Earlier this week, David and I studied a fabulous text from the Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev), to whom I was first introduced by R' Elliot Ginsburg, my teacher of Hasidut in rabbinical school. It's a short commentary on this week's Torah portion, Korach, and it packs a powerful punch. (Read it in the original Hebrew at Sefaria.)
The text riffs off of a short phrase in Numbers 18:19, "It is an eternal covenant of salt." Levi Yitzchak explains that this was said after the deeds of Korach. (For a reminder of what those were, see my post at My Jewish Learning, A Failed Rebellion.) Korach wanted everyone, including himself, to be priests. He didn't want to be a Levite, which was his own ancestral tribe -- he wanted to be a Kohen (a higher-level priest), and he wanted everyone to be kohanim.
Here's where Levi Yitzchak makes an interpretive leap: he says the kohanim / priests represent the divine attribute of חסד / chesed (lovingkindness), whereas the levi'im / Levites represent the divine attribute of דין / din (justice) -- sometimes called gevurah, the quality of boundaries and strength. Here's the problem with the Korachite rebellion: in wanting everyone to represent chesed, Korach leaves no room for din. He wanted everyone to be pure chesed, but in truth (says Levi Yitzchak), the world needs judgment and justice too. The world needs gevurah: boundaries, strength, a strong container.
Ramban (also known as Nachmanides) understands salt as a combination of fire and water, which is to say, justice and lovingkindness. He says it's the combination of those two, the appropriate balance of those two, which sustains all the worlds.
Levi Yitzchak teaches that the covenant of salt (representing the balance of chesed and din) came as a response to Korach's actions, in order to remind us of what's wrong with Korach's imbalanced view that everyone should embody only chesed. What the world needs is the appropriate balance of chesed and din, lovingkindness and justice.
Reading this passage, I marvel at how contemporary and real it feels. I've been in contexts where people want everyone and everything to be all-chesed-all-the-time, and they are not healthy contexts by any stretch of the imagination. Love that flows without boundaries is a flood, destructive and damaging. When we over-privilege chesed at the expense of gevurah, there are no appropriate roles or boundaries... and a community in which roles and boundaries are not honored, in which gevurah is not honored, is a community that will inevitably be rife with ethical violations and abuse.
Levi Yitzchak skewers the Korachite perspective that says everyone should express only lovingkindness. John Lennon may have written a catchy tune with the refrain "all you need is love," but on a spiritual level, he was wrong. The world needs judgment, discernment, and justice every bit as much as it needs unbridled or unbounded love -- indeed, as Ramban notes, a world that has only one half of that critical binary cannot endure.
This is true not only on a macro level but also a micro level. Every human being is a world. Every one of us contains both of these qualities and more. Maybe you recognize chesed and gevurah as the first two qualities we remind ourselves to cultivate as we count the Omer each year. Every human being needs a healthy balance of all of the qualities that we share with our Creator: lovingkindness and boundaried-strength and balance and endurance and all the rest. A person who seeks to be only chesed will inevitably be imbalanced, and will wind up doing damage not only to himself but to their whole community -- as Korach did.
A person who insists that chesed is the goal in and of itself (rather than as part of a healthy and balanced palette of qualities) will be naturally inclined toward spiritual bypassing, using feel-good spiritual language to mask deep-rooted avoidance of life's complexities. The same will be true in a community that privileges chesed over a healthy balance of qualities. Such a community will inevitably be not ethical, not healthy, and not safe.
The wisdom offered this week by Levi Yitzchak and Ramban is still relevant in our day: what we need, as individuals and communities, is the right balance of chesed and gevurah. The right balance of love and boundaries, in which loving flow is guided and guarded by ethics and justice. The right balance of all of the sefirot, all of the qualities that we and God share.
May it be so in all of our communities, and in all of our hearts, speedily and soon.
“Like, zucchini as the bread?”
“Zucchini instead of cheese?”
“But I don’t like zucchini!”
And so we’re not going to. We’re going to call this a zucchini panini when speaking to the wary and somehow, this causes less distress. Why we are accepting of vegetables inside two slices of bread when we pretend our grilled cheese has gone to Italy is not for me to question. What I can promise, however, is that this is no compromise.
(Mah Innernetz went down on Tuesday morning and was finally restored late last night. No work, no play, just futile router rebooting every hour on the hour and racking up massive data overages from Verizon Mobile while waiting on Verizon FIOS to get its shit together, trapped in a super frustrating ouroboros of corporate bullshit.)
First of all, happy birthday to this guy:
Here he is with his birthday present, which I 100% had nothing to do with:
In addition to Friday night soccer*, Jason's newfound return to outdoorsy-sportsy-ness now includes bike riding. Like on trails and dirt and stuff. He is currently scouring Craigslist for a bike for me, which is adorably misguided. To give you an idea of the last time I rode a bike, please consult this terrible blog post from 2003, only the fourth post ever published on this site, back when I had no clue what I was doing and wrote a lot of angry Open Letters to strangers and stores and the Oxygen Network.
