Noah — Genesis 6:9-11:32

"Who is like you
Who could reach you
Who has seen
Who has been
...When you ride a cherub
And glide on the wind
And wander through thunder
And move within storms
Making your way through the waters...
"

The liturgical poet Yannai here imagines the divine as controlling the universe, "from the sky to the heaven’s heaven." Water and its sacred nature are ever-present in the ancient Israelite imagination.

In our reading this week, as the only righteous person left standing in a world bereft of morality, Noah is called upon by God to design and build a wooden ark to escape the deluge that is about to wipe out all of creation from the face of the earth. Noah gathers his family and two members of each animal species to ensure continuity after the flood.

The ark settles on Mount Ararat after 40 days and nights of rainfall, which recedes 150 days later. From the window of the ark, Noah sends forth a raven, followed by a series of doves to find any traces of dry land. Finally Noah exits the ark, in a sense restarting the process of creation by repopulating the earth.

A covenant of the rainbow is made by God, testifying to never again destroy all of humanity. With the flood’s dramatic destruction fresh in mind, it is decreed that, henceforth, murder is a capital offense, and flesh or blood taken from a living animal is prohibited (while properly slaughtered meat is permitted to be eaten).

Noah drinks from the first produce of his vineyard, and becomes intoxicated. Again this righteous exemplar is being tested. This time, we see how effective Noah has been as a righteous exemplar through the behavior of his offspring: Shem and Japheth cover their exposed father while Ham takes advantage of his vulnerability.

With power comes responsibility, and the power of creativity is manifest through the divine song, channeled and composed by liturgical poets like Yannai who sought to intensify the experience of prayer for worshippers, making the contents of familiar weekly readings such as the story of Noah new again.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: Biblical scholars contend that the Tower of Babel story was not composed as a cautionary tale about universal human overreaching. Instead, they suggest it is a veiled screed against cities. Professor James Kugel (Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities) writes, "The whole point is Babylon (babel in Hebrew)...[and] the thing that most characterised Babylon in the minds of ancient Israelites was its big cities with…their massive populations. ... From [the Israelites] standpoint, who were sparsely settled in the Semitic hinterland, such teeming conglomerations and the complex urban culture they made possible…do not find favor with God." Here, we see the Tower of Babel rising from the desert as a towering metropolis. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tisha B'av: A Meaningful Fast

By the numbers, fewer and fewer non-Orthodox Jews are fasting for Tisha B'Av. Some even argue that we shouldn't fast! We hope to provide you with an opportunity to reconnect with the meaning and power of the Ninth of Av.

On Monday, July 31, please join CBS and Makor Or for a moving evening of meditation, reflection, and what Rabbi Glazer describes as "the sacred theater of Lamentations." Return on Tuesday, August 1, to discover the value of marking Tisha B'Av in community.

Tisha B'av At-A-Glance:
The fast begins at 8:19 p.m. on Monday, July 31, and ends on Tuesday, August 1, at 8:45 p.m.
Monday, July 31: Makor Or Meditation, 7–8 p.m., Makom Sholom
Monday, July 31: Tisha B’Av service, 8–9:30 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Tuesday, August 1: Tisha B'Av morning service, 7–9 a.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Tuesday, August 1: Tisha B'Av evening service, 6–7 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel


20110805_Rand1Av Writing to us from Jerusalem, where he is currently teaching and studying, Rabbi Glazer shares the following insight about honoring and observing Tisha B'Av.

I’ve been thinking recently of an inconsolable child, one that I discovered in an astonishing text I've been teaching this summer.

Lamentations, the core biblical text recited on the floor during the 9th of Av, recounts the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples and presents the divine need for consolation. The God of the biblical Lamentations is either the wailing Daughter of Zion or the fallen God of War. But in the late medieval Spanish commentary called Zohar Hadash, the text I have been teaching, it is an inconsolable child who is wailing. Wandering through the ruins of Jerusalem, we run into these orphaned children sifting through the ashes of Jerusalem and crying out:

"Every day we approach Mother’s bed, but we do not find Her there. We ask after Her — no one heeds us. We ask after Her bed – overturned. We ask after Her throne – collapsed. We ask Her palaces – they swear they know nothing of Her whereabouts. We ask the dust – not footprints there."

I hear the wailing of the real Children of Israel in Zohar Hadash who are crying, "We are the orphans, without Father or Mother! We cast our eyes upon the walls of our Mother’s house, but it is destroyed, and we can’t find Her…" No longer servants or children, we are all now orphans. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, we orphans bang our heads against a wall that is also wailing. We are like children crying out, "Mommy, Mommy, wall, wall!"

