Chayai Sarah — Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Sometimes life demands a certain clinical decisiveness. In last week's reading, this need for decisiveness was exacerbated by the heightened tensions that came to the fore in both sibling and marital rivalries. Sarah saw conflict on the horizon with her handmaiden, Hagar (aka, Keturah), vying for power in the family lineage through her son, Ishmael, so she sized up the future conflict and acted with clinical decisiveness, demanding of Abraham: "Cast out that slave woman and her son, for the son of a slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, Isaac." (Genesis 21: 10-11). Although Abraham takes Hagar as a wife in order to create progenitors who will carry forward his legacy, Isaac is the only designated heir.

Abraham eventually reaches the ripe age of 175 years. Even though his actions appear to have caused the death of Sarah, in Parashat Chayai Sarah, Abraham is buried beside his beloved in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. Despite all the tensions within family dynamics, matriarch and patriarch are reunited. If only such relief and compatibility could be experienced more fully in life.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Rebekah. Although the parsha bears the name of another matriarch, Sarah, most of this week's narrative is dedicated to her daughter-in-law. Some biblical scholars argue that Rebekah is the most important female character in all of Torah. Professor Carol Meyers (Duke University) writes that "Rebekah's role as mother of nations looms larger than that of her husband as father of nations.... This fact makes us wonder whether we ought to replace the familiar sequence 'Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob' with a more accurate 'Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob' in referring to the leading figures of this period of the ancestors." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayeira — Genesis 18:12–2:24

To reach the place of infinite earthly delight – that is the true destination of almost any traveler. The essentials that were once needed for any journey and are nowadays taken for granted appear to be alluded to in this week’s reading.

"Abraham planted a tamarisk [eshel] at Be’er Sheva and invoked the divine name there of YHVH, the everlasting God." (Genesis 21:33) While Abraham seeks to find ways to make manifest the divine name, notice the shift that takes place here, whereby Abraham is no longer constructing altars (as he is in Genesis 12:7-8 or 13:4). Now, he is cultivating an orchard whose foundation is the "tamarisk" [eshel].

This tree has many layers as a symbol within the narrative. Early on in the rabbinic imagination, the "tamarisk" [E”SHeL] was read as something more than a pagan site of nature worship; instead, it was understood as an acronym for eating [AEkhilah], drinking [SHtiya], and accompanying [Levayah] another on the first leg of any journey. The tree then fits into the narrative of radical hospitality offered by Abraham to the three wayfarers who approach his tent. One of the three announces that Sarah will give birth to a son in exactly one year, to which she can only laugh.

Later in the narrative, as the remaining two angels arrive in the doomed city of Sodom, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city. Finally and most famously, Abraham’s faith is tested when he is commanded to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), where Isaac is bound upon the altar. As Abraham raises his knife to slaughter his son, a heavenly voice intercedes. Therefore, in stark contrast to the hospitality shown to wayfaring strangers, here Isaac is bound and suddenly unbound only because a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns, is offered in Isaac’s stead. Never has there been so much complexity to a patriarchal figure, and this make-up runs on through the family lineage – the thread of our peoplehood.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork calls to mind a grove of trees with a starry night beyond, perhaps the orchard of tamarisks cultivated by Abraham. In fact, the colors and forms are based on the microscopic cells, vessels, and pores one sees when viewing a tissue slice of Tamarix aphylla, the species of tamarisk tree likely referenced in Parashat Vayeira. Looking at such an image, we vacillate between macro and micro world interpretations; the world within is reflected in the world without, and vice versa – our living Torah. Vayeira! And He appeared! Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Lech Lecha — Genesis 12:1–17:27

How often have you taken advantage of a last minute travel deal?

