Chukat -- Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Chukat

"The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world."

I am often struck by the prescience of 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber, author of the influential The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05). Notwithstanding the "disenchantment" that ensues in modernity with the need to know the "why" of everything, Judaism posits that the search for the underlying reasoning behind halacha (Jewish religious law) is possible – with limitations.

This week, we are concerned with how to contextualize statutes, specifically laws like those related to the red heifer – namely, those ordained without rationale. Over the course of centuries, this inquiry has lead to a distinct genre of Jewish literature called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot, or Rationalization of the Commandments. If every commandment can be explained rationally, the modern mind will be satisfied. But what price will religion pay if all of its enchantment and mystery can be explained away through reason?

This is the tension that emerges in this week’s reading. Parashat Chukat describes the ritual that mixes ashes of the red heifer with living waters. While its symbolism remains a mystery to us, we know that a life committed to the spiritual practice of Torah is nourishing and life affirming! Like the living waters Miriam pointed the Israelites to throughout their desert sojourns, each of us can embrace life through sacral deeds we call mitzvot, whether we can explain them or not. The paradox of the red heifer is that the ashes of the pure render the impure pure, while the priests who are pure in preparing the ashes become defiled.

Moses also strikes the rock at this point in the journey rather than speaking to it in order to provide the thirsty Israelites with water. The Israelite’s thirst is slaked, but as a result of this burst of anger, both Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. Miriam dies in Zin, and Aaron dies at Hor Hahar, passing on the succession of the priesthood to his son, Elazar. As venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp following further discontent, Moses is commanded to place a brass serpent upon a pole to battle the plague. Those who look heavenwards will be healed. This culminates in a song sung by the Israelites to honor the miraculous well of Miriam that slaked their thirst in the desert. Moses then leads the people into battles against the Emorite kings, Sichon and Og, who appear recalcitrant in granting passage to the Israelite’s through their territories.

Amidst all these challenges, Moses remains committed to caring for and uplifting the Israelites. Against all odds, he trusts in the process that leads to the greater good – even in our own day, we still call this emunah, or faithfulness.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features a silhouette of our tradition’s sacred cow. It is nearly impossible to locate a red heifer (parah adumah) that meets the halachic requirements for the ritual purification sacrifice described in Parashat Chukat. The heifer is so rare, in fact, that tradition tells us only eight of them were sacrificed before the destruction of the Second Temple (and none after, of course). But their extreme rarity hasn’t stopped some Jews from looking for cows that pass muster. An Israeli organization dedicated to building the Third Temple has attempted to identify red heifer candidates since 1987. Over the course of those 30 years, they located two candidates that were eventually rejected and they currently claim to have a third, kosher candidate for consideration. If that cow also proves unsatisfactory, they plan to genetically engineer a red heifer that will meet the halachic requirements. And, no, we’re not making this up. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Korah -- Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

DFacebook_CoverDesign_Korahuring a brief visit to Dublin, the birthplace of Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854), I was struck by the author, playwright, and poet's quick wit and keen observations about human nature. Wilde once quipped that, "Arguments are extremely vulgar, for everyone in good society holds exactly the same opinion."

Torah, on the other hand, teaches us about respecting a diversity of opinions. Such respectful but creative tension [makhloket] comes to be understood in the aftermath of Korah.

By inciting a mutiny against Moses, Korah is justly decrying a hierarchy that he sees as unfair. He proclaims his own brand of spiritual grandeur — "We are all holy!" This is a very real, egalitarian challenge to the hegemony of Mosaic leadership and its preferential granting of the priesthood to Aaron. In the end, Korah and his mutineers are consumed by fire as the earth swallows them up. Why then does Scripture later mention (Numbers 26:11) that "the children of Korah never died?"

The sages of the Mishnah picked up on the cues from Korah and went on to teach the following in Tractate Avot 5:20: "Any dispute [machloket] for heaven’s sake will ultimately endure; while any dispute [machloket] which is not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is a dispute for heaven’s sake? This is a debate between Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute that is not for heaven’s sake? This is the dispute of Korah and his assembly." In other words, there is a difference between petty squabbling and good arguments that allow for growth amidst real difference. Shammai and Hillel exemplify what it means to be involved in disputes for heaven’s sake, given that before either one would launch his own argument, his first step was to cite the opposing position; only after having done so would he then make his own argument. This posture displays a deep respect for opposing points of view and the realization that truth is discovered as part of a process that emerges in civil dialogue.

