It is not enough to just build the sukkah
Many people have asked me, "What does a rabbi do after Yom Kippur?"
Believe it or not, my favorite thing to do is build my sukkah. I am so eager to do it that I have a standing date with a friend who comes over at 10pm after break-fast to help me carry the wooden panels from our garage to our deck. And that is usually enough to drain the remaining adrenaline from my system so I can sleep, eat, and hydrate, then repeat.
Our sukkah construction relies heavily on the magic of plastic zip ties. They are not the prettiest but are somehow able to withstand city winds (which has not always been the case when I have used screws and nails).
While the technical requirements for sukkah construction include at least two-and-a-half walls and enough schach so there is more shade than sun, I personally think a sukkah is not complete without a few decorative paper chains. I have such a strong cellular memory of stapling and stringing up these colorful crafts year after year. We have in recent years learned to make them from more durable materials like glittery pipe cleaners and fluorescent duct tape so they too can endure the rain and wind.
Decorating your sukkah may seem a bit extra, given the tight turn around between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. A mere few days beneath a waxing moon. But in fact, making your sukkah festive and beautiful is actually perhaps just as important as building it to begin with (don't be misled by my use of zip ties).
I was inspired this year when Rabbi Mó and Rabbi Michelle took it upon themselves to form a little ad hoc KT committee to make sure the KT sukkah was better decorated. Their intuition is supported by Talmudic wisdom. We learn in masechet Shabbat (133b),
עֲשֵׂה לְפָנָיו סוּכָּה נָאָה, וְלוּלָב נָאֶה...
Make a beautiful sukkah and a beautiful lulav. A sukkah na'eh and a lulav na'eh.
It is not enough to just build the sukkah. But also, we are instructed to make it pretty so that we really want to dwell inside of it.
Sometimes I overlook the power of aesthetics and the importance of beautiful things. But not during Sukkot. Not when one of the core ritual objects is known by its biblical name Pri Eitz Hadar, the fruit of a beautiful tree. It may in fact not even have a scientific counterpart.
One of the explicit functions of mitzvot in general and ritual objects specifically is to remind us how important it is to take care to make things beautiful in this world. In the hurry to build a sukkah or buy a lulav we might lose track of why we are doing these mitzvot, or any mitzvot, to begin with. So the Talmud reminds us:
הִתְנָאֵה לְפָנָיו בְּמִצְוֹת:
Mitzvot are an opportunity to make ourselves (and our world) more beautiful.
עֲשֵׂה לְפָנָיו סוּכָּה נָאָה, וְלוּלָב נָאֶה, וְשׁוֹפָר נָאֶה,
צִיצִית נָאָה, סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה נָאֶה, וְכָתוּב בּוֹ לִשְׁמוֹ בִּדְיוֹ נָאֶה,
בְּקוּלְמוֹס נָאֶה, בְּלַבְלָר אוּמָּן, וְכוֹרְכוֹ בְּשִׁירָאִין נָאִין.
Make your sukkah beautiful, and your lulav beautiful and a beautiful shofar;
Make the fringes of your Tallit beautiful.
The parchment for the Torah should be beautiful and so should the ink you use to write it, even the quill and the silk you use to wrap the sefer Torah.
This is the practice of hiddur mitzvah. Of taking care to make do mitzvot in ways that elevate our sensory experience of the world. Rather than a burden, these practices are meant to bring beauty into our lives. Both for the sake of honoring the Holy One, and also for the sake of honoring ourselves with dignity and beauty.
הִתְנָאֵה לְפָנָיו בְּמִצְוֹת:
May you delight in the details of the natural world that are inherently beautiful. And invite your own practice of mitzvot to make yourself and your life more beautiful.
Moadim L'Simcha and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
like a zucchini shofar
After months of preparation, weeks of writing, and days of singing, what I am left with in my own heart is a fullness for which I am very grateful. And the echo of the closing words of the Unetane Tokef, which read:
We are fragile as pottery, so easily shattered,
like the grass that withers, like the flower that fades,
like the fleeting shadow, like the vanishing cloud,
like the wind that rushes by, like the scattered dust,
like the dream that flies away.
