to assess one’s political allegiances, to code-switch our language to avoid further conflict. We are perhaps still trying to educate. Or maybe we’re done trying to persuade. It is so hard to say we don’t know. It is scary to say what feels true and it is scary to silence our truth. We are weary and we are nowhere near the end.
What I feel in my bones is that this is not just a war, it is a wedge.
A political wedge that is meant to divide and separate us from each other, for our own families and communities. I feel it in my own heart. And I feel it in my own family.
Last shabbat one of my teachers wrote,
“I know that so many of us are feeling heartsick and unmoored.
In the face of our sense of helplessness,
it is all too easy for us to weaponize our words against each other.
One word to the left
One word to the right
Can feel like a betrayal,
An unbridgeable gulf.”
Her words landed like a mirror.
With each passing day, I fear the bonds of this community will unravel in our hands.
Yet I know with my whole being that we need each other. That we are more powerful together.
We as a community are poised to try to inhabit this unbridgeable gulf.
We are a coalition powerful enough to be part of creating a just peace.
In this week’s Torah portion, Noach, we read the story of Noah and the Flood. But also of the story of what happens after the flood when the people were fruitful and multiplied and began to fill the earth. The Tower of Babel is one Jewish origin story to explain human difference and diversity. Genesis 11 explains that the people grew so powerful and so proud that they decided to build a tower to reach the heavens. In their hubris, they wanted to make it tall enough to reach the Holy One. So the Holy One humbled and thwarted them by turning their speech to babble, causing them to speak all different languages. I imagine a very immature computer programmer wagging their finger, “Take that people, now try to play together!”
Most days I disagree with this rendering of human difference as a punishment. This is not what I feel nor what Jewish tradition in its entirety values. But this week I have experienced this story as less prescriptive and more descriptive. It is so hard to talk across differences. Especially political differences. Especially Israel and Palestine.
We are unique as a synagogue in that we do not default to zionism. And yet we are not decidedly a non-zionist or anti-zionist community. We as a community are diverse in our views, which I know is deeply uncomfortable. We have family in Israel and in Palestine. We have a lot of skin in this game. For many of us our relationship to Israel/Palestine is core to our sense of self, in one way or another. Based on a survey a few years ago, our affiliations include New Israel Fund, If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace, and many views not on any institutional map. And I will continue to insist this is what makes us powerful.
This past Wednesday morning I drove down to Washington D.C. to be part of an action. Around 3 pm hundreds of us gathered in the rotunda of the Capitol building calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza. We spent the better part of the afternoon singing the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Lo yisa goy el goy herev. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” I was joined by hundreds of people in the Capitol building, and bolstered by thousands more outside on Independence Avenue, including dozens of Kol Tzedek members. It was not only peaceful, but prayerful. Over the course of many hours we sang every song for peace we knew. We sang even when our voices were hoarse and thin. We sang while they arrested us and for hours after. We sang until they literally ordered us to stop.
An article in The Nation captured it vividly, “Aided by a melodious shofar, two dozen rabbis spoke about the moral urgency of the moment while thousands of fellow Jews chanted “Cease-fire now!” outside the building. Together, it created a cacophony of righteous trouble in the best tradition of our people.”
It was a proud moment. I shared it with some people I love dearly. And to my heartbreak, they reacted defensively.
As I reflect on my week, I am not sure what I am more proud of, the fact that I, along with so many Kol Tzedek members, was part of an inspiring act of civil disobedience calling for a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza, or the fact that I narrowly managed to avoid fighting about it with my family via text message.
It feels almost impossible to talk about this war with the nuance and compassion it requires. Which is in and of itself scary. Just today I received an email from my kids’ school principal asking for my help because, “Kids are beginning to ask each other, “Whose side are you on?”” This is not only a war, but a wedge.
Last Sunday I gathered with a large group of Torah School parents to share ideas about how to talk to our kids about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. In my tenure as Senior Rabbi of Kol Tzedek, it was the first time I had facilitated a conversation on the subject. I could feel the relief and the openness, as we went around the circle sharing our questions. It was clear that so many of us are personally impacted. It was important to me that I say that no one needs to agree with me as the rabbi. And I apologized for censoring myself to a fault on this subject.