The vibrancy we yearn for in our Jewish lives comes by living in that creative tension between the Mosaic path and the Korahite path. The challenge before each of us is how to create that single vessel within community – to make space to foster the creative tension to enable our moral grandeur and spiritual audacity to be fully lived.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an illustration of tzitzit tied with a thread of techelet, wool dyed blue with blood extracted from a sea snail. Why this image? At the end of last week’s parsha, Moses was tasked with telling the Israelites that God commanded them to "make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue on the fringe of each corner." (Numbers 15:38) Many of our traditional biblical commentators believed that this "unbearable law" (Pseudo-Philo) was the final straw for Korah and his allies, and therefore gave rise to Korah’s rebellion. But, as James Kugel points out in his How To Read The Bible (2007), "Korah was not really interested in changing the system, merely in taking it over. He was thus a dangerous demagogue." Here, we see the techelet tied to the tzitzit according to the instructions given by Rabbi Abraham ben David (c. 1125–1198), also known as the RaBad or Raavad. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beha'alotecha – Numbers 8:1 - 12:16

How does ritual allow for the building of community practice?

Ongoing commitment to communal ritual requires trust. Another key for community building I learned from Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman (Oranim College of Education) while on the Rabin Bay Area Leadership Mission to Israel is mutual trust. It is defined as the "willingness of individuals to join and help others without deep personal familiarity nor with any expectation, just the conviction that this is what other members of a community are doing, so I will do it, too."

In Parashat Beha'alotecha, as Aaron is commanded to light the lamps of the menorah, the focus is on just how to raise the sparks to create a luminous presence. For those Israelites unable to bring the Paschal offering at the appointed time, there is another chance with the institution of a Second Passover. Also, dissatisfaction with the manna from heaven sets in as the Israelites yearn for new tastes.

Each of these scenarios involves an initial enthusiasm that fades, so that the challenge remains how to hold onto that inspiration through a daily spiritual practice. The mosaic wisdom here is instructive, specifically in imparting his (Moses') spirit to the appointed seventy elders. Spiritual practice is bolstered in a community of practice where mutual trust is a given.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork depicts "the cloud of the Lord" that leads the Israelites through their years of desert wandering. "Whether it was for two days, a month, or a year, that the cloud lingered to hover over the Mishkan, the children of Israel would encamp and not travel, and when it departed, they traveled." (Numbers 9:22) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tzav -- Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

CoverDesign_TzavThe Greek diplomat, Solon (638-558 BCE) once remarked:

"Learn to obey before you command."

What is the relationship between obedience and commandedness [t'zivui] and how does it affect our relationship to sacral duties [mitzvot]?

From hearing the calling to obeying the command [tzav], Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's sons all receive the divine command regarding their duties as priests [kohanim] to make offerings [qorbanot] in the Sanctuary. The fire on the altar must be kept burning at all times, so as to completely consume: the ascent offering [‘olah]; veins of fat from the peace offering [shelamim]; sin offering [hatat]; guilt offering [asham]; and the handful taken from the meal offering [minha]. The priests are permitted to eat the meat of the sin and guilt offerings, as well as the remainder of the meal offering. The peace offering is offered by the one who brought it, with sections apportioned to the priest. Consumption of the holy meat offerings are to be eaten by a person for whom it is ritually appropriate, in a designated place and time.

Initiation into the priesthood for Aaron and his sons takes place over the seven day retreat in the sanctuary compound. Sometimes it takes the perspective of retreat to truly see how our relationship to each and every mitzvah -- no matter how potentially burdensome initially -- is ultimately a great gift all along.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork highlights the body parts Moses marks with blood during the initiation of Aaron and his sons as kohanim. Why the cartilage of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot? (Leviticus 8:23) According to Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), "The fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot of the pilgrimage of life." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tetzaveh -- Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Fashion designer Kenneth Cole once remarked, "You can change an outfit, you can outfit change, or both." How fitting that clothes are what truly outfit spiritual change in this week’s reading!

To outfit spiritual change, all priests or kohanim wear: (1) a full- length linen tunic [ketonet]; (2) linen breeches [michnasayim]; (3) a linen headdress, or turban [mitznefet]; and (4) a long, waist sash [avnet]. To manifest his spiritual shift, the High Priest also wears: (5) an apron of blue-, purple-, and red-dyed wool, with linen and gold thread [efod]; (6) a breastplate composed of 12 precious stones inscribed with the names of the 12 tribes [hoshen]; (7) a cloak of blue wool, adorned with gold bells and pomegranates on its hem [me’il]; and (8) a golden plate upon the forehead with the inscription, “Holy to God” [tzitz].

