Yesterday afternoon I rode my bike around West Philly delivering mishloach manot - little Purim goodie bags with edible treats and DIY crafts. I arrived at the home of a KT member dressed like a piece of bacon. I handed her the paper tote and said, "Happy Purim!" In exchange she asked me to wait a moment as she went inside to retrieve an even larger brown paper bag. She handed it to me and said, "Happy Passover!" Her bag was filled with burlap "plague bags," which contained little toy models of each plague to be used at our seder.
In an instant I thought of the words that Flory Jagoda sings in our Song of The Month, Purim lano, Pesach ala mano. "As soon as Purim is over, Passover is imminent!" Literally in Ladino, Passover is at hand or in our hand. And in my case it was literally like a Jewish holiday hand-off, relay race style.
It is sweet to imagine that Purim passes the baton to Passover. And easy to make meaning of it as though it was by design. But then we remember that the festival of Passover comes from the Torah itself. Passover is one of the shalosh regalim - the three pilgrimage festivals described in parashat Emor, along with Shavuot and Sukkot.
But Purim gets no mention in the Torah. It is a "rabbinic" holiday - which means it was established much later. Which is why the mitzvot associated with Purim are so qualitatively different from the shalosh regalim. There are no prohibitions around cooking or commerce. In fact quite the opposite. We are instructed to eat and drink and give tzedakah with wild abandon!
The Jewish ritual calendar may not be intentionally relentless, but it is very effective. These holidays were born at different times in Jewish history, with different textual origins. But as far as we are concerned, we have inherited a season of celebration. For thousands of years, Jews have been participating in this festival relay race. Purim initiates the spring holidays cycle. Hands off the momentum to Passover. And Shavuot is the spiritual closer. (There is a very brief pause before the next cycle begins with the breach of the walls on the 17th of Tammuz. But that is the subject of another email).
When Adar comes, joy increases. The natural world reflects this truth in her colorful blooms, and we echo this need in our insistent frivolity. One KT member wrote to me today, "Purim festivities definitely helped me exhale a bit." Someone else shared, "Let us continue to bring joy into each other's lives." I think that's all we can ask for from the opening round of Spring holidays.
The journey to freedom is iterative and annual. These holidays are sprints that energize what is otherwise a daily practice of opening up and letting go. This week's parshah, Tzav, describes both the persistence and patience required as we tend our inner ner tamid - our connection to the sacred and to the truth that everything is one. May our festival and daily practices bring us closer to each other and to freedom.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Earlier this week I returned a call from a KT member I knew had lived in Ukraine as a child and still had family there. He began, "I had called you when things were still feeling like 1918 and now that things feel more like 1939 we have other things to discuss." It took me a moment to realize he was referencing two different historical markers – the Spanish Flu in 1918 relative to COVID-19 and the onset of World War II in 1939 relative to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Our current political reality was somehow in reference to several other key moments in centuries past all at once.
This week we read parashat Pekudei as we conclude the book of Exodus, the great liberation narrative of our people. But hardly a day goes by in Jewish ritual life that we don't reference it. We imagine ourselves crossing the sea singing Mi Chamocha before every Amidah. We call out from a narrow place in the verses of Hallel on Rosh Hodesh. And every Shabbat, as we make kiddush, we bless the day in remembrance of the work of creation and in remembrance of the Exodus / zecher l'tziyat mitzrayim. Each week we are at once back in the Garden of Eden and back in the Narrow Place.
Our prayers and blessings call to us. They are our memory keepers. Drawing connections across time and place. And in this way reminding us of what is enduring and sustaining.
Linguistically speaking, the reason the Israelites were freed from slavery is because God "remembered" them (Exodus 4:30). In the Hebrew it reads, "Adonai pakad et B'nei Yisrael." This is the same remembering that the Holy One does when Sarah gets pregnant at the age of 99. Our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading begins, "Adonai pakad et Sarah." This remembering can be personal and it can be communal.
This week as we read parashat Pekudei, I am returning to the power of memory. So many of us have family that were forced to migrate from Ukraine in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And some of us are ourselves refugees from Ukraine. It is devastating to think that 100 years later there is a Jewish president and another fascist invasion. I read a piece about how one rabbi in Odessa bought enough canned goods for his congregation to eat for a year. It is 1918 and it is 1939.