Today, it may feel good not to know where you will travel until the very last minute; it allows you to discover some new, exotic destination at a great rate. In the ancient Near Eastern mind, however, that same sense of journeying without knowing the destination borders on the absurd. To journey in search of an undisclosed place, as later rabbinic commentators emphasize ad absurdum, positions such a seeker as a madman. After all, if you do not where you are going, the route is filled with endless obstacles and surprises. But in stressing just how outlandish a decision Abram makes, the rabbis are drawing our attention back to the remarkable text in Torah: God commands Abram to relocate and take leave — "Go forth form your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart. Leaving everything behind, they journey to the land of Canaan along with their nephew Lot. As the narrative continues, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in a pantheon ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing a famine, Abram and Sarai detour to Egypt, where she is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. Her escape is only possible through deception; Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to release and compensation. Once back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom. He is captured by the armies of King Chedorlamomer, which forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing regional rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by the King of Salem, Malki Zedek, in the powerful language of henotheism: "Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth." (Genesis 14:19) As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is Malki Zedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily life.

Upon completing the "covenant between the pieces" that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. Sometimes these transformations begin with taking that first step into the unknown.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is connected to Abram's moment of calling. "Go forth!" "Leave Chaldea!" James Kugel (Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities) describes Philo of Alexandria's interpretation of this episode: "Philo says something happens: 'opening [its] eye from the depth of sleep,' the soul suddenly becomes aware of God's presence. At that point God will say to the soul, as He Said to Abraham, 'Leave Chaldea!' – that is, leave your old way of thinking, in which the human senses are considered to be the only form of perception, and proceed on to a new way of thinking and, ultimately, to the Promised Land of knowing God." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Three

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), is contributing regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus providing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions with a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers.

CHAPTER THREE of his exploration appears just below. You can read "CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple" by clicking here. Read "CHAPTER TWO: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself" by clicking here.

* * * * *
What is Talmud Study?

Chapter Three: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.

In order to fully understand the difference between the written and the oral in Jewish texts, we need to look at the story of creation.

The cosmology that we receive at the beginning of the Torah is difficult. We know from the first verse that certain "things" already exist at the moment of creation – these precursors are darkness, the deep, God, and God's intention to create. The ambiguity inherent in the existence of these "things" creates a philosophical conundrum that medieval Jewish philosophers, Maimonides above all others, address but are unable to resolve: out of what source is the material of creation derived? If God is all, then how can God be changeable? Can a changeable God be perfect? If God is not all and creation is separate from the Divine, how can God be limitless and all powerful? These are rankling questions. The sword that Maimonides wields to cut this Gordian knot is the idea that the natural laws that apply to our physical existence do not also apply to God.

Maimonides places the understanding of this essential dilemma beyond the realm of human cognition and beyond words, but the Torah itself goes another way - "God said, 'let there be light; and there was light.'" God speaks, and through speech alone the physical world manifests.

How are we to understand this act of speech? It is presented in the Torah in words that are easily understandable to us because they are presented in a human rendering of a divine language. But who hears these words and who records them for posterity? The next verse, "God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness," shows that speed and intellection are not identical. "Let there be light" truly is a verbal utterance. The text continues, "God called the light day, and the darkness Night." This shows us that discernment and naming are related, and that both are consequences of separation (division).

The story of creation is a story of speech, of distinction, of judgement, and of naming. Out of speech comes life and activity. The first act of creation echoes through the whole work of creation. It is both foundation and model.

What begins in speech is also accomplished through naming, the means of distinction. Judgement can only be rendered on what has been made distinct. The Written Law begins with spoken words. In the process of discernment (seeing things as distinct from one another), things become separated from each other in name and in the physical world. God makes these separations through speech and thought. But we know that human will does not translate into reality without physical action.

God models this translation for us in the way that convenants between God and Abraham are accomplished. A covenant is made through acts of physical separation – cutting. While all of these cuttings are marks in flesh, it is important to remember cutting (carving, incision, and gouging) was also the action required to produce writing in Abraham's time. One carved into stone, incised into metal and wood, and gouged or traced in clay or even sand.