Initiation into the priesthood takes seven days for Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Itamar. Mirroring the seven day cycle of creation, here Torah is teaching us that every creative choice we make, even the most mundane, outfits us with the possibility of spiritual transformation.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the Holy of Holies as an abstract, contained force. In Parashat Tetzaveh, we learn the Israelite priests must be purified and specially adorned in order to safely approach the Holy of Holies. Comparing Aaron’s "holysuit" to a space suit, religious scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky (z”l) wrote, "we must have G-d’s holy presence to survive, but we must approach it only when it is contained in the precise manner G-d prescribes, and we come into the realm of holiness only in the holysuit G-d gives us. In the modern world, we have energy that can serve as a metaphor to model this divine power. Carefully contained, nuclear power can fuel our cities, but if the plant has cracks, it will escape and destroy, and if an individual approaches without a radiation suit, that person is dead." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beshalach -- Exodus 13:17–17:16

How does any reasonable person react when facing "the lesser of two evils" or "an offer you can’t refuse"? When we find ourselves "on the horns of a dilemma," we are usually "trapped between a rock and a hard place" — this is a feeling we know all too well in life, whether in business dealings or with family and friends.

The earliest occurrence of "between a rock and a hard place" in 1921 America denotes being bankrupt — "common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California." (American Dialect Society, Dialect Notes V, 1921) More recently, Aron Ralston's book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004) was adapted into in the gruesome film, 127 Hours (2010). Ralston’s memoir recounts the 127 hours that he spent trapped by a boulder in Robbers Roost, Utah, after a climbing accident in April 2003. He survives precisely by opting for the "hard place" of freeing himself by cutting off part of his right arm.

Aside from these common usages of the expression, from Arizona and California to Utah, this week we turn to the Israelites who are feeling quite constricted as they are now trapped "between a rock and a hard place" — between Pharaoh’s armies rapidly approaching from behind and the ominous Reed Sea ahead of them. How will they respond to being "between the devil and the deep blue sea"?

Moses receives the divine command to raise his staff over the water so that the Reed Sea then splits, relieving the Israelites of their predicament, trapped as they are "between a rock and a hard place," and allowing them safe passage. This opening quickly turns into a dead end for the Egyptian armies pursuing the Israelites. Once they are safe on the far side of the sea, Moses, Miriam, and the Children of Israel erupt into redemption songs.

Now in the desert, however the challenges mount. The Israelites suffer from thirst and hunger, and complain to their new leaders, Moses and Aaron. Their thirst is slaked only when the bitter waters of Marah are sweetened. Moses also brings forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, and causes nourishing manna to rain down on his people each morning and quails each evening. The Israelites gather a double portion of manna on Fridays, since none will fall from the sky on the divinely decreed day of rest known as the Sabbath. Aaron even jars a morsel of manna as testimony for future generations.

The trials continue as the Israelites are attacked by the tribe of Amalek, who is ultimately defeated by Moses and Joshua. It is noteworthy that Moses uses the spiritual power of prayer, while Joshua uses the political power of armed forces.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's collage-like illustration depicts the rock at Horeb during the night, with water still pouring forth from the place where Moses struck it. "You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it." (Exodus 17:6) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'eira -- Exodus 6:2-9:35

The self-revelation of the divine to Moses is a unique moment in our spiritual history and changes the face of monotheism forever.

Emboldened and empowered, Moses and Aaron return before Pharaoh, demanding in the divine name,

Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s recalcitrance leads to the moment where Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, swallowing up the surrounding staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, followed by the famous plagues. Water to blood; swarms of frogs; lice infestations; hordes of beasts; pestilence; painful boils; all culminating in the seventh plague, a hail of fire and ice.

Immune to the plagues, however, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Pharaoh’s heart of stone. In response to the first five divine plagues, Pharaoh hardens his heart. In response to the remaining plagues, however, Torah states plainly that G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart. No matter the agent, the result is the same; "Pharaoh's heart is heavy." (Exodus 7:14) Rabbi Stuart Kelman, founding rabbi of Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom, suggests the first five plagues saw Pharaoh progressively hardening his own heart to the plight of the Hebrews and the demands of Moses. That hardening response soon becomes reflexive, a kind of muscle memory, so that the Pharaoh’s heart was already "sclerotic" by the sixth plague, and G-d merely ensures that Pharaoh "lives out the consequences of his own arrogance and ambition." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shemot -- Exodus 1:1-6:1

To discover the nature of being human, there are those moments in life when you have to leave the known and venture into the unknown. The story is told about Prince Siddhartha who discovers the true nature of the human condition during an excursion outside the palace walls. In leaving the comfort of the palace, he saw an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and, finally, someone attempting to follow a spiritual path. Witnessing life outside the palatial walls is what causes him to contemplate the suffering in the world.

