Shelach Lecha -- Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

"Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded."

This remark by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor who made headlines in 2013 when he leaked top secret information about NSA surveillance activities, is indeed curious – and it has theological implications. In a wired, connected world in which almost everything we do is monitored, how does the Torah’s understanding of espionage strike us?

Espionage is a form of reconnoitering and a test of emunah — of one’s steadfast trust and conviction. As the 12 spies head out on their mission, they think they know what awaits them and so do the people that sent them. 40 days later, these spies return carrying produce from the land, including a cluster of grapes, a pomegranate, and a fig along with a report of the land’s bountifulness. 10 of the spies also warn the Israelites that the giant inhabitants are overpowering. Only Joshua and Caleb dissent, claiming the land can be conquered.

As the Israelites weep, yearning to return to Egypt, the divine decree emerges that they must enter the Promised Land by way of a circuitous route — by way of a forty-year trek through the desert. This period of journeying will allow time enough for the remorseful population to die out, making space for a new generation to emerge, one that will be more open to entering into a meaningful relationship of responsibility with the land divinely granted to them.

Parashat Shelach Lecha also includes legislation regarding the offerings of meal, wine, and oil, as well as laws pertaining to challah and the ritual fringes known as tzitzit that are on any four-cornered garment.

The possibility of knowing (and appreciating) a strong sense of omnipresence of the divine in our lives – that "we are being watched and recorded" – can be constructive if we see it as a spiritual opportunity, a way for us to see our actions honestly and ensure that they have lasting meaning.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration shows forty tally (or hash) marks stylized as linen-wrapped corpses. Inspired by Numbers 14:32-34 – "But as for you, your corpses shall fall in this desert...According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will [thus] bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation." – this is the count of an anthropomorphized, aggrieved, and estranged G-d. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tissa -- Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Construction of the Tabernacle is left to the wise-hearted artisans, Bezalel and Aholiav, and proceeds according to schedule, but Moses does not return from atop Mount Sinai exactly when expected (32:1). This leads the impatient Israelites to sculpt a molten calf of gold and worship it (32:6).

When he finally returns, Moses sees his people dancing around this idol and becomes enraged; he smashes the first set of tablets, destroys the molten calf, and executes the culprits behind this moment of grave idolatry. Then, in a moment of great empathic compassion, Moses turns to God and says: “If You do not forgive them, then blot me out of the book that You have written!” (32:32) Perhaps this eruption of empathic compassion is what allows Moses to formulate a second set of tablets upon his next ascent to Sinai?

When Moses is able to be truly present to the others in his community, no matter how errant, he is then granted a vision of the divine, through the thirteen attributes of mercy. After Auschwitz, the great French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) took this remarkable moment of Moses’ request for a complete encounter with the divine “face” (33:20) only to be granted a view of “the other side” (33:23) to teach us that every human encounter with "the other" presents us with a trace of the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the golden calf, Torah's most prominent symbol of idolatry. Here, the calf's head references Charging Bull, the famous bronze sculpture that's sparked countless photo ops in downtown Manhattan since it was installed in 1987. The choice isn't intended as an attack on capitalism (which, when thoughtfully regulated, is the most workable system we’ve come up with), but perhaps our modern championing of relentless economic growth is a species of misbegotten idol? In the background are golden earrings featuring the Egyptian Eye of Horus, a reference to the story's collection of Israelite earrings to create the calf; surely, their earrings' iconography and style would have been Egyptian following such a long period of assimilation. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Bo -- Exodus 10:1–13:16

Insofar as it relates to modern life, religious scholars have cast the role of ritual in a certain light, understanding how it forms and informs our human societies and cultures through that preferred lens. In her renowned study, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992), the anthropologist of religion Catherine Bell challenges some of the assumptions that guide most religious scholarship. Bell suggests an approach to ritual activities less encumbered by assumptions about how ritual embodies dichotomies of thinking and acting; instead, she turns her focus to disclosing the strategies by which ritualized activities "do what they do," how and why they continue to stir us and remain relevant.

Every American Jew can attest to the power of ritualized activities "doing what they do" from generation to generation — think of the ubiquity of the Passover seder celebrations and its popularization with the Maxwell House Haggadah! Clearly, Bell is on to something here; the power of Exodus resonates to this day.

This section in the reading of Exodus serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach – to "passover" the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.

