Vayekhi — Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

One of the greatest malaises of Western civilization to this day was captured by Ernest Becker (1924-1974) in his book, Denial of Death. Becker points to the reality we know all too well, that we shield and mask death from our lives until it is too late. What we seek to mask, according to Becker, is a deeper anxiety of death and mortality, which itself is the result of an evolutionary clash between our will to survive and the peculiar survival strategy to cope with the ultimate futility of that survival urge.

And so, without any denial possible any longer, on his deathbed, Jacob announces: "…I am now old, and I do not know how soon I may die… So that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die." (Genesis 27: 2,4)

In the course of this grandiose blessing of the next generation, a tragic moment almost passes everyone by when it comes to Jacob's grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, who Jacob does not recognize. He asks his son Joseph about his grandchildren: “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8) Eventually, Jacob agrees to bless his grandchildren, but Joseph is displeased as his father appears to be flouting the social etiquette by blessing Ephraim, the younger, before Manasseh, the elder. True to the ongoing disruption of primogeniture in Genesis, Jacob corrects his son, Joseph, who has assimilated the primacy of primogeniture in Near Eastern society, wherein the elder ruling over the younger sibling is an expected norm.

In the end, no matter how assimilated, Joseph accepts his father, Jacob’s unconventional blessing for his own children that both challenges societal norms while following in his father’s footsteps. Respecting his father’s last wishes, now also his own, both Jacob and Joseph are interred in the Holy Land together with their ancestors, bringing Genesis to a close.

Torah is our primary Jewish lens to bring meaning to our own confrontations with endings and new beginnings.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is a wallpaper-like pattern featuring different icons associated with the story of Joseph, which we conclude in Parashat Vayekhi. The eyes symbolize Joseph's vision and prognostication; the tears reference the weeping he does in moments of loneliness, forgiveness, and joy; the heart is a symbol not only of the profound love Jacob felt for Joseph, but also for the big-hearted actions taken by Joseph as Bereshit (Genesis) draws to a close. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beraysheet -- Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

"Living God and Master of the Universe
on high and dwelling in eternity,
His name holy
and He is sublime
and created His world
out of three words: sefer, sfar, sippur – letter, limit, and tale.
"

So begins the ancient treatise, Sefer Yetzirah, which focuses on sound and its magical capacity for "making" and "world building." This book takes on the grammar of creation as expressed through the Hebrew language.

In acknowledging that all our beginnings are made through language, this year we have an opportunity to be more mindful of how we use language to create and destroy realities, through each letter, its limit, and the tale that we chose to tell. Sefer Yetzirah shares this mutual concern for "making" and "world building" that is at the core of Genesis.

The story of creation we read this week is a story of beginnings and creative inspiration, and all of this transpires within the creation that has already occurred – the divine Creator creates more than once. God as Creator forms the first human body from the unformed earth, blowing a living breath into it to form a soul. A help mate, Eve, is then formed for Adam. Moving from a state of radical loneliness to begin building community happens in relationship. But not all beginnings bode well or even last, and creation begins again with Noah, a righteous man alone in a corrupt world.

Are the end and the beginning of these episodes in the human condition "always there"? If so, what does this teach us about the way we wander and dwell in the here and now?

As we reflect upon how we use language to create and destroy realities, consider catching Israeli artist Victoria Hannah during her current residency at Magnes Museum when she performs her own rendition of 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in Sefer Yetzirah. Victoria draws inspiration from each Hebrew letter, which is said to symbolize or relate to a specific element in the universe and in the human body, each letter an exact signal, sound, and frequency in space. Stylistically, Hannah's creations span from traditional Jewish music to new music and hip-hop.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Genesis 4:15: "...and the Lord placed a mark on Cain that no one who find him slay him." What exactly is the mark or brand of Cain? From ancient times through today, biblical scholars and rabbis debate what is meant by the Hebrew word ot, which is variously translated as "mark," "sign," "pledge," or "oath." Many ancient interpreters insisted this mark was meant literally, a symbol that consisted of fearsome animal horns. Here, we see such a sign painted on the wall of a desert cave along with a number of falling human forms. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

High Holy Days Sermons And Teachings

Web_Chen_9177Many congregants have requested copies of Rabbi Glazer's High Holy Days sermons and teachings. Sermons are meant to be heard (not read), so we're delighted to report that Rabbi Glazer has recorded each and every one of his Yamim Noraim service contributions for your listening edification. As a bonus, we've included Rabbi Glazer's thoughtful drash for Parashat Beraysheet.