Another young seeker named Moses takes leave of the Pharaoh’s palace only to discover the suffering of his fellows. In witnessing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, Moses kills the perpetrator. When Moses then admonishes two Jews fighting the next day, he is forced to flee to Midian. It is at that moment that both the Prophet Moses and Prince Siddhartha each knew that a radical change in life was necessary in order to find meaning along the journey.

But the story of Exodus really begins before leaving the palace walls, as the children of Israel are growing numerous and prospering generations after Joseph’s rise to grand vizier of Egypt. This prosperity and integration is perceived as a threat to their Egyptian overlords. In the process of Pharaoh’s enslaving the Israelites, he also orders the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah to kill all male babies by throwing them into the Nile.

If it was not for the righteous indignation of the midwives, Moses would never have come onto the scene. This child born to Yocheved, daughter of Levi, and her husband Amram, is placed in a basket along the Nile River. It is Pharaoh’s daughter who discovers the baby hidden in the basket while bathing in the Nile and names him Moses.

Fast forward to Moses fleeing the palace, finding his way to Midian, where he rescues Tzipporah, daughter of local chieftain and priest of Midian, Jethro. He later marries Tzipporah and becomes a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks. Moses continues to wander in search of the truth, finally encountering the divine in renowned theophany of the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai.

As Moses and Aaron challenge Pharaoh’s recalcitrance to free the Israelites, the people hold fast to the hope that redemption is at hand.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is inspired by Exodus 3:2: "…behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed." Here, patterns and colors are made to play off one another in a nod to the mystical incomprehensibility of the divine flame. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Chukat -- Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Chukat"The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world."

I am often struck by the prescience of 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber, author of the influential The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05). Notwithstanding the "disenchantment" that ensues in modernity with the need to know the "why" of everything, Judaism posits that the search for the underlying reasoning behind halacha (Jewish religious law) is possible – with limitations.

This week, we are concerned with how to contextualize statutes, specifically laws like those related to the red heifer – namely, those ordained without rationale. Over the course of centuries, this inquiry has lead to a distinct genre of Jewish literature called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot, or Rationalization of the Commandments. If every commandment can be explained rationally, the modern mind will be satisfied. But what price will religion pay if all of its enchantment and mystery can be explained away through reason?

This is the tension that emerges in this week’s reading. Parashat Chukat describes the ritual that mixes ashes of the red heifer with living waters. While its symbolism remains a mystery to us, we know that a life committed to the spiritual practice of Torah is nourishing and life affirming! Like the living waters Miriam pointed the Israelites to throughout their desert sojourns, each of us can embrace life through sacral deeds we call mitzvot, whether we can explain them or not. The paradox of the red heifer is that the ashes of the pure render the impure pure, while the priests who are pure in preparing the ashes become defiled.

Moses also strikes the rock at this point in the journey rather than speaking to it in order to provide the thirsty Israelites with water. The Israelite’s thirst is slaked, but as a result of this burst of anger, both Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. Miriam dies in Zin, and Aaron dies at Hor Hahar, passing on the succession of the priesthood to his son, Elazar. As venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp following further discontent, Moses is commanded to place a brass serpent upon a pole to battle the plague. Those who look heavenwards will be healed. This culminates in a song sung by the Israelites to honor the miraculous well of Miriam that slaked their thirst in the desert. Moses then leads the people into battles against the Emorite kings, Sichon and Og, who appear recalcitrant in granting passage to the Israelite’s through their territories.

Amidst all these challenges, Moses remains committed to caring for and uplifting the Israelites. Against all odds, he trusts in the process that leads to the greater good – even in our own day, we still call this emunah, or faithfulness.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features a silhouette of our tradition’s sacred cow. It is nearly impossible to locate a red heifer (parah adumah) that meets the halachic requirements for the ritual purification sacrifice described in Parashat Chukat. The heifer is so rare, in fact, that tradition tells us only eight of them were sacrificed before the destruction of the Second Temple (and none after, of course). But their extreme rarity hasn’t stopped some Jews from looking for cows that pass muster. An Israeli organization dedicated to building the Third Temple has attempted to identify red heifer candidates since 1987. Over the course of those 30 years, they located two candidates that were eventually rejected and they currently claim to have a third, kosher candidate for consideration. If that cow also proves unsatisfactory, they plan to genetically engineer a red heifer that will meet the halachic requirements. And, no, we’re not making this up. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Korah -- Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

DFacebook_CoverDesign_Korahuring a brief visit to Dublin, the birthplace of Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854), I was struck by the author, playwright, and poet's quick wit and keen observations about human nature. Wilde once quipped that, "Arguments are extremely vulgar, for everyone in good society holds exactly the same opinion."