The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is designed to draw us close to our own vulnerability. To remind us how precious, precarious, and impermanent it all is.
Some of us take comfort in imagining that we are the clay and the Holy One is our potter. To imagine there is a Source who shapes our destiny. But all of us know that our agency is primarily limited to the here and now. To how we live our days. Not how many days we live.
It is easier to be flush with this truth through poetry. Where there is more breath and something left unspoken. Humor and levity also help a lot.
In her poem, "Zucchini Shofar", Sarah Lindsay writes:
No animals were harmed in the making of this joyful noise:
A thick, twisted stem from the garden
is the wedding couple's ceremonial ram's horn.
Its substance will not survive one thousand years,
nor will the garden, which is today their temple,
nor will their names, nor their union now announced
with ritual blasts upon the zucchini shofar.
Shall we measure blessings by their duration?
Through the narrow organic channel fuzzily come
the prescribed sustained notes, short notes, rests.
All that rhythm requires. Among their talents,
the newlyweds excel at making
and serving mustard-green soup and molasses cookies,
and taking nieces and nephews for walks in the woods.
The gardener dyes eggs with onion skins,
wraps presents, tells stories, finds the best seashells;
his friends adore his paper-cuttings--
"Nothing I do will last," he says.
What is this future approval we think we need;
who made passing time our judge?
Do we want butter that endures for ages,
or butter that melts into homemade cornbread now?
Even as we imagine ourselves passing before the judge, we are invited to ask ourselves who made passing time our judge. Nothing we do will last.
For a moment, maybe even just a breath, we come flush with this truth.
We are fragile as pottery, so easily shattered.
Like a zucchini shofar, we too will become compost.
May our practice of tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah
allow us to melt like butter
as we journey through the Days Between.
תָחֵל שָנָה ובִרכותֶיהָ
Let the year and her blessings begin!
Rabbi Ari Lev
the end is the beginning
Earlier this week, a new album of Jewish music was released entitled, Tishrei: the end is the beginning. I have been obsessed with it all week. But not because the music is gorgeous (which it is!). But because of the title. The end is the beginning has somehow been the spiritual teaching I have needed to propel me through a busy and stressful week.
To lean into the infinite, spiral-nature of time. To lean into the practice of teshuva, returning anew to the place we once were, eager to begin again.
The image brought me back to my happy place. A salt marsh at the very edge of Cape Cod, along the protected National Seashore.
Every summer my family makes the trip to this remote point. We love to go there about one hour before high tide. To roll down the sand dunes and plop into the warm, salty water, letting the current carry us away. Until it doesn't. Until it reaches that magic time just on the other side of high tide, when the tide begins to turn. And you can for a brief moment float, still, in the water, and literally see and feel the currents changing. It only lasts about 20-30 minutes. Until you are suddenly carried the other way, inward.
So too with yesterday's equinox. For a brief moment the Earth was tilting neither toward or away from the sun, and there was equilibrium between day and night. But before we can even bless the balance, we can feel the waning light. The end is the beginning.
As we approach the final days of 5782 and the final parshiyot of the Book of Deuteronomy, we are called to be present, to bear witness. To honor that which is everlasting (Holiness and the Holy One). And the reality that everything else is changing - the tides, the seasons, our own soul.
For the past month, Rabbi Mó and I have been teaching Hilchot Teshuva every morning. Yesterday we concluded the second chapter of the Rambam's teachings. And today we gathered to celebrate and glean all we had studied. But I couldn't help myself. I decided to close with the very first line of the third chapter. Because the end of one chapter is also an opportunity to begin the next.
כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִבְּנֵי הָאָדָם יֵשׁ לוֹ זְכֻיּוֹת וַעֲוֹנוֹת. מִי שֶׁזְּכֻיּוֹתָיו יְתֵרוֹת עַל עֲוֹנוֹתָיו צַדִּיק. וּמִי שֶׁעֲוֹנוֹתָיו יְתֵרוֹת עַל זְכֻיּוֹתָיו רָשָׁע. מֶחֱצָה לְמֶחֱצָה בֵּינוֹנִי.