The first of these covenantal moments is the very odd covenant of the pieces. Abraham (Abram at the time) is told by God that he will come to possess the land and he asks for a divine sign. God calls for Abram to bring a three-year heifer, a three year she-goat, a three-year ram, a turtle dove, and a young bird. Abram does this and cuts all of the animals in half (except, without explanation, the young bird) and lays the two halves of each opposite one other in two symmetrical rows. Abram then falls asleep in the heat of the day and sinks into a feverish dream. In the dream, he is told of the long road his descendants will have to take before they take possession of the covenant-promised land. When he awakes, it is already the darkest of dark nights and "there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces."

Abram is brought to a moment that reenacts creation (with a hint of the fourth day in the presence of two different lights). The torch that passes between the pieces reiterates and sanctifies through fire the sacrifice through separation that Abram has made. Abram has made his inscription in the flesh of his offerings, a symmetrical division which mirrors the symmetrical separations made by God in the creation – day/night, heaven/earth, water/land, etc.

This divine sanctification of a human act of physical separation is not yet the equivalent of a full transition to written record, but it is the initiation of the use of signs as abstractions for words and ideas. The Covenant of the pieces is a sign that Abram/Abraham would keep in memory. The next step in this process is brit milah. Brit is the inscription of the covenant onto the living human body. It is the first permanent mark. The technology of covenant is converging with the technology of writing.

This relationship to permanent marking is clarified in the Akedah (the "Binding of Isaac"). Abraham is told to offer up his son as a sacrifice. God’s motivation is a classic conundrum. Whether or not God intends this as a test of Abraham, it becomes exactly that. The usual interpretation is that the Akedah is a test of Abraham’s faith, but it can also be interpreted as a test of Abraham’s understanding of the mechanics of the written aspect of covenant. Isaac already bears the covenantal text on his body. A sign has been inscribed. We are being told that written signs are made to create clarity and for permanence. The misunderstanding on Abraham’s part that needs to be corrected is his belief that a covenant that ends life can overwrite a covenant in life. This second sign would negate the first and is prevented. Subsequent prohibitions on tattoos, scarification, and even beard cutting reinforce this understanding.

In our next installment, we will talk about Jeremiah and the transition from the inscribed to the scribed.

Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

Vayeitzai — Genesis 28:10–32:3

facebook_coverdesign_vayeitzai"Jacob took leave of Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran." (Genesis 28:10)

Wandering in a displaced manner is distinct from wandering to a place of promise. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Abraham, Jacob takes leave of his hometown of Be'er Sheva to dream of something more – a Promised Land.

En route to Haran, Jacob encounters that place, falls asleep, and then dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. This powerful vision of angels ascending and descending upon the ladder serves as a further signpost for Jacob’s journey onwards to the Promised Land. The next morning, Jacob raises the stone upon which he laid his head as an altar called, Beth El.

While in Haran, Jacob devotes fourteen years to work and raising a family including: his six sons with LeahReuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, and their daughter, Dinah; Dan and Naphtali, sons of Rachel’s handmaiden; and Gad and Asher, sons of Leah’s handmaiden, Zilpah; and finally Joseph, born to Rachel.

After this extended period, in a surprising turn for biblical narrative, Jacob yearns to return home. After repeated attempts at swindling Jacob to stay, Laban pursues Jacob but is warned not to harm him. Jacob and Laban make a pact on Mount Gil-‘Ed, allowing Jacob to continue in his ascent to the Holy Land, accompanied again by angels. Reflecting the ladder’s dynamic tension and two-way flow, Jacob’s journey is one of both ascent and descent amid the joys and challenges of a familial life.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract depiction of the monument Jacob erects at Beth El. The layered image is intended to evoke both Jacob's dream – the stones of the cairn standing in for the rungs of a ladder – and the fear and trembling he experienced when he became aware of G-d's presence. "And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, 'Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].' And he was frightened, and he said, 'How awesome is this place!'" (Genesis 28: 16–17) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Toldot — Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

facebook_coverdesign_toldotWhat was the nature of the blindness that Isaac succumbed to later in life?

Commenting on Genesis 27:1 ("When Isaac was old his eyes were too dim to see"), Rashi suggests something subtle: "When Isaac was bound to the altar and his father wanted to slaughter him, at that moment, the heavens opened up and ministering angels saw and wept, and their tears came down and fell into his eyes; therefore ‘his eyes were too dim to see’."

