the full range of human experience
I just checked.
Over the last seven years, I have drafted nearly 100,000 words across 221 pages of unformatted Google Docs, cut-and-pasted into hundreds of Friday blog posts. This practice started out of an instinct to connect across time and space, in a time when Kol Tzedek only met once or twice a month for Shabbat services. It continued out of a desire to share Torah that could support and sustain us through narrow times. And it has persisted because every week another person writes back and reminds me that we are in an ongoing conversation, for which I am profoundly grateful. Thank you for reading my reflections each week.
Shabbat Hanukkah is a very auspicious time in the Jewish mystical traditions, marked by the new moon of Tevet. The new moon is the darkest time of the month. With the solstice behind us, we know the light is returning, but the dark is still predominant. We read the story of Joseph and his many dreams and the words of the prophet Zachariah, "Not by might, and not by power, but by spirit alone!"
But my favorite thing about Shabbat Hanukkah is that we recite the psalms of Hallel. And this year we do it for two reasons. We do it because it is Hanukkah. And because, this year, the sixth day of Hanukkah, which is always Rosh Chodesh, also falls on Shabbat.
Hallel is a journey through the full range of human experience. Through ancient poetry, the psalmist teaches us to find a way to say thank you when we are in the narrowest of places. Min HaMeitzar Karati Yah - from the narrows I call out to You. And to say thank you when we feel a deep sense of safety and abundance. Ozi v'zimrat Yah - You are my Song and my Shield. We humble ourselves and say, lo lanu - this is not about us, but about something much greater than ourselves. Ani avdecha, we offer ourselves up as sacred vessels, eager to be of service. And then we say, Ana Adonai, Hoshia Na as we call out for support and for strength.
Every time I sing Hallel, I am struck by the words of Psalm 115, "Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah / The dead cannot say Halleluyah." As if the psalmist is saying that part of what it means to be alive is to praise, to express Hallel, to connect to gratitude.
It seems like a gift and no coincidence that we will recite Hallel on my final Shabbat before I go on my first sabbatical. You all have taught me the meaning and importance of Hallel. You have taught me how to connect to and praise the full range of human experience. I am so grateful.
The words of Psalm 118 are written in a circle around the text of the ketubah that Shosh and I designed. The chorus of this psalm is repeated four times in the repetition of Hallel, Hodu Ladonai Ki Tov, Ki l'olam chasdo, which literally means, "Give thanks to The Eternal, whose love is everlasting." But I think a more theologically accurate translation might be, "Acknowledge that which is beyond and between us, the thread of connection that binds us."
On Saturday morning, I will sing these words full throttle. And I will be thinking of each of you. It has been a challenging seven years in the life of the world. I began my tenure just before Trump was elected. Those four years were followed by three years of pandemic, which is ongoing. You have taught me how to find dry ground in the midst of the sea. For which I am so grateful. You have brought me closer to everything I know to be holy.
I am so profoundly grateful for the opportunity to serve and care for you as a community. Thank you for allowing me the privilege to teach you Torah and lead you in prayer. This sabbatical comes as an ot - a sign - that we are deeply invested in each other. I am grateful for the opportunity to turn inwards, to care for my mind and body, to exercise and meditate, to study Torah and work on a writing project. And I am so excited to reconnect upon my return.
My hope is that you take really good care of each other. That you show up for each other's simchas and accompany each other in grief. That you are slow to anger and quick to forgive, and abounding in acts of kindness.
I have so much gratitude for and confidence in the Kol Tzedek clergy and staff, board, and entire community to carry this community through this milestone and thrive. I am also super excited for all the things you will create in my absence that will have been beyond my imagination. I am already dreaming about what I will learn from you upon my return and what new Torah I will be able to share. I am so excited for you and for me, and really for us!
This will be my last Friday blog post for many months.
We learn in Pirkei Avot, Ain kemach, Ain Torah. No flour, no Torah. I invite those of you who are able, who have not already, to consider making a donation to Kol Tzedek's 18th Anniversary L'chaim! Campaign. Your generosity will make a huge difference and help us reach our goal of finding an accessible spiritual home in West Philly.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy Kwanzaa!
See you on the other side,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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