Earlier this week the member shared on our congregant listserv, "I was born in Kyiv and so were most of my family members for the previous three generations. I still have elderly family members there that survived the bombing by the Nazis 80 years ago only to be homebound and stuck in there apartment while the city is being bombed by the Russia today... I can't begin to describe sheer horror of what Putin has unleashed on the country where I was born and where I spent my childhood. I recognize every one of those subway stations that are being used as bomb shelters and every street where buildings are being blown up and tanks are driving down."
One midrash on the Exodus story tells of the power of remembering. Moses and Aaron are trying to impress the Elders of Israel. The elders go to visit Serah Bat Asher, the oldest woman in the Torah. (Her life spans the entire experience of enslavement and liberation, and some communities hold that she lives until the 12th century!) They tell Serah Bat Asher that Moses said, "G-d will remember you!" Upon hearing this, she said: "He is the man who will bring Yisrael out of Egypt, for I heard from my father 'Peh Peh Pakod Yifkod' are the magic words.
Serah Bat Asher, often referred to as the memory keeper, is the one person who knows where Joseph is buried. She is called upon so that B'nei Yisrael can fulfill their promise to carry his bones out of Egypt. She is invoked in moments when we need to look back, unbury truths, and unlock our courage to carry ourselves across the unknown.
In the words of the wonderful Marge Piercy,
"Bless the gift of memory
that breaks unbidden, released
from a flower or a cup of tea
so the dead move like rain through the room."
The stories we tell are themselves keepers of memory. We pass them down from generation to generation, from mouth to mouth (peh peh), from heart to heart, so that we can honor our dead and fight like hell for the living.
May the blessings of the new moon be upon us, and upon all of Yisrael and all who dwell on Earth. And may this Adar fulfill its promise to increase our joy.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
I got an email from a KT member this week lamenting that there aren't enough hours in the day. My response: meditate longer. It's not obvious. And it's not facetious. Somehow pausing makes for more space. I am forever grateful to a therapist who once taught me this wisdom.
But the truth is it doesn't solve the larger problem of feeling like there aren't enough hours in the day. Which is actually only one of the many things we don't have enough of. Time, money, patience, clarity, understanding, peanut butter-filled pretzel snacks. We are conditioned towards scarcity by the structures of everyday life, which is further amplified by the endless wants of the human mind.
Once a year we gather around a seder table and sing Dayenu - It's enough for us, aka, we have enough, or often translated, it would have been enough! Whether or not we actually believe the verses of this song, by embedding this song in the traditions of Passover, we learn that the feeling of enoughness is intricately connected to freedom itself.
But long before anyone ever sang Dayenu, Moses pronounced this very sentiment. This week we read parashat Vayakhel. Moses instructs the Israelites to bring whatever their heart is called to generously give to build the mishkan. Gemstones and precious metals, colorful fabrics and fancy wood. And in a biblical instant, the people open up their hands and hearts and give so much that Moses calls out, enough!
וַיֹּאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה לֵּאמֹ֔ר מַרְבִּ֥ים הָעָ֖ם לְהָבִ֑יא מִדֵּ֤י הָֽעֲבֹדָה֙ לַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽהּ׃
"The people are bringing much more than enough... (Ex. 36:5)"
For me what is always so meaningful about this passage is the energy that motivates such giving. It intentionally comes freely from one's heart. As if to say, when we are generous, we have more than enough.
But in truth, it is not obvious or logical that the Israelites are feeling particularly generous in this moment. We just finished reading the story of the Golden Calf. As a collective they are facing tremendous uncertainty, and often very fearful. It would be fair to characterize them as living with a scarcity mentality. So what happened that allows them to feel so generous with their most precious possessions? Do they actually feel generous or do they just give generously? In a world that is constantly suggesting we feel scarcity, what might we do to feel like we have more than enough?
In my own experience, the feeling of abundance doesn't actually lead to being generous. In fact the opposite is true. The experience of being generous is what allows me to feel abundance. If I were to wait until I felt like I had more than enough, I would miss so many opportunities to be generous. This is true for other sentiments like kindness and compassion. It is precisely when I am feeling most irritable that I need to find a way to do an act of kindness. And precisely when I feel most squeezed for time, I need to exercise or meditate.
