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.

"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

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.

Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged Recap

facebook_yehudasolomonduvidswirsky_hardlystrictlyselichotunplugged_september2016Almost two hundred people visited the CBS campus this past Saturday evening to mark our entrance into the final days of preparation for the Yamim Noraim ("the Days of Awe"). A joint production of CBS, the Mission Minyan, and The Kitchen, Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged made for a special night (and early morning!) – deeply affecting, joyous, and fun.

The centerpiece of the night was a communal singalong featuring Yehuda Solomon and Duvid Swirsky of the Israeli-American folk-rock band, Moshav. Yehuda and Duvid were joined by prayer leaders and hazzanim from CBS, the Mission Minyan, and the Kitchen – together, they led the crowd in giving voice to Selichot, our tradition’s beautiful and penitential piyyutim (liturgical poems). According to Ashkenazi tradition, the recitation of Selichot begins after midnight on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah (or the Sunday prior, if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, as it does this year) and, although our service didn't wind down until 2 a.m., there was no shortage of energy and ruach in the CBS Sanctuary! Attendees danced, stomped, and swayed with the music and singing, awakening to the urgency of this moment and our need for teshuvah.

Speaking of teshuvah and the related seasonal demand for chesbon hanefesh (a rigorous "accounting of the soul"), Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan shared some moving words during the film panel that occurred earlier in the evening. Following a screening of Fire On The Water, a short film dealing with the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) that Rabbi Aubrey Glazer made during his days as a student filmmaker, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan spoke earnestly of his anxiety about the lack of communal sacrifice experienced by Jewish Americans in the last 50+ years. What loss has our society felt, he asked, as we wage an ongoing war in Afghanistan? Too many families lose their sons and daughters, of course, and our federal coffers are steadily drained, but the majority of Americans are insulated from the war – it remains a background abstraction, and there is little to no sense of communal commitment, contribution, or sacrifice. Even during the Vietnam era, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan argued, despite the anti-war movement and the greater public awareness of the body count (on both sides of the conflict), our culture experienced the 1960s and early 1970s as a period of economic growth and general prosperity. He contrasted this with the American experience during World War II, when all citizens were required to ration foods, fuel, and many consumer goods. We haven't experienced anything like that since the 1940s. "When will the bill come due?," he asked the audience.

Rabbi Dorothy Richman responded to Rabbi Wolf-Prusan and quoted the 20th century sage, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: "Some are guilty, but all are responsible." With so much racial strife, ongoing overseas wars, ugly partisanship, and reactionary politics, she said Rabbi Wolf-Prusan's anxieties about our lack of sacrifice hit her hard. Doubtless, many people in the room were similarly stirred.

This sort of earnest, challenging soul-searching is what the High Holy Days are all about. Observant Jews devote the entire Hebrew month of Elul – which began on September 4 this year – to the spiritual heavy lifting of teshuvah. And what exactly is teshuvah? Depending on which Jew you ask, you'll get different answers. Most resources translate teshuvah as "repentance," but many rabbis scorn this translation, and instead frame teshuvah (which literally translates as "return") as the work of returning to relationship with God. Given contemporary Jews' varied conceptions of deity, that's too vague a formulation for many. However you translate or characterize it, though, teshuvah is about working to develop and improve our character – and it's meant to be hard.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, the need for a commitment to teshuvah becomes increasingly urgent, but it is likewise important to balance the moments of reckoning with moments of joy. Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged provided both.

Thanks to all of the panelists, performers, and prayer leaders who made the evening so moving and fun. Thanks, too, to all of the friendly folks from the Mission Minyan and The Kitchen who trekked out – in some cases, carpooling (kol hakavod!) – to the Richmond to make this memorable evening that much better. Todah rabbah, and l'shanah tovah u'metuka (for a good and sweet year)!

A selection of photographs snapped during the event are included below.

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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]