This raises the larger question of how we embody and deal with conflict that extends beyond our immediate selves and beyond our immediate families – say, those that impact nations. Do we turn a blind eye to it or do the tears of trauma blind us from seeing what truly stands before us?

The challenge of Judaism is for each of us to continue striving to be better and truer in our relationships with both the children of Abraham and Adam, a diverse family of which we are all proud members.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: In this week's artwork, Esau's profile casts a red shadow on Jacob's face. Much Jewish polemical literature casts Esau, the ruddy, hirsute outdoorsman, as the progenitor of the Babylonians, the Romans, and, later, Christendom, all sworn enemies of the Jewish people. Jacob, the bookish younger twin, stands in for our tribe, the prototypical yeshiva bochur. Yet the relationship between the brothers, like that of all siblings, is not so one-dimensional – they are as interconnected as they are opposed, and the illustration hints at a yin and yang dynamic. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Chayai Sarah — Genesis 23:1–25:18

facebook_coverdesign_chayaisarahrevisionAre there consequences to our actions? Do our relationships reflect the consequences of our choices?

The choice made last week by Abraham to nearly sacrifice Isaac has profound consequences upon the matriarch, Sarah. The rabbinic exegesis (Pirkai d’Rabbi Eliezer 32) captures this trauma well:

"When Abraham came from Mount Moriah, Samael [Satan] was furious that [Abraham] had failed to realize his lust to abort Abraham’s sacrifice. What did he do? [Satan] went off and told Sarah, 'Ah Sarah, have you not heard what’s been happening in the world?.' She replied, 'No.' [Satan] said, 'Your old husband has taken the boy, Isaac, and sacrificed him as a burnt offering, while the boy cried and wailed in his helplessness. Immediately, she began to cry and wail. She cried three sobs...then she gave up the ghost and died. Abraham came and found her dead, as it is said, 'Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and bewail her.' (Genesis 23:2)"

The wound could not be more fresh within this family. While Abraham may take a new wife, Keturah (Hagar) and father six more sons, Isaac is the only designated heir. Abraham eventually reaches the ripe age of 175 years. Despite the fact that his actions appear to have caused the death of Sarah, he is buried beside his beloved in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. While our parents may inflict us with deep wounds, in the tale of our ancestors, it is beloved children, Isaac and Ishmael, who learn from their past trauma and come together in reconciliation to bury their parents.

The unrealized dreams of our parents often come to fruition, but it takes the patience of time.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Genesis 24:63 – "And Isaac went forth to pray in the field towards evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, camels were approaching." To call to mind Isaac's reverie, the camels are depicted as mirage-like forms. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayeira— Genesis 18:12–2:24

facebook_coverdesign_vayeiraHow many trials must we overcome in life?

Abraham is said to have overcome ten trials. Notice the way language links them: "Go...to the land I shall show" (Genesis 12:1) to "Sacrifice your son on one of the mountains I shall show you" (Genesis 22:2). Clearly then, Lech Lecha last week is linked with Vayeira this week, picking up just three days after Abraham’s circumcision, when his steadfast conviction affords him the ability to see the divine that is revealed in the mundane – a "showing."

At this moment of divine self-revelation (known as a theophany), Abraham encounters three men, wayfarers approaching his tent — because of his special insight, he recognizes them as angels. Amidst the radical hospitality extended to these guests, one of the three announces that Sarah will give birth to a son in exactly one year, to which she can only laugh.

Later in the narrative, as the remaining two angels arrive in the doomed city of Sodom, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city. Finally and most famously, Abraham’s faith is tested when he is commanded to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), where Isaac is bound upon the altar. As Abraham raises his knife to slaughter his son, a heavenly voice intercedes. And so Isaac is unbound only because a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns, is rebound and offered in Isaac’s stead.