And the same might be said of our ancestors. In precisely the moment when the Israelites are feeling the most protective and fearful, Moses instructs them to give generously. Not because they have a sense of overflowing abundance, but because giving will allow them to open their hearts to each other, and in that way, they will come to feel they have more than enough.
In his poem "When Giving Is All We Have," Alberto Ríos writes,
One river gives
Its journey to the next.
We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.
We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us...
And in the words of Parker Palmer, "Community doesn't just create abundance - community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed."
May we have the courage to be as generous as possible, with ourselves and with each other, so that we all may come to feel we are and we have more than enough.
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I have been glued to the Olympics these past two weeks. My kids and I have been watching replays from the night before in the moments between breakfast and school. And I have been staying up way too late watching historic competitions like the first women's monobob, figure skating's emotional performances, and the rising tide of black athletes in the winter sports. I have surely tried but failed to appreciate the sport of curling, played Harry Potter style with brooms and stones.
Each night I am filled with awe (and some terror, particularly with skeleton) as each athlete completes near-impossible feats on (fake) snow and hard ice. The sheer speed and complexity of each event defies my own experience of the human body. 1620s. 130 km/hr. Winning defined by thousandths of a second.
But what has really got me hooked, both in the Tokyo Olympics this past summer and in Beijing this winter, is the unprecedented vulnerability of so many of the athletes. The pandemic has placed unreasonable demands on their lives (like ours!) and the pressure has impacted their performances.
It started when Simone Biles got the "twisties" and couldn't perform on the vault. It was a stress-induced mental block that gave her vertigo in the air and prevented her from knowing up from down. It inspired her to talk to the world about her struggles with mental health.
The transparency and vulnerability has continued this winter. I have read so many unbelievable stories. Kailie Humphies, the former Canadian bobsled star who left the sport because her coach was abusive. She later married an American and received her citizenship two months ago so she could compete for the U.S. Elena Meyers Taylor is the mom of a toddler. She pumped while training in quarantine to create more precedent that it is possible to be a parent and an Olympian. The snowboarder Shaun White fell in his farewell Olympic half-pipe run and sobbed in the embrace of his fellow competitors. I could go on with another half-dozen names, but would be remiss if I didn't mention Erin Jackson, Nathan Chen, and Kamila Valieva. Each of these athletes has revealed themself to be undeniably human while competing.
Their courage points me towards one of the most foundational teachings of this week's parsha, Ki Tisa. Infamously, this is the parsha where Moses takes a long minute up on Mt. Sinai. When he returns, he finds that Aaron and the Israelites have built a molten calf; an "elohim" to worship. This violates the very words that the Holy One had carved on the two tablets Moses is carrying, and proceeds to smash. And it undermines the entire spiritual journey that Abraham began in Genesis when he left his father's house, his birthplace, his home, and with it the idolatrous practices of his ancestral people.
I have often wondered, why is it so important that our concept of the Divine be intangible and ineffable? What specifically about the golden calf was so anathema to Moses and to the Holy One?
Oddly enough, watching Kamila Vallieva crumble under the cruel scrutiny of the Olympic Committee brought this teaching home for me. These athletes are not golden idols, even if they are chasing gold medals. They are fallible and feeling, and this is what defines their humanity. No amount of training can alter the profound vulnerability of being human.
If our concept of Divinity existed in metallic form it would be solid, fixed, impermeable, and in that way perfect. And we might be led to believe that we too, made in the image of the Divine, have the capacity for unfaltering perfection.
This is a truth I think the Olympians know best. None of them are under the illusion that being the best is achievable beyond the snapshot of a moment. One year you are the fastest and four years later you lose by a whole second!
The threat of the golden calf is both theological and psychological. For Moses it undermines the entire project of entering into a relationship with a Source that is nothing and everything. The draw of the golden calf is its definiteness. But the very essence of the Holy One is precisely its infiniteness.
We are made in the image of something that knows no bounds. And we are conditioned to strive towards our gold medals. But lest we worship or think we can become them, Moses smashes the tablets. Just like Abraham before him, who smashed all the idols in his father's shop. Our vulnerability is the starting point of our relationship with the Divine.
Rabbi Ari Lev
There are currently thousands of Philadelphians without gas to heat their homes. As we all know, this has been one of the coldest winters in a long time. Yesterday I spoke at a powerful call to action organized by POWER declaring that access to energy is a human right. Clergy, leaders, and organizers from around the city gathered at City Hall with members of City Council to demand that Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) turn on the heat. PGW is a publicly-owned gas utility that has received government assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and yet has neglected to restore service to people who had lapsed payments.