It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Exodus 13:9: "And it shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as a remembrance between your eyes, in order that the law of the Lord shall be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand the Lord took you out of Egypt." Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents discarded their tefillin and other Jewish ritual objects when they arrived in the United States. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes that "if skin divers dove into New York harbor, they could dredge up an underwater mountain of tefillin. As the boats carrying our great-grandfathers passed by the Statue of Liberty, they literally kissed their tefillin goodbye. Religious observance was for another land and another place." Today, many of us even outside of Orthodoxy have reclaimed ritual objects and practice. Laying tefillin is a powerful ritual and a daily reminder of the moment we hearkened to freedom. In every ritual act, there is liberating psychological potential. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Leilah Goode's Bat Mitzvah

Hello. My name is Leilah Goode. I am a seventh grader at Claire Lilienthal Middle School. I love playing soccer, going to pop concerts, watching movies, and hanging out with my friends in addition to exploring all that San Francisco has to offer.

In Parashat Bo ("Go!"), God commands Moses to "Go to Pharaoh" to continue to plead for the Israelites' freedom. Pharaoh refuses, and his refusal causes additional punishment to befall the Egyptians in the form of three more plagues: locusts, darkness, and, finally, the death of all firstborn Egyptian sons. As the firstborn Egyptians begin to die, Pharaoh relents, and Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses proclaims that each year on the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month, a festival lasting seven days will be celebrated in order to recall our freedom from slavery in Egypt.

Freedom, at last. In my d’var Torah, I contemplate the privilege of living in a society founded on freedom, the challenges freedom brings, and the vigilance with which we must protect our liberty. Freedom cannot be taken for granted, even in America.

I would like to thank my tutor, Noa Bar, for all her patience and perseverance in helping me learn my segments of this week’s Shabbat torah service. I would also like to thank Rabbi Glazer and Rabbinic Intern Amanda Russell for familiarizing my havurah with the weekly prayers and reinforcing that there are many acceptable interpretations of our stories. Thanks to my havurah and CBS for being part of a collective journey. And thanks to my family for encouraging me to embrace all aspects of my heritage.

Va'eira -- Exodus 6:2-9:35

The self-revelation of the divine to Moses is a unique moment in our spiritual history and changes the face of monotheism forever.

Emboldened and empowered, Moses and Aaron return before Pharaoh, demanding in the divine name,

Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s recalcitrance leads to the moment where Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, swallowing up the surrounding staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, followed by the famous plagues. Water to blood; swarms of frogs; lice infestations; hordes of beasts; pestilence; painful boils; all culminating in the seventh plague, a hail of fire and ice.

Immune to the plagues, however, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Pharaoh’s heart of stone. In response to the first five divine plagues, Pharaoh hardens his heart. In response to the remaining plagues, however, Torah states plainly that G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart. No matter the agent, the result is the same; "Pharaoh's heart is heavy." (Exodus 7:14) Rabbi Stuart Kelman, founding rabbi of Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom, suggests the first five plagues saw Pharaoh progressively hardening his own heart to the plight of the Hebrews and the demands of Moses. That hardening response soon becomes reflexive, a kind of muscle memory, so that the Pharaoh’s heart was already "sclerotic" by the sixth plague, and G-d merely ensures that Pharaoh "lives out the consequences of his own arrogance and ambition." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Simon Crosby's Bar Mitzvah

Hello. My name is Simon Crosby.

I’m in seventh grade at A.P. Giannini Middle School. I am in the school band, and I enjoy playing bassoon and trumpet. I also like soccer, disc golf, and tennis.

I’m excited in both an excited way and a nervous way about my bar mitzvah. Preparing for my bar mitzvah has been hard work with a lot of learning and practice. I’ve enjoyed improving my Hebrew, working with my dad most nights, and learning from my tutor, Randy Weiss. I’m so happy that so many of my family are travelling to be with me.

This Thursday and Saturday, I’ll be reading from Parashat Shemot, which covers the early life of Moses. Beginning when Pharaoh orders all Jewish baby boys to be killed, Moses’ mother hides him, and the Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and raises him. Moses then travels to Midian where he encounters the burning bush. G-d speaks to Moses, telling him to free the Jews from Egypt. Moses is scared and hesitates, but eventually returns to Egypt to free the Jews. In studying my parsha, I have learned that it’s okay to be scared - being scared sometimes helps. It can make you take more time to think about what you are doing.

Thank you to Rabbi Glazer, my parents, teachers, my friends, my brother, Daniel, and all of my family for supporting me during this journey.

Shemot -- Exodus 1:1-6:1

To discover the nature of being human, there are those moments in life when you have to leave the known and venture into the unknown. The story is told about Prince Siddhartha who discovers the true nature of the human condition during an excursion outside the palace walls. In leaving the comfort of the palace, he saw an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and, finally, someone attempting to follow a spiritual path. Witnessing life outside the palatial walls is what causes him to contemplate the suffering in the world.