This story, the Akeida, is a story of binding and unbinding. In a sense, it is the story of all religion — religio means "binding." In obeying the divine command, Abraham takes on religion, binding himself and his son to Judaism; but the moment of unbinding Isaac is the truly religious moment, as each of us in our lives is free to choose anything, and thus we search for the divine beyond convention or expectation. In the unbinding, Isaac becomes a real person.

Our trials of life challenge each of us to live and participate fully in this world, to reach out with deeper empathy and compassion for and to others.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract meditation on the morality of punishment. Why nine blue squares in a field of black squares? The illustration references Abraham's dramatic interrogation of G-d's plan to kill all the inhabitants of Sodom for the population's sinful behavior. This famous debate results in G-d pledging to spare the city if just ten righteous men live there. Apparently, Sodom lacked even that small number, and G-d rained fire and brimstone upon the city, killing everyone. Although the story is usually celebrated as a foundational episode – we should, like our patriarch, Abraham, be in dialogue with G-d – it also raises challenging questions about group punishment and culpability. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Sabina Lyon-Freedman's Bat Mitzvah

facebook_sabinalyonfreedmanMy name is Sabina Lyon-Freedman, and I’m in the 7th grade at Roosevelt Middle School. I enjoy playing violin, baking, acting, reading, watching movies, writing novels and poems, spending time with friends (including some of my best friends at Beth Sholom), and petting my cat, Buster.

For my bat mitzvah this coming Shabbat, I will be chanting part of Parashat Vayeira. It is a very busy and important parsha. Abraham and Sarah are told that Sarah will bear a son. Abraham challenges God's plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaac is born, and, in response to Sarah's demand, Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael. God then tests Abraham's devotion by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved Isaac. I will be focusing in my d’var Torah on the section where Lot makes the problematic decision to offer his daughters to the men of Sodom in order to save his guests.

For my mitzvah project, I am playing violin for residents of the Rhoda Goldman Plaza, where my grandpa lives.

I am grateful to my family and friends. And I’m especially happy that members of my family will be coming from Maine, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Canada, Peru, Israel, and many other places to share this special moment with me. I would like to thank my tutor, Marilyn Heiss, for teaching me how to chant Torah and lead the service. I’ll miss the fun times with her. I want to thank Rabbi Glazer for helping me write my d’var Torah. And I want to thank my cat Buster for being soft and cuddly.

Lech Lecha — Genesis 12:1-17:27

facebook_coverdesign_lechlechaWe move from the displacement associated with the Tower of Babel at the end of last week’s reading to even deeper displacement this week as the Torah introduces us to the journey of Abram and Sarai.

Their leaving home can be thought of as the setting of a tripwire, a process of setting in motion dramatic change. The challenge of starting out on a new venture — which is not limited to physical relocation — is perennial. We are constantly setting the tripwire of change; nothing in life is permanent.

Little surprise then that the Hebrew Bible has no sense of place permanence – the ancestral house or furniture can not be assumed. Instead of such a legacy, God commands Abram to take leave — "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you." (Genesis 12:1).

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart. Leaving everything behind, they journey to the land of Canaan along with their nephew Lot. As the narrative continues, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in a pantheon ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing a famine, Abram and Sarai detour to Egypt, where she is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. Her escape is only possible through deception; Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to release and compensation. Once back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom. He is captured by the armies of King Chedorlamomer, which forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing regional rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by the King of Salem, Malki Zedek, in the powerful language of henotheism: "Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth." (Genesis 14:19) As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is Malki Zedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily life.

Upon completing the "covenant between the pieces" that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. The next covenant, this one of circumcision, is enacted by Abraham upon himself and his son, Isaac, while Hagar is banished with Ishmael. In leaving home and beginning this new venture that comes to be known as Judaism, Abram becomes Abraham ("father of multitudes") and Sarai becomes Sarah ("princess"). And so the journey continues...

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the vision Abram had following his defeat of King Chedorlaomer. "After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, 'Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great.'" (Genesis 15:1) Here, we see a shield form on a yellow field. The shape of the shield and its markings – at once ocular and solar – are based on designs archaeologists associate with ancient Mesopotamia. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Noa Shenkar's Bat Mitzvah

facebook_noashenkarShalom! My name is Noa Shenkar, and I'm excited to step up to the bimah for the first time and lead the CBS community in prayer!