If you missed any of the High Holy Days services, or if you just want to revisit some of your favorite teachings, we invite you to spend some time with the audio archive below. Listen to the recordings by clicking the play button under each title and description. (If you prefer to download the file so that you can listen to it while on the go, click the relevant download link.)


  • Finding Space To Love -- Drash, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777
    Ruminating on Jefferson Airplane's Somebody To Love and our individual and social want for connection.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ErevRH_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • Bonobos, Sarah, & the Great Mother -- D'var Torah, Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5777
    Spiritual evolution: Can the survival of the fittest also be the empowerment of the pacifist?[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RH1DvarTorah_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • Falling To Get Back Up -- Drash, Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5777
    On finding the resilience to rise again after falling.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RH1Drash_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • "Brace For Impact" in Sully's Akedah -- D'var Torah, Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5777
    Emunah, kehillah kedoshah (sacred community), and preparing ourselves to confront trials of uncertainty.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RH2DvarTorah_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • Why I Don't Believe -- Drash, Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5777
    On the 50th anniversary of the State of Jewish Belief (1966), contemplating faith versus conviction.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RH2Drash_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • What The Seal Of Truth Is Good For -- Drash, Kol Nidre 5777
    On distinguishing between lies and truth.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/KNDrash_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • Sitting In The Belly Of The Whale: Part I -- D'var Torah, Yom Kippur 5777
    On "soul-making" in HaNeshama Lakh.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/YKDvarTorah1_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • "Ghosting" Vs. Bidding Adieu In The Last Kaddish --
    Drash, Yom Kippur Yizkor 5777

    On letting go and intimately marking the passing of a loved one.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/YKYizkor_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • Sitting In The Belly Of The Whale: Part II -- D'var Torah, Yom Kippur 5777
    On "soul-making" in the Book of Jonah.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/YKDvarTorah2_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God – And Has Even More Compassion --
    Drash, Yom Kippur Ne'ila 5777

    Choosing compassion to ensure that the door of the bus remains open for all.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/YKNeila_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • Prayer For Israel -- A Yom Kippur Teaching, Yom Kippur 5777
    Putting together the ultimate "prayer package" for the State of Israel.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/PrayerForIsrael_HHD5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

  • The Genesis of Murder: New Exegesis from Saramago to Levinas --
    Drash, Beraysheet (27 Tishrei 5777)

    The story of Cain, the genesis of murder, and the importance of gratitude.[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/GenesisBeraysheet_5777.mp3"][/audio] (Click here to download.)

Beraysheet -- Genesis 1:1-6:8

facebook_coverdesign_bereshitNew Beginnings: How do I want to begin again this year?

Whenever a new chapter in life is about to begin, it is wise to take a step back and ask: How do I want to begin? What are my hopes, aspirations, and dreams?

The Jewish New Year is a time to ask ourselves similar questions: How do I want to begin again this year? And, as we begin again at the Torah scroll's start, with Genesis, what role does my kehillah kedoshah (my sacred community) play in this new beginning?

Six decades ago, on Yom Ha'atzmaut, the American Jewish community was searching for a way to begin again with its religious Zionist dreams. Rabbi Yosef Dov haLevi Soloveitchik (z”l) delivered a now-classic talk about religious Zionist philosophy at Yeshiva University. "The Voice of My Beloved Knocks (Kol Dodi Dofek)" elaborates upon God’s tangible presence in the recent history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel — does this relationship constitute a "covenant of fate" (berit goral) or a "covenant of destiny" (berit yi’ud)?

