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Oakland, CA
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 My name is Ariel Root Wolpe. I am a Jewish musician, artist, and community organizer. I love figuring out spiritual community and transforming people's hearts through music.

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The Lowest of the Tribes

Valerie Wolpe

 Shabbat shalom everyone! I want to share with you some thoughts about this week’s parsha as we enter a day of much needed rest. I will be delivering these thoughts tonight at Sason, a lay-led Kabbalat shabbat service organized by myself and other rabbinical students at Ziegler. Wherever you are this shabbat, I hope this bit of Torah reaches you. 

Here is where we are in our desert journey. In Vayakhel-Pekudei, the people of Israel come together in the name of God. Moshe begins with the instruction to observe shabbat, and describes the spirit and wisdom of God embodied by the people of Israel. Women and men come together through generous hearts, “nideiv lev,” as they hand over their treasures to build the Mishkan and Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting.  Today, we co-created soulful davening; the Torah tells us a story of our ancestors setting this precedent, by joining forces to bring gifts to God and invest in their holy space. 

God singles out Bezalel, son of Uri of the tribe of Judah, praising him for showing leadership and generosity in his efforts to build the Mishkan. For four verse Moshe is describing how God has blessed Bezalel, and then in Exodus 35:34 Moshe says,

 וּלְהוֹרֹת נָתַן בְּלִבּוֹ הוּא וְאָהֳלִיאָב בֶּן אֲחִיסָמָךְ לְמַטֵּה דָן 

And He put into his heart to teach, both him [Bezalel] and Oholiav, the son of Akhisamach, of the tribe of Dan. 

The text goes on to explain that God imbued them both with wisdom of the heart, to do all sorts of fine craftsman work on the Mishkan. The focus on just Bezalel shifts to include Oholiav. When I first read this I wondered, where did Oholiav come from, and why wasn’t he included from the beginning? Rashi asks the same question, and responds by teaches us about who Oholiav is: 

ואהליאב: משבט דן, מן הירודין שבשבטים מבני השפחות

And Oholiav: of the tribe of Dan, of the lowest of the tribes, of the sons of the handmaidens.

Rashi draws a distinction between two of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Tribe of Dan holds lowest social status of all the tribes, because Dan is the son of Jacob and Rachel’s maidservant. Judah was born of Jacob and Leah and thus holds a much higher status. So why is the lowest tribe honored alongside the greatest with God-gifted wisdom and the power to teach? Rashi explains:

, והשוהו המקום לבצלאל למאלכת המשכן, והוא מגדולי השבטים, לקיים מה שנאמר (איוב לד יט) ולא נכר שוע לפני דל 

Yet God compared him [Oholiav] to Bezalel for the work of the Mishkan, and he [Bezalel] was of the greatest of the tribes [Judah], to fulfill what is said: “and a prince was not recognized before a poor man” (Job 34:19).

In this chapter of Job, we read about how God sees us an equal beings, for we are all the work of His hands and all return to dust at our end. Therefore God would not favor a prince over a poor man—there is no true difference. Rashi draws an analogy between the prince and Bezalel, and between the poor man and Oholiav. Although we perceive an inherent difference between them due to their tribal origins, God equally touches their hearts and inspires them to teach and to build. 

Out in the desert, our social roles are becoming increasingly defined. As slaves, we were equally powerless—now we are tribes living by reputation, judges gaining authority, priests fulfilling the rituals for worship. But when it comes to building the Mishkan, status falls away and the Israelites build collectively, motivated only by nideiv lev. Each one of us holds potential to serve our community, and to rise to the honor of building a holy space. 

Rashi’s word for God in his commentary is “Makom,” literally “place.” Rashi is speaking about the God’s presence on earth, in the community, in the Mishkan. Today we understand Mishkan as also meaning the place within ourselves where God dwells. I’d like to offer that our prayer together, right now, in this holy room, can be our the building blocks of our Mishkan. Through nideiv lev we can build up a Tent around each other, and by singing our praises, nourish the sanctity within our own bodies. And to create a Mishkan that lasts and grows, we must commit our generosity, our humility, and the belief that we all hold within us unique gifts and treasures. 