The conversation was full of compassion and curiosity and honored our community’s commitment to having more discussions about our relationship to Palestinian liberation. It was a hopeful and grounding moment in my week. And I hope we will do more of this in the days and weeks ahead.
For those who do feel some openness to learning more about the political context in Israel right now, I urge you to listen to or read Rabbi Sharon Brous’ Yom Kippur Sermon, “This is the moral earthquake.” While I personally would tell the story about the founding of the state and its significance differently, I am very grateful for her brave rendering of this moment. And I hope and imagine it may be easier to hear it from her than from me.
We are made in the image of the one who spoke and called the world into being. The power of our words to build or demolish worlds is at the core of this week’s Torah portion and of our spiritual legacy.
May the Holy Blessed One help us to be courageous, to be clear, to be curious and to be compassionate as we reach for our shared humanity and work towards a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine.
Join us tonight at 6:30 pm in person and online. It can be a great comfort to sing in community and Rabbi Mó will be sharing important words of Torah. And tomorrow at 10 am for shabbat morning services at Calvary.
Shabbat shalom, please god
This is the week when the Torah takes us all the way back to the beginning. And so it feels right to begin again our weekly conversation with my Friday emails. I have missed sharing these tidbits of Torah and receiving your reflections. I even started a fresh google doc for drafting this next 7-year cycle.
Torah begins again. And so do we.
And this year, Torah will be different because we are different.
Of the many words that we mumble through every Shabbat morning, there are a few that are my favorites.
“U’vtuvo mechadesh b’khol yom Tamid ma’aseh v’reishit.
The Holy One generously renews all of creation every single day.”
Which is to say that the very creation story we will read this shabbat morning, which recounts “ma’aseh v’reishit,” how the world went from tohu va’vohu, from unformed chaos, into light and form, didn’t just happen once long ago. It is actually an act of cosmic grace every single day. The world and we wake up new every single morning. In a world aching with violence, and full of petrified people, this is perhaps the most hopeful relationship I have with creation. The remembrance that it is ongoing. That everything is possible every single day.
But Torah is not just a record of what happened, it is also the blueprint for creation. One early midrash describes it this way,
כָּךְ הָיָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַבִּיט בַּתּוֹרָה וּבוֹרֵא אֶת הָעוֹלָם,
And thus the Holy Blessed One gazed into the Torah and created the World. (Bereishit Rabbah 1:1)
If the Torah is the blueprint for creation and if creation happens every day, something very powerful becomes possible. When the Holy One looks into the Torah tomorrow, she will not only see the Torah we inherited from Moses at Sinai, but she will also see our Torah, our new ideas in the margins, our white fire reflections, and they too will become part of the blueprint and have the capacity to shape the world.
This is one of the most powerful things about Torah. It is alive. Our tradition is not stagnant. We are empowered, each and every day, to look into the Torah and make meaning.
And one of the really complicated things about Torah is that Jewish people everywhere can gaze into this wide wisdom tradition and draw out contradictory insights.
One of the really painful things in this political moment, is that some Jewish people are gazing into the Torah and seeing a justification for escalated violence and revenge in Gaza and the West Bank.
One of the really hopeful things about this political moment is that other people are gazing into the Torah and seeing a call to value every single human life and end this cycle of violence.
What’s challenging to me about this is that no one is lying or manipulating Torah.
It is all in there.
Torah is not one thing. And that is both its power and its vulnerability. Like any sacred text, Torah can call for an end to suffering and violence. And Torah can be used to justify violence and extremism. This scares me.
Seventy-five years of occupation in Palestine has made everyone unsafe.
I am scared for the 2 million people of Gaza who are being told to leave their home, but have nowhere to go and no way to get there.
I am scared for the Israeli civilians being held hostage by Hamas.
I am scared for Palestinians and Israelis throughout the region, bracing for further attacks.