As with all well organized actions, I wasn't just invited to speak. I was given a script with clear goals and a tight timeline. I was asked to publicly lament the reality of living in a city that denies heat to people who are poor and low income. And then I was asked to invite everyone present to turn to someone near them and share what brought them out to this vigil.
In reading this week’s parsha, Terumah, I have been reflecting on the wise instructions I received from seasoned community organizers. In Terumah, we receive very detailed instructions regarding the building of the mishkan. It was the work of metal-workers and weavers, artists and builders. And we are taught that when everyone offered their unique gifts and skills, the holiness overflowed.
One of the key design elements was the instruction to place two keruvim, winged angel creatures, to watch over the kaporet, the covering to the ark. Commentators note how important it is that there are two of them, lest a single angelic being be confused for a Divine idol. And they work very hard to reconcile two seemingly contradictory instructions. The first being that the angels face the kaporet, watching over it. And the second that these angels face one another.
The rabbis of the Talmud attempt to reconcile this discrepancy by teaching that the keruvim faced each other when b'nei Yisrael followed the mitzvot, and turned away from each other when they did not. Which I understand to mean that they face each other when we take responsibility for our obligations to one another.
I thought about this teaching as I invited the people gathered in the freezing rain to take a moment and turn towards one another. So grateful someone else had gifted me this instruction. The white noise of a city block was replaced with the alive hum of people sharing their stories. The Torah teaches that the Holy One actually spoke from the empty space between the keruvim, often likened to the space between two people engaged in Torah study. It is precisely this relational moment that fortifies our humanity in the face of so much injustice.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes about the space between the keruvim,
"We can choose to act in ways which create the space within which that voice speaks, or we can choose to act in ways which will negate that possibility. The voice of the Infinite issued forth not from the golden statues themselves, not even from the holy text which was contained in the ark then and is contained in our scroll now, but from the dynamic space between the keruvim. God speaks to us from emptiness -- but not just any emptiness. God speaks from the spiritually charged space of relationship."
May we draw on the power of these winged-creatures and the courage in our own hearts, to have the strength to keep turning towards another, despite the physical and social distancing of our times -- to engage the spiritually charged space of relationship to make our lives, our city, and this world more whole.
Rabbi Ari Lev
When I was younger, and I didn't want to do something that one of my parents had planned for me, they would often encourage me to do it anyway, followed by what I imagine they intended as emotional incentive: "You will be glad you did it!" Over time, I grew to resent this sentiment. Being told I would be glad about something after the fact, undermined my own capacity to know what I actually wanted in the moment. It led to years of indecision and second-guessing. (I'm sorry, Mom, I know your heart was in the right place.)
Sometimes I was glad after the fact, but more often I was disconnected from my own intuition. This led to a kind of exile from my own self-knowing. It manifested in a myriad of ways. I had trouble ordering food off of a menu in a restaurant. Do I really want to eat that or will I just be glad about it after the fact? When making major life decisions about my gender. Do I really want to change my name or have top surgery? What if I am not glad about it after the fact?
Needless to say, I was once a very indecisive person. But that is no longer true. In fact, I recently received the feedback from a professional coach that I am too decisive, which was so appreciated. The pendulum has swung too far!
So you can imagine my natural aversion to what is arguably the most central teaching of this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim. After a series of instructions that read like case law, Moses goes back up the mountain to record all of the Divine instructions. He returns to the foot of the mountain and shares these covenantal instructions with b'nei Yisrael.
וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃
"Then [Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, 'All that the Holy One has spoken, na'aseh v'nishmah - literally, we will do and we will listen'" (Exodus 24:7).
For most of my adult life, I have subconsciously translated na'aseh v'nishmah as, "You will be glad you did it!" You can imagine my natural aversion to this central spiritual tenant.
Many people cite these two words as the moment when b'nei Yisrael actively received Torah, taking on both the relationship and the responsibility. It is described as a moment of spiritual consent. Additionally, it is often referenced as the reason we might consider adhering to otherwise irrational practices, most notably the practices of keeping kosher and the idiosyncrasies of eruvin. More than consent, it suggests spiritual obedience. Not only am I naturally disobedient, but I also appreciate the very real dangers of religious obedience.