I want to leave us with a question.  In your life, in this Mishkan of this moment, who are you—Bezalel or Oholiav? Are you stepping up to the roles that are expected of you, the holy work of your status, like one from the Tribe of Judah? Or are you Oholiav, from the tribe of Dan, pushing past your doubts and self perception, inviting the wisdom and works of holiness to run through you? Both men are honored, yet Oholiav is the much more needed of the two. By aspiring to his example, we can teach our hearts to lift towards giving, and together, we can reach new heights of community. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Are Moshe, and God, worth believing in?

Valerie Wolpe

This past shabbat’s Torah portion was the first six chapters of Exodus, telling how Moshe is born in Egypt, flees in fear after killing a slave-master, and then returns with God’s instruction to free his people. When Moshe returns to Egypt, God has him perform three miracles - not to be done before the Egyptians, but to convince the Hebrews to believe in his leadership. 

Gods turns Moshe’s staff into a serpent, and tells him to grasp the tail to turn it back to wood. He then instructs Moshe to place his hand in his bosom, and when he draws it out, his hand is encrusted in “snowy scales,” mitsora’at kisheleg. God returns Moshe’s hand to healthy skin and tells him that if the Hebrews don’t believe theses two signs, he should pour Nile water on the ground and it will turn to blood. What is the significance of these miracles? How come they convince the Israelites that Moshe, and God, are worth believing in and following?

The Israelites realized that these miracles signify the coming rebirth of our people. The staff-serpent harkens back to one of our earliest stories, eating from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. However in this moment the snake redeems itself from the earlier act of defiance. It is now a key instrument in the freedom of the Jewish people - it is Moshe’s right hand, helping him walk as he leads the people from Egypt. And it appears later from Aaron’s staff to display God’s might to Pharaoh. Instead of aiding a woman to consume wisdom, it now supports two men in attaining freedom for their people.

The snake helped transform humankind from innocent garden dwellers to an imperfect, creative people - it is a force of transformation. It’s ability to shed skin and grow anew reflects the ongoing cycles of the creation, and makes the snake a powerful symbol of rebirth. God’s second sign reinforces this meaning - from placing his hand on his chest, Moshe’s skin is turned to scales, representing his ability to transform himself. The transformation comes from his bosom, khaeko, from the tender part of his body which covers his heart. God shows Moshe he has the power of rebirth, to free himself from his past, but he must do so with tenderness in order to lead his people to freedom.

The final miracle, Nile water turning to blood, is the renewing power of the Hebrew women. Just as a Jewish woman can immerse herself in the mikvah, in running water, to mark the end of her menstrual cycle, God demonstrates the connection of water and blood in Egypt’s life-force: the Nile River. The Nile and the love of three women ensured Moshe’s survival, which in turn enables the survival of the Israelites. Through this sign, God tells Moshe: women are central to the task. They are the instigators of change, the masters of renewal, the givers of life. Their love conquers all, and only together will you reach liberation!

The Mitzvah of Tefillin and Shema

Valerie Wolpe

In the 21st century, after thousands of years of Jewish, adult, able-minded men adhering to an evolving halakha, the Conservative movement declared that women were equally bound by all the halakhic obligations. For the first time in history women were required by Jewish law to wrap tefillin and pray the Shema. Although I was raised in an egalitarian, religious conservative household, I was never taught how to wrap tefillin. My bat mitzvah training didn’t include teachings or instruction on tefillin, and although I received a tallit, the other physical mitzvah one fulfills during prayer, tefillin was never mentioned. Either no-one thought I would wear it, or it was still seen as a man’s obligation. 