Torah, on the other hand, teaches us about respecting a diversity of opinions. Such respectful but creative tension [makhloket] comes to be understood in the aftermath of Korah.

By inciting a mutiny against Moses, Korah is justly decrying a hierarchy that he sees as unfair. He proclaims his own brand of spiritual grandeur — "We are all holy!" This is a very real, egalitarian challenge to the hegemony of Mosaic leadership and its preferential granting of the priesthood to Aaron. In the end, Korah and his mutineers are consumed by fire as the earth swallows them up. Why then does Scripture later mention (Numbers 26:11) that "the children of Korah never died?"

The sages of the Mishnah picked up on the cues from Korah and went on to teach the following in Tractate Avot 5:20: "Any dispute [machloket] for heaven’s sake will ultimately endure; while any dispute [machloket] which is not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is a dispute for heaven’s sake? This is a debate between Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute that is not for heaven’s sake? This is the dispute of Korah and his assembly." In other words, there is a difference between petty squabbling and good arguments that allow for growth amidst real difference. Shammai and Hillel exemplify what it means to be involved in disputes for heaven’s sake, given that before either one would launch his own argument, his first step was to cite the opposing position; only after having done so would he then make his own argument. This posture displays a deep respect for opposing points of view and the realization that truth is discovered as part of a process that emerges in civil dialogue.

The vibrancy we yearn for in our Jewish lives comes by living in that creative tension between the Mosaic path and the Korahite path. The challenge before each of us is how to create that single vessel within community – to make space to foster the creative tension to enable our moral grandeur and spiritual audacity to be fully lived.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an illustration of tzitzit tied with a thread of techelet, wool dyed blue with blood extracted from a sea snail. Why this image? At the end of last week’s parsha, Moses was tasked with telling the Israelites that God commanded them to "make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue on the fringe of each corner." (Numbers 15:38) Many of our traditional biblical commentators believed that this "unbearable law" (Pseudo-Philo) was the final straw for Korah and his allies, and therefore gave rise to Korah’s rebellion. But, as James Kugel points out in his How To Read The Bible (2007), "Korah was not really interested in changing the system, merely in taking it over. He was thus a dangerous demagogue." Here, we see the techelet tied to the tzitzit according to the instructions given by Rabbi Abraham ben David (c. 1125–1198), also known as the RaBad or Raavad. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beha'alotecha – Numbers 8:1 - 12:16

Facebook_CoverDesign_BehaAlotechaHow does ritual allow for the building of community practice?

Ongoing commitment to communal ritual requires trust. Another key for community building I learned from Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman (Oranim College of Education) while on the Rabin Bay Area Leadership Mission to Israel is Mutual Trust: The "willingness of individuals to join and help others without deep personal familiarity nor with any expectation, just the conviction that this is what other members of a community are doing, so I will do it, too."

In Parashat Beha'alotecha, as Aaron is commanded to light the lamps of the menorah, the focus is on just how to raise the sparks to create a luminous presence. For those Israelites unable to bring the Paschal offering at the appointed time, there is another chance with the institution of a Second Passover. Also, dissatisfaction with the manna from heaven sets in as the Israelites yearn for new tastes.

Each of these scenarios involves an initial enthusiasm that fades, so that the challenge remains how to hold onto that inspiration through a daily spiritual practice. The mosaic wisdom here is instructive, specifically in imparting his (Moses') spirit to the appointed seventy elders. Spiritual practice is bolstered in a community of practice where mutual trust is a given.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork depicts "the cloud of the Lord" that leads the Israelites through their years of desert wandering. "Whether it was for two days, a month, or a year, that the cloud lingered to hover over the Mishkan, the children of Israel would encamp and not travel, and when it departed, they traveled." (Numbers 9:22) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Elai Levinson's Bar Mitzvah

Facebook_ElaiLevinsonShalom. My name is Elai David Levinson, and I will be called up to read from the Torah as a bar mitzvah this Shabbat, May 6.