Every person is full of merit and every person misses the mark.
If a person has more merit, they are considered a tzadik (righteous).
And if a person has missed the mark more than they have merited, they are considered rasha (wicked).
If it's 50/50, they are benoni (in between) (Hilchot Teshuva 3:1).
The Talmud goes on to assert that basically every single one of us arrives at the gates of the New Year benoni, in between, 50/50. The scales are balanced. The tide is high. But it doesn't stop moving. What we do and say over the course of the next 10 days really matters. How we end will impact how we begin.
I offer you these words. That they may guide us through the gates of the New Year with as much humility, grace, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion as possible.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!
Rabbi Ari Lev
blessings of protection
In the last few weeks I have been asked the same question by several KT members. It goes something like this: "I know what I need to do if I have caused someone harm, but what does Judaism have to say about someone who has caused me harm?" In other words, as my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe explains it, "How do I get my friend (read: neighbor, parent, child, teacher, student, co-worker, etc.) on the teshuva train?"
If there was a rabbinic FAQ for the month of Elul, I would list this question first. How do we forgive someone who has not even acknowledged that they hurt us, never mind apologized and committed to not repeat the action?
As it turns out, Judaism does have a lot to say about this topic. The first mention of Tochecha comes directly from Torah itself. We will actually read it aloud on Yom Kippur afternoon in The Holiness Code.
Leviticus 19:17 reads:
לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃
You are not to hate your fellow in your heart, you should absolutely rebuke your friend, but not in a way that causes you to miss the mark.
In other words, when someone causes harm, you should (must?!) give them Tochecha. You are obligated to give them feedback, lest you harbor resentment. But you also must not do so in a way that causes more harm.
This is easier said than done. I have been on the giving and receiving end of a meaningful amount of Tochecha this week. And I have wept in almost every conversation. Feedback is as difficult to give as it is to receive. It is a profoundly vulnerable experience to have someone, especially someone I love, reflect back to me my own mistakes. It burned my eyes to look in the mirror and see myself. It was equally tender to try to coax the words to share with someone I love the ways in which they had missed the mark. I felt a desperate longing to not want to cause them further shame.
Tochecha is such an important, delicate, spiritual practice. Even when we get it right, it's hard. There is some wisdom in this week's Torah reading that can support those of us who need to receive feedback and those of us who need to offer it.
This week we read Parashat Ki Tavo, which comes near the very end of the book of Deuteronomy. It begins with a series of blessings and rewards for your spiritual diligence. "Blessed be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed are your comings and your goings..."
But then come the curses, consequences for our spiritual negligence. The "curses" will be read tomorrow morning in the extra long fifth aliyah. The 55 verses (Deut. 28:15-69) are known as the Tochecha, verses of rebuke and warning.
Setting aside the theology for a moment, I am interested in the choreography of this moment. The calendar I follow says, "Chant this section in a somewhat subdued voice to symbolically minimize the trepidation that the congregation experiences upon hearing the message of these verses." We are meant to receive these words almost in a whisper, lest the tone scare us.
The calendar continues, "However, for verses 7-14, voicing the promise of God's protection and reward, chant as usual." Despite the anachronistic order of these instructions, verses 7-14 are actually read first.
This one aliyah offers us two important teachings to support us in the practice of Tochecha. First, it is important to value and protect the relationship despite the need for Tochecha. Just as God begins by sharing words of blessing and protection, so too should we. And second, pay attention to the tone of your voice and the quality of care that it expresses. Allow the warmth and love you feel for this person to be received as much as the words themselves. From my own experience, the spiritual challenge of Tochecha is that it needs to come from a place of love. (For more Torah about Tochecha, here is a sermon I gave several years ago on Yom Kippur.)
In this season, may we be quick to forgive and caring in our sharing of rebuke. May blessings rain down upon each of us, in the city and in the field, upon the fruits of our labor and the work of our hands. And may we all feel these blessings of protection as we wade into this vulnerable time.