When my Zadie, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe zikhrono livrakha, passed away in 2009, I inherited my first set of tefillin. I  treasured it as my heritage and connection to him, but didn’t know how to use it, or feel moved to. The next time I took it out was the first day of rabbinical school. That morning in shacharit, every woman around me davened with tefillin on her left arm and between her eyes. I realized I was missing out on something I didn’t understand, and I went home, learned how to wrap, and the next morning I prayed with tefillin for the first time in my life. In that moment I sorely wished that my Zadie, or my father, had taught me how to wear tefillin, instead of a youtube video. Since then I’ve craved a deeper connection to tefillin, an intimate awareness of its power and place in prayer, and of its history. I decided to explore the halakhic role of tefillin in praying the Shema, hoping it will bring me one step closer to a meaningful relationship with a beautiful custom and halakhic obligation. I will share with you a bit of what I’ve learned. 

In Hilchot Tefillin, Rambam, a 12th century rabbi who wrote the Mishna Torah, begins the chapter by teaching us:

Four passages [of the Torah], Kadesh Li and V’hayah ki y’viacha Ado’nai  in the book of Exodus (13:1-10 and 13:11-16) and Shema and V’haya im shamo’a (Deut 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) should be written separately and covered with leather. They are called tefillin. They are placed on the head and tied to the arm.”(Hilchot Tefillin 1:1)

ארבע פרשיות אלו שהן קדש לי והיה כי יביאך יי' שבספר ואלה שמות ושמע והיה אם שמוע הן שנכתבות בפני עצמן ומחפין אותן בעור ונקראין תפילין ומניחין אותן על הראש וקושרין אותן על היד.

Rambam goes on to explain that tefillin is such a sacred mitzvah that when one wears tefillin, she must be fully attentive to the mitzvah: if she is unable to concentrate, she is forbidden from donning them. Wrapping tefillin is powerful sign that Jews are bound to God in history, love and law, we must be conscious of that. Each tefillin contains the above passages in the order in which they appear in the Torah, passages which represent the everlasting covenant between God and Jewish people. Since the latter two are found in the Shema prayer, it makes sense that there is a powerful connection. Rambam tells us:

Our sages declared “whoever recites the Shema without tefillin is considered as if he is giving false testimony. (Hilchot Tefillin, Halacha 26)

אמרו חכמים כל הקורא קריאת שמע בלא תפילין כאלו מעיד עדות שקר בעצמו.

So it seems I’ve been missing out - and according to some, transgressing by praying without tefillin.  Others say it isn’t a transgression, you just haven’t fully fulfilled the mitzvah of the Shema. The Sefer Ha-Chareydim writes that when one says during the Shema, “and you shall love the Lord” she should introduce the love of God into her heart, so that she speaks the truth. (Mishna Berura, Tefillin 25:4) To me, this means that it is important that our intention motivate our actions, and also that our actions symbolize our intention. We mean what we say, and we act out what we mean. 

The Mishna Berura gives us a beautiful explanation of the state of mind one should have when donning tefillin, and the way to lift our consciousness of the Creator when fulfilling this mitzvah:

When one dons tefillin, she should have in mind that the Holy One, Blessed be God, who commanded us to place the relevant four passages which contain the uniqueness of God’s Name and the Exodus from Egypt, on the arm opposite the heart and on the head against the brain, so that we should remember the miracles and wonder which God performed for us…In view of this, one will subject to the Holy One, Blessed be God, both the soul, which is situated in the brain, and also the heart, which is the root of the desires and the thoughts. In this manner one will remember the creator… (Mishna Berura, Tefillin 25:5)

יכוין בהנחתם שצונו הקב"ה להניח ארבע פרשיות אלו שיש בהם יחוד שמו ויציאת מצרים על הזרוע כנגד הלב ועל הראש כנגד המוח כדי שנזכור נסים ונפלאות שעשה עמנו שהם מורים על יחודו ואשר לו הכח והממשלה בעליונים ובתחתונים לעשות בהם כרצונו וישתעבד להקב"ה הנשמה שהיא במוח וגם הלב שהוא עיקר התאוות והמחשבות ובזה יזכור הבורא וימעיט.

I love this metaphor - imagining the soul in my head, and my desires stemming from my heart. It is amazing to see these ideas articulated over a hundred years ago. Here, the focus is on remembering - binding ourselves with tefillin is like a physical chain, a connection with that that has happened before.  Therefore when we pray, we feel the touch of our stories and our ancestors on our skin.  In such an intellectual tradition, it is a blessing to have the kinesthetic mitzvah of binding our arms and heads to ground us into our bodies as we pray. In such an intellectual tradition, it is a blessing to have the kinesthetic mitzvah of binding our arms and heads to ground us into our bodies as we pray.