And, not but, but and, I am also scared for the soul of Am Yisrael, the spiritual center of the Jewish people. I am aware that grief of the magnitude we’ve experienced and seen this week can unleash a powerful drive for revenge. I am also aware that for many of us, our very real present and past Jewish traumas are activated at this moment. I am afraid that Israel’s extremist government is weaponizing Jewish loss and Jewish grief into unthinkable mass violence.
In moments of such overwhelming emotions, it is important to remember that we have agency in our spiritual lives. I cannot control the meaning others will make of Torah. But I can choose to make my own meaning of it, and make meaning in my own life.
As we begin this new Torah reading cycle, we get to choose how we relate to Torah and which teachings from Torah we choose to guide our response to this brutal moment.
Here is what I am choosing.
I am holding fast to the very beginning, to Genesis 1:26, to the essential idea that every single human being is made in the image of the Divine. According to the Jerusalem Talmud and the teachings of Ben Azzai, this is the singular most important idea in all of Torah. Every life has inherent dignity, purpose, and worth. This idea, that we are each created B’tselem Elohim, is where our humanity begins. It is the foundation of our spiritual tradition.
I am holding fast to the words of the prophet Isaiah (2:4).
“Lo yisa goy el goy herev.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.”
We should instead be transforming our weapons into harvesting tools.
I am holding fast to the knowledge that the book of Exodus (21:23-27) actually says we should take a life for a life. But our rabbis, thousands of years ago, rejected that idea. The Talmud asserts that a life cannot be literally taken for a life. We must find another way to restore what is lost.
Tomorrow morning when we open the Ark and sing Bei Ana Rachetz, I will be praying with all my soul that our study of Torah make it possible for us to open our hearts more fully; to open our hearts wide enough to grieve the violent murder of over 1000 Israelis; to grieve the vengeful murder and displacement of many more thousands of Palestinians, who are themselves survivors of decades of occupation. Torah asks us to open our hearts wide enough to have Ahavat Yisrael, to care for and about our fellow Jews, while also being in solidarity with Palestinians and their demands for dignity, equality, and freedom as part of the present day struggle to leave the narrow place.
עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ וְתוֹמְ֒כֶֽיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר: דְּרָכֶֽיהָ דַּרְכֵי נֹֽעַם וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶֽיהָ שָׁלוֹם:
Torah is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it.
May our study of it this year expand the horizons of our hearts and bring closer to a world that is just and peaceful. For her paths are meant to lead us to shalom.
I am holding fast to Torah this year and I invite you to join me.
I just checked.
Over the last seven years, I have drafted nearly 100,000 words across 221 pages of unformatted Google Docs, cut-and-pasted into hundreds of Friday blog posts. This practice started out of an instinct to connect across time and space, in a time when Kol Tzedek only met once or twice a month for Shabbat services. It continued out of a desire to share Torah that could support and sustain us through narrow times. And it has persisted because every week another person writes back and reminds me that we are in an ongoing conversation, for which I am profoundly grateful. Thank you for reading my reflections each week.
Shabbat Hanukkah is a very auspicious time in the Jewish mystical traditions, marked by the new moon of Tevet. The new moon is the darkest time of the month. With the solstice behind us, we know the light is returning, but the dark is still predominant. We read the story of Joseph and his many dreams and the words of the prophet Zachariah, "Not by might, and not by power, but by spirit alone!"
But my favorite thing about Shabbat Hanukkah is that we recite the psalms of Hallel. And this year we do it for two reasons. We do it because it is Hanukkah. And because, this year, the sixth day of Hanukkah, which is always Rosh Chodesh, also falls on Shabbat.
Hallel is a journey through the full range of human experience. Through ancient poetry, the psalmist teaches us to find a way to say thank you when we are in the narrowest of places. Min HaMeitzar Karati Yah - from the narrows I call out to You. And to say thank you when we feel a deep sense of safety and abundance. Ozi v'zimrat Yah - You are my Song and my Shield. We humble ourselves and say, lo lanu - this is not about us, but about something much greater than ourselves. Ani avdecha, we offer ourselves up as sacred vessels, eager to be of service. And then we say, Ana Adonai, Hoshia Na as we call out for support and for strength.