Rabbi Ari Lev
the gentle levity of a pom-pom
Sitting around the dinner table with my kids last night I had an embarrassing rabbi moment, but kept it to myself (until now!). We are coming to the end of their second week of school. Every day I ask for details. What was something fun about your day? Something you learned? Something new? I try to find different ways to solicit a morsel of information to give me a window into their experience. I am hoping for something of content that we can discuss and geek out about.
Thus far, the main things I have heard about are their systems for behavior management. One kid is quite excited to be earning five points a day on ClassDojo. With the promise of a $30 shopping spree on Amazon. (Is that true?!) I have heard a lot about the Wiffle ball and bat she might pick out. The other kid is motivated by the prospect of earning a pom-pom everyday and filling up an entire jar. It's not entirely clear from his description if it's a personal win or for a small group.
Don't get me wrong, I have a deep respect and appreciation for the importance of establishing classroom norms and creating a positive learning environment. And I am very appreciative that both teachers seem to be drawn towards praise rather than punishment. But there is an extent to which my kids' desire to behave and be "good" becomes the focus of their learning, rather than critical thinking and creative problem solving. Which is where my embarrassing rabbi moment comes into play.
As my younger kid was going on at length about pom-poms, I was thinking about how to redirect him to share something else he might have learned that day. But then I realized that perhaps this was quite a fitting area of focus for a rabbi's kid in the month of Elul. What if ClassDojo and pom-poms were part of this season's Heshbon HaNefesh, the accounting of our soul? These are opportunities for my kids to increase awareness about of how their actions impact those around them - albeit their classmates and teachers.
I knew if I responded with this very Jewish idea, my kids would roll their eyes (they are so good at it!) and say, "Babbo!" So I kept it to myself.
Those of us who are grown don't have the benefit of external mentors setting up sticker charts and promising rewards. So we have to do it for ourselves. To hold ourselves accountable; to train ourselves to be the most generous, compassionate, forgiving people we can be. Perhaps we can all learn something from the dedicated teachers in our lives.
Jewish tradition offers us both the language and the structure to reward ourselves. And it goes big. Way bigger than a Wiffle ball bat, if you ask me. It promises the Book of Life!
In the words of Rabbi Suzanne Offit as she reflects on the ancient words of the Unetane Tokef,
"We are beckoned to become our own judge.
There is time.
And now is the time.
We are not here to try to accrue bonus points in some kind of cosmic ledger.
We are not here to try to escape death by gaining favor with an unforgiving God.
We are here to listen to the question that calls out softly,
From within and beyond us:
What do you want to do with the time you have left?"
As we journey into the second Shabbat of Elul, consider what tangible tools might support you in the work of Heshbon HaNefesh in your own life. Do you need a pom-pom jar (so satisfying to the senses!) or a sticker chart? Do you need to make a laminated checklist of all the people you want to call before Rosh Hashanah to say, "If there are any ways I have missed the mark, I ask your forgiveness?" And then check them off one at a time with a dry erase marker.
Don't worry about the cosmic ledger. Wonder about who you want to be with the time you have left. May we have the wisdom to approach our inner accounting with the gentle levity of pom-pom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
quick to forgive
Last Sunday was Rosh Hodesh Elul. I didn't sleep well, I think because I was genuinely so excited to blow shofar. I scurried to drop each of my kids off at friends' houses so I could join in the Hallel minyan at Kol Tzedek. I arrived at 9:59am, feeling grateful that I had a minute to spare and settle. But when I got there, a few folks were talking in a huddle and the energy was calm. Where was the anticipation and urgency that usually accompanies the beginning of things?
Even though on some level it was obvious, my brain didn't quite compute what was going on. I was still thinking the minyan was starting late, rather than the more obvious truth: I had missed it.
I went to my office and began to wrap my tefillin, in preparation for prayer of one kind or another. Our shammes came in to return my computer stand, and then it really hit me. Hallel was over. I had mistakenly thought it started at 10am, when in fact it had been called for 9am.
I was disappointed. Hallel is arguably my favorite service. And I can't really sing it alone.