I've enjoyed the time I've studied with Rabbi Glazer and Rabbi Elisheva [Salamo]. It is fun to learn more about the Torah, and to discuss the messages in my Torah portion, Parashat Lech Lecha.

Lech Lecha brings up some difficult questions of truth. When Abraham faces a crisis, he must think very quickly, and decide whether or not it is permissible or not to tell a lie in order to get out of a complicated situation with the Pharaoh.

I look forward to seeing you on Saturday, November 12.

Camp Ramah Galim

Riding Your Wave In the Sea of Judaism: The Start-up Camp Ramah Galim

imgresThere is nothing quite like the oceanic rhythm of Camp Ramah campers and staff surrounding you from dawn till dusk. In those eternal moments, you begin to feel the pulse of this camp’s namesake — Galim. Singing, dancing, exploring, studying, rock climbing, scuba diving — an immersive summer at Camp Ramah in Northern California transforms hearts and minds to live Jewish lives.

Along with Elyssa and Talya, I have been blessed to visit, teach, and support our brand new Camp Ramah NorCal, known in Hebrew as Ramah Galim, or "Ramah of the Waves." Clearly, if we can create the ruach of Ramah amidst the strawberry fields of Watsonville, then we can do anything! Thanks to the devoted leadership of many, including CBS members Craig Miller and Alex Bernstein, Ramah Galim has been overwhelmed by the response of parents looking for a meaningful, authentic Jewish camping experience. Registration was expected at 100 and is now over 250! Who could resist such a panoply of ways to live your Judaism? Outdoor adventures, ocean explorations, and performing arts – each track of this new camp meets each child right where they are, lifting their souls ever higher.

Facebook_JoshHorwitz---AaronMiller---------RabbiGlazer_CampRamahNorcal_July2016 I've been part of Ramah since my second year as a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Traveling to and teaching at almost every Ramah in the Northeast, it has become clear to me that the many unique Ramah traditions mark a transformational camping movement born from the vision of Conservative/Masorti Judaism; the movement continues to inspire and renew one generation to the next, producing Jewish leaders and families unlike any other!

And so this summer I brought deep expectations – along with my family (who joined many other rabbinic families from near and far) – to Ramah NorCal, the new jewel in the Bay Area Jewish community. As rabbi of CBS, along with our amazing Youth Advisor, David Herrera, we look forward to our ongoing partnership with Ramah Galim and its leadership (headed by Rabbi Sarah Shulman) Facebook_SarahShulmanLielRabbiGlazer_CampRamahNorcal_July2016with the goal of ensuring more and more Jewish campers feel their unique pulse as part of the waves of this oceanic blessing of Ramah Galim, and that this summer magic washes back through our communal family in the coming years.

While Elyssa was facilitating Jewish art and spiritual direction workshops for all ages, I was blessed to teach the staff and campers about some of the layers of meaning within the name Ramah Galim. This culminated with our dedication of the Aron HaKodesh during the camp's Founder’s Day, when I shared two "take-aways" from the Zohar on the mystery of galim, or waves. Firstly, to be children of galim is to be riding the waves of our ancestors, as the children of Abraham and Sarah who enacted mitzvot as innumerable as galei yam, the waves of the sea. Secondly, to download the taste of the world that is coming – that is, Shabbat — we must be as galim, for all exists within these waves, intermingled, heaps upon heaps, reaching out to all!