Another young seeker named Moses takes leave of the Pharaoh’s palace only to discover the suffering of his fellows. In witnessing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, Moses kills the perpetrator. When Moses then admonishes two Jews fighting the next day, he is forced to flee to Midian. It is at that moment that both the Prophet Moses and Prince Siddhartha each knew that a radical change in life was necessary in order to find meaning along the journey.

But the story of Exodus really begins before leaving the palace walls, as the children of Israel are growing numerous and prospering generations after Joseph’s rise to grand vizier of Egypt. This prosperity and integration is perceived as a threat to their Egyptian overlords. In the process of Pharaoh’s enslaving the Israelites, he also orders the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah to kill all male babies by throwing them into the Nile.

If it was not for the righteous indignation of the midwives, Moses would never have come onto the scene. This child born to Yocheved, daughter of Levi, and her husband Amram, is placed in a basket along the Nile River. It is Pharaoh’s daughter who discovers the baby hidden in the basket while bathing in the Nile and names him Moses.

Fast forward to Moses fleeing the palace, finding his way to Midian, where he rescues Tzipporah, daughter of local chieftain and priest of Midian, Jethro. He later marries Tzipporah and becomes a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks. Moses continues to wander in search of the truth, finally encountering the divine in renowned theophany of the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai.

As Moses and Aaron challenge Pharaoh’s recalcitrance to free the Israelites, the people hold fast to the hope that redemption is at hand.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is inspired by Exodus 3:2: "…behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed." Here, patterns and colors are made to play off one another in a nod to the mystical incomprehensibility of the divine flame. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayigash — Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Great change happens with the smallest of steps. That change is captured poignantly in this week’s opening verse, when Judah selflessly pleads for the release of his brother, Benjamin: "Then Judah went up to [Joseph] and said: 'Please, my lord…'" (Genesis 44:18).

This is the dramatic moment where Judah is called upon to facilitate the role of rapprochement as he approaches Joseph. This act of loyalty amidst a history of loyalties betrayed is so heart-wrenching that Joseph, the governor of Egypt, finally pushes aside his seeming disinterestedness to reveal his true identity to his astonished brothers. Shame and remorse overcome the brothers, but Joseph comforts them, explaining the divine hand in this drama.

Rushing back to Canaan with the joyous news, the brothers inform Jacob that his favorite son, Joseph, is still alive. They all return to Egypt with their families – seventy souls in all — and the bereft father is reunited with his favorite son after 22 years apart.

Joseph continues to prosper as governor of Egypt, selling stored food and seed during the famine. As a result, Pharaoh awards Jacob’s family the entire country of Goshen as a place to settle, so that the blessing of assimilation continues for the Israelites amidst their apparent Egyptian exile.

Redemption from exile is a process of inner change and transformation. If we take the advice of Judah, we can each find a pathway to self-transformation [teshuvah] by walking in his footsteps, one small step at a time!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the land of Goshen, the fecund portion of Egypt's Nile delta in which Joseph's family settles when they moved south. Vayigash is the penultimate parsha in Bereshit (Genesis), and it draws to a close on a pastoral climax, with our ancestors secure in a new land and "prolific." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Meiketz — Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

What happens when you are beyond eye-view?

To be beyond eye-view is to fall into oblivion and be forgotten. Recall how Joseph was cast away by his brothers earlier in the narrative, thrown into that "empty pit [bor]; there was no water in it!" (Genesis 37:34). In prison, Joseph is also trapped in the emptiness of the "dungeon [bor]" (Genesis 40:15). All Joseph needs is to be remembered, yet at each turn, everyone seems to forget him! Pharaoh comes closest to remembering this gift of Joseph, saying: "There is none so discerning and wise as you." (Genesis 41:39)

Joseph's repressed prowess continues to grow, given his gifts as dream interpreter as well as financial advisor to Pharaoh. In short order, Joseph is promoted to governor of Egypt and marries into the royal family. His wife, Asenath, (ironically, the daughter of Potiphar), bears him two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

The wheel turns as famine spreads throughout the region, forcing Joseph’s brothers to come to Egypt to purchase grain from the prodigal son they had all but forgotten about. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize their brother, who walks, talks, and for all intents and purposes is a fully assimilated Egyptian governor and citizen.

Accusing his brothers to be spies, Joseph demands Benjamin but settles for Simeon as hostage. Jacob sends Benjamin as an envoy only after Judah assumes responsibility for him. In a highly melodramatic turn, Joseph now receives his brothers hospitably, releasing Simeon and inviting them to dinner. Yet, he then plants a magical goblet into Benjamin’s sack and has his brothers pursued and searched by his men the next morning. The goblet is discovered, and Joseph arrests his brothers. The price for their freedom is giving up Benjamin as collateral; he shall be enslaved to Joseph. Reminiscent of his father Jacob, Joseph is remarkably adept at outmaneuvering his family and the society he has quickly assimilated into.