But recently, I have been able to approach these words anew. I remember a teacher telling me years ago, "You cannot know the benefits of davenen three times a day until you have tried it for a month." The same is likely true for many of the mitzvot. We cannot know their real benefit in our lives, if we have not lived them for ourselves. I think this is especially true for mitzvot related to personal practices (prayer, food blessings, etc.), but I also think it applies more broadly to interpersonal mitzvot as well, such as visiting the sick or acts of kindness.
When I reflect on the times when I have been disciplined in saying the bedtime shema, laying tallit and tefillin in the morning, or saying asher yatzar after using the bathroom, I realize there are more moments of presence in my day. As it turns out, spiritual disobedience has its limits.
What if na'aseh v'nishmah actually means, we will do these things and we will gain insight through that experience? What if rather than proscribing obedience, this moment in Torah is describing the benefits of spiritual adherence? Benefits that cannot be articulated because they are born of personal experience. They are uniquely yours to reveal, discover, and live by.
As it says in Leviticus,
...וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם
"You shall keep My laws and My rules, and live by them (v'chaim bahem)..." (Leviticus 18:5).
The mitzvot and mishpatim that fill this week's parsha are meant to bring us greater aliveness. Not to undermine our sense of self, but rather to support our self-actualization.
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I just baked the most awesome challah. I don't know what got into me. I divided the dough into four equal portions, divided each portion into three, and began rolling out the strands for braiding. I then braided three medium-sized challot. As I rolled out the final pieces of dough, I felt compelled to make something of them. It is, after all, parashat Yitro, recounting the revelation of Torah at Sinai.
In honor of the dramatic setting, I thought about making a mountain, but couldn't quite get the shape right. I feared it would bake into a blob and feel more like the midrashim that imagine Torah as a threatening mass of laws that the Holy One held over the heads of the Israelites.
Then I returned to a very ancient wondering. What actually was revealed at Sinai?
According to the school of Rabbi Yishmael, it was not in fact the whole Torah, but just the Ten Commandments that were revealed. In that spirit, I tried to make a bready version of the tablets that Moshe carried, but couldn't quite figure out how. And furthermore, I couldn't decide if I wanted to make the broken tablets that Moshe smashed or the second set that Moses engraved himself. This would make for a very good bake-off challenge!
Then I considered the moment of revelation itself:
משה ידבר והאלוהים יעננו בקול
"Moses spoke; God responded to him in thunder (19:19)."
Thunder and lightning bolts would have been cool, but I couldn't think of how to depict thunder and then it would just be a lightning storm. Which wouldn't account for the kol, the voice, the call. And I realized, isn't that the point? For thousands of years we have been trying to make sense of the ineffable "kol" that called out to us from Mt. Sinai. (The Hebrew here is the same Kol, the same word, that appears in our community's name, Kol Tzedek – A voice for justice.)
What was this Kol? What did it sound or feel like? Did the Holy One use language? Was Moses translating?
And then, as I was holding these three final strands of enriched dough, they mystically and magically emerged as the letter Alef. (I had to double check my block lettering.)
Staring at my doughy Alef, I was reminded of this beautiful teaching from my teacher Rabbi Art Green, who taught in the name of R. Mendel Rymanover, an 18th-century Hasidic teacher in Poland. What was revealed at Sinai, in the "kol" of the Holy One was the very first alef of the very first utterance anokhi (Exodus 20:2). The alef that is itself a silent letter, contains all of Torah. The Holy One speaks in silence. In the still small voice. In our hearts. Everything is contained in the silence.
Rabbi Green explains, "Alef itself, as the Rymanover knew well, is a construct. It is made up of a yod above, a yod below, and an angular vav that joins them. The first yod is ḥokhmah, the inner Mind of God; the second is shekhinah, The Holy One as manifest throughout the world and in our own souls, the God within. The vav, which means 'and', links them together, teaching that the two are one, indeed that there is only One. And that alef is itself the number One."
From the mystical to the mundane, I glazed my alef-shaped challah with egg wash. Long and lanky, it called out for adornment. The thing is, my kids will not eat challah with raisins, sesame seeds, or poppy seeds. (Such a shonda!) But I was committed to making it beautiful. So I reached up into the baking cabinet, grabbed the sugary rainbow sprinkles, and poured them generously onto my three-stranded Alef and thought, now the many are one.
As we enter yet another quiet COVID Shabbat, I long to be surrounded by a cacophony of voices. And I take comfort in thinking about the silence of revelation, and how it too contains all of Torah. May we each find a moment to reconnect to the truth that everything is one, emerging from the primordial Alef revealed from the mighty mouth of the Holy One at Sinai.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past fall I had the chance to guest teach in the 7th grade Torah School class. I invited the students to play a game of "Ask the rabbi?" They asked me questions about Judaism, spirituality, and my own story. The bulk of which were about my relationship to God. There were several questions along the lines of, "Do you believe in God? What do you think God is?" I shared some of my own theology about how God isn't a Jewish word. And some of my favorite names for the Divine that come from Torah. The Ineffable, the Mystery, My Rock, Breath of Life. But even more so, I affirmed the importance of asking the question.
For so many of us, maybe even most of us, believing in God is not organic. It doesn't come naturally. If anything, the opposite is true. We inherit or absorb a concept of God that we davka don't believe in. If we don't know what God is, how can we feel connected, supported, even sustained by such a force/concept/presence? Which is why a moment of spiritual clarity stands out in parashat Beshalach like a signal fire.
The Israelites have been freed from slavery. They have left Mitzrayim and begun their long circuitous journey through the desert. They arrive at the Sea of Reeds, unsure how they will cross. Pharaoh's army is drawing near. Moses raises his staff. One brave Nachson steps neck deep into the waters and the sea parts. The Israelites crossed b'yabasha b'toch hayam, on dry land in the midst of the sea. And as they crossed, they sang!
About this moment, Rabbi Aviva Richman writes, "As the people of Israel witness revelation when the Sea splits, [they] 'point' and exclaim, 'This is my God!'—erupting in the Song of the Sea...To be able to point and identify someone means you must have known them before. How is it possible that the people of Israel already knew God?"
One midrash imagines that while the Israelites did not already know God, some of their children did. Returning to an earlier moment in the Exodus story in which Pharaoh ordered all of the Israelites' baby boys to be drowned in the Nile, a midrash asks (Otzar HaMidrashim p. 305, #17):
How do we know that the sons thrown into the Nile River went up with their parents out of Egypt?
To which the midrash responds:
The Holy Blessed One signaled to the angel appointed over the water and it spit them out into the wilderness. They ate and drank and flourished there.
Rabbi Richman explains, "Unable to imagine that the boys thrown into the river were left behind, this tradition posits a divine hand of love and care that rescued and nourished these children so they could be reunited with their families."
Yet another midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:13) imagines that these same children grow up and find their way back to their families in Mitzrayim before the Exodus, and then they leave Mitzrayim together with their parents.
Now in this moment of revelation at the Sea, the children recognize God first, because they had already been in prior relationship with God (when they were saved from their death in the Nile!).
וכיון שמתגדלין באין עדרים עדרים לבתיהן...
וכשנגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא על הים הם הכירוהו תחלה, שנאמר: זה אלי ואנוהו.
"When they grew up they would come to their homes, in flocks...when the Holy Blessed One was revealed at the Sea, they recognized [God] first, as it says, 'This is my God and I will glorify [God].'"
Rabbi Richman concludes, "The children 'introduce' God to their parents, as it were. The parents can only see God through the eyes of their children."
This has been my experience as a parent and as a spiritual seeker. Sometimes we can only recognize the Divine through the experiences of others, and so often from children specifically. This teaching comes as a reminder of how ancient and worthy such spiritual interdependence is.
We do not need to develop a relationship to the Divine in isolation. We can rely on each other, we can learn from our elders and our children, we can draw confidence from other members of our community. A belief in God, a knowing so clear that we can point to it with clarity and certainty, can grow when we bear witness to the faith of others.
We live in a world that teaches us to doubt our own truth. May we draw strength from our ancestors, who sang their way across the sea. And may we have moments of spiritual clarity and connection, to be able to point and say, "This is it!"
In the words of the psalter,
Karov Adonai l'khol korav - The Holy One is close to all who call out, b'emet, authentically, in their own way!