I do not particularly want a new bike. I'd really rather get a new dishwasher, as our current one is barely functioning and I am like five minutes away from writing an Open Letter about it.
But there's been a lot of bike-type action going on, as we recently celebrated the Passing On Of The Hand-Me-Down Bikes with all the boys. Noah got a new (used) bike...
...and promptly crashed on his first ride out.
(He's fine. Just needed to apply some band aids, ice packs and extra computer time.)
Ezra moved up to Noah's old bike and went training wheels free...
...and promptly crashed 15 seconds after I took this photo.
(He's also fine. I believe the only real injury was pride-related.)
Ike inherited the smallest bike, and originally wanted to skip the training wheels altogether...
...but then quickly reconsidered.
He is now riding all over the place like some giant actual child, rather than the tiny baby we all know deep in our hearts that he really is.
STOP WAIT COME BACK IT'S ALL GOING TOO FAST.
I should probably get a bike, I guess.
*So about the soccer thing: Almost immediately after I wrote about Jason getting back into soccer he injured himself, tearing his hip flexor. He's been attending physical therapy three times a week ever since, while also still going to soccer and bike riding and running 5Ks on our treadmill. Meanwhile, I skipped my workout yesterday because the Internet was out and I couldn't watch Netflix.
"Not all women, trees, or ovens are identical." -- Mishna Pesachim 3:4, in the name of R' Akiva
Some women like winter. Some incubate babies
and some have no uterus. Some wear eyeliner.
Some are happiest in Israeli sandals
flaunting our pedicured toes.
Some are stronger than the steel cables
that hold up a suspension bridge.
Some of us are notorious.
Some of us write love poems.
Some of us have roots that go deep
into the earth and will not be shaken.
Some give our fruit and branches
and trunk until we are nothing but stumps.
Some grow thorns to protect ourselves
even if we're vilified for it.
Some women are more like trees
than like ovens: constantly changing.
Some women are nourishing and warm.
Some women burn with holy fire.
Some of us are irreducible, incomparable
like the Holy One of Blessing Herself.
Some women balance justice and mercy.
Some are mirrors: we'll give kindness
as we receive, but injustice causes
our eyes to blaze the world into ash.
This poem arose out of a wonderful line from mishna that I encountered in Heschel's book Torah from Heaven, which I've been slowly reading on Wednesday mornings with my coffee shop hevruta group for well over a year.
Some give our fruit and branches / and trunk until we are nothing but stumps. See Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. (Wow, is that one messed-up parable about the damage of boundary-less love.)
[I]njustice causes / our eyes to blaze the world into ash. See the Talmudic story of R' Shimon bar Yochai, who spent twelve years in a cave, and when he emerged, was so outraged by what he saw as people's poor priorities and choices that his very gaze set the world on fire.
Jason and I took a little getaway to D.C. this weekend in honor of Father's Day and his upcoming birthday (Thursday, somebody remind me). We got all dressed up for a fancy dinner and an evening at the theeeeeatah.
(In the full series of selfies, you can actually SEE the curls withering from my hair from the good ol' D.C. humidity in real time.)
The show was WONDERFUL, although the guy sitting next to me appeared to disagree, as he refused to applaud and then muttered "What the fuck was that?" to his wife as we exited our row at the end. I did not hear her answer. The Sound of Music was playing in the other auditorium, so maybe that would've been more his speed than a genderqueer punk rock drag show about a botched sex change operation and a Greek mythology-fueled mental breakdown. Maybe try Google next time, sir?
Anyway, we loved it and happily made our way back to our hotel, looking forward to sleeping like the dead for as many hours as we desired. We had an overnight sitter and there would be no small nightmare-having children or head-jumping cats all night.
That was technically true, but there was also a hotel fire alarm that went off around 2 a.m., followed by an EQUALLY LOUD AND ALARMING intercom update involving beeps and ATTENTION ATTENTION WE DON'T REALLY KNOW WTF IS GOING ON BUT Y'ALL JUST STAY PUT OKAY?
We were so dead asleep we thought the fire alarm was coming from our thermostat and was something we needed to turn off. Then I stood there -- naked and confused -- staring blankly at my suitcase trying to figure out what clothes I should put on, as I hadn't packed any pajamas and had left my flat shoes in our car and really didn't want to go outside in like, Jason's boxers and t-shirt and stilettos. When the intercom update advised us to await further instructions rather than evacuate, I was like, "oh good" and hopped back in bed. At which point my brain fully switched on like, UHHHH GUYS GUYS THAT FIRE IN LONDON IS THIS HOW THAT STARTED WHY ARE WE STILL HERE OMFG.
