Yitro -- Exodus 18:1–20:23

Whether we are reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Beowulf, or La Chanson de Roland, we immediately recognize something all great works of literature tend to share in common — all mark out their protagonists as heroes from the outset.

So who is the real hero in the Moses story? When we turn to Hollywood, whether with Christian Bale in Ridley Scott’s recent epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) or with Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), the cinematic consensus appears to point to attributing star status to Moses as hero par excellence. But is that always the case, especially in this week’s reading? It can be argued that the real hero — the one who takes the greatest risk and catalyzes the greatest shift in the narrative — is actually the Priest of Midian, Jethro, because he is Moses’ greatest teacher and his father-in-law.

When Jethro hears of the divine miracles performed for the Israelites, he is en route to the Israelite camp with Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, and two sons in tow. With prescience, Jethro advises Moses to delegate his growing work load as singular leader of the people by appointing magistrates and judges. This will distribute the workload more reasonably and assist Moses in providing his people with the necessary pillars of civil society -- governance and administered justice.

Encamping opposite Mount Sinai, the Israelites respond to the divine call:

All that God has spoken shall we do [na’asse].

This becomes the calling card of all future Jewish spiritual practice -- doing the practice is primary, understanding is secondary.

Amidst thunder, lightning, billowing smoke, and shofar blasts, there is a theophany; the divine presence descends the mountain while Moses is simultaneously summoned to ascend. The Sinaitic Revelation, another pillar of Judaism, is proclaimed to all those gathered at the foot of the mountain. The intensity of the Revelation is too much for the people to bear, and they beg Moses to receive the Torah directly from its divine source and only then reveal it to them.

Just what was revealed on Sinai remains a mystery, part of the ongoing process of Revelation that encompasses everything from that moment to what a teacher and student share in study to this day.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: This week's illustration attempts to depict what is fundamentally impossible to depict, the theophany at Sinai. It is taught that each Jew alive today is connected to one of the 600,000 souls present at Sinai for matan Torah, "the giving of Torah." According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, however, we can only access that transformative, defining moment "when we are able to share in the spirit of awe that fills the world." That’s a nice reminder that we should all make a little more space for awe and wonder. 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.

Behar / Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

Facebook_CoverDesign_Behar-Bechukotai"Sowing the seed,
my hand is one with the earth.
…Hungry and trusting,
my mind is one with the earth.
Eating the fruit,
my body is one with the earth.
"

Wendell Berry’s poem "Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer" asks us to consider how the farmer is like the farm. Similarly, the strong language of covenantal prohibition in Leviticus calls on each of us as conscious consumers to draw boundaries around how we use and transform the natural world.

Transformative cycles of seven in biblical literature, in general, and here in Leviticus, in particular, recall the grandeur of creation that continues its unfolding revelation daily. That revelation is taking place every seventh year for the Sabbatical year, when all work on the land ceases so that its fruit is free for the taking, for both human and animal kingdoms.

Seven Sabbatical cycles (forty-nine years) culminate in a fiftieth year, crowned as the Jubilee year, on which work on all land ceases, all indentured servants are freed, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land of Israel that have been sold will then revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands and the prohibitions against fraud and usury conclude the reading of Behar.

The whole purpose of creation is to recognize our complete embeddedness in everything, including all other sentient beings. Lines of filiation run most directly through our own awareness of the transformative cycles that embrace us. If a human intelligence of the earth and sensitivity to its needs is one that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace, then perhaps Wendell Berry’s "mad" farmer is not so mad after all!

It is also illuminating to consider our network of intimate relationships and cycles in the context of charity. If you still haven’t had a conversation with a Mormon, try talking about tithing. Observant Mormons unflinchingly give ten percent of their pre-tax dollars to the church. And Jews? Not so consistent – perhaps this is why Jewish institutions continue to struggle as they do all across America. Why is it that a Mormon feels more commanded than a Jew to fulfill a biblical precept?

Earning material well-being is a necessity for the survival of civilization. But how often do we linger in the passionate embrace of the culture that is the fruit of our labors? Wisdom comes with an ability to both earn and enjoy.

In Parashat Bechukotai, the Israelites are promised that if the commandments are kept, they will enjoy the material prosperity they have rightly earned in addition to dwelling securely in the Holy Land. Conversely, should this covenant be abandoned or abrogated, there is a harsh rebuke, coupled with a warning of exile, persecution, and other manifestations of evil. Here, in Bechukotai, we also encounter a variety of pledges made as divine offerings, as well as the aforementioned spiritual practice of setting aside a tenth (tithing) of firstlings and first fruits.

True wisdom then comes from earning material well-being through civilization as well as the passionate embrace of culture so that we may enjoy in sharing this well-being with others. The understanding that in giving, you receive more than you give could not be more true or urgent today.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork depicts the arrival of the Jubilee year. Because the Jewish day begins at nightfall, the land is shown scattering rays of Jubilee joy at dusk. "And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you..." (Leviticus 25:10) 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

Shemini – Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Facebook_CoverDesign_SheminiYou are what you eat, so they say. But more importantly, as Jews, we eat only in the context of creation.