These passages of halakha on tefillin and Shema teach me a beautiful truth about the Jewish tradition: that of humility before action. As we read the Shema, the Gemara instructs us to accept the “yoke of heavenly sovereignty", to surrender ourselves to the abundant love of God and accept our dependence in this world. The tefillin is a symbol of our bond to God and to the world, as well as the spirit world, and helps us remember the miracles in our history, to let the God’s love and power enter our beings through a physical metaphor. And in return, we must take responsibility for our intention and how we act that out for ourselves and the world. 

I look forward to what else I will discover as I continue the practice of wrapping myself in the words of the Shema, and watching women around me do the same.

Happy Hannukka,

Ariel

Beginning Rabbinical School

Valerie Wolpe

This sunday I will start my first year at rabbinical school at Ziegler, where over the next five years, I will study to become a Conservative rabbi. I am filled with gratitude and awe when I consider how the years have brought me to this junction. And when I look at horror occurring in the middle east and Furgeson and across the world, I feel called all the more to strengthening my mind and heart through the Jewish tradition. 

As I uprooted my life to begin a rabbinic path, my rabbis transformed from teachers into promises. I watched their arguments and pleas about Israel and Gaza in the news, and my sources of insight, guidance and comfort were suddenly accompanied by intense expectation and instruction. Every time I read a rabbi’s Facebook post, I asked myself: How will I carry the responsibility of publicly denouncing injustice? How will I respond to anti-Semitism and unfair standards? What will I face from the Jewish people and wider community for voicing my opinion? How will I ensure to represent the Jews as an ethical and compassionate people? Should I express any unsureness in what is right, if people are looking to me for answers? When should I hold back my political opinions, and when should I shout them from the rooftops?

Luckily, I have five years to explore answers to these questions, and a growing community of rabbis to learn from. If I am to become a spiritual teacher to others, I must become sure in myself, my beliefs, and my tradition. As much as religion has accompanied bloodshed throughout history, I believe it is the most powerful way to bring people together in loving community if done with an honest heart.  Every person, every moment, is filled with divine light - the question is, how can we make it shine the brightest?

One way I try to lift other peoples spirits with mine is through my music. I expect my art will transform alongside my mind as it gets filled with Jewish learning and a religious life. 

The journey begins!

Ariel

Chants from Passover

Valerie Wolpe

Over Passover, I went on two vision quests during a festival run by Wilderness Torah, called "Passover in the Desert". It took place in the serene Panamint Valley near Redwood National Park, miles away from any industrialization. Thanks to the beautiful guidance and the strong intention of the questers and community, I had a series of transformative experiences. I wanted to share two songs that I received during these quests. Here are the demo tracks "My Teachers" and "Spirit World" if you want to take a listen. You should be able to free download them if you like it!

I am recording an album this summer and will be including a professional recording of 'My Teachers.' I'm planning on selling this album to help raise money to pay for my first year of rabbinical school at American Jewish University in the fall. I look forward to sharing this album with you and staying connected as I begin my new journey!

"Portal" Released!

Valerie Wolpe

After many months of writing, singing, playing and practicing, my partner Jon Mitchell has just released "Portal," an amazing music album that a number of friends participated in creating. I am grateful to be the female vocalist on the album and lead singer on "Root: waking up with you." You might be able to guess who that song was written about...

Enjoy the portal, everyone: www.jonmitchell.net/music/portal

My Concept of God

Valerie Wolpe

I am currently applying for a rabbinical program at American Jewish University, and have to answer a number of essay questions for my application. I want to share this piece of an essay with you, and would love your thoughts and feedback on it. The questions is, what is my concept of God?

