The Kol Aleph Blog
On Sunday, March 21, The New York Times ran an article titled “Access, Influence and Pardons: How a Set of Allies Shaped Trump’s Choices,” which wrote about how Donald Trump pardoned individuals by working with an organization named the “Aleph Institute.”
“Aleph” is a Hebrew letter that appears in the name of several diverse Jewish organizations. Our organization is “ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.”
Readers are confusing these two organizations in ways that are disturbing and alarming to our staff and community.
We alert the NYT and our constituency with this notice that ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal has NO CONNECTION whatsoever with the organization called “Aleph Institute.”
Rabbi Aura Ahuvia, Chair of the ALEPH Board of Directors
SooJi Min-Maranda, ALEPH Executive Director
by Rabbi Natan Margalit
One of the things that always strikes me about the Passover Seder is how we can’t decide whether we’re free or still in slavery. We celebrate our freedom by reclining, drinking four cups of wine, singing Hallel, but we also eat from the “bread of affliction” and express the hope for “next year in Jerusalem” which is our language for saying maybe next year we’ll really be free.
Which is it? Are we free or are we enslaved? Of course, we’re both. That is one of the secrets of the Seder, and of all earthly life: we need to embrace the maror with the charoset, the bitter and the sweet, life and death. The Seder is such a living, organically wise tradition because it is so inclusive—all of our senses, emotions and experiences are invited and necessary.
The Seder, I believe, has been so successful through the millennia as a ritual because, like much of Jewish tradition, it is organic— a branch of the Tree of Life that is Torah. So, it is not surprising that it works like an eco-system. Walking in nature, even the small patch of woods by my house, I observe that nothing is neat or antiseptically sealed: it’s a wild, vibrant community of the living and the dead, the decaying tree trunks are home to insects, birds, fungi, and much more. The rich soil is teeming with microscopic life and underground tendrils of roots and mycorrhizal fungi are talking to each other, connecting the trees from below as they are connected by their leaf canopies and their chemical signals carried on the wind from above. Everyone has their place and unique role. When I enter this woods with my eyes, ears and heart truly open, I feel the Sources of Life present in each of these beings; I feel a reflection of the holiness and love that is embedded and enfolded into the fabric of this world “And God saw everything … and it was very good.”
This year more than ever we need that natural inclusiveness of the Seder. We come into Passover this year with a jumble of mixed emotions and feelings. We are mourning all the losses of a year of pandemic even as we are starting to feel the taste of freedom dawning a day at a time, a vaccine a time. We still feel the pain and frustration of division, hatred and corruption, even as we see signs of a new consciousness emerging. We’re terrified and traumatized by the chaos of climate induced storms, droughts, fires and floods, even as we see signs of hope that we are finally facing the crisis with action.
When we tell our story every year at the Seder, adding our voices to the chain of tradition, we tell it inclusively: including the degradation before the celebration, breaking our matzah as we invite all who are hungry to come and eat, including all our children’s (and adults’) learning styles, opinions and quirkiness— even our cranky uncle with the wrong political opinion, even the bored cousins rolling their eyes— and welcoming all questions, from the snarky to the rebellious, including the intellectual, the naive and even the silent question. Some of us will be tentatively gathering in small, vaccinated or masked and distanced groups, some will be enduring another zoom seder, but perhaps thankful for the side benefit of being with people too far away to have joined us in person.
This ecological inclusiveness is part of the world of holy love and life and it runs radically counter to the mechanistic, antiseptic world that we’re often surrounded by in modern society. Our society likes to put that which we don’t want to see out of sight and out of mind. We love our cheap meat, but keep the appalling conditions— for animals and workers— of factory farming and industrial slaughtering out of the public eye. Our corporate economy pushes us to keep adding to our first world luxuries and conveniences without thinking about where they come from, who produces them or what their true cost is. We create a world full of waste because we have forgotten that in the natural, holy pattern of the world, nothing is waste, everyone is valued and all have their place in the pattern.
There are hidden secrets that are found when we include and dive into the whole story—our whole story. One of my favorite commentaries comes from Michael Kagan in his beautiful Haggadah, The Holistic Haggadah. He writes (p. 138-9) that even though we usually say that the charoset represents the mortar that was used to make the bricks in Egypt, there is a deeper secret meaning— the ingredients of charoset: apples, nuts, honey, wine, or date and figs, are all foods and plants that are featured in the Song of Songs, the love poem that we read on the Shabbat of Passover. What we thought of all these years as mortar is hiding the essential secret of the Seder— it’s about love and sweetness— we just need to be open to the whole mixture.
