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.

Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

German Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt once remarked: "Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core."

How do we discern the difference between hypocrisy and evil? And then how do we confront evil in life? For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good so as to live with hypocrisy-free integrity.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration of defaced wheatpaste posters on an urban wall is inspired by Deuteronomy 25:19: "...you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!" This biblical injunction is the basis for three of the 613 mitzvot: Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites; Wipe out the descendants of Amalek; Do not forget Amalek's atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert. If you’re an art aficionado and this portrayal of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the portrait is a wild-haired riff on one of Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s famous self portraits. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Balak -- Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Facebook_CoverDesign_Balak"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."

Eleanor Roosevelt (b.1884) was one of the most outspoken women on human rights and women's issues in the White House during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, her husband.

This week, in Parashat Balak from the prophet Balaam, who was commissioned to curse the people of Israel by Balak, the king of Moab and the Israelites' arch enemy. On the way to curse the Israelite encampments, Balaam is berated by his donkey, which sees an angel sent to obstruct their passage. After Balaam's eyes are opened to the angelic emissary, his attempts at cursing the Israelites are subverted into blessings:

"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5).

In marked contrast to Amalek’s violent work of chaos that "happens to attack randomly on the way" (Deuteronomy 25:18), the Jewish response of "blotting out Amalek" is actually about embracing life – it is a call to live purposefully with ethical objectives and just values in an unjust world. Thus, the commandment in Parashat Balak to conquer the seven nations, for example, is actually a commandment to spiritually control and reorient our emotions – including anger, hatred, and revenge. It is a commandment to transform these emotions with divine focus.

When we serve the divine as Jacob, we shield the Divine within our lives from the intrusion of evil or negative thoughts and from an animalistic consciousness. When we serve God as Israel, we make our lives into a "sanctuary" for God, enhancing our divine consciousness by identifying with ethical values and dreams for this world.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Balaam's faithful and unfairly castigated donkey at the moment she sees the angel. "The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so the she-donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field." (Numbers 22:23) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Dance The Pain Away

DancingHasidsIt's easy for us to shirk our Jewish responsibility to wrestle with the more challenging and anachronistic aspects of our tradition. In a few weeks, when we read Parashat Vayikra, we'll reconsider the ancient Israelites' sacrificial practices, which seem quite alien to us today. Yet the psychological distance imposed by time and social change doesn't relieve us of our duty to parse and digest the rituals.

Evan Wolkenstein, Director of Experiential Education for American Jewish World Service (and a teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay), writes,

"Nearly 2000 years have passed since the last turtledove’s blood was wrung against the altar walls, and we are still forced to acknowledge that, interesting as they may be, these verses are relevant almost exclusively through creative hermeneutics. We may look to Vayikra for inspiration. We may find its details somewhat disturbing. But no matter our potential discomfort, one thing is certain for all of us—we would never remove these passages from the Torah."

We would never remove the passages because, as Wolkenstein puts it, "none of us is better off by forgetting any part of the past." To the contrary, the past should inform and improve our present; earnest discourse about (and with) the past makes us better Jews and better human beings. Such soul-searching, though, is often uncomfortable, and few Jews outside of our clergy make a regular habit of it. Those who do and who elect to share their ruminations are too often criticized or ignored.

Case in point: every year, a handful of Jewish writers point out that the Purim story has a "a dark and dangerous underside." Invariably, these voices are lambasted and labelled "self-hating" or "naive." In fact, it is the reactionary critics, those who refuse to reside in the uneasy and uncertain space of Purim, who do a grave disservice to our tradition and, importantly, to our future. Lest this seem like a partisan broadside, however, the Jews at the other end of the spectrum – those who refuse to observe or celebrate Purim because they've written it off as a politically incorrect tale of "bloody revenge" (and even attempted genocide by Jews, not of Jews) – are no less misguided.

Two years ago, writing in The Forward, religious studies professor Shaul Magid, allowed as how "Purim is essentially about the celebration of violence." But he doesn't stop there. He doesn't suggest that Purim should wither on the vine or be reduced to a Disney-fied carnival, an intellectually impotent combo of Halloween and Mardi Gras. Instead, he suggests a way forward by sharing a story. How very Jewish of him.

"If you want to approach Purim with a spirit of open-mindedness this year, I’ve got an idea of how to do it. There is a story about blotting out Amalek told in the name of the Hasidic master Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov (1783-1841). I heard the story from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z"l). During the Purim feast, Zvi Elimelekh suddenly stopped the festivities and said, 'Saddle the horses and get the carriages, it is time to blot out Amalek.' His Hasidim were petrified. 'What could the master mean?' Being obedient disciples, they got in their carriages and followed their rebbe. He rode into town to a local inn where the Polish peasants (the Amalekites of his day?) were engaged in their own drunken bash.