I am a 7th grader at Claire Lilienthal Alternative School. During my free time, I can be found drawing, writing, editing my movies, drumming with my band, Planet 17, and reading. Some of my favorite subjects to draw are maps, political figures, stadiums, landscapes, and monsters. My interests include politics, geography, comedy, history, film, religion, and more.

Throughout the year, I have been studying my double parshiyot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, with my tutor, Noa Bar, as well as with Rabbi Glazer and many more. Both parshiyot are from the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra). Acharei Mot is about Aaron purifying the people by sacrificing a goat, and sending the other goat to Azazel, as a scapegoat. This parsha is also where the term “scapegoat” originates from. In Kedoshim, G-d demands that Israel will be holy, and demands the people also be holy.

I would like to thank my parents, Rami and Vered, for guiding me along on this extraordinary journey of becoming a bar mitzvah and participating in the tradition of my ancestors. I would also like to thank my sister, Yarden, for always being there for comfort and company. Additionally, I thank my many relatives and friends in Israel and the U.S. Next, I would like to thank Henry Hollander, for always being supportive and friendly, and Noa Bar, my tutor, for being such a wonderful teacher and helping me learn to leyn my parshiyot in a relatively short amount of time. Lastly, I would like to thank Rabbi Glazer for inspiring me and helping me understand my parshiyot.

Todah Rabah v’Shalom.

Nicholas Miller's Bar Mitzvah

Facebook_NicolasMillerHi, or שלום (Sholom)!

My name is Nicholas (Nick) Miller and I’m a 7th grader at San Francisco Friends School. I am a second generation San Franciscan and a third generation member of Beth Sholom. My favorite things are playing sports or video games, spending time outdoors or with family and friends, and making art when I have an inspiration.

On April 29, I will be called to the Torah, a huge milestone in my life. As I have spent lots of time preparing for my big day, I have come to be aware of my place in my Jewish community.

In this week’s combined parsha, Tazria-Metzora, we learn how to deal with tzara’at (skin distortion). At the time, Aaron was the priest and the one making the decision about whether someone was pure (tahor) or impure (tameh). Aaron could tell if someone was impure if the person had any skin distortion. These people were identified, in public, as being impure because they didn’t fit in with the expected norm and then were forced out of the camp. These people would then have to follow very strict rules to become pure again.

I want to thank my mom and my dad for pushing me to get my work done and helping me out when I was challenged. I want to thank my family and friends, especially my sister, for supporting me. I want to thank Rabbi Glazer for helping me choose my Hebrew name as well as teaching me how to relate to the Torah. Thank you to Noa Bar for her dedication, hard work, and teaching me how to read Torah. Lastly, I want to thank Henry Hollander, who has selflessly volunteered innumerable hours to make sure that this day happened.

Shemini – Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Facebook_CoverDesign_SheminiYou are what you eat, so they say. But more importantly, as Jews, we eat only in the context of creation.

In this week’s reading, Shemini, aside from Aaron’s mysterious silence in the face of his sons’ immolation, we are drawn into the distinctions conveyed through our dietary laws. The laws of kashrut are commanded, identifying permissible and forbidden animals for consumption, including: (1) land animals only with a split hoof and that chew their cud; (2) fish with scales and fins; and (3) appropriately listed birds and insects.

As we read in Leviticus 11:1-2, the divine imperative for conscious consumption brings awareness that "you may eat out of all the domestic beasts that are on the earth." This phrase "on the earth" appears seven times in this chapter (11:2, 21, 29, 41, 42, 44, 46) – why? It is a reminder taking us back to the sixth day of Creation, when the Earth was first covered with plants and mobile creatures, and the humans were blessed as stewards of "every animal that creeps on the earth." (Genesis 1:28).

Finally, distinctions relating to ritual readiness are recounted, including the laws relating to the immersion pool known as the mikveh. All these rituals are based on the ancient wisdom of distinction(s); while they continue to evolve, they still have resonance today.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is inspired by fire's central and ambivalent role in Shemini. It goes "forth from before the Lord and consume[s] the burnt offering" (Leviticus 9:24) and also "forth from before the Lord and consume[s]...Nadav and Avihu" (Leviticus 10:2). It is difficult to read of the horrible fate of Aaron's sons without considering the English name for the Shoah – "holocaust n 1. a burnt sacrifice: a sacrificial offering wholly consumed by fire 2. a complete or thorough sacrifice or destruction esp. by fire." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Aliyah Baruch's Bat Mitzvah

AliyahBaruchMy name is Aliyah Baruch. I attend Aptos Middle School and I am in the seventh grade. I like playing soccer, hanging out with my friends and family, taking care of animals, and traveling.

