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
Written in collaboration with Rabbis Joseph Berman, Avi Killip and Micha'el Rosenberg.
As we prepare to celebrate Passover isolated in our homes, separated from loved ones, and struggling against the grave injustices of our society, now so clearly unmasked, I am thinking of a teaching from Rabbi Arthur Green about the central tension of the Seder. Rabbi Green explains that the tension is between the contradictory claims in the Haggadah, which contains the words "now we are slaves" and then, moments later, "we were slaves to Pharaoh in Mitzrayim (the narrow place)…" The Haggadah seems to be saying that we are both enslaved and free.
This year the whole world is in a narrow place - mitzrayim - as we are living through what many people are describing as a plague. We often sing as our prayer for healing at Shabbat services the words of the Three Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra: "when the world is sick/can't no one be well." How acutely we know this to be true. But then we sing another line: "and I dreamt we were all beautiful and whole." These last words capture for me both the yearning for a world of wholeness, healing, and liberation along with the truth that we are in fact beautiful and whole, even if we might not feel that way. More than one thing is true at once says the Haggadah.
For those who were not present online during Friday night services, I wanted to take a few moments (as a break between cleaning my fridge and my stove) to share some brief reflections on preparing for Passover this year.
This is the first time we have experienced seder in the midst of a pandemic, but it is not the first time Jews have celebrated this holiday in a moment of danger and fear. We have celebrated Passover in narrower times. All week I have been thinking of a photo published in the NY Times, of women baking matzah in the oven they built beneath the Lodz Ghetto in 1943. We may be physically distant, but we must remind our bones that this is not World War II. We may never have seen a solo seder as something that might happen to us, but Maimonides did and we know this because he taught us that one is required to ask themself the Four Questions. Our seders this year will become a link in a chain of seder throughout Jewish history that offered Jews comfort, ritual, and joy in uncertain times.
Perhaps you too have been wondering how best to prepare for Passover this year. I've had moments in the past few weeks where I thought I should say to our community, don't worry about Passover this year. Only focus on what is urgent and what you most need to do. The last thing you need to be worrying about is purchasing matzah and making charoset. This may in fact be necessary for some of us and that is OK! And, with the help of my chevruta and teacher, I'm now thinking about the process of observing Passover as an opportunity to move through our present narrowness.
Part of what has been anxiety provoking about this pandemic is that we've lost many of the mechanisms by which we structure time. This might be a commute, in person meetings, "going" to school, or "going" to work. Part of the gift of Judaism is that we still have the possibility of structuring, of texturing, of sanctifying time. It can help our mental health and create joy. While we are spending so much time at home, we can still do a serious Spring cleaning and put away the chametz. Whether at home or on Zoom, we can tell stories and ask questions. The Haggadah also says, one who expands upon the Exodus story, harei zeh meshubach - that person is worthy of praise. Because in truth, the Exodus from Mitzrayim never ends. This year's story is ours to tell.
This doesn't mean you are going to necessarily observe Pesach this year the way you have in previous years. In fact, that is likely impossible. Passover is at its heart a night of questions. And so it seems fitting that my primary instruction on how to prepare for Passover this year comes in the form of a question. I invite you to ask yourself:
What are the core principles or observances of Passover for me?
Maybe that means having a seder, maybe it means calling the mayor to demand he decarcerate PA jails, prisons, and detention centers, maybe it means asking big questions about freedom and justice and dreaming up even bigger answers, maybe it means eating matzah, maybe it means avoiding bread or all chametz or even kitniyot. AND, at the same time, ask yourself:
What are the adornments and practices that in other years I have put attention on, that might not make sense in this time?
For example, I am still committed to deep-cleaning behind my stove. But unlike previous years, I am planning to eat kitniyot.
Many of us associate Passover with a heightened attention to practice, going above and beyond what we typically do. There is a culture, particularly in Ashkenazi communities, of leaning into stringencies, a kind of strictness of observance. For some of us this will still feel meaningful, in which case I invite you to see this as core to your practice. But for those who feel ourselves retreating at the idea of Pesach this year, overwhelmed by the prospect of having to figure it out, approach Pesach with gentleness, let go of things you might have done in previous years, and focus on the core principles and observance. Give yourself permission to prepare in ways that are meaningful and to know you are allowed have a shvach seder. And please do not put yourself at increased risk or danger for the purpose of ritual observance.