His quest to be remembered is our own need to not be forgotten nor let our lives be wasted in oblivion.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Joseph’s Egyptian burial mask. The face is meant to appear a little uncertain, and the mask likewise stands just off-center. The image is inspired by Genesis 41:45: "And Pharaoh named Joseph Zaphenath Pa’neach…" It’s significant that Pharaoh renames Joseph, making him the first biblical character not renamed by G-d. Joseph also takes an Egyptian wife. We might think of Joseph as the prototypical diaspora Jew. He may be fetishized and celebrated by the majority culture in which he finds himself, but his success and acceptance in Egypt ultimately allow him to save his family and sustain the ancestral line that will become the ancient Israelites. In his essay, The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History, Rabbi Gerson Cohen (z”l) argues that "not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity, but...in a profound sense, [it] was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source or renewed vitality." There is a Hanukkah lesson there. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayeishev — Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

While quantum cosmologists claim there is no causation within the universe, we do not necessarily need a Hubble telescope to see how often life seems to overflow with an irreducible disorder and chaos. In our own family dynamic, for example, there is no shortage of jealousy, sibling rivalry, preferential treatment – all so integral to the narrative of Joseph.

Jacob singles out Joseph, born late, with his gift of a multi-colored tunic. The gift causes Joseph’s brothers to become murderously jealous, but Joseph recounts and interprets dreams of his siblings’ plots against him. The tunic serves as a leitmotif, that is a recurring symbol linking episodes of the narrative to Joseph’s trials: (1) it is dipped in blood per Reuben’s suggestion, thereby staving off the other brothers' desire to kill Joseph and instead allowing them to convince Jacob that his favorite son was devoured by a wild beast; (2) Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, but he flees, leaving the tunic in her hands; (3) finally imprisoned and stripped of his tunic, Joseph wears a prison garb.

Yet it is in this darkest of prisons that Joseph interprets the disturbing dreams of the chief butler and baker – both incarcerated for offending their royal master, the Pharaoh. Joseph’s expectations of intercession on his behalf, whether as the favorite son or as the dream interpreter in jail, lead nowhere.

Order and peace of mind follow disorder and chaos when we take the long view of our family history and the role each of us plays within its unfolding.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Genesis 37:24: "And they took him and cast him into the pit; now the pit was empty there was no water in it." Why does the text specify that there is no water in the pit into which Joseph is thrown by his brothers? Some commentators have pointed out that we refer to Torah as mayim hayim, the "living waters," a metaphor for how the Torah nourishes our lives. Perhaps, similarly, Torah here uses water in a metaphorical sense – Joseph is cast into a pit that is totally devoid of any psychological or physiological sustenance. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Lech Lecha — Genesis 12:1–17:27

How often have you taken advantage of a last minute travel deal?

Today, it may feel good not to know where you will travel until the very last minute; it allows you to discover some new, exotic destination at a great rate. In the ancient Near Eastern mind, however, that same sense of journeying without knowing the destination borders on the absurd. To journey in search of an undisclosed place, as later rabbinic commentators emphasize ad absurdum, positions such a seeker as a madman. After all, if you do not where you are going, the route is filled with endless obstacles and surprises. But in stressing just how outlandish a decision Abram makes, the rabbis are drawing our attention back to the remarkable text in Torah: God commands Abram to relocate and take leave — "Go forth form your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart. Leaving everything behind, they journey to the land of Canaan along with their nephew Lot. As the narrative continues, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in a pantheon ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing a famine, Abram and Sarai detour to Egypt, where she is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. Her escape is only possible through deception; Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to release and compensation. Once back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom. He is captured by the armies of King Chedorlamomer, which forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing regional rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by the King of Salem, Malki Zedek, in the powerful language of henotheism: "Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth." (Genesis 14:19) As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is Malki Zedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily life.

Upon completing the "covenant between the pieces" that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. Sometimes these transformations begin with taking that first step into the unknown.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is connected to Abram's moment of calling. "Go forth!" "Leave Chaldea!" James Kugel (Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities) describes Philo of Alexandria's interpretation of this episode: "Philo says something happens: 'opening [its] eye from the depth of sleep,' the soul suddenly becomes aware of God's presence. At that point God will say to the soul, as He Said to Abraham, 'Leave Chaldea!' – that is, leave your old way of thinking, in which the human senses are considered to be the only form of perception, and proceed on to a new way of thinking and, ultimately, to the Promised Land of knowing God." 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.