My words here echo Zohar Hadash's imagined barbed missives, sent back and forth by Babylonian Jewry to Israeli Jewry, each challenging the other's authenticity and attacking the "bad faith" of the other Jewish population. In choosing not to leave the diaspora of Babylon, you should weep for yourselves, not the Temple you never frequented, quips the Israeli community. You chose your fate because your self-concern overrides your concern for the Temple and the Holy Land. The response of Babylonian Jewry from the depths of diaspora comes later on, when they finally have enough courage to respond to their Israeli brethren:

"It is fitting that you cry, and it befits you to eulogize and mourn when you see Mother’s sanctuaries destroyed, the place of Her bed upended in mourning. She is absent, having flown away from you, leaving you unaware of Her whereabouts. You might say She is with us in exile, dwelling among us. If so, we should rejoice, for indeed the prophet Ezekiel saw Her here with all Her legions. But actually for this we must weep and eulogize, like jackals and desert ostriches. She has been banished from Her chambers and we are in exile. She comes to us in bitterness and sees us daily in all our afflictions, with all the statues and decrees they impose upon us constantly. But She cannot remove these scourges from us, nor all the ordeals that we suffer."

So we, as diaspora Jews, join the orphans of Jerusalem as jackals and desert ostriches, deeply devoid of any possible consolation in the current ruins of a Jerusalem that is tearing the Jewish people apart — it just makes you wanna cry! And that's precisely why you should join us on Tisha B'Av — that's the point of a real dirge!

As we enter this Tisha B’Av 5777, let's all listen more deeply to the caterwauling concatenation of the inconsolable child. Let us never forget that as a community of orphans we continue mourning the emptiness of our collective authenticity – this wandering and weeping within us all, wailing these words, "Mommy, mommy, wall, wall!" as a naive child. Nevertheless, the child presses on, searching for his divine mother, long gone from the wall, so all that remains is his inconsolable wailing.

Yonder is your consolation coming, O orphaned ones...

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Archie Rand, "Av," 1993, Oil and enamel on canvas

The Dreidel -- Unmasked!

PlayingDreidel_CBSFamilyPreschoolHanukkahLunch_December2015Hanukkah is over. For a few evenings, we'll gaze longingly at the counters, tables, and ledges where our hanukkiot so recently glowed...and then our attention will shift to family debates about which movie and Chinese restaurant is right for Christmas Day. Today, though, we hope to extend your Hanukkah glow for at least a few more minutes!

Along with hanukkiot, latkes, and sufganiyot, visions of dreidels spin through our heads when we think of Hanukkah. Why the association? Chabad's website explains:

"The dreidel, known in Hebrew as a sevivon, dates back to the time of the Greek-Syrian rule over the Holy Land -- which set off the Maccabean revolt that culminated in the [Hanukkah] miracle. Learning Torah was outlawed by the enemy, a 'crime' punishable by death. The Jewish children resorted to hiding in caves in order to study. If a Greek patrol would approach, the children would pull out their tops and pretend to be playing a game. By playing dreidel during Chanukah we are reminded of the courage of those brave children."

That's a familiar story -- it's what we've been told our whole lives. But it's also a myth, and one created long after the days of the Maccabees.

In fact, the dreidel is a variation on an Irish or English top that spread over all of Europe during the late Roman Empire. Known as a teetotum, each of these four-sided tops was inscribed with letters that denoted the result of a given spin. For example, the German version of the game used N (Nichts, or nothing), G (Ganz, or all), H (Halb, or half), and S (Stell ein, or put in).

Dreidels&Gelt_CBSFamilyPreschoolHanukkahLunch_December2015Across Europe, teetotum was most often played around Christmastime; the reason for this seasonal popularity remain unclear but, just like their neighbors, Ashkenazi Jews played the game at this time. Yet Jews adapted the tops' lettering for Yiddish speakers, replacing German letters with Hebrew ones: Nun (Nit, or nothing), Gimel (Gants, or everything), He (Halb, or half), and Shin (Shtel arayn, or put in).

Over generations, as the dreidel game was introduced to far-flung Jewish communities that didn't speak Yiddish, various explanations for the letters' significance were put forth. One of the most famous explications is that the letters represent the four kingdoms that tried to destroy Israelites/Jews: Nun for Nebuchadnezzar, or Babylon; He for Haman, or Persia; Gimel for Gog, or Greece; and Shin for Seir, or Rome. But the most popular story -- probably because it's the only one that explains why the dreidel game is primarily played in the month of Kislev -- posited that the letters stood for the phrase "Nes gadol haya sham," or "A great miracle happened there." That's the Hanukkah miracle, of course, and the accompanying myth about the clever ruse of brave little Torah scholars caught on, too.

Sometime in the 19th or 20th century (CE), this mythic origin of the dreidel game became the officially sanctioned account. It's a compelling, fun story for children, but the real history of the dreidel is no less remarkable.

Indeed, the most marvelous of Hanukkah miracles is an ongoing one: the ability of the Jewish people to adopt the customs and ideas of their neighbors -- just filtered through a Jewish lens. Consider how many of our "traditional" Jewish practices are variations of customs adopted from the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans. We often toast the fact that those four "evil empires" have fallen while the Jewish people live on -- Am Yisrael Chai! -- but, curiously and counter-intuitively, some facets of those cultures live on in our Jewish traditions.

Culture is a wonderfully complex cholent.