I must admit, when I looked at the ritual calendar just before Purim, I could never have imagined this moment. To imagine that all plans and projects could evaporate. And on the one hand, it is unnerving and utterly disorienting. On the other hand, it seems infinitely hopeful. To realize that change is not only possible, but inevitable. It means that liberation is also not only possible, but inevitable. That oppressive forces will also one day cease and desist. And this is why we celebrate Passover, every year. Not just to remember it, but to live it, to breathe life into the potential this ancient story represents. In the words of the Haggadah:
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יֶָָצֶָא מִמִּצְרַָים
"In every generation each of us is obligated to see ourselves as though we had gone through Mitzrayim."
Rabbi Shai Held taught this morning, Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) is a paradigm for the truth that there is no status quo that cannot be overturned. So let this be the year you have the strength to tell a story that takes you from bitterness to joy, because if it is possible for us to adapt and make the great changes these times require of us, liberation is also possible. I am grateful for the reminder from my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader: "Closed in our homes as we were in Pesach Mitzrayim, may this night again be a gateway to redemption." May it be so, speedily and in our days.
May it be a uniquely meaningful, liberatory, and healthy Passover for you and your loved ones.
Chag Kasher v'Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
הא לחמא עניא די אכלו אבהתנא בארעא דמצרים.
כל דכפין ייתי ויכל
כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח.
Our Passover story famously begins, Ha Lachma Anya, "This is the bread of affliction/poverty (lechem oni) that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, come and eat. All who are in need, come and do Pesah."
This teaching embodies the Haggadah's aspiration for true liberation for everyone – no matter one's income level. Everyone deserves to celebrate being free at Passover. The Mishnah even teaches us that even the poorest of the poor are required to have four cups of wine at their seder (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1).
Every year, this profound declaration challenges us to imagine a kind of hospitality and economic justice that is ever-expansive and all-inclusive. Most years I wonder how I can say these words and mean them. Could I be inviting folks I meet on the street, especially folks who ask me for money, to literally come join me in my house? Could I be posting on listservs or social media, gathering folks who are looking for a seder at the last minute? Could I be spending the morning cooking Food Not Bombs-style and serving a meal in a public space?
But this year, even more so, as we prepare for a Passover like none other, what might it mean to say, "Let all who are hungry come and eat," when I literally cannot invite anyone to my house for seder?
As it turns out this line has been the cause of sufficient curiosity for centuries. I learned with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer this week that throughout Jewish history our teachers have interpreted this statement in different ways.
Three different, relatively literal interpretations suggest the following:
Take a moment to note that the latter two are actually quite possible this year. And yet, I think there is important spiritual insight in another interpretation from the Talmud to guide us in our seder preparations.
אמר שמואל: לחם עני (כתיב) - לחם שעונין עליו דברים.
Shmuel teaches: "The bread of affliction [lehem oni]" refers to the bread over which one answers [onim] questions, (i.e., one recites the Haggadah over matzah) (B.T. Pesachim 115b).
Passover is, at its heart, a night of questions. And matzah is our magic 8-ball. It is meant to inspire in us generative thinking and creative problem-solving. We are instructed to be abundant with our answers. This feels like an essential practice this year. Most of us have not had the time or presence of mind to sit and luxuriate around a table, to get lost in conversation about freedom and justice. To imagine our way out of these narrow times. To imagine what new things are now possible.
What it means to be free, says the Haggadah, is to spend a night, reclining, pontificating, asking and answering questions big and small. To know that the work of the world can wait. Tonight we are free to wonder. To allow a spaciousness to descend in our homes that might lead us toward clarity.
How will this night be different from all other nights?
How will this Passover be different from all other Passovers?
We will each answer these questions differently. But as we learn from Shmuel, the real mitzvah is in our courage to lean back and indulge our curiosity. Whether you are celebrating alone (and the Haggadah is your companion), with your housemates, or on Zoom, may the questions you ask and the answers they inspire bring you closer to freedom and may you have a zisn Pesach, a sweet and joyful Passover. May we all pass through these narrow times together.