I am grateful for the ability to support and partner with Ramah Galim, and I know that the camp is so appreciative of the unconditional support provided by CBS. The pulsing rhythm of our CBS spiritual life will only be enhanced by continuing to support Jewish camping experiences and making spaces for informal, experiential Judaism to come alive in our community! As we welcome Rebecca Goodman to our team as Director of Youth Education,Facebook_RabbiGlazerArkDedication2_CampRamahNorcal_July2016 along with David Herrera who is been blessed to spend all summer with our campers at Ramah Galim, we have great things to look forward to together! May we continue to be and become children of galim! That is the secret of Ramah Galim and it is the secret of CBS. Let us continue to reach out to all, making new friends and deepening old friendships so that we continue building and nurturing our Jewish lives with love as deep as the ocean. May this summer immerse our children in the waves of inspiration that make up the oceanic blessing of Judaism. From these children inherit a better world, thanks to the actions we commit to take.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Photo captions:
- Josh Horwitz, Sam Toeman, Aaron Miller, Raquel Sweet, Nathan Fell, Adina Sweet, and Rabbi Glazer at Camp Ramah NorCal
- Rabbi Sarah Shulman, Liel Shulman, & Rabbi Glazer at Camp Ramah NorCal
- Rabbi Glazer speaking at the dedication of the Ramah Galim ark during Founder's Day

Vayeitzai -- Genesis 28:10-32:3

793px-El_sueño_de_Jacob,_by_José_de_Ribera,_from_Prado_in_Google_EarthAmerican feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem (b. 1934) once observed:

Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming after all, is a form of planning.

Dreaming as imagination and planning is an integral element of the Jewish path. Jacob is the archetypal dreamer, just as Joseph later becomes a renowned interpreter of dreams. Similarly, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Abraham, Jacob also takes leave of his hometown of Beer Sheva to dream of something more — a Promised Land.

En route to Haran, Jacob encounters that place, falling asleep and dreaming of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. This powerful vision of angels ascending and descending upon the ladder serves as a further signpost for Jacob’s journey onwards to the Promised Land. The next morning, Jacob raises the stone upon which he laid his head as an altar and calls it Beth El.

While in Haran, Jacob devotes fourteen years to work and raising a family—including Leah’s six sons, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun along with daughter, Dinah; Rachel’s handmaiden bearing Dan and Naphtali; and Leah’s handmaiden, Zilpah, bearing Gad and Asher; and finally, Rachel bearing Joseph.

After this extended period, in a surprising turn for biblical narrative, Jacob yearns to return home. After repeated attempts at swindling Jacob to stay, Laban pursues Jacob but is warned not to harm him. Jacob and Laban make a pact on Mount Gil-‘Ed, allowing Jacob to continue in his ascent to the Holy Land, accompanied again by angels. Reflecting the ladder’s dynamic tension and two-way flow, Jacob's journey is one of both ascent and descent amid the joys and challenges of a familial life.

- Rabbi Glazer

Image credit: “El sueño de Jacob,” by José de Ribera, 1638

Chayai Sarah -- Genesis 23:1-25:18

800px-Tomb_of_SaraWhat is the mark of a life well lived?

Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE), founder of the Epicurean school of thought, defined a well-lived life as follows:

"It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly. And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life."

The regnant Jewish wisdom on the life well lived is found in the Hebrew salutation recited at every birthday celebration: "Ad me’ah ve’esrim shanah!," or “May you live to 120 years old!”

Initially, this toast seems to celebrate the length of a life rather than Epicurus' "living wisely and well and justly." But consider the longevity of our three primary patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived 175, 180, and 147 years, respectively (Genesis 25:7, 35:28, 47:28). And the only lifespan we have for a matriarch is that of Sarah, who died at age 127 (Genesis 23:1). In the Hebrew, Sarah's age is written as "120 years and 7 years." The formulation is important because 120, as we see from the familiar birthday greeting, is an honorific number -- it symbolizes a high degree perfection, as well as moral and spiritual elevation. In effect, we are exclaiming, “May you live wisely and well and justly for many years!”

While Abraham may take a new wife, Keturah (Hagar), and father six more sons, Isaac is the only designated heir. Abraham reaches the ripe age of 175 years and is buried beside his beloved, Sarah, in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.

We are confronted with this perennial question of how to mark a life well lived when Abraham's beloved children Isaac and Ishmael reconcile in order to bury their parents. Abraham and Sarah taught them what a well-lived life is all about through pragmatic wisdom.