Rabbi Mó walked into my office, also realizing what had happened. She apologized for having misremembered the start time during Shabbat announcements the day before. (Never mind the fact that I obviously could have checked the KT calendar myself!) But then in all her wisdom, she said, "I am grateful for the chance to give you the opportunity to forgive me on the 1st of Elul."
And it really did feel like a gift. To say, I forgive you. To begin that way. And then I said, "Thank you, for giving me just the story for my upcoming Friday email."
The poet David Whyte writes, "Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving...generosity in an individual life, a beautiful way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves."
Throughout the Days of Awe we will sing about a God who is erekh apayim, slow to anger and quick to forgive, with the hopes that we too may be cool in our temper and rav hesed, full of compassion. But we don’t need to wait. Forgiveness is a skill. And today, in the earliest days of Elul, is just the time to practice.
Before the sun sets and invites in this first Shabbat of Elul, I invite you to extend your forgiveness to someone. It could even be yourself. And through this practice, may we come closer to the future we want for ourselves.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Time for everything.
This past Sunday morning, I rode my cargo bike to the Kol Tzedek office to pick up a box of weekday prayer books for a shiva minyan and the Torah for a baby naming ceremony. I knew both lifecycle events were in the neighborhood and I planned to courier the ritual items. It was not until I arrived in the back alley where the shiva minyan was gathered that I fully realized that the baby naming was exactly across the street, in a parallel alley. I stayed for a few minutes as family members and KT members gathered to say Kaddish. And then I rode my bike across the street, where another gaggle of KT members were preparing to welcome a new baby into community and covenant.
Each of the gatherings were beautiful unto themselves. But knowing they were both happening simultaneously, filled me up completely. Cosi revaya - my cup overflows.
Yehuda Amichai writes in his poem "A person in his life",
A person in his life has no time to have
Time for everything.
He has no room to have room
For every desire. Ecclesiastes was wrong about that.
A person has to hate and love all at once,
With the same eyes to cry and to laugh
With he same hands to throw stones
And to gather them...
If this is true for a person, how much more so for a community. I am in awe of our ability "with the same eyes to cry and to laugh." To comfort mourners and welcome babies. To pray for healing and dance a hora, all at once.
This year has been full to the brim, often overflowing, with grief and joy. Together we have stretched ourselves to honor the fullness of life, often all at once. Daily I learn from this community the profound and sustaining gifts that come from being connected to a web of care and connection. You all help me to feel there is time for everything. Thank you!
Today, in addition to being the last day of June, is also the first day of the month of Tammuz. The new moon brings with it the possibility of everything. As I prepare to take some time off, that is what I want to bless you with. Everything.
May the month of Tammuz and the summer days ahead bring renewal. May you be blessed with a life of goodness. A life of nourishment, and a life of sustenance. A life of healing and of good health. A life in which you experience awe for the Divine and a love of Torah. A life free from shame and full of integrity, honor, and clarity of mind. A life in which you continue to have the courage to cry and to laugh, to care for others and be cared for.
May it be so.
And may we go from strength to strength.
Hodesh Tov! Happy Summer! Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ari Lev
May redemption come.
One of my favorite things about being Jewish is the catalog of greetings and salutations to mark the seasons and the seasons of our lives. Shabbat shalom. Shanah Tovah. Mazal Tov. HaMakom yenachem etchem. I remember the first time I learned that the greeting for a person who is pregnant is B'sha'a Tova, which translates to "in a good moment" or "in its right time."
I also remember the first time I realized how important this greeting is. A friend called to share the news that they were unexpectedly pregnant. And before they had a chance to share that they were planning to have an abortion, I jumped in and said, "Mazal tov." Mistaking the stressful moment for one of celebration. As they shared that it was not the right time for them to have a child, I emotionally backpedaled and found the ritualized response that Jewish tradition had prepared for me all along. I shifted my tone and said, "B'sha'a tova." Which is fitting to say when learning someone is pregnant and when learning someone is having an abortion.