Rabbi Ari Lev
I know I am not alone when I share that yesterday morning, as I sang the psalms of Hallel to mark the new moon of Nissan, I wept.
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ
From this narrow place, I call out to you.
אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא
Please, Our Source, Our Sovereign, save us.
As I sang these words I thought of the compassionate group of KT members who have been calling other community members to check in. I thought of the phone calls we have made to detention centers and arraignment courts and senators, city council, and state representatives, demanding rent, eviction, and foreclosure freezes, widespread prison bailouts, and debt forgiveness.
And all at once, the opening of the book of Vayikra made a lot more sense to me. This week's parsha begins,
וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מועֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃
"The Holy One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…" (Lev 1:1).
Perplexed by the seeming redundancy of The Holy One calling to Moses and then speaking to him, Rashi explains, "Whenever God commanded, instructed, or spoke to Moses, God always called to Moses first. Kriah, 'calling' is an expression of tenderness and affection." I love to imagine The Holy One as the Hesed committee, calling to check in on Moses who has by every measure been through a lot thus far.
Rashi continues, "[Calling] is also an expression used by the ministering angels, as it is written, 'One angel calls another saying: Holy, holy, holy is Hashem, Lord of Hosts, filling the whole world with awareness of the Divine' (Isaiah 6:3)." In fact it is this very passage that becomes the core moment of collective calling out in our kedusha, as we emulate the heavenly hosts and call one to another.
Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, known as the Esh Kodesh, was a chasidic rebbe who ministered to his people in the Warsaw Ghetto. He gave a d'var Torah every week. This week, 80 years ago, Rabbi Shapira explained to his people what it means to "call out" to another.
"There may be another, deeper explanation as well...An ancient Aramaic translation of this verse from Isaiah reads, 'They receive from one another and say Holy holy holy...'" Here, calling is translated as receiving.
Rabbi Shapira explains, "If a Jew hears of the suffering of others and does what they can to help, and if their heart breaks and blood congeals in their veins at the story of their friend's troubles, then angels are empowered...The calling/receiving that comes from sharing suffering is very loud, and so the angels call out to one another in voices loud with compassion for the suffering of [the Jewish] people."
Rabbi Shapira reminds us that our capacity to call is inseparable from our capacity to receive.
And so we are reminded in psalm 118:5:
מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽהּ
In distress I called out to the Holy One,
And the Holy One answered me and brought me relief.
Calling and receiving are both holy acts in these times.
Being willing to extend care and a phone call.
And be willing to receive care and groceries and a phone call.
So sacred is this dance of calling/receiving, says Rabbi Shapira, that it is an act that has reverberations in the Heavens, it impacts the cosmos, it allows the angels to call out to one another.
My friend and comrade Rev. Naomi Leapheart-Washington posted on social media this week:
"Things won't be the same after this. I hope one of the things that persists is the way most people seem to be moving more gently, more graciously around each other...the way every conversation begins with 'How ARE you?' and ends with 'Be well.' and we seem to *mean* it. You know?"
May the Holy Blessed One renew this month for us, and for all who dwell on earth, for life and for health, for joy and for peace, for salvation and for comfort. And may we continue to call out to one another and receive from each other with tenderness and affection. And may we continue to really mean it.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Our parsha ironically begins,
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל
And Moses gathered the entire community of Israelites...
So ancient is this desire to gather ourselves in community. And not only us humans, as it turns out this is a rather mammalian instinct. I happened to be reading two books this week, both of which enumerate the various ways that animals refer to themselves in the collective. The first is a book about endangered species that I was reading with my kiddos. The second, entirely unexpectedly, "is a chapter book," in the words of my 5-year-old! A memoir, nonetheless, called The Bright Hour, on loan to me from a KT member (p. 99). And in a rare moment of spiritual synthesis, The Torah, a picture book and a chapter book!, all articulate the discourse of collectivity.
An embarrassment of pandas.
A celebration of polar bears.
