Vayishlach — Genesis 32:4–36:43

In our ongoing quest for wholeness in life, sometimes we feel instead as though we've become more broken than we were at the outset.

Laban sees this in his analysis of Jacob when he suggests, in last week's parsha, "you were longing for your father’s house." (Genesis 31:30). If Jacob was indeed that ambiguous about his fourteen years with Laban, was it due to his heart being back in his home?

The ambiguity reaches new heights this week, when in hope of a reconciliation with his brother, Esau, Jacob returns to the Holy Land after his twenty year extended stay in Haran. While gifts and prayers are offered to appease his estranged brother, Jacob remains restless.

As he ferries his family and possessions across the Jabbok River, Jacob tarries behind and encounters the figure with whom he wrestles till daybreak. Jacob suffers a dislocated hip, but vanquishes this supernal creature who renames him as Israel, meaning "the one who struggles with the divine and prevails." (Genesis 32:29)

Sometimes a newfound wholeness can emerge amidst our very brokenness, which is alluded to in this new name, Israel.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration includes a crude rendering of the human form etched into a glass panel that stands isolated in a barren environment. Melancholy and severe, this image of vulnerable anonymity is inspired by the story of Dinah. Most rabbinic commentaries focus on the aftermath of Dinah’s rape – her marriage to her attacker, Shechem, and the bloody revenge taken by her brothers, Simeon and Levi. Rabbi Laura Geller (Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills, CA) points out that when rabbis of yesteryear did mull over Dinah’s experience, they often "suggested she was looking for nothing good – an experience of idolatry, or even for sexual trouble, dressed, as they suppose, in revealing clothes and gaudy jewellery. [They] imply she got what she deserved." In light of the many headline revelations of sexual assault and/or harassment today, Dinah’s story and its treatment by the rabbis seems more urgent (and sad) than ever. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tavo -- Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

How do you express your gratitude? With words? With a thank-you card?

John F. Kennedy once suggested that "as we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

A robust "attitude of gratitude" requires an act that acknowledges a benefactor’s benevolence and communicates one's grateful feelings. This is part of what Moses is teaching the Children of Israel through his own song in Deuteronomy; he instructs his people on how to cultivate the proper attitude for entering the Holy Land – after all, it is being given as an eternal gift. In settling and cultivating the land, the ritual of offering first ripened fruits or bikkurim at the Jerusalem Temple is a key moment in the agrarian lifecycle – here is a chance to proclaim one’s gratitude in community. Gratitude is often learned through our relation to others; thus tithing to the Levites and the needy are opportunities to cultivate gratitude. Sometimes we must see need in our midst to really appreciate the abundant blessings of our lives.

There is follow up here to the episode of blessings and curses that began its articulation in last week’s reading. Moses comments on the development of the Israelites since their birth as a nation; although their sense of peoplehood and commitment has evolved, they have not yet attained the maturity exemplified by "a mind to understand, or eyes to see or ears to hear." (29:3) In other words, aging does not always lead to emotional maturation, and this desert generation is still engaged in an ongoing process of "growing up" amidst innumerable challenges on the journey thus far.

To live by gratitude is our greatest challenge and dearest hope.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract depiction of Parashat Ki Tavo's dark and despotic venom. The parsha includes threats aplenty and bleak visions of the future that will befall the Israelites should they not "fulfill all [God’s] commandments and statutes." (Deuteronomy 28:15) Here, the venom dances across the picture like ink in water. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Balak -- Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

"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

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.

Israel Mission Remembrance (II)

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 a wonderful report from Lu and Norman Zilber on full, inspiring days in Jerusalem. If you read these contributions and wish to join a future congregational mission to Eretz Yisrael, please let us know.


Facebook_LuZilberPhoto1_JerusalemJerusalem shel matah, Jerusalem shel malah. Jerusalem of the earth, Jerusalem of the spirit. Today, we saw both.

When King Herod (the paranoid) rebuilt the Temple, he first built a platform with arches and a buttressing wall that leans inward to prevent the arches from expanding. All four of these outer walls are standing today, even after 2000 years. The westernmost one was closest to the spot where the Holy of Holies was located, so that’s the one we pray at today. The walls are comprised of gigantic stones weighing 400 tons each. How did they get them in place? They were rolled down from the northern side, which was the highest point.

We visited the Western Wall and said a Shehecheyanu. We then descended below to see Herod’s construction. We walked for over four hours today and are pooped, but Shabbat is approaching, so we meet our group in 15 minutes to walk to shul.