In this week’s reading, Shemini, aside from Aaron’s mysterious silence in the face of his sons’ immolation, we are drawn into the distinctions conveyed through our dietary laws. The laws of kashrut are commanded, identifying permissible and forbidden animals for consumption, including: (1) land animals only with a split hoof and that chew their cud; (2) fish with scales and fins; and (3) appropriately listed birds and insects.

As we read in Leviticus 11:1-2, the divine imperative for conscious consumption brings awareness that "you may eat out of all the domestic beasts that are on the earth." This phrase "on the earth" appears seven times in this chapter (11:2, 21, 29, 41, 42, 44, 46) – why? It is a reminder taking us back to the sixth day of Creation, when the Earth was first covered with plants and mobile creatures, and the humans were blessed as stewards of "every animal that creeps on the earth." (Genesis 1:28).

Finally, distinctions relating to ritual readiness are recounted, including the laws relating to the immersion pool known as the mikveh. All these rituals are based on the ancient wisdom of distinction(s); while they continue to evolve, they still have resonance today.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is inspired by fire's central and ambivalent role in Shemini. It goes "forth from before the Lord and consume[s] the burnt offering" (Leviticus 9:24) and also "forth from before the Lord and consume[s]...Nadav and Avihu" (Leviticus 10:2). It is difficult to read of the horrible fate of Aaron's sons without considering the English name for the Shoah – "holocaust n 1. a burnt sacrifice: a sacrificial offering wholly consumed by fire 2. a complete or thorough sacrifice or destruction esp. by fire." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Yitro -- Exodus 18:1–20:23

Facebook_CoverDesign_YitroRevelation marks a unique aspect of Judaism, and the modern German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig astutely noted that it exists in symbiotic relationship with Creation and Redemption. But what are the degrees and nuances of Revelation?

Sinai may be Revelation's apogee, but can we develop a deeper appreciation for its subtler nuances? Jewish liturgy suggests that Creation is ongoing daily – but what about Revelation, especially between people? This week, we turn to a series of subtle revelations shared in encounters with remarkable religious figures.

When Moses’ father-in-law, the Priest of Midian, Jethro, hears of the divine miracles performed for the Israelites, he is en route to the Israelite camp with Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, and two sons in tow. With prescience, Jethro advises Moses to delegate his growing work load as singular leader of the people by appointing magistrates and judges. This will distribute the workload more reasonably and assist Moses in providing his people with the necessary pillars of civil society -- governance and administered justice.

Encamping opposite Mount Sinai, the Israelites respond to the divine call:

All that God has spoken shall we do [na’asse].

This becomes the calling card of all future Jewish spiritual practice -- doing the practice is primary, understanding is secondary.

Amidst thunder, lightning, billowing smoke, and shofar blasts, there is a theophany; the divine presence descends the mountain while Moses is simultaneously summoned to ascend. The Sinaitic Revelation, another pillar of Judaism, is proclaimed to all those gathered at the foot of the mountain. The intensity of the Revelation is too much for the people to bear, and they beg Moses to receive the Torah directly from its divine source and only then reveal it to them.

Just what was revealed on Sinai remains a mystery, part of the ongoing process of Revelation that inspires remarkable religious leaders, the Moses and Jethroes of today, as evinced in the remarkable work of the Elijah Interfaith Institute in Jerusalem, whose revelatory mandate is to share wisdom and foster peace.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: This week's artwork attempts to capture something of the drama of the Mount Sinai theophany. "And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice." (Exodus 19:18–19) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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.

Behar -- Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

CoverDesign_Behar_FacebookCycles are enticing, entrancing, and mesmerizing. The American poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) once remarked: "We might possess every technological resource... but if our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling are still running in the old cycles, our process may be ‘revolutionary’ but not transformative."

The seven transformative cycles that appear in biblical literature -- and feature prominently in this week's parsha -- recall the grandeur of creation that continues its unfolding revelation daily. That revelation is taking place every seventh year for the Sabbatical year, when all work on the land ceases so that its fruit is free for the taking, for both human and animal kingdoms.

Seven Sabbatical cycles (forty-nine years) culminate in a fiftieth year, crowned as the Jubilee year, on which work on all land ceases, all indentured servants are freed, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land of Israel that have been sold will then revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands and the prohibitions against fraud and usury conclude the reading of Behar.

Now consider for a moment all of the people involved in getting a piece of produce you enjoy into your hand to eat. Where was it grown, and by whom? Farmers, truck drivers, storekeepers, men and women -- imagine how hard they are working to support themselves and their families. Now consider all the ways in which this divine cycling has supported the creation of this fruit by creating fertile soil, clouds and rainwater, energy from sunshine, air. The key is to recognize and be mindful of our interconnectedness with all sentient beings of creation; only then are we called upon to elevate it and make it holy.

The whole purpose of creation is to recognize our complete embeddedness in all created sentient beings with those lines of filiation running most directly through our own awareness of these transformative cycles that embrace us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a simple celebration of the Jubilee year, a radical and remarkable concept deserving of more attention. Although the Jubilee (or Yovel, meaning ram's horn, which was traditionally sounded to proclaim the Jubilee's start) hasn't been observed by Jews for ages -- our rabbis ruled that Jubilee can not be observed as long as so many of us are living in diaspora -- there is much wisdom in the practice of radical release and rest. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.