An exaltation of skylarks.
A pride of lions.
A congress of orangutans.
And perhaps my favorite, a memory of elephants.
For a much longer list, check this out.
This has been an utterly disorienting week. More than once I have allowed the word na'afochu (reversal) from the megillah to rise before me like a shiviti, a kabbalistic meditation - the world can be flipped on its head at any moment. We practice for it every Purim, but it is a wholly other thing to live it beyond our control. To realize that the randomness of a virus will lead us towards every effort to contain it, and thus reveal the underlying impermanence of our way of life. My most steady moments have been observing the turtles at the Penn BioPond and studying Torah with all of you. I would describe the longing I feel to be in community with all of you and the importance of the physical distance as inseparable tensions in our collective survival instinct.
And I feel it in this week's parsha as well. As soon as Moses descends from Sinai with the second set of tablets, as he and the people are emerging from the uncertainty of that experience, the first, most important thing he does is to invite them literally to congregate. The word vayakhel is directly connected to the word kahal, which is how the rabbis describe Jewish communities, using the acronym ק׳ק which stands for קהלה קדשה/Kehillah Kodesha, a holy congregation.
Moses then instructs the Israelites to bring offerings to the mishkan. The generosity of the community overwhelms him. The people have more than enough. As we live in to this moment, I have been blown away by the collective generosity of this moment. It seems from every sector and community, the sentiment has been, "Take when I have to offer, take it freely." Together we will have more than enough. It is through this spirit of nedivut lev, this flow of hesed, that holiness enters the narrowest of times.
We, beloveds, are an exaltation of interdependence, reaching out to support each other.
A pride of Jews, reestablishing routines that center spiritual practice to sustain us in these uncertain times.
We are an intrusion of neighbors, unwilling to let our fellows go unnoticed and uncared for.
We are a flutter of kindness, reconceiving what is essential in every moment. Asking the most important question, "Does this constitute an act of care towards myself or another?"
In the words of author Mylene Dressler,
"Friends: all day I have been feeling your physical bodies as though they were my own. It's uncanny. I feel you. I feel us. Italy. South Korea. Egypt. Ohio. Like we are all one body. Like I am not the center, like I am a filament among filaments, like we are all twitch fibers in a single, tensed muscle. Call it instinct. Call it love or fear or solidarity or just plain truth. Call it something ancient. The genes, the old knowing. The tribe is in trouble. Fire on the plains. Gather the children. Watch the wind. Listen. The tribe is in trouble. Love the tribe. Feel. There is no other you."
There is no other you.
Whether you join us online for shabbat or take the opportunity to unplug, we are a kahal. We are all twitch fibers in a single, tensed muscle working to stay strong and responsive. Let this shabbat be an opportunity to unfurl, to release and let go. And may we all merit the blessing that comes with finishing the book of Exodus this week: Hazak Hazak v'Nithazek, May we be strengthened.
Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Biking down my alley this afternoon, the sun was warm and bright, there were birds chirping, and I thought to myself, "What a beautiful day." The two strangest things about this moment of awareness were that I was carrying an otherwise unreasonable amount of groceries and that I had not noticed the glorious spring day earlier.
For the past month or so I have been teaching a class called Chaos & Order. The original idea was to study Megillat Esther and the world of chaos it represents. And then to study the Haggadah, and the seder, or order, it prescribes. What became abundantly clear in the very first class is that chaos and order are inseparable, in the megillah, in the seder, and certainly in our daily lives. This is an extreme moment, when literally we realize that on 12 hours notice the world can be turned upside down, all routine and structure canceled. But it is not unique, in Jewish mythology and in human existence.
While we spent the last two weeks singing, "When Adar enters, joy increases," this Adar what feels more accurate is that uncertainty abounds. Truly, the month of Adar has shown us the power we have to turn the world upside down (na'afochu). As Rabbi Aviva Richman wrote, "This year, ushering in Adar doesn't correlate with ushering in more joy. As we look towards Purim with increased spread of illness and more and more people worldwide, including many American Jews, under quarantine, it doesn't really feel like a time of great joy. But then, the megillah itself isn't monolithically joyful. It is a drama of extremes, and most of the story is about being on the verge of disaster. Fear and uncertainty are right at home in the rhythm of this holiday."