Finally, a third (looooooood) update informed us that the fire department had determined the source of the alarm trigger and lo, it was definitely not a fire. We didn't get anymore details after that but my money is on a drunk person who doesn't understand not to fuck with parents who are just trying to get one goddamn night of goddamn sleep, goddamn you goddamn asshole.
It was still a nice night and morning, we hit the farmer's market and Jason's favorite butcher shop (everybody has one of those, right?) and we got back in time to take the kids out for a nice Father's Day brunch. Then we came home again, tossed TV remotes and screens at the kids and collapsed into nap comas.
Oh, and finally, while nothing has been decided for sure quite yet, allow me to cryptically tease an upcoming possibility that is looking more and more likely...
(I DID IT I WORE HIM DOWN HE'S TEXTING ME ADOPTION LISTINGS MWA HA HA)
Dear One, you love me so much
you give me your Torah
for argument and play
waltzing and conversation
from one life to the next.
Your Torah nourishes me,
familiar as the womb.
Wrap me tight in your Torah
like a newborn. Laugh in delight
when I learn to break free.
Your Torah lights up my eyes,
fuses my heart with my choices.
Give me just one letter
to suck like candy, like manna
changing flavor on my tongue.
Tell me a true story again
about who I used to be
or who I might yet be
-- like you, always becoming
who you are becoming.
Beloved, draw me close.
I've been scattered:
melt me until we mingle.
I want to come home in you.
Choose me again. Don't stop.
This poem arises out of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer that is part of the traditional morning liturgy. Those who are familiar with that prayer (especially in its original Hebrew) will see many riffs on and references to its language here.
Like the poem Good (Yotzer Or), which I posted recently, this is intended to be daven-able alongside or instead of the classical prayer.
(There are also some poems in the forthcoming Texts to the Holy that I've used at services as a stand-in for Ahavat Olam, the evening version of this prayer -- most notably the title poem of that collection. But none of those poems is specifically rooted in the language of this prayer the way that this one is.)
It's been two full days since school ended approximately 84 years ago.
Getting work done has been...challenging. Every morning I lay out a schedule for everyone -- exactly what chores need done, spaced in between blocks of outside time, reading/writing time, instrument practice -- that must be completed before I will even consider any screen time requests. Then I head to my office and close my door, hunker down on a task for exactly 30 seconds before the someone barges in to tattle on someone else or ask where something from the dishwasher goes. (IT'S A SPOON, CHILD.) Also, can I go on my screen? Mom? Mooooom. Mooooommmmmmm.
I feel like I've been snappy and scoldy and super easily annoyed; even perfectly valid questions and complaints are being met with a built-in WHAT NOWWWWW level of irritation. Camps start up next week, which no one is all that excited about, but I'm sending them anyway because I believe it will be a enriching and positive experience for my children to be around adults who aren't ready to bite their heads off in a Pavlovian reaction to the sound of a door opening.
I was writing a column for AlphaMom this morning (you know, the one where I un-ironically give advice about how to be awesome at parenting hahahaha) when Ike interrupted me for what felt like easily the 10th time already. "Dude, come ON," I sighed.
"I just want to give you this," he said meekly. He handed me a rolled-up note.
(Translation, per Ike: Dear Mom I love you so much you are the best mom ever o#o# [hugs and kisses] Mom you got me hugs and kisses I like Mom and that is you I love you Mom Love Ike [heart])
And the best part? He didn't even follow up with a "Can I go on my screen now?" That's how you know it's real, man. I do not deserve this one.
I'm taking the rest of the afternoon off. According to today's schedule, I promised fill up a big bucket of water balloons after lunch. Better get cracking.
Beloved, You are good
and you wield goodness
in shaping creation
and every single day
in Your goodness
and with Your goodness
You make us new
with all created things.
You make me new.
I cling to yesterday
(who would I be
without the sorrows
that have worn grooves
into my back?) but
that's my own smallness.
You've made me new
formed me for this new day
a sapling unbowed.
The knot in my stomach
the knot in my throat --
You untie them.
Can I sit with You
for even a few minutes
before I tangle myself again?
In the yotzer or prayer, the blessing for God Who creates light that is part of our daily liturgy, we find the line "המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית/ ha'm'chadesh b'tuvo b'chol yom ma'aseh bereshit," which describes God as the One Who daily renews, with God's goodness, the work of creation. This poem arose out of that line, and could be read or davened as part of shacharit (morning prayer), perhaps with the first and last lines of the Hebrew prayer as bookends. If you use this poem in this way, let me know if it works for you!
It's the last day of school! You're mere hours away from summer vacation! Now line up outside so I can take one of a photo and do that "look how you've grown/changed" comparison thing. Look excited, or something.
Wow. Tough crowd.
(According to MY compare/contrast thing, Ike's hair is longer and he's wearing shoes he outgrew in January, Ezra's legs have grown approximately 25 inches, and Noah's been wearing the same dang shirt since August. Sounds about right.)