Words from Rabbi Lev
Let there be Light!
As we enter Shabbat, let us acknowledge that 365,000 Americans have died in this pandemic and the LA County 7-day positivity rate for COVID-19 is above 21%. Friends, our home is currently the epicenter of this horror. We pray for our health and that of our loved ones and that of all who are sick or lonely, and who care for them - Please, God, let them get and stay well.
Abraham Lincoln was wrong when he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. I mean this rhetorically.
Judaism is founded on the concept of Machloket L’Shem Shamyaim - disagreements for the sake of heaven . The Talmud records hundreds of disagreements between the Houses of Hillel & Shammai. The most enduring religious and cultural tradition of human collective, Judaism, survives specifically because we are a house divided, with multiple opinions - we grow and shift and change because of the dialectic approach embedded in our tradition. That our serious opinions diverge is not at odds with our ability to stand together. But violence and demonizing of ‘the other’ - that is a scourge and must strongly be condemned. Resorting to such base and hateful acts is not simply dividing a house, but lighting a match to it and hoping that only the parts one likes will remain.
The American tradition, and democracy itself, is firmly established on the nature of sharp but respectful debate. For that, we Jews should feel pride that our tradition has so clearly imprinted on the institutions and practices of American democracy.
- We have a tradition of weeping, of acknowledging heart break not just for loss of life, but for locations of symbolic importance:
עַ֥ל נַהֲר֨וֹת ׀ בָּבֶ֗ל שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִ֑ינוּ בְּ֝זָכְרֵ֗נוּ אֶת־צִיּֽוֹן׃ (Psalm 137).
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we recalled Jerusalem.
-We wept for the Temple even as Judaism would endure long after its was destroyed. By analogy, is it appropriate to weep and shudder at such a brazen attack on the heart of American democracy, the US Capitol.
Through countless losses and countless serious disagreements, the Jewish tradition has endured, I expect nothing less for America after Wednesday’s audacious and unlawful embarrassment in the face of the rule of law - and yet we cannot discount the seriousness of the moment nor the pain in our hearts.
Let me conclude with a Prayer for Our Country excerpted from Rabbi Ayelet Cohen:
Our God and God of our ancestors, bless this country and all who dwell within it.
Help us to experience the blessings of our lives and circumstances
To be vigilant, compassionate, and brave
Strengthen us when we are afraid
Help us to channel our anger
So that it motivates us to action
Help us to feel our fear
So that we do not become numb
Help us to be generous with others
So that we raise each other up
Help us to be humble in our fear, knowing that as vulnerable as we feel there are those at greater risk,
And that it is our holy work to stand with them
Help us to taste the sweetness of liberty
To not take for granted the freedoms won in generations past or in recent days
To heal and nourish our democracy, that it may be like a tree planted by the water whose roots reach down to the stream…
[Let us] be bold in our action and deep in our compassion
To discern when we must listen and when we must act
To uproot bigotry, intolerance, misogyny, racism, discrimination and violence in all its forms
To celebrate the many faces of God reflected in the wondrous diversity of humanity
To welcome the stranger and the immigrant and to honor the gifts of those who seek refuge and possibility here,
As they have since before this nation was born
Let justice well up like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream
Blessings for a peaceful Shabbat,
Rabbi Tsafi Lev
Let There be Light?
Rabbi Tsafi Lev
In our tradition and beyond, light is a symbol of knowledge, learning and wisdom. Hence, the Enlightenment. I recently got around to reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It was an interesting read and I recommend it for anyone who enjoys the 30,000 foot view of where we’ve been and where we might still go as a species. Two of the big ideas that stuck with me are 1) For such a young species, humans have had an outsized impact on the planet and 2) The spread and development Sapiens from Africa to the rest of the planet, which required us to overtake others, such as our Neanderthal cousins, was in large part our ability to share information intergenerationally. The stories we share teach and transform. In our species' history knowledge has always been power. I wonder if that is still true now.
With the democratization of information, thanks in large part to the internet, western civilization is subject to the pressure of opposing twin focus. On the one hand, traditionally disempowered voices that have truths to share have the ability to amplify and be heard, sometimes for the first time. Once obscure knowledge is having an impact on society. Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everyone: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations describes this succinctly in this classic 2005 TED Talk. At the same time, as our recent elections sadly exemplified, the same technology also makes disinformation and social division more possible. Is the wave of more knowledge a happier humanity? Sadly, no.
א֭וֹר זָרֻ֣עַ לַצַּדִּ֑יק וּֽלְיִשְׁרֵי־לֵ֥ב שִׂמְחָֽה
Or Zaruah L’Tzadik, U’Lishrei Lev Simcha
Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright of heart.
In the Talmud, Nahum bar Yitzhak points out, “Not all are fit for light, and not all are fit for gladness. The righteous are fit to be rewarded with light, and the upright are fit to be rewarded with gladness (Ta’anit 15a). To me Nahum bar Yitzhak’s insight reads as a warning. It is not knowledge that leads to joy, but rather knowing what to do with that knowledge, how to transform what we know into simcha, vibrant lived joy. As we light our candles for Hanukkah, as we continue our learning in our schools and beyond, let us also pray for the wisdom to navigate the flood of information we are daily bombarded with as well as how to employ what we know into greater joy for ourselves and for others.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the High Holidays, are much more than just sitting quietly, or even sleeping(!) during a service. How you show up for the 'whole day’ is the mark of true celebration. So, this year we’ve planned for activities throughout each day, virtual and socially distanced. We’re looking forward to you being part of our day.
For more information and to register for the High Holy Days, check out the dedicated page here
This past week, we marked Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish Calendar, when the ancient temple fell (twice!). That means we are exactly seven weeks away from the high holidays. The holidays will take part with two major crises as their backdrop, the Covid-19 pandemic and the stark reminder that our “more perfect union” is far from perfect for people of color in our country. Despite the sad truth of needing to be held by Zoom (and at safe social distances whenever possible), I am hopeful about the work and celebration we can do together. Judaism’s longevity can be attributed to its focus on the future, how we can partner with each other and with God to make life better for more people. The truth is, we need these high holidays to ask ourselves the central question of our faith, of our lives, “How do we want to be?”
For me, it’s an open question, one I don’t confidently have the answers to. I do have confidence that a strong, caring, loving community is a big part of it, so I’m glad we will be bringing in the new year, however awkwardly because of Covid, together.