And in truth, they are right at home in this week's parsha as well. Just after Moses ascends the mountain to retrieve the Divine word etched on stone tablets, the Israelites grow anxious. Fear and uncertainty abound. Will Moses return? Why hasn't he returned yet? Is there really a God up there? Why did we leave Egypt anyway? What was so bad about idols - at least I could see and touch them! The well of doubt grows wider and deeper, until the people have pooled all their gold and welded it into a golden calf.
While the soundtrack of fear and doubt sound different for us, surely they are playing on repeat these days. For the Israelites it was the lack of Moses' presence that led people to stray into old habits that otherwise didn't serve them. Meanwhile, we hear Moses in distress, literally begging to see God's face. He goes on to say, "Har'eini na et Kevodecha," "please show me your Presence" (Exodus 33:18). There is a lot of anxiety in our parsha, and in our hearts, about the nature of absence and presence, as it relates to chaos and order.
In our case, there is a lot of anxiety about both presence and absence. We are fearful to come close, lest we unwittingly contract or transmit this virus. And we are fearful to let go of each other, to take the needed social distance, lest we come to feel a larger absence in our lives.
What the students of the Chaos & Order class have taught me (which I think we are all surrogate students of these days) is that just as chaos and order are inseparable, so too are absence and presence. Even as we take physical space from each other, we are extending invisible lines of care and connection. And as we show up virtually, I feel confident we will feel a deep sense of presence and connection.
These are turbulent times and I am in awe of our collective capacity to be reflective, responsive and resilient. I take great comfort in knowing that we are reaching out to our neighbors and creating real systems for mutual aid. Our experience responding to this virus is helping us gain the skills we already need in order to be increasingly responsive to climate crises on the local level.
As we see in our parsha, fear itself is incapacitating, and not as useful as it feels. All of these cancelations are a concrete thing we can do, which makes them both powerful mitigants to both contagions and fear. But let us not let the scale of chaos inflate our fears further. I invite you to create as many opportunities in each day to come back to center, to the moment you are in, to notice the birds and the sun, and respond to that which is within your power.
Joy, ritual, and community are our superpowers.
For the next few weeks, in the absence of school and routine, let's imagine we are on a heightened retreat of sorts, deepening our collective practice and presence.
In the words of poet Jan Richardson,
Let there be
into the quiet
that lies beneath
where you find
you did not think
and see what shimmers
within the storm.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Among my earliest memories is one of a beloved caretaker taking me outside and pointing to the sky, saying, "Up there, up there, is our Creator." I hold this tender moment of spiritual connection close to me most days, as it was the first time anyone ever talked to me about God. While this person is not Jewish, she transmitted a kind of universal faith to me, one surely dependent on a transcendent understanding of the Divine as something above and beyond me.
I see this theology reflected throughout our liturgy and our Torah, as we allude to the Divine through vertical metaphors, singing Shochen ad marom - calling on The One Who Dwells On High and conjuring images of the Isrealites gathering at the foot of Mt. Sinai, awaiting revelation from the heavens above. We see this in our communal practices as well, as we refer to the honor of coming close to Torah as an aliyah, literally an ascent. And while mostly we focus on the elevation gain, in truth our tradition also values the depths. As we learn in the book of Psalms:
מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ יְהוָֽה
"Out of the depths I call to you" (130:1).
It is for this very reason that synagogues used to be built with the bima recessed into the ground. This is why when the Talmud describes the actions of the hazzan or shaliach tzibur (service leader) it will often say "Yored lifnei hatevah - He descends before the ark," because "from the depths we call out."
In truth, the deep has been calling my attention all year. For those of you who are new to Kol Tzedek, let me share a bit of necessary context. Way back in Tishrei, I had the rather absurd instinct to give a sermon on the High Holidays about the sinkhole on Baltimore Avenue. And then on Yom Kippur afternoon, we as a community continued our custom of diving deep into the connections between Yom Kippur and Purim (Yom k'Purim, the day that is like Purim). Now, in the spirit of na'afochu (the reversals and inversions of Purim), the Purim planning committee has flipped the script and brought us back to that sacred time of year, writing a shpil that prominently features a rabbi who falls into a sinkhole only to discover the magical world of resilient creatures.