Devarim -- Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Facebook_CoverDesign_DevarimThe great American boxer Muhammad Ali once remarked: "It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen."

When we turn to the repetition of the Law through its namesake (the Book of Deuteronomy, from deutero, meaning "repetition," and nomos, meaning "law"), we find Moses laying out his legacy plan through the repetition of the Law to the assembly.

Part of this Mosaic legacy entails his recounting the Israelites' 40-year journey from Egypt to Sinai, and eventually to the Promised Land. Part of the challenge along the way has been to solidify a cohesive practice. Moses now recognizes that this practice must take the form of sacral deeds called mitzvot.

Tied up with his reiteration of the Law, Moses also recounts the further challenges he faced as leader – countless battles with warring nations as well as the inter-tribal conflicts surrounding division of land. The generation of the desert, still imbued with the Egyptian slave mentality, must die out before a new community can be truly committed to this covenant.

For the legacy to be good and effective, Moses must transmit to Joshua, who engages in "counter-effectuation" — the possibility of conviction emerging from repetition is how the Mosaic legacy is carried forward with his own imprint.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is a depiction of Joshua. Behind him, loosely rendered, we see spectres of the Nephilim, the giants or fallen angels that reportedly inhabited the Promised Land. Unlike their ten scout companions, Joshua and Caleb believed the Israelites could conquer Canaan's fearsome inhabitants. For his bravery and virtue, Joshua would later inherit the mantle of Moses. "But Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you he will go there; strengthen him, for he will cause Israel to inherit it." (Deuteronomy 1:38) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

A Conversation With Ephraim Margolin

AY_MargolinInterviewOn Saturday afternoon, June 10, following a delicious community kiddush lunch, the Achshav Yisrael committee of CBS presented "Witness To The Birth Of Israel: An Interview With Ephraim Margolin." Although the special Shabbat afternoon program could not be photographed, we want to share some of the highlights.

Achshav Yisrael committee member Eileen Auerbach reports that about 75 people attended the program and the audience was rapt, listening intently to Ephraim's anecdotes and perspectives. More than one attendee remarked that Ephraim was so interesting that the interview could have lasted much longer than the two hours allowed. Indeed, Ephraim has led a remarkably full life and it was a treat for so many to learn more about it.

Ephraim was born in Poland in 1926. He fled with his mother to Tel Aviv in 1936, and wouldn't again see his father, Yuli (Yehuda) Margolin, for over a decade (after Yuli was able to make his way to Israel following extended exile in the Soviet Gulag). For better and worse, Ephraim's time and circumstances ensured that his own life would be uncommonly eventful. Writing of his youth in Tel Aviv, Ephraim shares:

"My mother hardly made a living. I still don’t know how she managed to put me through a private high school. She did physical work seven days a week. Our apartment was open to any new 'olim,' refugees arriving in Tel Aviv. We had dozens of people staying in our small apartment, or just show up for a dinner. We never knew who will come. It was just 'the thing to do.' One of the people who stayed in our apartment after arriving in Tel Aviv came in his Polish army uniform. His name was Menachem Begin. He became head of the Irgun, a major underground organization fighting for the establishment of a Jewish State. He would become prime minister of Israel a quarter of century later and win a Nobel Peace Prize for establishing a lasting peace with Egypt.

I, too, joined the Irgun. While serving, I became its clandestine radio announcer, a three-inch mortar gunner, and a commander of the base for illegally infiltrated children arriving in Palestine. [Years later,] in 1948, I became Menachem Begin’s private secretary."

Ephraim-Margolin-768x576Ephraim also highlighted his work as a lawyer in both Israel and the United States, itself dramatic: "While chairing the legal committee of ACLU, I took on 10 of their cases, pro bono, and won them all. I went into private practice in criminal defense and constitutional cases. For the rest of my career, I did one-third of my cases pro bono. I handled several of the race, gender, and free speech cases during the Civil Rights era. I handled and won the first televised argument in California Supreme Court (whether hypnosis of witnesses made their testimony admissible in court) and handled the appeal of John Gotti in New York."

In this, his 90th year, Ephraim shared his life experiences with the audience and talked about what he has learned as a result of them. His 2016 book, Philosophy of Early Zionism, is available on Amazon, and we highly recommend it. Ephraim is currently at work on another book...and his 49th Annual Yom Kippur Teaching at CBS!