There are many reasons someone may decide to have an abortion, and certainly timing is among them. I know this has been true for members of Kol Tzedek who I have supported through their own decisions to have an abortion. It is precisely because Judaism values life so highly that it also understands that abortion is healthcare. Abortion saves lives.
In the midst of our rage and our grief at the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, I want to reiterate that abortion is still legal in Pennsylvania. I want to share with you the brave words that a KT member shared last Shabbat in their Dvar Torah about abortion. And this amazing toolkit created by the Abortion Liberation Fund of PA.
And finally, I want to share with you a few words of Torah on the subject of redemption in its right time. In addition to many other blessings, this weekend, we will invite the blessings of the new moon of Tammuz. Known as Shabbat Mevarchim, this is the blessed Shabbat that immediately precedes the coming of the new moon. The new moon of Tammuz signals the arrival of summer and the season of harvest.
Rabbi Jill Hammer writes,
"Before the last of the harvest is gathered in, there will be hot days, maybe drought. The summer of the Jewish calendar is tinged with sadness and anxiety. National tragedies are remembered at this time, as are personal failings. Summertime is not necessarily an easy time...
"A midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah 8:14) compares the redemption of Israel to four kinds of harvest: grain, grapes, spices, and children. Each of these precious fruits must be gathered in at the right time (b'sha'a tova) or else not gathered at all..."
The midrash explains that if the grapes are gathered before their time even their vinegar will not be good. If spices are gathered when they are soft and moist, their smell will not carry. Timing, says the midrash, is everything. Both in our personal lives and our collective story.
Underneath the agricultural metaphor, is the existential wondering,
How long must we wait for a world that is whole and just?
For redemption from violent rulers and regimes?
I am reminded of where our story as a people begins. With the midwives who bravely saved the babies from drowning in the Nile, despite Pharaoh's decree. The violent control of women's bodies has been a tactic of dictators and slave masters since the beginning of human existence. And our capacity as people to organize, undermine, and overthrow such violent regimes is in our DNA.
Lastly, I want to send you off into Shabbat with the wise words of AOC:
"Many of our biggest problems are the result of massively scaled up isolation from others. That means many of our solutions can be found in creating community...
"You are allowed to be scared. To grieve. To be angry. But you are also allowed to create good, to be soft and enjoy the small reprieves. Struggle lasts as long as we do."
I have faith in us. In our capacity to create good and bring about redemption in this world.
B'sha'a tova - may redemption come to us in its right time.
Shabbat shalom u'mevorach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
the angels are alarmed
I woke this past Thursday morning around 5:30am to booming thunder. It was an unbelievable storm that lasted for more than two hours. The thunder and lightning were so loud and so clear it felt as though they might be coming from within our house. Somehow, my children slept through it. But I could not. I found myself laying in bed utterly terrified. Many times I actually said thank you for my house, for its shelter and protection. I thought of folks who are insufficiently housed and the utter chaos of a storm like that.
I felt viscerally scared to the bone. This was not a rational fear. It felt like some kind of primordial terror. And though the circumstances were entirely different, and I risk sounding like a parody of myself, I could not help but think of the Israelites at Sinai.
Let's journey back several months, way before the books of Numbers and Leviticus, to the middle of Exodus where the Israelites find themselves at the foot of the mountain. Exodus 19:16 reads,
וַיְהִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֜י בִּֽהְיֹ֣ת הַבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְהִי֩ קֹלֹ֨ת וּבְרָקִ֜ים וְעָנָ֤ן כָּבֵד֙ עַל־הָהָ֔ר וְקֹ֥ל שֹׁפָ֖ר חָזָ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃
On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.
Just weeks ago we recalled this story as we prepared for Shavuot. And while I might have been aware of the fear and trembling of revelation, I was much more connected to the magic of that moment.
But you simply need to ask anyone who has ever read Torah, particularly any of our recent Adult B'nei Mitzvah. Being in the presence of the open Torah and reciting those ancient words off of the parchment scroll is terrifying. Don't get me wrong, it is also exhilarating. But that is not what people remark. They often talk to me about how much more scared they were than they thought they would be. In this way, everyone who reads and receives Torah is standing again at Sinai.