On April 22, I will have my bat mitzvah. It is a big milestone in my life that I will be sharing with people from many parts of the world, including San Francisco, Israel, Las Vegas, and New York. No matter how near or far away my guests travel from, I am so thankful that they will share this important day with me.

I think that your bat mitzvah will stay with you for your whole life; it won’t just be forgotten the day after you’re called to the Torah. My parsha talks about how Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, set an alien fire and got struck down because G-d did not instruct them to make the fire. Some rabbis have other opinions about why G-d struck them down; perhaps "they wanted to rise within the priestly rankings and overthrow Moses and Aaron." But I don’t think that is the case. I think the story of Nadav and Avihu is an example of good intentions that backfired because they wanted to be more involved but went about it in the wrong way.

I want to thank my mom and my dad, my brother Myles, my grandparents, and all my cousins, aunts, and uncles for all the love and support they have shown me. I also want to give a special thanks to Rabbi Aubrey Glazer for his help and Noa Bar for giving me the gift of Torah and teaching me how it relates to everyday life. Finally, I want to thank Congregation Beth Sholom for teaching me Hebrew and Jewish learning as well as being the place where I made so many great friendships.

Tzav – Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

Facebook_CoverDesign_TzavLeviticus is a challenging book to absorb. On one hand, many observant Jews the world over consider the Priestly tradition (as articulated throughout Leviticus) to be obsessed with time-conditioned commands that are far removed from our lived experience today. On the other hand, thanks to the biased scholarship of Julius Wellhausen, critical readers of the Hebrew Bible have unquestioningly inherited a negative view of the Priestly Code, regarding it as a theology that tends towards denaturalization and abstracts the natural conditions and motives of the actual life of the people in the land of Canaan. Thankfully, in her book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Ellen Davis argues that the opposite is the case – namely, that Leviticus articulates a theologically profound vision of the complex interdependency of the created order.

So what then is the relationship between obedience and commandedness [t'zivui] and how does it affect our relationship to sacral duties [mitzvot]?

From hearing the calling to obeying the command [tzav], Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's sons all receive the divine command regarding their duties as priests [kohanim] to make offerings [qorbanot] in the Sanctuary. The fire on the altar must be kept burning at all times, so as to completely consume: the ascent offering [‘olah]; veins of fat from the peace offering [shelamim]; sin offering [hatat]; guilt offering [asham]; and the handful taken from the meal offering [minha]. The priests are permitted to eat the meat of the sin and guilt offerings, as well as the remainder of the meal offering. The peace offering is offered by the one who brought it, with sections apportioned to the priest. Consumption of the holy meat offerings are to be eaten by a person for whom it is ritually appropriate, in a designated place and time. Initiation into the priesthood for Aaron and his sons takes place over the seven day retreat in the sanctuary compound.

What makes this profound vision of the complex interdependency of the created order real is the degree to which human beings responsibly participate in that order.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s artwork is inspired by the following instruction: "An earthenware vessel in which [the sin offering] is cooked shall be broken..." (Leviticus 6:21) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Eva Leavitt's Bat Mitzvah

Facebook_EvaLeavittShalom. My name is Eva Sivan Leavitt and I’m a seventh grader at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. I am looking forward to my bat mitzvah, which will take place this Saturday, March 18.

I've been part of the Beth Sholom community since preschool, and now I’m entering the adult community. My portion is about Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, and Aaron making the golden calf.

Some of my hobbies are art and cooking, and I also sing in a chorus. I have lived in Israel for a year, and I love traveling. Traveling gives me a chance to see the world in a different way and to learn about other people and cultures.

I think that to enter adulthood is to learn more about yourself and not so much about reaching a milestone or becoming a certain age. I think that each person has a different path to entering adulthood.

I want to thank Rabbi Glazer for helping me with my drash, and to Noa Bar for teaching me my Torah portion and my haftarah.

Tetzaveh -- Exodus 27:20–30:10

Facebook_CoverDesign_TetzavehKenneth Cole, celebrated fashion designer and former congregant of mine in New York, once remarked: "Look good, for good."

To outfit spiritual change, all priests or kohanim wear: (1) a full- length linen tunic [ketonet]; (2) linen breeches [michnasayim]; (3) a linen headdress, or turban [mitznefet]; and (4) a long, waist sash [avnet]. To manifest his spiritual shift, the High Priest also wears: (5) an apron of blue-, purple-, and red-dyed wool, with linen and gold thread [efod]; (6) a breastplate composed of 12 precious stones inscribed with the names of the 12 tribes [hoshen]; (7) a cloak of blue wool, adorned with gold bells and pomegranates on its hem [me’il]; and (8) a golden plate upon the forehead with the inscription, “Holy to God” [tzitz].