Our guide is fantastic. He is a treasure trove of history (which he calls our collective memory), architecture, and politics. For example, today’s Arab Muslims do not recognize the Jews' presence in Jerusalem because in fact they have no collective memory of our being there.

We climbed up on the roof of the city to see the Muslim Dome of the Rock, built circa 700 CE, the Muslim Al-Aqsa Mosque with its dome, and lo and behold, the Jews rebuilt the grand synagoge in their quarter with, you guessed it, a dome! Politics.

Norm’s two cents on Jerusalem

To leave the old city from the roof, we walked through a section that was a warren of streets with one room shops on top of each other.

It looked exactly like Istanbul, down to the packets of saffron and other exotic spices. Merchandise here caters to three religions. It's startling to see tallesim (or tallitot) hanging above wooden crèches (Nativity scenes).

Leyning Torah in Eretz Yisrael

We walked over a mile to the Masorti congregation where they generously gave our group a warm welcome and three aliyot. Our rabbi's niece and daughter read the first and second aliyot and I did the third (about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers). My nervousness was dispelled by the crying babies and chattering congregants.

There was a couple about to get married and the congregation celebrated mightily. Because of this couple, there was a lovely kiddush following services. The food was better than the hotel's!

It's always a pleasure to attend services in another country. The traditions and melodies may differ a bit, but you always feel you belong and most people welcome us. We are having a restful Shabbat afternoon since tomorrow's schedule is another heavy day.

We visited (and had lunch at) the Mahane Yehuda Market, which reminded us of Istanbul, but on a smaller scale. Loads of vendors selling nuts, baklava, olives, halvah, pastries (no ruggelach, but heaps of various sufganiyot donuts), and spices, along with fish mongers and fruit and vegetable stands. We grabbed some delicious fish and chips, and shared a sufganiyah filled with caramel (yum!). We bought a selection of baklava and some hazel nuts and almonds. The baklava is much less sweet than what you find in the US and is chock-full of ground pistachios. We then walked to the "time elevator," a large screen film experience (your seat moves like a roller coaster) retelling the story of Jerusalem from the time of King David. Its all done in 30 minutes and is a bit hokey, but the kids thought it was “amazing."

Our bus then took us to a promenade above the city at sunset to get a view of the "City of Gold." Every couple of minutes, the view changed and got more and more beautiful.

- Lu Zilber

Vayakhel -- Exodus 35:1 – 38:20

Facebook_CoverDesign_VayakhelWhile participating on the Rabin Community Building Mission to Israel, I came to realize just how much community is founded upon shared values and built upon shared practice. On this mission, I learned from Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman from Oranim College in Eretz Yisrael, who taught that there are five lenses for measuring community building:

(a) Meaningfulness: "My uniqueness is an important resource and influence for the group" – establishing an existential connection through the journey of the spirit;

(b) Belonging: "This is mine" – feeling a sense of ownership of the community over space and time, whereby this emerging community becomes part of the definition of my personal identity;

(c) Commitment: "I feel responsible for the general good of the group" – feeling a sense of responsibility for the spiritual and emotional well-being of the community;

(d) Mutual trust: willingness to join and help others without deep personal familiarity nor with any expectation, just the conviction that here this is what members of a community are doing, so will I;

(e) Devotion: determining the spiritual practice that galvanizes each of these aforementioned levels of engagement – feeling an embodied relationship to the Torah as a regular way of life.

Let us consider just how the team of wise-hearted artisans who create the Tabernacle and its furnishings were able to embody each of these lenses of community building. The co-operative nature of these instructions Moses conveys regarding the construction of the Tabernacle requires many precious materials. Once asked, the community's response is immediate; the materials arrive in abundance: from gold, silver and copper, to blue-, purple- and red-dyed wool, as well as goat hair, spun linen, animal skins, wood, olive oil, herbs and precious stones. It is likely one of the only capital campaigns in Jewish history where its leader had to ask the members to stop giving!

How might we elevate our spiritual practice as a highest agenda, bringing together our boundless passions and talents so we can truly recommit ourselves to ensuring that all five lenses of community building remain on our radar, both in America and Israel – this is our ever-present challenge.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: Parashat Vayakhel includes a detailed description of the menorah Bezalel crafts for the Mishkan. "And he made the menorah of pure gold; of hammered work he made the menorah, its base and its stem, its goblets, its knobs, and its flowers were [all one piece] with it." (Exodus 37:17) Many generations later, Maimonides (the Rambam) drew a picture of the menorah based on the Torah's description; he used only basic geometric shapes: circles, triangles, and half-circles. This week’s illustration is modeled on Maimonides’ unusual (and curiously contemporary) imagining. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Israel Mission Remembrance (I)

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.