The account of the Israelites at Sinai is also linked to the most awesome and terrifying moment in our holiday cycle. In the beginning of the Unetaneh Tokef on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as we plead for our lives, we hark back to this moment of revelation at Sinai:
וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע. וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע.
The great shofar is sounded and the still small voice is heard.
וּמַלְאָכִים יֵחָפֵזוּן. וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יֹאחֵזוּן.
the angels are alarmed, pangs of fear and trembling seize them...
This is how I felt on Thursday morning – seized by pangs of fear and trembling. Which led me to wonder, why would whoever wrote the Torah want this sensation to be associated with the revelation of Torah at Sinai?
On the one hand, it was not an empowering feeling. It gave me great empathy for those among us who have experienced this kind of religious terror. And on the other hand, fear is also an invitation to have courage.
The poet David Whyte writes,
"To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world..." (Consolations, 40).
The thunder and lightning that were present at Sinai, and this past Thursday morning, invite us to make conscious those things we already deeply feel and to live in relationship to our unending vulnerabilities. So too with our study of Torah and our observance of Shabbat. May it give us the courage to feel deeply and to live in a greater relationship with ourselves, our bodies, and the world.
May it be so.
In honor of Juneteenth, I am completely honored to share with you the words of Rabbi Sandra Lawson. May we merit to be a community that increases Black joy in the world.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Be who you are!
A few months ago, parents of the Kol Tzedek Torah School's kindergarten class were invited to come and celebrate the conclusion of their unit about Shabbat. I typically teach this family education session. But this year, I also happened to have a child in the class so I got to participate as a parent. Jess, who teaches the class, taught about the practice of Birkat Yeladim, blessing children on Friday nights.
Some of you may remember that my older child has for years protested this otherwise tender ritual. Such that we largely forgot about it. Until we were invited to study it with our five year old. I was reminded again that these ancient words are at once magical and theologically awkward.
May God bless you and protect you. What if my idea of the Divine lives in my heart?
May God illuminate their face towards you. Wait, does God have a face?
May God lift their face towards you and place within you peace. A face, again?!
Then Jess invited us to write a three-part blessing based on what our kids actually wanted to be blessed with. With some prodding, my five year old was able to realize his three deepest prayers:
"May you be as sweet and as green as nettle cake.
May you have so much fun on Naim planet.
May you be kind."
And laughed inside. What a silly kid. (In another email I will explain the origins of nettle cake.)
The priestly blessing holds a very important place in my heart. I still remember the first time I ever said the words to another person. I offered the blessing to a classmate in rabbinical school. The words crawled off my tongue. I was a little embarrassed. It was obvious the words were new to me. And also I was excited to finally utter the oldest blessing in our tradition.
I have said these words countless times since then. It is with these very same words that we bless each other on Yom Kippur. The very same words that we bestow upon every B'nei Mitzvah in our community. The very words I offer to every couple under the chuppah.
But every time, I translate it a little differently. Depending on the people and the moment. It is, after all, poetry. But never have I quite translated it like Naim!
It was not until this week, as I was studying Parashat Naso, where these words originate, that I understood the authenticity of Naim's rendition.
Haamek Davar, a 19th century Hasidic teacher, comments on the opening line:
"'May God bless you.' Included in this is whatever is appropriate for each person to be blessed with...For one who deals in Torah, in his study. For one who deals in commerce, in his merchandise."
And so for a child who loves sweet things and imaginary play, may they both be in abundance.
While I always felt this to be true, it is freeing to see what my child understood instinctively expressed so clearly in the words of a teacher in the great yeshiva of Volozin. The priestly blessing is a placeholder, or perhaps a portal, into our core longings. No one, after all, wants a compulsory blessing of something undesirable.
Please know that every time we offer this blessing at Kol Tzedek, and call upon the Holy One to bless you and protect you, we are expressing our deepest hope that we each be blessed and protected in the ways we uniquely need.
I think Marcia Falk got it right when she translated this ancient blessing as follows:
"Be who you are!
And may you be blessed in all that you are."
Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev