Vayekhi — Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

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.

Yermiyahu Ramos' Bar Mitzvah

Shalom! My name is Yermiyahu Ramos, but you can call me Yehry. I am a seventhgrader at James Lick Middle School and my favorite subject is Spanish. I love to play all kinds of sports, but I most enjoy playing soccer with my friends after school.

This Saturday, December 9, I will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. The process of becoming a bar mitzvah has been very exciting. Many at Beth Sholom have said to me that they’ve been waiting a long time for my bar mitzvah. I am always at the Shabbat services and enjoy them going to them very much.

For my tzedakah project, all the money I will receive will go the Yad Eliezer project that helps the poor in Israel and the Magen David Adom. For a long time, I’ve wanted to donate to those in need in Israel and my project will finally allow me to do so!

I will be reading Parsha Vayeishev, which talks about Jacob and his family dynamics. It especially focuses on Joseph, who gets his coat of many colors, has his famous dreams, and is sold by his brothers to Ishmaelites that later take him Egypt. The Parasha Vayeishev reading ends with Joseph being sent to jail because of Potiphar’s wife and then interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker.

I want to thank those who have helped me through the process of becoming a bar mitzvah. I also want to thank those who are coming to share a very important moment for me, as well as my family for helping and supporting me.

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.

Vayeitzai — Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

To flee from a challenging situation may strike us irresponsible. However, sometimes taking leave is not about fleeing, but taking hold of a new chapter in life. This is what is at stake in the opening words of this week’s reading: "Jacob took leave of Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran." (Genesis 28:10) Jacob is taking leave of his hometown of Be'er Sheva to dream of something more – a Promised Land.

En route to Haran, Jacob encounters that place, falls asleep, and then dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. This powerful vision of angels ascending and descending upon the ladder serves as a further signpost for Jacob’s journey onwards to the Promised Land. The next morning, Jacob raises the stone upon which he laid his head as an altar called, Beth El.

While in Haran, Jacob devotes fourteen years to work and raising a family including: his six sons with LeahReuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, and their daughter, Dinah; Dan and Naphtali, sons of Rachel’s handmaiden; and Gad and Asher, sons of Leah’s handmaiden, Zilpah; and finally Joseph, born to Rachel.

After this extended period, in a surprising turn for biblical narrative, Jacob yearns to return home. After repeated attempts at swindling Jacob to stay, Laban pursues Jacob but is warned not to harm him. Jacob and Laban make a pact on Mount Gil-‘Ed, allowing Jacob to continue in his ascent to the Holy Land, accompanied again by angels.

The rabbinic mind prefers from the outset to read this story as a "taking leave" that teaches an important message: when one is dedicated to cultivating a just and righteous life, then taking leave makes an imprint upon the very place you depart from.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by the "dream stone" on which Jacob laid his head. According to Jewish storyteller Joel Lurie Grishaver, this magic rock was created by God to help people recall their dreams and was used by generations of biblical protagonists: Jacob sleeps on it; Joseph chips off a piece to carry as a rubbing stone; Jeroboam builds a temple over it. Eventually, though, the rock is smashed into countless shards by Hezekiah and the pieces were "passed from hand to hand, place to place," the world over. Grishaver writes "every time that Joseph Caro dreamed of the Shekinah, a piece of rock was near. Every time Rashi understood a piece of Torah in one of his dreams, a sliver of rock was on the spot." Yup, it's quite a rock. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Adam Zander's Bar Mitzvah

Shalom, my name is Adam Zander and I am a seventh grader at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. My favorite school subject is Social Studies. I love playing basketball and watching sports. I also participate in a musical theater program outside of school.

This Saturday, November 25, I will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. Exactly eight years ago, on the same weekend, my brother, Danny, became a bar mitzvah at Beth Sholom. Coincidentally, I will be reading from the same parsha as he did. I am so happy that Danny will be chanting an aliyah during my bar mitzvah Shabbat.

Becoming a bar mitzvah has been a journey for me, one of appreciating my Jewish background and culture as well as my Jewish education and preparing for my own future. The studying and preparation have been intense, especially when I try to fit it into all my other activities, but going through this process has given me the opportunity to give back. For my tzedakah project, I chose to volunteer with the Food Bank and cook and deliver meals with the Chicken Soupers program at Beth Sholom. For a long time now, I have felt it was important to help needy people get food; I started volunteering at the Food Bank in second grade. I recently started to bring my apron to Beth Sholom on Sunday mornings and deliver meals in the afternoon to the ill and disabled. Even though the last part always makes me sad, it is truly satisfying work.

I will be chanting from Parsha Vayeitzai in Bereshit (Book of Genesis), which recounts Jacob’s journey from Beer Sheba, the land of his father, the biblical patriarch, Isaac, to Haran, to stay with his uncle, Laban. He leaves a young man, often scared and mistrusting. He has an encounter with G-d in a dream in which G-d grants him lifelong protection. There is a question as to whether Jacob can handle this particular blessing. He labors many years for his uncle, marries his daughters Rachel and Leah, albeit in a different order than he intended, fathers many children, and returns to Beer Sheba a man, with a wealth of animals and riches.

I want to thank Randy Weiss for teaching me how to chant Torah and Rabbi Glazer for inspiring me in the writing of my D’var Torah. I also want to thank Henry Hollander for guiding us through the process and orchestrating everything behind the scenes. I especially want to thank my grandparents, parents, and brother for all the love and support in getting me to this day.