Beginning today, we'll occasionally share participant remembrances on the blog. If you read these contributions and wish to join a future congregational mission to Eretz Yisrael, please let us know.

We're kicking this series off with a lovely note from congregants Robert and Irene Minkowsky.


Facebook_IsraelMission_GroupPhoto_Jerusalem
We came as a group of 30 or so with Rabbi Glazer, some of us totally virgin to Israel and this part of the world.

Avraham Silver, our primary guide, gave us a rich window into the history – or should we say, the memory and spirituality – of our people and into this land of honey and grapes, mountains and valleys, springs and seas, culture, language, architecture, and creativity.

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv flanked for us a journey of a lifetime.

We bounced – thanks to our driver, Yosi – over rocky roads, both inland and by the coast (eretz to yam), and moved through narrow streets. We saw the tips of the land, north and east, bordering Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, trying to understanding the borders where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) watch from jeeps idling between mine fields.

We think we may understand now the old and the new, the religious and the secular, the rabbis and the Zionists, the Declaration of Independence and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Yet, as Avraham tells us, the conflict does not define the country; life and beauty define Israel, really.

Facebook_IsraelMission_WortzmanTalk_IsraelMuseum_JerusalemWe got a glimpse into the secrets, the magical, the miraculous survival from the fires, the anti-Semitism, the pogroms, the camps, the isolate dunes.

We saw the proud and beautiful new generations climbing Masada, defending the streets, educating the young, and supporting the aged. We floated in the salt of the Dead Sea and hummed tunes of hope. It was sometimes hard to believe we were alive in the land of our ancestors.

We are about to turn a new leaf in our book, one that includes Israel in every breath of our being. We embrace this exciting new passage in our lives, ready to explore more – so much more! – in the future.

Todah rabbah, Avraham. Todah rabbah, Da’at Educational Expeditions, and to Yosi, our Da'at guide, for the knowledge, the physical experience, and the memories you imparted us. Thank you, Rabbi Glazer, for making it the trip a reality for us, and for adding your knowledge and inspiration.

Make no mistake of it, as Avraham would say, we will be back! We leave our hearts in Israel.

With love and gratitude,
Irene and Robert (Minkowsky) Facebook_IsraelMission_GroupPhoto2_Jerusalem

From Tiberias With Love

Facebook_RobertsWe're pleased to announce From Tiberias With Love: Letters of Spiritual Direction from 1777 Community in Eretz Yisrael, a four-session mini-course that will meet at 8 a.m. on Thursdays in March (2, 9, 16, 23), immediately following morning minyan.

Scroll down to register now!


Does distance really make the heart grow fonder? What would you do if your spiritual leader and core community left your diasporic home to return to Eretz Yisrael? How would you continue your spiritual journey in the diaspora while remaining committed to your teachers and colleagues now settled far away?

These questions resonate as we reconsider the neglected history of Yishuv Aliya, the immigration of Hasidim in 1777, which consisted of several hundred people who arrived at the same time. At its head were four Hasidic leaders of White Russia: R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, R. Abraham of Kalisk, R. Zvi Hirsch of Smorytzsch, and R. Israel of Plock. The caravan set out in March 1777 from Eastern Europe and arrived in Eretz Yisrael, via Istanbul, in September of the same year.

Historians have different opinions about the causes of this immigration, but there can be no doubt that this conscious community was seeking an intimate experience of egalitarian fellowship built upon unique approaches to Torah and tefillah that can inspire our own search.  Of special interest then are fifteen igrot, or "Letters of Love," penned by R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and R. Avraham haKohen of Kalisk that served as long distance spiritual direction primarily to Hasidim in Eastern Europe. By examining this ongoing correspondence as a form of spiritual direction, we will explore the creative spiritual tensions between mind-centered techniques (HaBaD) in relation to heart-centered techniques (HaGaT) of the spiritual life in community.

Bi-lingual texts will be distributed. No prior knowledge of Hebrew or Hasidism required; the syllabus will be made available to those who register.