ABOUT ACHSHAV YISRAEL: Achshav Yisrael’s mission is to provide quality programming about Israel to Congregation Beth Sholom and the broader community. Achshav Yisrael programs are open to all age groups and will occur on a regular basis. We intend to create a safe space at CBS for community exploration of Israel.

Achshav Yisrael Steering Committee Members: Eileen Auerbach, Becky Buckwald, Sandra Cohen, Betsy Eckstein, Ovid Jacob, Eva-Lynne Leibman, Ira Levy, Ephraim Margolin, Lucia Sommers

Shelach Lecha -- Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

Facebook_CoverDesign_ShelachLecha"Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded."

This remark by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor who made headlines in 2013 when he leaked top secret information about NSA surveillance activities, is indeed curious – and it has theological implications. In a wired, connected world in which almost everything we do is monitored, how does the Torah’s understanding of espionage strike us?

Espionage is a form of reconnoitering and a test of emunah — of one’s steadfast trust and conviction. As the 12 spies head out on their mission, they think they know what awaits them and so do the people that sent them. 40 days later, these spies return carrying produce from the land, including a cluster of grapes, a pomegranate, and a fig along with a report of the land’s bountifulness. 10 of the spies also warn the Israelites that the giant inhabitants are overpowering. Only Joshua and Caleb dissent, claiming the land can be conquered.

As the Israelites weep, yearning to return to Egypt, the divine decree emerges that they must enter the Promised Land by way of a circuitous route — by way of a forty-year trek through the desert. This period of journeying will allow time enough for the remorseful population to die out, making space for a new generation to emerge, one that will be more open to entering into a meaningful relationship of responsibility with the land divinely granted to them.

Parashat Shelach Lecha also includes legislation regarding the offerings of meal, wine, and oil, as well as laws pertaining to challah and the ritual fringes known as tzitzit that are on any four-cornered garment.

The possibility of knowing (and appreciating) a strong sense of omnipresence of the divine in our lives – that "we are being watched and recorded" – can be constructive if we see it as a spiritual opportunity, a way for us to see our actions honestly and ensure that they have lasting meaning.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration shows forty tally (or hash) marks stylized as linen-wrapped corpses. Inspired by Numbers 14:32-34 – "But as for you, your corpses shall fall in this desert...According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will [thus] bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation." – this is the count of an anthropomorphized, aggrieved, and estranged G-d. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Israel Mission Remembrance (III)

From December 22, 2016 – January 2, 2017, almost 30 members of the CBS community traveled to Israel as part of the CBS/Kol Shofar Intergenerational Communal Family Mission. The trip itinerary was thoughtfully designed by Rabbis Aubrey Glazer and Susan Leider (Kol Shofar), and we've heard from many participants about how extraordinary and memorable an experience they had.

Today, we continue to share participant remembrances with another report from Lu Zilber on what she learnt about the West Bank and northern Israel during the trip. If you read these contributions and wish to join a future congregational mission to Eretz Yisrael, please let us know.


Facebook_LuZilberPhoto1_GolanTzafon (North)

On the long ride to Tzfat, our wonderful guide, Abraham, gave us the skinny on the territories – or the West Bank or Judea and Samaria. You get to pick what to call the place.

We travelled a road that parallels the Green Line. What, you ask, is the green line? It is the armistice line from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, also known as the War of Independence. It's referred to as the green line because that's the ink color used when they drew the armistice map. Geography shows you what's really going on here. In the old days, circa 1000 BCE, Jews lived in the hills of Judea and Samaria, which was located at a critical juncture point in the fertile crescent. The Philistines and other peoples of the region were in the coastal plains below. This made them vulnerable to the Jews; the Jews could easily attack from the heights. Concerned about this vulnerability, the Philistines attacked the Jews. There aren't any more Philistines, so you can see how well that plan worked out for them. Fast forward to the 19th century. Jews have discovered Zionism and start moving back to the land. Guess who is occupying the hills of Judea and Samaria? This gives them a clear shot at Ben Gurion Airport with nothing more than a shoulder-fired missile. Tel Aviv is also in range of a slightly larger weapon. The country is only 11 miles wide at this point!

So the point of the Israeli settlements is to surround the Arab towns located in the hills, thus preventing them from attacking. The same idea is at work in the Golan, except the Golan is unpopulated. So Israel has a "trilemma": it must keep itself secure while keeping itself a Jewish state while keeping itself a democracy. Netanyahu keeps getting reelected because he is doing NOTHING, which many view as preferable to change.

As of this date, there are no settlements on Arab land. (Land ownership is a debate for another day.) But as you ride north from Jerusalem, you understand the trilemma clearly. By the way, who lives in the settlements? The world press likes to focus on the right wing nut jobs but, in reality, most of the residents are commuters with jobs in Tel Aviv (remember the settlements are only 11 miles away!).