Let's contrast fate and destiny. Although Jonah did not necessarily experience the joys of fate once the lots were drawn and he was cast off the ship by the sailors, we can still discern four positive consequences of the awareness of a shared fate: 1. shared historical circumstances; 2. shared suffering; 3. shared responsibility and liability; 4. shared activity. As opposed to the "covenant of fate," which was made with an enslaved people without free will, the "covenant of destiny" was made with a free nation which could, and did, make up its own mind. God does not simply impose the Torah on community; God offers it to us. And every year, God is still awaiting our response — anew. As a "people" (‘am, from the word ‘im, meaning "with"), therefore, we have no way to determine our own fate; as a "nation" (goy, related to the word geviyah, meaning "body"), however, we have the ability to forge our own destiny.

The story of creation we read of this week in Genesis 1:1-6:8 is a story of beginnings and creative inspiration, and all of this transpires within the creation that has already occurred – the divine Creator creates more than once. God as Creator forms the first human body from the unformed earth, blowing a living breath into it to form a soul. A help mate, Eve, is then formed for Adam. Moving from a state of radical loneliness to begin building community happens in relationship. But not all beginnings bode well or even last, and creation begins again with Noah, a righteous man alone in a corrupt world.

Are the end and the beginning of these episodes in the human condition "always there"? If so, what does this teach us about the way we wander and dwell in the here and now? I suggest that God offers us the opportunity to begin again by becoming a goy kadosh ("holy body") not only at Sinai (in the Book of Exodus), but also at the beginning of each year's Torah cycle – we have this opportunity for real growth.

Whether we live up to the challenge and take hold of Torah in our lives is really our choice – and our destiny. Each of us has the potential and creative power to harness a renewed covenantal relationship with our kehillah kedoshah, our sacred community at CBS. May this year give us all another opportunity to join and deepen our relationships to each other as we take hold of Torah – once again at the beginning everafter...

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by one of the best known lines in the Torah. "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." (Genesis 1:3) The image was created with both the Kabbalistic creation story (the nitzotzot, or sparks of the divine) and prevailing cosmological theory (the Big Bang) in mind. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ilan Salomon-Jacob's Bar Mitzvah

facebook_ilanShalom, my name is Ilan and I’m in the 8th grade at the San Francisco School. I enjoy playing sports, making videos, composing music digitally, and playing drums on my own or in my band. I also like talking, laughing, and hanging out with friends.

My bar mitzvah is this coming Shabbat and, to be honest, I have a whole swarm of butterflies in my stomach! I am very excited to share this day with my family, friends, and members of the congregation.

I will be chanting Torah from Parashat Beraysheet. In it, God creates the heavens and the Earth, along with all living beings, in six days. God then takes a day of rest. On one of those days, God creates Adam and Eve, the first humans, and puts them in the Garden of Eden. When they disobey God’s orders, they are cast out. They have two children named Cain and Abel who don’t get along so well. Cain is jealous and kills Abel. The parsha ends with a recounting of many generations of descendants, and God is unhappy with the actions of many of them. It finishes on a positive note, however, as God finds hope in a man named Noah.

I would like to thank my family for being supportive throughout this process. I would also like to thank my tutor, Marilyn Heiss, for teaching me how to chant Torah, and Rabbi Glazer for helping me write my d’var Torah. Lastly, I would to thank the Beth Sholom community for always welcoming me and making me feel at home.

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): What's In A Name? (Or What's With Orev?)

CoverDesign2_RavenNow and again, someone asks me why I sign my CBS emails with a two-part first name: Christopher Orev. Fair question.

In day-to-day life, I prioritize my given, secular name, Christopher. In this respect, I'm like most Jewish Americans. My patronymic Hebrew name, Orev ben Avraham Avinu v' Sarah Imanu, is known by very few people and used by fewer still, generally reserved for use in a ritual context.

So why, then, do I insist on writing Christopher Orev? Because my Hebrew name is very important to me, and I feel it should appear in formal correspondence, especially in a Jewish context. Because the name itself is unusual, however, I'm often asked what it means. Not long ago, Rabbi Glazer suggested that I share the origin of the name on the CBS blog in the hopes that a handful of readers might find my explanation of interest.