-Rabbi Glazer

Image credit: The Mausoleum of Sarah; Photo by C. Raad for the Northern British-Israel Review, January 1911.

Listen to the audio file of this d'var Torah below!
[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TorahByte_ParshaChayaiSarah_5776.mp3"][/audio]

Vayeira -- Genesis 18:1-22:24

Adi_Holzer_Werksverzeichnis_835_Abrahams_OpferCrowned as the Knight of Faith at the close of Lech Lecha, Vayeira picks up just three days after Abraham’s circumcision, when his steadfast conviction affords him the ability to see the divine that is revealed in the mundane. At this moment of divine self-revelation known as a theophany, Abraham encounters three men, wayfarers approaching his tent — because of Abraham's insight, he recognizes them as angels. Amidst the radical hospitality extended to these guests, one of the three angels announces that Sarah will give birth to a son in exactly one year, to which she can only laugh.

Later in the narrative, as the remaining two angels arrive in the doomed city of Sodom, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city. Finally and most famously, Abraham’s faith is tested when he is commanded to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), where Isaac is bound upon the altar. As Abraham raises his knife to slaughter Isaac, a heavenly voice intercedes. And so Isaac is unbound only because a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns, is then rebound and offered in Isaac’s stead.

This story, the Akeida, is a story of binding and unbinding. In a sense, it is the story of all religion — religio means “binding.” In obeying the divine command, Abraham takes on religion, binding himself and his son to Judaism, but it is the moment of unbinding that is truly religious, as each of us in our lives is free to choose anything, and thus we search for the divine beyond convention or expectation. In the unbinding, Isaac becomes a real person.

What is this process of unbinding ourselves from convention and expectation to become a real spiritual being? The renowned Czech-German writer Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924) offers a clue in his Zurau Aphorisms:

A faith like an ax. As heavy, as light.

If you dare look in the mirror, then you will realize how much faith oscillates — heavy and light, between faithfulness and faithlessness, between connection and disconnection. For such oscillation to be felt, our spiritual practices need to cultivate elasticity, I daresay, a knowing artistry of Judaism unbound in its binding that is flexidox!

- Rabbi Glazer

Image credit: "The Sacrifice of Isaac," by Adi Holzer, b. 1936

Listen to the audio file of this d'var Torah below!
[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TorahByte_ParshaVayeira_5776.mp3"][/audio]

Lech Lecha -- Genesis 12:1–17:27

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_editedAgain this week, I turn to the renowned Czech-German writer Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924), who wrote in his Zürau Aphorisms:

The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope.

Leaving home activates that tripwire, setting profound change in motion. The challenge of starting out on a new venture —- which is not limited to physical relocation —- is perennial. We are constantly setting off the tripwire of change. Nothing in life is permanent.

Little surprise then that the Hebrew Bible has no sense of permanence or place, be it with regard to an ancestral house or furniture. Rather, G-d commands Abram to relocate, to take leave:

Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart, leaving everything behind, journeying to the land of Canaan with their nephew Lot. As the narrative unfolds, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in the pantheon, but ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing famine, they detour to Egypt, where Sarai is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. The escape is only possible because Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to their release and compensation. Back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom, but Lot is captured by the armies of Chedorlamomer. This unfortunate turn of events forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by MalkiZedek, the King of Salem, in powerful, henotheistic language:

Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth.” (14:19)

As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is MalkiZedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily living.

Upon completing the “covenant between the pieces” that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. The next covenant, this one of circumcision, is enacted by Abram upon himself and his son, Isaac, while Hagar is banished with Ishmael. In leaving home and beginning this new venture that comes to be known as Judaism, Abram becomes Abraham (“father of multitudes”) and Sarai becomes Sarah (“princess”). The journey continues…

- Rabbi Glazer

Image credit: "Abraham and Melchisedek," by Dieric Bouts, 1464-1467

Listen to the audio file of this d'var Torah below!
[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TorahByte_ParshaLechLecha_5776.mp3"][/audio]