We got to Tzfat just before Mincha and visited the Yosef Caro Synagogue. After the expulsion from Iberia in 1492, several tzadiks settled in Tzfat: Isaac Luria, Yosef Caro, and others. They formed small havruta (communities) and basically invented Kabbalah. We were granted an hour for shopping, but the shops, which on my last visit were manned by the artists themselves, are now gone quite commercial. You can find magnificent Judaica at magnificent prices, but I was disappointed on the whole.

The Golan

We got into Land Rover jeeps and drove from our lovely kibbutz hotel, the Pastoral at K'far Blum, to the Golan Heights. Golan is the mountainous region looking down on northern Israel. We stopped at a lookout point that was once a Syrian gun emplacement. I took pictures, including the one you see accompanying this post. The emplacements were aimed directly at the kibbutzim below. Our guide grew up in the nearby town and told us he couldn't count how many shells rained down each day of his childhood. Rained down on a civilian population, mind you. As our guide, Abraham, says, "they didn't want us in Europe, they don't want us here, they don't want us anywhere."

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, there were only 50 manned tanks on guard duty. Everyone else left to go celebrate the holiday. The tanks were manned by terrified 19-year-old soldiers; the senior officer was 23. Because the Syrians had to line up in single file in order to move through the pass between the volcanos, the Israelis were able to hold off several hundred Syrian tanks and 1,200 military vehicles in all. They aimed at the first and the last in a group, immobilizing them, then they could pick off the middle tanks. The ones that got through eventually turned back because they were running out of gas. The 50 Israeli tanks were reduced to seven during the Syrian attack, but those seven then attacked the Syrians. Their commander told them there was no one to stop the Syrians getting to Haifa but them.

During the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israelis finished capturing Nasser's forces in Sinai and then started on the Golan. The United Nations (UN) was about to vote on a resolution to end the fighting. Abba Eban was the UN rep and was told to filibuster until the Israelis had time to take the Golan. He spoke for 12 hours.

There was a Mossad agent who had grown up in Egypt, was fluent in Arabic and had a swarthy complexion. His name was Eli Cohen. He posed as a Syrian business man and befriended the Assistant Defense Minister of Syria. He wrangled a trip to the Golan and noticed the emplacements were hidden behind clumps of trees. This info was passed on to the Israeli army, who then knew exactly where to strike. That's how the Israelis were able to capture the Golan in 12 hours.

Bo -- Exodus 10:1–13:16

Facebook_CoverDesign_Bo"No more exploitation of the weak, racial discrimination, or ghettoes of poverty! Never again!"

So declared Pope John Paul II in 1999. He called for a different way of living in keeping with his religious ideals, and he argued that the Church should not achieve these goals through partisan politics or by revolutionary violence. The purpose of religion was bringing about the Kingdom of God, not about creating a Marxist utopia. So how does our traditional-egalitarian Jewish community read this week’s call for liberation in the Exodus story?

This section in the reading of Exodus serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach – to "passover" the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.

It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by the tenth and final plague. "It came to pass at midnight, and the Lord smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon, and every firstborn animal." (Exodus 12:29) Because contemporary readers are so familiar with the story, we too often ignore or diminish the horror of this plague. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'eira -- Exodus 6:2-9:35

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaeiraIn her renowned book, Memory and Oblivion: The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2009), Israeli scholar Rachel Elior posits that history cannot be separated from the one who tells it. The winners write their version of the story empowered by their power and authority over the present; whereas the oppressed write their forgotten history with an eye towards future redemption.

Whether we are referring to the memory of Second Temple spiritual practice and community building that the Essenes preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls or to the spiritual activism of the dissenting Hebrew midwives in Egypt – neither of these religious cultures is relegated to oblivion. But what happens when fear is spoken to power rather than truth?

Pharaoh is a paradigmatic rabble-rouser, an agitator, firebrand, and provocateur. He sells himself on a platform of fear-mongering where he is the one entirely in control of the universe — he takes the place of God. Pharaoh is the symbol of demagoguery par excellence.

It is this demagoguery that Moses and Aaron must confront, demanding in the divine name,

Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s recalcitrance leads to the moment where Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, swallowing up the surrounding staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, followed by the famous plagues. Water to blood; swarms of frogs; lice infestations; hordes of beasts; pestilence; painful boils; all culminating in the seventh plague, a hail of fire and ice. Immune to the plagues, however, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened. The man is deluded by the narcissistic belief that his initial platform of fear-mongering will assure him perennial rule.