This year, for me, sinkhole is the new Sinai. The mountain flipped on its head, the earth hollowed out by a rushing river of resilient life surging beneath us, diverting our attention (and our public transit), calling us to see what we can learn from the decay and the chaos; reminding us to not only look up, but to turn our gaze into the abyss. The revelatory joy of Purim invites us to connect a joy that comes not from on high, but from deep within us.
The sinkhole in our neighborhood revealed the buried river, powerful rushing waters of the Mill Creek and the ecosystems it sustains. When the bottom gives out, we too need to find the courage to yored lifnei hatevah, to descend courageously to the deepest of places, to call out to and from those depths, and allow the chaos and the injustice to reveal a deeper truth, a fuller joy, a flowing river that connects us to our Source.
משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה
The month of Adar obligates each of us to cultivate more joy.
Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Now on the other side of the mountain, we enter the series of parshiyot that call our attention to the intricacies of building community. From the laws of kashrut to the timing of festivals, parashat Mishpatim reveals 53 mitzvot, inspiring us to ask: Who are we to each other? What binds us together? Where will we find holiness?
And in a moment of spiritual synchronicity, Kol Tzedek is asking these questions, too. The next two weekends we have two big community forums planned. This Sunday the congregational meeting will include a special training called "Building Trauma Awareness & Relational Healing." And next week's Shabbat there will be an important forum about accessibility at Kol Tzedek. Lest one think these are distinct opportunities for community engagement, my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Elliot Kukla published an inspired piece of Torah this week entitled The Holiness of Being Broken: Trauma and Disability Justice. While I have excerpted a taste of his wisdom below, I really encourage you to read it in its fullness as he expresses deep truths with clarity and compassion.
In it he writes, "Most of us will experience some form of trauma or wounding in our lifetime. Trauma and disability are essential parts of what make us human and what connects us to one another...Trauma is central to who we are as a Jewish people, and impacts so many of our individual stories. Disability Justice can guide us in thinking more holistically about the holiness of our brokenness."
Reading this, I was reminded of a passage from masechet Brachot that I studied some weeks ago. "Even the old man who has forgotten his learning must be treated tenderly, for were not the broken tablets placed in the Ark of the Covenant side by side with the whole ones?" (8b). Jewish tradition has such deep reverence for our vulnerability, which is utterly inseparable from our humanity. This teaching links the two versions we receive of the giving of Torah at Sinai. One, which we read last week in parashat Yitro, and the other we will read in a few weeks when Moses returns from the mountain and finds the people have built a golden calf, prompting him to shatter the original set.
Rabbi Kukla concludes, "L'dor v'dor—'from generation to generation,' from teacher to student, from friend to friend, when we share our wounding and our healing, we share ourselves."
In preparation for these two weeks of communal sharing, and in honor of Jewish Disability, Awareness, and Inclusion Month, I encourage you to read Rabbi Kukla's teaching in its fullness.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Perhaps one of the campiest Jewish songs from my childhood proclaims, "It is a tree of life to those that hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy." This is followed by a series of fast-paced arhythmic claps. You can get a feel for it here. As I kid I never really stopped to wonder what the profound "it" of this song was really about. On some level, I think I thought it referred to being Jewish. As a grown up, I have come to understand that this kitschy song is in fact a translation of a line from Proverbs (3:18) speaking poetically about Torah. This piece of liturgy is sung in Jewish communities around the world, across every denomination, as we close the ark at the end of the Torah service.
This song has come back to me this week, as we find ourselves steeped in Torah and tree imagery. This week marks both the holiday of Tu B'svhat and parashat Yitro, in which we read the story of the Israelites receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai. For the rabbis, there is no limit to their metaphorical relationship to Torah. Torah is fire and water; it is a prism and a multi-faceted jewel; it is a graceful gazelle and a nursing breast. But perhaps most famously, Torah is a tree of life, eitz hayyim hi. And we call upon this particular metaphor every time we read from the Torah itself.