The rebbe and his disciples entered the inn. When the peasants saw them, they stopped dancing. The music stopped. Everyone circled around the rebbe and the Jews as they walked to the center of the dance floor. The room was silent. The rebbe looked at one of the peasants and put out his hand with his palm to the ceiling. Silence. The peasants looked at one another. Suddenly one of them stepped forward and took the rebbe’s hand. They slowly started dancing. The musicians began playing. In a matter of minutes, all the Hasidim and peasants were dancing furiously with one another.

You want to blot out Amalek? [...] Reach out your hand. And dance. That is how you blot out Amalek. Crazy? Ask Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov. That is what it means to take Purim seriously.
"

Put another way by David Bowie (z"l),

"Let's dance -- put on your red shoes and dance the blues
[...]
Let's sway -- you could look into my eyes
Let's sway under the moonlight,
this serious moonlight.
"

This year, maybe, we can dance with one another (and with our tradition), warts, disagreements, and all.

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.

Arlo Novicoff's Bar Mitzvah

Facebook_ArloNovicoffShalom, my name is Arlo Novicoff. I’m a 7th grader at A.P. Giannini Middle School. In my free time, I like to play sports and hang out in the city with my family and friends. I’m interested in traveling, good food, history, and math. This coming Shabbat, February 11, I will become a bar mitzvah.

In my parsha, Beshalach, Pharaoh frees the Israelites and they journey to the Promised Land. As they approach the Red Sea, Pharoah regrets his decision to release them and commands his army to bring the Israelites back as slaves. With Pharaoh's army behind them, the Israelites cry out to God and fear that they will be captured. Moses reassures the Israelites of God’s support by splitting the Red Sea, and they all cross to safety. Although the Israelites are now free, their journey is far from over. They face new challenges along the way, like lack of food, lack of water, and lack of confidence in themselves. Moses once again reassures the Israelites and God provides for them. As we conclude the parsha, the Amalekites attack the vulnerable Israelites and Joshua leads a small army to defend them.

I want to recognize my family who have supported me on this exciting journey. I would like to thank my bar mitzvah tutor, Noa Bar, for teaching me to chant Torah and haftarah trope and to Rabbi Glazer for helping me to prepare my d’var Torah - the discussions and focus were much appreciated. Thank you to Judy and the Chicken Soupers team, who welcomed me during my volunteer days in the CBS kitchen over the course of this past year – it has really opened me up to the realities some elderly people face in our city. Lastly, I’d like to thank the entire CBS community for being there for me from preschool until now. I look forward to seeing many of you next week at CBS!

Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Facebook_CoverDesign_KiTetzeiHow do we react to evil when we confront it in our lives?

For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration captures the fear that permeates much of the parsha. "...all Israel will listen and fear." (Deuteronomy 21:21) Our ancestors stoned to death wayward children and cut off the hand of a woman who inadvertently touched the "private parts" of a man other her husband – their moral code was clearly a corporeally enforced one. Fortunately, this violence would be reconsidered and tempered by the rabbis. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Balak -- Numbers 22:2 - 25:9

Facebook_CoverDesign_Balak2"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24: 5).

Renowned Italian author, Umberto Eco (1932-2016) once tellingly remarked, "I think a book should be judged 10 years later, after reading and re-reading it." So how do we react each time we enter into our sacred spaces of worship and re-read and re-cite the renowned opening verse above?

These are the words recited this week in Parashat Balak from the prophet Balaam, who was commissioned to curse the people of Israel by Balak, the king of Moab and the Israelites' arch enemy. On the way to curse the Israelite encampments, Balaam is berated by his donkey, which sees an angel sent to obstruct their passage. After Balaam's eyes are opened to the angelic emissary, his attempts at cursing the Israelites are subverted into blessings.

How do we move along this path to the Promised Land when we feel blocked from all sides? In marked contrast to Amalek’s violent work of chaos that "happens to attack randomly on the way" (Deuteronomy 25:18), the Jewish response of "blotting out Amalek" is actually about embracing life – it is a call to live purposefully with ethical objectives and just values in an unjust world. Thus, the commandment in Parashat Balak to conquer the seven nations, for example, is actually a commandment to spiritually control and reorient our emotions – including anger, hatred, and revenge. It is a commandment to transform these emotions with divine focus.

When we serve the divine as Jacob, we shield the Divine within our lives from the intrusion of evil or negative thoughts and from an animalistic consciousness. When we serve G-d as Israel, we make our lives into a "sanctuary" for G-d, enhancing our divine consciousness by identifying with ethical values and dreams for this world.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork shows Balaam blessing the Israelites as cloaked figures look on (maybe his Moabite patrons?). The illustration was drawn with bold lines, loose handling, and close cropping to increase energy and tension, hopefully conveying something of the prophet's enthusiasm – the word comes from the Greek enthousiasmos, meaning 'possessed by a god.' Only one eye is open and Balaam's mouth is agape, a literal take on the text: "The word of Balaam the son of Beor and the word of the man with an open eye." (Numbers 24:3); "The Lord placed something into Balaam's mouth." (Numbers 23:5). Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.