Initiation into the priesthood takes seven days for Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Itamar. Mirroring the seven day cycle of creation, here Torah is teaching us that every creative choice we make, even the most mundane, outfits us with the possibility of spiritual transformation.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the mysterious Urim and Thummim. "You shall place the Urim and the Thummim into the hoshen of judgment so that they will be over Aaron's heart when he comes before the Lord." (Exodus 28:30) Scholars and rabbis have never agreed on what these special objects of judgment or divination are. Were they made of wood, bone, or stone, and how exactly did they work? Were they physical objects at all? Some rabbis suggest they were instead words inscribed on the hoshen or rays of light which radiated from the breastplate when the High Priest was asked a question. Here, they are two stones marked with the letters alef, for Urim, and tav, for Thummin. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beshalach -- Exodus 13:17–17:16

Facebook_CoverDesign_BeshalachAre miracles possible?

While the renowned medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides downplayed miracles as momentary exceptions when supernaturalism erupts into the dominant naturalism scripted by the Creator, one of our great modern thinkers, Abraham Joshua Heschel, sought to reclaim miracles as daily moments of radical amazement.

However we define miracles, we must confront them this week as Moses receives the divine command to raise his staff over the water so that the Reed Sea then splits, relieving the Israelites of their predicament, trapped as they are "between a rock and a hard place," and allowing them safe passage. This opening quickly turns into a dead end for the Egyptian armies pursuing the Israelites. Once they are safe on the far side of the sea, Moses, Miriam, and the Children of Israel erupt into redemption songs.

Now in the desert, however the challenges mount. The Israelites suffer from thirst and hunger, and complain to their new leaders, Moses and Aaron. Their thirst is slaked only when the bitter waters of Marah are sweetened. Moses also brings forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, and causes nourishing manna to rain down on his people each morning and quails each evening. The Israelites gather a double portion of manna on Fridays, since none will fall from the sky on the divinely decreed day of rest known as the Sabbath. Aaron even jars a morsel of manna as testimony for future generations.

The trials continue as the Israelites are attacked by the tribe of Amalek, who is ultimately defeated by Moses and Joshua. It is noteworthy that Moses uses the spiritual power of prayer, while Joshua uses the political power of armed forces.

Where then do miracles and the traces of the miraculous resonate for us in our lives today?

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the Song Of The Sea, the victory song sung by the Israelites after their safe crossing of the Reed/Red Sea. "Your right hand, O Lord, is most powerful; Your right hand, O Lord, crushes the foe." (Exodus 15:6) This is just one example of the Torah's favoring the right hand (or eye) over the left. This preference is shared by many other cultures, and neurologists believe it may be socially as well as biologically enforced. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'eira -- Exodus 6:2-9:35

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaeiraIn her renowned book, Memory and Oblivion: The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2009), Israeli scholar Rachel Elior posits that history cannot be separated from the one who tells it. The winners write their version of the story empowered by their power and authority over the present; whereas the oppressed write their forgotten history with an eye towards future redemption.

Whether we are referring to the memory of Second Temple spiritual practice and community building that the Essenes preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls or to the spiritual activism of the dissenting Hebrew midwives in Egypt – neither of these religious cultures is relegated to oblivion. But what happens when fear is spoken to power rather than truth?

Pharaoh is a paradigmatic rabble-rouser, an agitator, firebrand, and provocateur. He sells himself on a platform of fear-mongering where he is the one entirely in control of the universe — he takes the place of God. Pharaoh is the symbol of demagoguery par excellence.

It is this demagoguery that Moses and Aaron must confront, demanding in the divine name,

Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s recalcitrance leads to the moment where Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, swallowing up the surrounding staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, followed by the famous plagues. Water to blood; swarms of frogs; lice infestations; hordes of beasts; pestilence; painful boils; all culminating in the seventh plague, a hail of fire and ice. Immune to the plagues, however, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened. The man is deluded by the narcissistic belief that his initial platform of fear-mongering will assure him perennial rule.

Judaism asserts otherwise, not only by sanctioning dissent through righteous indignation, but by holding out the hope of a future informed by a messianic consciousness that fills the hearts and minds of all to bring on a new, redemptive reality for all sentient beings – even in our own day!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptian people. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.