Judaism asserts otherwise, not only by sanctioning dissent through righteous indignation, but by holding out the hope of a future informed by a messianic consciousness that fills the hearts and minds of all to bring on a new, redemptive reality for all sentient beings – even in our own day!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptian people. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shemot -- Exodus 1:1-6:1

facebook_coverdesign_shemotAs we open the Book of Exodus – which describes the founding of a nation and a collective religion we today call Judaism – let us consider the challenge that philosopher Peter Sloterdijk poses to our assumptions about the myth of religion's return in recent decades.

In You Must Change Your Life (2014), Sloterdijk argues that it is not religion that is returning, but a mode in which humans are practicing, training beings that create and re-create themselves through exercises and routine. In the course of this training, Sloterdijk writes, an individual human "transcends itself."

In making the case for the expansion of what Sloterdijk calls a "practice zone" for individuals as well as for society as a whole, new insights emerge about what he dubs the "self-formation" of all things human, both individual and collective, and the dynamism between those two. As individuals, we are interwoven into the collective and vice versa.

This sense of the individual intertwined within the collective could not be more evident than in this week’s opening section of the Book of Exodus, where the collective children of Israel are growing numerous and prospering generations after Joseph’s rise to become grand vizier of Egypt. Yet all that remains of their integration and elevation into Egyptian society are their individual names. What has happened to their collective "practice zone"? Still, names tell a story, even if one nearly forgotten.

It is precisely this prosperity and integration that now becomes perceived as a threat to their Egyptian overlords. In the process of Pharaoh’s enslaving the Israelites, he also orders the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah to kill all male babies by throwing them into the Nile.

If it was not for the righteous indignation of the midwives, Moses would never have come onto the scene. This child born to Yocheved, daughter of Levi, and her husband Amram, is placed in a basket along the Nile River. It is Pharaoh’s daughter who discovers the baby hidden in the basket while bathing in the Nile and names him Moses.

Fast forward to Moses fleeing the palace, finding his way to Midian, where he rescues Tzipporah, daughter of local chieftain and priest of Midian, Jethro. He later marries Tzipporah and becomes a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks. Moses continues to wander in search of the truth, finally encountering the divine in renowned theophany of the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai.

As Moses and Aaron challenge Pharaoh’s recalcitrance to free the Israelites, the people hold fast to the hope that redemption is at hand. When we know the depth of our own name’s message, then perhaps our "practice zone" can re-emerge more boldly in the community within which we are all intertwined as a collective.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: If this week’s illustration calls to mind the facade of our remarkable sanctuary, good. But it’s also a straightforward rendering of an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph called a neb. The checkered pattern was used in the hieroglyph to show that the bowl-shaped basket was woven from reeds. Perhaps the same type of Egyptian basket was used to float Moses in this week's parsha? "[When] she could no longer hide him, she took [for] him a reed basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child into it, and put [it] into the marsh at the Nile's edge." (Exodus 2:3) From now on, when you look at the striking architecture of CBS, think ark, menorah, and neb! Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayigash — Genesis 44:18–47:27

facebook_coverdesign_vayigashSometimes the harshest reproach can elicit the most tender response. "Then Judah went up to [Joseph] and said: 'Please, my lord…'" (Genesis 44:18).

This is the dramatic moment where Judah is called upon to facilitate the role of rapprochement as he approaches Joseph. This act of loyalty amidst a history of loyalties betrayed is so heart-wrenching that Joseph, the governor of Egypt, finally pushes aside his seeming disinterestedness to reveal his true identity to his astonished brothers. Shame and remorse overcome the brothers, but Joseph comforts them, explaining the divine hand in this drama.

Rushing back to Canaan with the joyous news, the brothers inform Jacob that his favorite son, Joseph, is still alive. They all return to Egypt with their families – seventy souls in all — and the bereft father is reunited with his favorite son after 22 years apart.

Joseph continues to prosper as governor of Egypt, selling stored food and seed during the famine. As a result, Pharaoh awards Jacob’s family the entire country of Goshen as a place to settle, so that the blessing of assimilation continues for the Israelites amidst their apparent Egyptian exile. How much does our own self-interest dictate the level of our connection to the spaces we occupy and the relationships we cultivate?

Tenderness can re-emerge amidst the challenges of any reproach if our hearts are truly open.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's digital illustration was inspired by the weeping Joseph and his brothers do when he finally reveals his identity to them. "And he wept out loud, so the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard." (Genesis 45:2) These are tears of joyful reunification, profound shame, betrayal, and release – complex and contradictory emotions. This illustration of an eye calls to mind pooled water (or tears), but also reflects Joseph's watchfulness and calculation. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.