Image credit: Detail of "Tiberias, looking towards Hermon," David Roberts (Scottish, 1796-1864), First Edition Lithograph

Vayishlach — Genesis 32:4–36:43

facebook_coverdesign_vayishlachI recently had the pleasure of sitting with a Bay Area Jungian analyst who also happens to be Jewish. In a trialogue with a colleague of mine who also teaches Zohar through Lehrhaus Judaica, we together sought another way into our respective readings of scripture as a journey of the psyche, of the soul.

I've always been suspicious of how a Jew could reconcile his or her study of Carl Jung with the analyst’s apparent anti-Semitism – yet I continue to be surprised. This verse jumped out for us: "The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau." (Genesis 27:22) Israelis today are only beginning to appreciate the influence of the remarkable psychologist Eric Neumann, who devoted much of his early thinking in Eretz Yisrael about the Jacob and Esau story in Parashat Toldot, as a pair of opposites that reflect the division between the inner voice of the spirit and the outer hands of action. For Neumann, this story of sibling rivalry is archetypal insofar as it also reflects the sense of inferiority, fear, and threat that invisible interiority experiences in relation to the hands of action symbolized by Jacob, and the skills of the extraverted symbolized by Esau. Having learned much from Jung, Neumann challenged his teacher’s understanding of the archetype that is the innate tendency, which molds and transform the individual consciousness.

This matrix influences the human behavior as well as ideas and concepts on the ethical, moral, religious, and cultural levels – Jung often referred to the archetype as a "primordial image." If such archetypes are inborn tendencies which shape human behavior, then how might this archetypal story in scripture explain the nature of human consciousness?

Neumann’s Zionism caused him to take leave of his teacher and return to the Holy Land. In so doing, Neumann experienced his own inner conflict that was captured most poignantly in this story of Jacob and Esau, leading him to conclude (but never publish) his feeling that what Jungian analysis misses is imbedded in this very story. Namely, that the one who wrestles with their conscience, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, is attempting to come to terms with what it means to be an "intuitive introvert." Neumann’s upbringing in the particular narrative of Zionism instilled a deep loyalty and passion for Israel, culminating in his aliyah. But while in Israel, Neumann struggled with his conscience, in attempting to formulate a way of balancing the particular pull of Zionism with the universal calling of the collective unconscious now living the dream in the Holy Land. Now that he and this early wave of pioneers were in the Holy Land, how were they going to tap into the richness of the collective unconscious that is liberated once the particularity of one’s identity is fulfilled?

Hopelessly hopeful for a reconciliation with his brother, Jacob returns to the Holy Land after his twenty year extended stay in Haran. While gifts and prayers are offered to appease his estranged brother, Jacob remains restless.

As he ferries his family and possessions across the Jabbok River, Jacob tarries behind and encounters the figure with whom he wrestles till daybreak. Jacob suffers a dislocated hip, but vanquishes this supernal creature who renames him as Israel, meaning "the one who struggles with the divine and prevails." (Genesis 32:29) This new name, Israel, suggests Jacob was struggling with no ordinary being, not merely with his conscience or the archangel of Esau, but with the divine itself.

To really be present to the community of Israel, henceforth, is for every one of us to dare to be engaged in our relationship with the divine as a holy "god-wrestler" like Jacob and to acknowledge that longing itself can be redemptive.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by Jacob's mysterious nighttime encounter. I understand the story to be a metaphor for the clash between humanity's aspirational, metaphysical identity and our brutish, animal core – the vital and intimate relationship between the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara. The dynamic tension between the yetzer tov and hara drives all life, and, in this illustration, the abstracted faces of the interlocked combatants form an atomic nucleus. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tavo -- Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

facebook_coverdesign_kitavoHow do you express your gratitude? With words? With a thank-you card?

A robust "attitude of gratitude" requires an act that acknowledges a benefactor’s benevolence and communicates one's grateful feelings. This is part of what Moses is teaching the Children of Israel through his own song in Deuteronomy; he instructs his people on how to cultivate the proper attitude for entering the Holy Land – after all, it is being given as an eternal gift. In settling and cultivating the land, the ritual of offering first ripened fruits or bikkurim at the Jerusalem Temple is a key moment in the agrarian lifecycle – here is a chance to proclaim one’s gratitude in community. Gratitude is often learned through our relation to others; thus tithing to the Levites and the needy are opportunities to cultivate gratitude. Sometimes we must see need in our midst to really appreciate the abundant blessings of our lives.