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Those well-versed in Tanakh might worry that I've chosen Orev in some misguided tribute to one of the two Midianite chieftains killed in Shoftim 7:25. But, no, the ill-fated Midianite is not my namesake.

Because Orev means 'raven,' some friends of mine have assumed that my choice stems from my fondness for natural history and especially for reviled and misunderstood species. I am fascinated and excited by ravens, but that partiality isn't my principal motivation, either. Instead, I chose Orev because of the raven's mysterious role in the story of Noah.

"And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. He sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the drying of the waters from upon the earth. And he sent out the dove from him to see whether the water had subsided from the face of the ground." (Bereshit 8:6-8).

Where did the raven go?

Contemporary biblical critics contend that the raven's disappearance is evidence of the biblical narrative's many sources. According to these scholars, when the stories of Torah were first edited and assembled, scribes often included details from differing accounts (rather than choosing between them). By this reckoning, one of the ancient riffs on the flood story had it that a raven was released while another, slightly different version of the tale assigned the recon flight to a dove. The two versions were simply spliced together so that Noah released the raven and then the dove.

The literary, analytical, and rational inclinations of this particular Torah reader make me appreciative of such striking examples of narrative juxtaposition and mythmaking. But while I appreciate our sacred text through a decidedly non-supernatural lens, I also invest Torah with much social and mystical power. These two, very different approaches to Torah — one universalist and secular, the other specific and traditional — place me in a grey zone of contemporary Jewish identity, but I consider this balancing act (this push-pull or hybrid position) to be the very essence of the Conservative movement’s philosophy.

But what does this have to do with my name? Back to Noah’s raven; what became of it? There are a number of traditional drashs that explain the raven's disappearance, but I view the stray bird as an analog of my Jewish neshamah (soul). This particular orev "flew the coop," so to speak, for a few generations, but has at last come back to the ark (through the covenant of conversion).

I find a satisfying etymological riff on this interpretation in the Hebrew name itself, עורב. Ayin means "eye," Vav means "and," Resh means "beginning" or "head," and Beit means "house" or "home." Orev, therefore, can be read as "eye and head home," an oblique reference to the raven's "seeing" his way home. Likewise, my neshamah has turned anew (or returned) to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

Another gratifying etymological connection has been made between orev and erev, meaning 'evening' or 'dusk.' Both words are comprised of the same letters, and Hebrew linguists believe that the word orev was derived from erev, a reference to the raven's dark plumage. If so, the raven’s name is born of the gloaming, my favorite time of day, one electric with magic and possibility, and ideal for sustained rumination.

But the etymology can be (and is) taken one step further. Ervuv is the Hebrew word for 'mixture' and, just as day mixes with night at erev, some rabbis point out that, although it is officially deemed treif, the raven is the only bird species to split the difference on the Mishnah's four kashrut qualities; it possesses two kosher attributes and two treif attributes, and is therefore a "mixed" creature.

This mixture angle is also important to me. When I emerged from the mikveh, I was a new Jew. If you had asked me then if I stood at Sinai, I would have confidently replied, ‘Yes.' Yes, at least, with respect to metaphysics and psychology...but my personal history is not that of Hebrew school, kugel, or Camp Ramah. My Gentile past informs my Jewish identity in unexpected, generally positive ways, but the individual ger, like the individual shul, will never please klal Yisrael. Because I am actively engaged in the Jewish community (across the denominational, political, and theological spectrums), my very "Jewishness" is sometimes challenged. Some fellow Jews review my attributes and deem me kosher; others say I'm treif. I'd be fibbing were I to claim that this limbo doesn't trouble me, but I also recognize that it provides me with a special opportunity to examine questions of identity. I will be wholly Jewish and yet I will be "the stranger that sojourns among" my fellow Jews. The name I have chosen embodies two themes that are important to me: my (re)turn to Jewish peoplehood and also the peculiar/particular Jewish identity of the ger.