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
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.