Rabbi Ari Lev
This past week, the Kol Tzedek staff ended our staff meeting by sharing the books we are reading. (If you are looking for inspiration, I will post a selection in the P.S.) We are no doubt a bookish bunch! I myself just finished reading a book called Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg. I highly recommend it.
I have been on a journey this year to understand the idea of faith more fully, so that I can articulate my own experience and teach about it. In English, the word faith feels risky, as in "a leap of faith." There is no certainty or ground beneath it. The Hebrew word most often used to describe faith is Emunah. A word that perhaps most fully means something like truth or trustworthy. In Hebrew, this essential spiritual concept exudes confidence. It's a sure bet. It's an unshakable knowing. Emunah is reliable. Which is precious and pronounced in a world that of uncertainty, chaos, and change.
What I discovered in my own learning is that there is tremendous resonance between Buddhist conceptions of faith and my own Jewish understanding. In the book, Sharon explores three concepts of faith: bright faith, verified faith, and abiding faith. I will define them each briefly in my own words. Bright faith is the spiritual ignition, the falling in love, the beginning of a relationship that has the potential to become foundational in our lives. Verified faith emerges through the necessary process of doubt and challenge. Having put our faith to the test (and not vice versa!), we can know for ourselves that our faith can endure rigor and reality. Which leads us towards abiding faith, which is a steady companion we can rely on.
As far as I can tell, the opening parshiyot of the Book of Exodus tell the story of the ancient Israelites' emerging bright faith. It exists in both personal and collective narrative, which are ultimately inseparable. It begins with the Israelites crying out from their own depths (Ex. 2:23). A cry that is heard on high, and perhaps just as importantly, deep within. It arises again with Moses at the burning bush, quite literally encountering a blazing bush (Ex. 3:2). If that ain't bright faith, what is?! And it is confirmed in the opening of this week's parsha, Vaera, when the Holy One affirms I hear your cries and I will help you. I will free you (Ex. 6:5-6).
וְגַ֣ם ׀ אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃
I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.
לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃
Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.
Except in my own theology, the Holy One is inseparable from us and so the call and response is internal. It is the awakening of bright faith within us that has the potential to free us. It is the force that allows us to know that we are inseparable from our Source and deeply rooted in a community that cares for us and a tradition that supports us. Bright faith is what allows us to manifest ourselves in the world. In the words of Sharon Salzberg, "With bright faith we act on our potential to transform our suffering and choose a different way" (29).
In this next New Year, may we have the courage to align our lives and arise with bright faith.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year!
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. And for the KT staff book list: An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I've Loved) by Kate Bowler, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg, and Gathering Blue (from The Giver Quartet) by Lois Lowry.
I just got back from a week-long meditation retreat. It has been a core practice and refuge for me for 15 years and it was incredibly nourishing to return to silence after nearly two years. For most people, including my children and my mother, the idea of being silent for an extended period of time is shocking and even overwhelming. My kids have asked me some hilariously practical questions, like, "How do you get food if you can't talk?" In truth, the silence is the easiest part. The hardest part is being with everything that arises in the mind and in the body when all other distractions and variables are removed.
The lineage of meditation that I practice comes from Burma and the Thai Forest traditions. It is very methodical and didactic, and includes several different meditation techniques. One of the core practices is called Metta, which is a Pali word meaning lovingkindness that very closely maps onto the Hebrew word Hesed. Metta is a practice that cultivates lovingkindness in the heart through a series of phrases that can be addressed towards oneself or another and ultimately towards all beings.
May you be happy.
May you be protected from harm.
May you live with ease and well being.
May you awaken and be free.
The recitation of these phrases, which are in many ways aspirational wishes, nurtures a loving heart for the one who says them, regardless of whom they are directed towards. Metta is the quality that allows us to stay connected to love in the face of so much uncertainty and suffering.
Each afternoon of the retreat, following a period of metta practice, there was time for question and answer with the teachers.
Twice during one of the Q&A sessions, the question was asked: "What is the difference between sending metta and prayer? Are these phrases prayers?"
To which the teacher responded, "I don't know, I don't pray."
The teacher then (very unconventionally) asked the student, "When you pray, who or what are you praying to?"
And the student responded, "I don't know, I don't pray either." The room silently chuckled.
You can imagine how hard it was for me to hold back. My mind was saying, "Pick me, pick me!"
If not for a vow of noble silence I would have interjected myself into this conversation. But instead I just noticed my own answers and my desire to respond and teach.