There is follow up here to the episode of blessings and curses that began its articulation in last week’s reading. Moses comments on the development of the Israelites since their birth as a nation; although their sense of peoplehood and commitment has evolved, they have not yet attained the maturity exemplified by "a mind to understand, or eyes to see or ears to hear." (29:3) In other words, aging does not always lead to emotional maturation, and this desert generation is still engaged in an ongoing process of "growing up" amidst innumerable challenges on the journey thus far.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features an opened pomegranate, one of the seven species brought to the Temple for the bikkurim offering."And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it, that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you." (Deuteronomy 26:1–2) Because the pomegranate is also associated with Rosh Hashanah, it seemed only appropriate to feature it now. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Balak -- Numbers 22:2 - 25:9

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

Kezayit: Wall To Wall

Facebook_PlacingNoteInWallClose_YomHaAtzmautCelebration_May2016What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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When we reported on the delightfully fun Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration that took place at CBS on Sunday, May 15, we highlighted the handiwork of our talented CBS Family Preschool students:

"Outside, in Eva Gunther Plaza, congregants of all ages added personal aspirations and prayers to an amazing replica of the Western Wall made by the CBS Family Preschool Pre-K class. The students were inspired by photos of the Western Wall as well as memories and stories shared by children in the class who have visited the actual wall in Jerusalem. (The notes added to the replica wall yesterday will soon be carried to the actual Western Wall and placed there!)"

Indeed, this winter, during the Bay Area Conservative/Masorti Mission To Israel (December 22, 2016 – January 2, 2017), Rabbi Glazer will deliver all of the notes placed in the replica wall by members of the CBS community to the Kotel. (Todah rabbah, Rabbi!)

So why do we Jews have a tradition of inserting notes into the Kotel? Because the Western Wall is the last remaining remnant of the Second Temple, it is itself venerated as a sacred icon by many Jews -- some even believe it is a direct conduit to G-d -- and the handwritten notes placed in the wall's cracks are prayers or requests made to or of HaShem. Even non-Jews place personal entreaties in the wall, and it's become something of a requisite stop for foreign visitors to Israel, especially political figures.

Facebook_PlacingNoteInWall2_YomHaAtzmautCelebration_May2016According to the Jewish Virtual Library, "the Wall has been a popular place for prayer since the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., [and] the earliest example of placing notes at the Western Wall occurred in the mid-16th century. Rabbi Gedaliah of Semitzi visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall in 1699 and wrote the first recorded evidence of prayers being written down and left in the cracks of the Wall. The Wall became a popular destination during the 19th century as technology afforded more people the ability to travel the globe."

Fortunately, even if you're not a world traveler, you can place a note in the Western Wall. You can take advantage of services like that offered by Orthodox outreach organization Aish HaTorah, which allow people who can not visit Jerusalem in person to type in messages that are then printed and placed in the Western Wall by an Aish representative. Alternatively, you can add a note to the replica created by our preschoolers -- the wall is currently installed in the hallway between the synagogue and the preschool -- and know that it will find a home in the actual Western Wall later this year. Our preschoolers recommend this latter option!

Finally, we leave you with a joke: Every year, Shlomo visits the Kotel to place his special appeal in one of the wall's cracks. His petition reads, "HaShem, please help me win the lottery this year." Year after year, however, Shlomo fails to win any lottery prizes. Finally, after many years of this, as Shlomo departs from the Kotel, he is addressed by G-d. Startled and trembling on his knees, Shlomo looks toward the source of the incorporeal voice and asks, "HaShem, what do you ask of your humble servant?" G-d replies, "Nudnik, will you go and buy a lottery ticket?"

Bechukotai -- Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34

Facebook_CoverDesign_BechukotaiEnglish critic Terry Eagleton (b. 1943) once astutely remarked:

"We face a conflict between civilization and culture, which used to be on the same side. Civilization means rational reflection, material well-being, individual autonomy, and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective, and irrational."

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 this week’s reading of Bechukotai, the Israelites are promised that if the commandments are kept, they will enjoy the material prosperity they have rightly earned as well as 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 spiritual practice of setting aside a tenth known as 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.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the litany of terrible fates that will befall the Israelites if they "do not listen to [G-d] and do not perform all [the] commandments": "Your land will be desolate, and your cities will be laid waste"; "I will incite the wild beasts of the field against you"; "You will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters you will eat." (Leviticus 26) In short, life gets much, much more Hobbesian. The text and imagery in the illustration come from Psalm 137, which may be read as a poetic caution against turning away from G-d: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.