Our true freedom comes with this ecological inclusiveness. This year, when we tell our stories, our healing may come from putting our stories into the frame of the Seder: telling of our journey from degradation to celebration, including all our many voices and opinions, each with its part to play. Feeling the grief and letting it speak its truth to us, so that we may be fully present for the joy that comes with wholeness and the knowing that nothing is wasted, all is holy and each voice is valued.
By Rabbi Natan Margalit, Organic Torah
I read the NYTimes. I try to work. I go to the pantry and eat a cookie. I try to work. I read the NYTimes again. It’s been that kind of year. The media is filled with these rueful descriptions (but always with a friendly wink that says “hey, we’re all doing it!”) of 2020’s favorite coping mechanisms: binge munching, binge watching tv series, obsessively checking the news, and on and on. This has been the most stressful, painful, fearful, and depressing year of most of our lives— I’m certainly not immune from all those coping mechanisms.
But that fact is, while I might fall into it, I don’t really want to over-eat, over-watch, obsess or binge. It’s been a long enough run that I’ve learned that these things might give a very short term hit of pleasure, but in the long, or even medium term, they don’t really help. They get me into habits I don’t really want to be in.
My feeling at the end of this year is that I have never been in more need of spiritual practice. When I’m feeling anxious or depressed, I need to re-mind, and re-experience myself enveloped in the sense of kinship with all creation; I need a feeling of belonging and being loved and held in the awesome, sacredness that enlivens everything. That feeling actually does beat out tv, cookies and definitely the news.
I’ve been inspired by the writings of the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro (1889 – 1943), who is most known as the martyred Hasidic Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. Although he lived much of his life studying and teaching in batei midrash (study houses), preaching and writing, mostly indoors, his thought was deeply ecological. This is a testament to the underlying organic patterns that are the essence of the Torah, no matter where we study it.
In one of his commentaries on Succot he retells our Jewish Creation story in a way that I find speaks to us and our contemporary world: God created the First Human by gathering soil from all four corners of the world. When the First Human(s) disobeyed God, sparks of their soul(s) fell back down and were scattered all through the world. So, the whole world is filled with soul sparks, in a myriad of forms. Our job in this life is, and has always been, to recognize our kinship with the world, to connect with those sparks as partners, and together with them serve God. When we do that, we, and the world, feel deep, true joy. If, however, we forget that the world is our partner, with its holy sparks offering us opportunities to serve, and we relate to the world as mere objects, we distort our souls and damage the world. We fall into desperate, self-defeating obsessions and addictions, searching for the true joy that we know is there but have forgotten how to find. (based on Derekh HaMelekh, “Ushpizei Yitzhak,” p. 291- 292, Vaad Hasidei Piaseczna, Jerusalem, 1995)
We have, as a society, largely forgotten our soul connection to the world around us—to our fellow creatures of all kinds, to our fellow humans, to the soil, air and water of the earth. This year, 2020, we have experienced the tragic results of that alienation in the large-scale crises such as we see in our politics, our society and in our climate, and also in the individual lives of so many who are suffering daily as we simply try to get along. As a society we have largely chosen separation, individualism, and mechanized convenience over connection and belonging.
Recovering a sense of connectedness may reach a pinnacle (at least in my estimation) with the deep spiritual work that the Piaseczner Rebbe describes: training ourselves to relate to all of the world as partners, offering opportunities to raise the holy sparks and reveal the miraculous, awesome, sacredness of creation. But it seems to me that there are many small steps we can take to move in that direction: when we stop and remind ourselves to appreciate our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, strangers, rivals, enemies, as all parts of ourselves; when we make a practice of stopping and listening to the wind in the trees to remember that they breathe together with us. When we regularly take out the kitchen scraps to make compost so that we experience the miraculous cycle of transformation that is the beginning of a healthy food system; when we take a bit of dough out before we bake our bread and offer it (for me that means putting it with the compost) as “Challah” to the Source of All Nourishment and remind ourselves of all the awesome and miraculous creations that went into this dough.
These are some of the spiritual practices that I’ve used this year to keep myself sane in this most challenging of years. Perhaps the Organic Torah of 2020 is that even in this year, maybe especially in this year, we are offered opportunities to realize how connected we really are. And perhaps that can move us in the direction of a great and wonderful healing.