I use many names for God, depending on what I am doing or who I am connecting with. In music, I praise God through the names El, Shadai, Hashem, Adonai and invent metaphorical titles like the Gardener and Sweet One. In explanations of my visual art, I often refer to God as The Source, The Divine Presence, and Shechina (which I specify as feminine). These terms unlock different faces of God, and using the right term can do wonders for opening someone to experience God through conversation, music or art. “God” is a hard word for many people to swallow because the term is often weighted by Christian associations, political aggression and images of a male ruler. Some Jews hold the opinion that the term God is unredeemable, that it should be replaced in siddurim with new titles like “The Source of Life”. While these names may be more palatable in some ways, I know that it is possible, is in fact beneficial to re-understand the word God, to assign God the personal meaning and experiences that make divinity relevant and powerful.

It took years of frustration and seeking to re-understand God in my life. It was most difficult during prayer, when instead of opening my heart to wisdom and love, I was having irritated reactions to the written and spoken word God. After services at a Jewish retreat I finally became fed up with the defenses that were robbing me of truth and nourishment in the Jewish prayer service.  I found a large piece of paper and wrote at the top “God is…’ and began drawing pictures of anything that came to me.  The page filled up with images of Jewish people, nature, Torah, feminine and masculine figures, images of love and fights and birth and death, and individuals holding hands across a globe. These concrete concepts helped me redeem the term and uncover where I truly believe G-d is found: in relation.

I believe that G-d is found in relation between people, between people and the external world, and between individuals and the internal world. Like Martin Buber explains in I-Thou, it is difficult to have an honest, authentic encounter with another and with the world, because we have biological impulses that are selfish, and live in a society and that value relationships for personal gain. These can obscure the beauty and divinity found in each being, in each piece of earth. Even when we look inside and try to understand ourselves, judgment and shame keep us from encountering the delicate world of our true self. It is in superseding these insecurities and unhealthy values that God emerges in our every interaction. And it is in seeing God that we are able to deeply love.

Freedom Workshop

Valerie Wolpe

I recently ran a workshop themed on freedom. The attendees and I sat in a circle, and I began with a meditation, which evolved into breath based vocalizations. It was amazing to see and feel what a simple exercise can do for us: we were all cast into serenity, eyes closed, breathing evenly. When I stopped I couldn’t move onto the next section for many minutes, everyone needed to just soak into the new atmosphere we had created. Finally I started playing my song Dragon’s Egg, in which the singer, a bird, relinquishes her freedom of flight in the sun-filled world to care for an egg she knew would soon bring her joy. She knew this because she saw it in a dream, and despite her bird instinct and her troubled community, she followed her dream into darkness.

It is so hard to relinquish our freedom to pursue a passion that will limit us in the moment. But we are always far more limited when we hold back, and it is this lesson I am constantly re-teaching myself. To relinquish myself to the challenging visions of my mind that wants to change the world through action, to my heart that yearns to heal the world through love. To get up the courage to expose myself in unfamiliar territory. Thank you to everyone who came to my workshop and created this experience: the journey was so beautiful.

Welcome!

Valerie Wolpe

Hello friends! Welcome to my spanking brand new website, arielwolpe.com. I am excited to have things to share with you and a digital place to share it. 

What are these new things that have inspired me to launch a site? Well, there are a few. First are my new cell phone covers, which I began hand painted this year. I started out just making one for myself, and not very well either - I only gave it a thin coat of fixing spray, and carried it everywhere as acrylic paint chips littered my bag. Despite this, it got a lot of attention every time I answered a call in front of a group, and I began receiving requests. I have since perfected the art of creation, which requires multiple layers of coating to protect the paint. It takes a bit of time but the results, I find, are really beautiful.

My other exciting project is a new album, for which I am currently recording demos. This album will be original music, some acoustic, some with a full band, and will include various themes that have emerged within the last few years of my life. I will also be including some niggunim (wordless melodies) in the album, either interspersed or as a corresponding track list. I am excited about how this album dances in and out of my tradition, stepping into biblical hebrew phrases in one track and twirling with a west coast love story in the next.

As the holidays are approaching, I hope to get my cell phone covers into some gift boxes for your mother/father/sibling/parter or your own self! Please share my page with your family and friends. 

B'shalom,

Ariel