The confusion amidst this room full of meditators was palpable. What is prayer? To whom or what are we praying? And I know this confusion extends well beyond that room, through our community, probably in some way to all of us. These are questions I have explored in countless classes at Kol Tzedek and continue to return to personally.
I think some of the confusion arises from our own ancient terminology for prayer itself. In Hebrew, we refer to prayer as tefilah, from the root פלל, meaning to intercede, petition, or intervene. Because of the ineffable and polymorphous nature of the Divine, it often appears like this intercession is externally focused. As though when praying we are asking some external source to intercede and make a change on our behalf. We pray for healing; we express gratitude; we express longing; we pray for wholeness and peace.
But prayer, in my understanding, is actually not externally focused. Prayer, like meditation, is a concentration and purification practice. Just flip through the pages of the Honeybees Companion to see this truth reflected and refracted.
In the words of Indigenous Poet Laureate Joy Harjo,
"To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you."
Or in the words of Mary Oliver, Praying,
"...just pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak."
And Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,
"Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, and falsehood."
Prayer is meant to open the heart. And one way to do that is by expressing our most genuine expressions of care for other human beings.
We see this longing for caring connecting unfolding in the journeys of our ancestors throughout the book of Genesis. This week we read from the final Parsha. But before we end the book, I want to take us back to the early chapters in parashat Vayera when Abraham calls out to the Holy One on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is surely a moment of holy chutzpah, as Abraham rebukes the harsh intentions of the Holy One to destroy entire cities.
Many people cite this as a moment of spiritual protest, as Abraham learns to call in the Divine. And while that may be true, I think folks miss a larger teaching here. The profound impact of this heated argument between Abraham and the Divine is not on the Divine. After all, the Holy One destroys the cities regardless. The power of these prayers is on Abraham, whose heart opens to a town full of strangers - and realizes that it's worth saving for even 50, 10, 5, even 1 person. How much more compassionate is Abraham for having realized the value of a single life.
As we have been journeying through the last third of each parsha in this triennial year, we have read aloud the burial of almost every ancestor. Never before have I realized that Genesis takes so much care to narrate the way each of our ancestors leaves this world.
This week we read Parashat Vayechi, the concluding stories in the book of Genesis. This parsha narrates the death of Jacob and then finally of Joseph. These final chapters of their lives and of Genesis are in many ways one long expression of metta, prayers, wishes, expressions of Jacob's deepest hopes for his children and grandchildren.
And in the process we experience a very tender Jacob, quoting,
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף רְאֹ֥ה פָנֶ֖יךָ לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי וְהִנֵּ֨ה הֶרְאָ֥ה אֹתִ֛י אֱלֹהִ֖ים גַּ֥ם אֶת־זַרְעֶֽךָ׃
"And Israel said to Joseph, 'I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well'" (Genesis 48:11).
Both death and prayer have this effect on us. They soften us.
Call them prayers. Call them blessings, aspirational wishes, expressions of care. Jacob concludes his life with what I now understand to be a metta meditation. Extending his care first towards Joseph and his sons, and then ultimately to his entire lineage before drawing his final breath and being gathered to his people.
הַמַּלְאָךְ֩ הַגֹּאֵ֨ל אֹתִ֜י מִכׇּל־רָ֗ע
וְיִקָּרֵ֤א בָהֶם֙ שְׁמִ֔י וְשֵׁ֥ם אֲבֹתַ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם וְיִצְחָ֑ק
וְיִדְגּ֥וּ לָרֹ֖ב בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃
The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm--
Bless the lads.
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth (Genesis 48:16).
These are profound expressions of care which we need not wait until the end of our lives to articulate. And yet are so hard to access amidst the callouses we grow to buffer our hearts in this hurting world.
To quote the venerable poet Rabbi Mónica Gomery, in one of her poems, "What I love about death is the way everything else falls away...fuming with love."
Know that while on retreat I called to mind the ever-widening circle of connection at Kol Tzedek and held you all in my heart and offered you metta.
May you be happy.
May you be protected from harm.
May you live with ease and well being.
May you awaken and be free.
Together may we remember the profound kindness of our ancestors (zocher hasdei avot) and have the courage to draw on every poem, every prayer, every breath in our bodies to live lives that fume with love.
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.