Every time I sing Hallel, I am struck by the words of Psalm 115, "Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah / The dead cannot say Halleluyah." As if the psalmist is saying that part of what it means to be alive is to praise, to express Hallel, to connect to gratitude.
It seems like a gift and no coincidence that we will recite Hallel on my final Shabbat before I go on my first sabbatical. You all have taught me the meaning and importance of Hallel. You have taught me how to connect to and praise the full range of human experience. I am so grateful.
The words of Psalm 118 are written in a circle around the text of the ketubah that Shosh and I designed. The chorus of this psalm is repeated four times in the repetition of Hallel, Hodu Ladonai Ki Tov, Ki l'olam chasdo, which literally means, "Give thanks to The Eternal, whose love is everlasting." But I think a more theologically accurate translation might be, "Acknowledge that which is beyond and between us, the thread of connection that binds us."
On Saturday morning, I will sing these words full throttle. And I will be thinking of each of you. It has been a challenging seven years in the life of the world. I began my tenure just before Trump was elected. Those four years were followed by three years of pandemic, which is ongoing. You have taught me how to find dry ground in the midst of the sea. For which I am so grateful. You have brought me closer to everything I know to be holy.
I am so profoundly grateful for the opportunity to serve and care for you as a community. Thank you for allowing me the privilege to teach you Torah and lead you in prayer. This sabbatical comes as an ot - a sign - that we are deeply invested in each other. I am grateful for the opportunity to turn inwards, to care for my mind and body, to exercise and meditate, to study Torah and work on a writing project. And I am so excited to reconnect upon my return.
My hope is that you take really good care of each other. That you show up for each other's simchas and accompany each other in grief. That you are slow to anger and quick to forgive, and abounding in acts of kindness.
I have so much gratitude for and confidence in the Kol Tzedek clergy and staff, board, and entire community to carry this community through this milestone and thrive. I am also super excited for all the things you will create in my absence that will have been beyond my imagination. I am already dreaming about what I will learn from you upon my return and what new Torah I will be able to share. I am so excited for you and for me, and really for us!
This will be my last Friday blog post for many months.
We learn in Pirkei Avot, Ain kemach, Ain Torah. No flour, no Torah. I invite those of you who are able, who have not already, to consider making a donation to Kol Tzedek's 18th Anniversary L'chaim! Campaign. Your generosity will make a huge difference and help us reach our goal of finding an accessible spiritual home in West Philly.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy Kwanzaa!
See you on the other side,
Rabbi Ari Lev
I offer this dvar Torah with gratitude to Rabbi Avi Strausberg who taught me this Torah.
A common Sefardic Hebrew name is Nissim, which means miracles. We knew this when we gave our younger child the middle name Niso, which is a diminutive of Nissim. He really is a delightful little miracle.
What we didn't know is that there would be a few other Nisos in the KT community. Which led my child to make up an entire fantasy basketball team called "Another Niso," where every player was named Niso. She would draw the players and narrate their games with endearing toddler pronunciations. "And then Another Niso shoots and scores...And the crowd goes wild!"
It has been a few years since this fantasy has been part of regular breakfast conversations. But I return to it every Hanukkah, when we sing Al HaNissim - and give thanks for the many miracles bestowed upon our ancestors in their days at this time.
Hanukkah is on the one hand a very humanist holiday. It is about creating light at the darkest time of year. It is a holiday about hope and resilience. The songs are mostly silly and accessible. Dreidel is arguably ritualized gambling.
But on the other hand, Hanukkah is a deeply religious holiday. It is about Divine salvation in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. It is about faith and miracles.
It is my sense that most of us don't quite know what to make of miracles. And we don't spend nearly enough time fantasizing about "another miracle."
Rabbi Avi Strausberg writes,
"The time of the Bible was a time brimming with miracles beyond human comprehension. Everywhere the Israelites looked, God's divine hand was discernible. In the Bible, Moses' rod miraculously transformed into a snake, the great Nile bled blood, rocks broke forth to bring water, and the sky brought down gifts of sustenance. This was a world in which, for better or worse, to our salvation or to our demise, great seas might part to save us, or the earth might open its mouth to swallow us whole. It was a world in which God’s clear and palpable presence could not be denied."