This week, even more than trees, I have been studying the wisdom of forests, which are essentially cooperative communities of trees. In his incredible book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben explains:
"In such a cooperative system, it is not possible for the trees to grow too close to each other. Huddling together is desirable and the trunks are often spaced no more than three feet apart... If you 'help' individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send out messages to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own... This is because a tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it...
"'But isn't that how evolution works?' you ask. 'The survival of the fittest?' Trees would just shake their heads - or rather their crowns. Their well being depends on their community..." (26-27).
So too with us.
Like trees in a forest, the closer we grow together, the more we are able to sustain and protect each other amidst the changing weather patterns over which we otherwise have no control.
Wohlleben concludes, "'A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.' Because trees know this intuitively, they do not hesitate to help each other out."
Which is why the rabbis count, among the things that have no limit in this lifetime, gemilut hasadim, acts of generosity and kindness. Hesed is our mycelium, our fiber-optic underground web of connection.
עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃
She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her - me'ushar - has the capacity to thrive.
As we prepare to receive the Torah that is uniquely and collectively ours, may we remember to hold fast not only to its teachings, but to each other. It is through community that we have the capacity to thrive.
Rabbi Ari Lev
For anyone who lives in West Philly, Wednesday was quite a scene in the Cedar Park neighborhood as Mike Pence's motorcade strolled into town. As I walked down Windsor Terrace, approaching the St. Frances DeSales school where Pence was scheduled for a school choice photo op, I was taken by the visual image. The crowd was big and proud. And at first glance I thought to myself, what an incredible cross section of the neighborhood flooding the streets in protest. But as I got closer, I realized that what I was looking at was not one unified protest, but protest and counter-protest. The street itself was full of large burly, cis-men representing the Boilermakers Union with signs about power. They were there in support of Pence, asking him to reopen the oil refinery in South Philly. And across from them on the porches and sidewalks was a large gaggle of colorful queers and their allies waving signs about queer and trans rights, public education, black lives matter and the like. What at first look had appeared like an incredible multiracial, cross-class protest, revealed itself to be two sides of a deep rift in our economy, one that rarely appears in full dimension on the streets of West Philly.
The scene conjured the featured image of this week's parsha, Beshallach. This is the week when we get the amazing story of the sea parting and the Israelites walking in the midst of the sea on dry ground. So much of my love for this story is about imagining the sea walls miraculously separating, creating an otherwise unimaginable path forward. But this week, I saw it differently. Each of us protesting on behalf of our dignity and basic rights, on opposite sides of the streets, seemingly opposite sides of the political spectrum, we were the sea separated from itself.
I spent some time talking with KT members before walking across the street to talk with some of the refinery workers. Most of them expressed that it was a well paying job and they were now out of work with no health insurance. We all agreed that in an ideal world closing the refinery would guarantee new jobs in renewable energy. But in the absence of that, they were here to beg Pence to reopen the refinery. They need jobs.
And here we are, as a community, actively organizing to keep the refinery closed. In fact our upcoming Purim party is co-sponsored by Philly Thrive, a group specifically organizing against the refinery. And for good reason. The refinery itself is responsible for 50% of the pollution in Philadelphia. It is at once a modern day plague and a source of people's survival. I keep thinking about the Egyptians and their horses who drown in the sea when the walls close in on them.
סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם (Ex. 15:1).
This Shabbat, as we rise in body or spirit to hear the song of the sea, let us all heed the words of one of my teachers, Aurora Levins Morales:
"They say that other country over there, dim blue in the twilight, farther than the orange stars exploding over our roofs, is called peace, but who can find the way?
"This time we cannot cross until we carry each other. All of us refugees, all of us prophets. No more taking turns on history's wheel, trying to collect old debts no one can pay. The sea will not open that way.
"This time that country is what we promise each other, our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between, until there are no enemies left, because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it's all of us or none."
Rabbi Ari Lev
P.S. For those interested in a taste of daf yomi, here are my reflections on today's page of Talmud, inspired by the students in this year's Judaism for Everyone class.
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.