Despite my own desire to feel a sense of awe and connection to the natural world, this is not our world today.
Rabbi Strausberg continues,
"Rabbi Rabbi Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk, known as the Meshekh Hokmah, writes that this transition from a world driven by miracles to a world where we hardly see them anymore occurred when the Israelites left behind their wandering... (comments on Deuteronomy 29:3). The Isrealites were no longer dependent on an external force, on Divinity itself, to survive. To make food fall from the sky and part the sea. We developed agency and an ability to sustain ourselves. This is a good thing. 'For the Meshekh Hokmah, this move from divine interventions to human enterprise marks a healthy and necessary stage in the development of the Jewish people’s relationship with God.'"
But despite this overall transformation, we are still reminded daily in our prayers and every year at Hanukkah (and Purim), that the world is full of miracles. That the good in our lives is in part because of human creativity, but also in part because of something beyond us, something miraculous.
In the words of the poet Walt Whitman,
"To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the
ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?"
This Hanukkah, may we have the courage to fantasize about "another niso," little miracles, everywhere and always. To "Praise the light that shines before us, through us, after us." (Marge Piercy, "On our feet we speak to you").
Wherever you find yourself this week, shine bright!
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Tomorrow morning, in addition to celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, we will get to once again place a baby in the actual Torah and welcome her into the covenant of the Jewish people. It is incredible to imagine how many dozens of babies over the past seven years have been swaddled in the womb of Torah, quite literally wrapped in the letters of the parchment scroll.
I first wrote this ritual in my final year of rabbinical school. I had seen it done elsewhere but can't quite trace its lineage. Shosh was pregnant and I wondered how we might welcome a child in a way that felt true to our values as transfeminists.
Historically, babies assigned female at birth did not actually have a Brit, aka a Bris - a ritual to enter the covenant. Since ritual circumcision is not possible for all babies, I knew I wanted to create a ritual that would invite every baby to enter the covenant of the Jewish people regardless of their assigned sex. In the end, I researched and wrote three ritual options - and Brit Torah has been the most popular at Kol Tzedek.
What feels unique about tomorrow's naming is that it will coincide with the words of parashat Vayishlach, which in addition to recounting Jacob wrestling with an angel and getting blessed with the name Yisrael, also includes the birth of Jacob's only daughter, Dinah.
Genesis 29-30 reads, "And Leah conceived and bore a son...And she conceived again and bore a son...and she conceived again and bore a son...And she conceived again and bore a son...and she conceived again and she bore Jacob a fifth son...And Leah conceived again and bore a sixth son to Jacob...And afterward she bore a daughter."
As was shared last week at another B'nei Mitzvah, relative little is said about or by women in the Torah. Throughout the entire biblical story, Dinah never speaks. Her silence is painful. Which makes this brief mention of the birth of Dinah pronounced and important.
In a recently published collection, Dirshuni: Contemporary Women's Midrash, Rivkah Lubitch writes about this moment,
"What is 'and afterward'? After all these sons, she had a daughter.
Some interpreted 'afterward' as a language of pain, others of joy.
A language of pain, for Jacob made no feast when she gave birth to Dinah, and Jacob didn't come when her mother named her; rather the call went out, a daughter is born to Jacob, and the world went on as usual..."
Every time we ritualize the naming of a daughter or non-binary child at Kol Tzedek, we are redeeming Leah's pain. But even more so, we are remaking Jewish tradition. Even rewriting Torah. We are claiming the birth of a daughter is a reason to celebrate, a moment of joy.
My only regret is that this ritual tradition did not yet exist for my own kids. While I had written them before they were born, we were not yet embedded in a community that had a Torah where we could imagine fulfilling it. You all have taught me so much about the importance of ritual and community. I am proud of the ways that we have found truly meaningful ways to reclaim the concept of covenant so that it can include everyone.
It is said that the birth of a child brings with it the possibility of shalom in the world. Tomorrow morning, when we place a newborn baby inside the heart of the story of Dinah, may her cries be ones of joy and the beginning of so much Torah we hope to learn from her.
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.