Toldot — Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

As the children of Jacob, the perennial trickster, can we act sincerely and authentically in our own lives?

In reading the account of Jacob’s behavior towards his elder sibling, Esau, whom he tricks out of his birthright blessing, Torah compels us to contemplate this dilemma in our own lives. The moment of deception leaves Esau bursting "into wild and bitter sobbing" (Genesis 27:34). There is however a deeper irony here – Jacob’s lack of sincerity and authenticity become his nemesis in next week’s reading, when his father-in-law, Laban, tricks his future son-in-law by replacing his beloved bride on the very wedding night (Genesis 29:26).

Torah challenges us to live sincere and authentic lives despite the turbulence and trickery we experience in our daily lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork depicts the "two nations" that struggled in Rebekah's womb. Even in utero, Esau and Jacob were rivals. Traditional illustrations sometimes show the younger brother pulling on Esau's heel in an attempt to prevent Esau being firstborn (the name Jacob, or Yakov, is often translated as "heel-puller"). Here, the two fetuses are positioned in what doctors describe as vertex/breech position, a not uncommon arrangement for twins, and one that lends itself to a combative or dynamic interpretation – perhaps the Yetzer haRa and Yetzer ha-Tov (the “evil” and “good” inclinations). Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Chayai Sarah — Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Sometimes life demands a certain clinical decisiveness. In last week's reading, this need for decisiveness was exacerbated by the heightened tensions that came to the fore in both sibling and marital rivalries. Sarah saw conflict on the horizon with her handmaiden, Hagar (aka, Keturah), vying for power in the family lineage through her son, Ishmael, so she sized up the future conflict and acted with clinical decisiveness, demanding of Abraham: "Cast out that slave woman and her son, for the son of a slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, Isaac." (Genesis 21: 10-11). Although Abraham takes Hagar as a wife in order to create progenitors who will carry forward his legacy, Isaac is the only designated heir.

Abraham eventually reaches the ripe age of 175 years. Even though his actions appear to have caused the death of Sarah, in Parashat Chayai Sarah, Abraham is buried beside his beloved in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. Despite all the tensions within family dynamics, matriarch and patriarch are reunited. If only such relief and compatibility could be experienced more fully in life.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Rebekah. Although the parsha bears the name of another matriarch, Sarah, most of this week's narrative is dedicated to her daughter-in-law. Some biblical scholars argue that Rebekah is the most important female character in all of Torah. Professor Carol Meyers (Duke University) writes that "Rebekah's role as mother of nations looms larger than that of her husband as father of nations.... This fact makes us wonder whether we ought to replace the familiar sequence 'Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob' with a more accurate 'Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob' in referring to the leading figures of this period of the ancestors." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayeira — Genesis 18:12–2:24

To reach the place of infinite earthly delight – that is the true destination of almost any traveler. The essentials that were once needed for any journey and are nowadays taken for granted appear to be alluded to in this week’s reading.

"Abraham planted a tamarisk [eshel] at Be’er Sheva and invoked the divine name there of YHVH, the everlasting God." (Genesis 21:33) While Abraham seeks to find ways to make manifest the divine name, notice the shift that takes place here, whereby Abraham is no longer constructing altars (as he is in Genesis 12:7-8 or 13:4). Now, he is cultivating an orchard whose foundation is the "tamarisk" [eshel].

This tree has many layers as a symbol within the narrative. Early on in the rabbinic imagination, the "tamarisk" [E”SHeL] was read as something more than a pagan site of nature worship; instead, it was understood as an acronym for eating [AEkhilah], drinking [SHtiya], and accompanying [Levayah] another on the first leg of any journey. The tree then fits into the narrative of radical hospitality offered by Abraham to the three wayfarers who approach his tent. One of the three announces that Sarah will give birth to a son in exactly one year, to which she can only laugh.

Later in the narrative, as the remaining two angels arrive in the doomed city of Sodom, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city. Finally and most famously, Abraham’s faith is tested when he is commanded to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), where Isaac is bound upon the altar. As Abraham raises his knife to slaughter his son, a heavenly voice intercedes. Therefore, in stark contrast to the hospitality shown to wayfaring strangers, here Isaac is bound and suddenly unbound only because a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns, is offered in Isaac’s stead. Never has there been so much complexity to a patriarchal figure, and this make-up runs on through the family lineage – the thread of our peoplehood.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork calls to mind a grove of trees with a starry night beyond, perhaps the orchard of tamarisks cultivated by Abraham. In fact, the colors and forms are based on the microscopic cells, vessels, and pores one sees when viewing a tissue slice of Tamarix aphylla, the species of tamarisk tree likely referenced in Parashat Vayeira. Looking at such an image, we vacillate between macro and micro world interpretations; the world within is reflected in the world without, and vice versa – our living Torah. Vayeira! And He appeared! 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.

Noah — Genesis 6:9-11:32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

Beraysheet -- Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Three

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), is contributing regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus providing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions with a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers.

CHAPTER THREE of his exploration appears just below. You can read "CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple" by clicking here. Read "CHAPTER TWO: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself" by clicking here.

* * * * *
What is Talmud Study?

Chapter Three: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.

In order to fully understand the difference between the written and the oral in Jewish texts, we need to look at the story of creation.

The cosmology that we receive at the beginning of the Torah is difficult. We know from the first verse that certain "things" already exist at the moment of creation – these precursors are darkness, the deep, God, and God's intention to create. The ambiguity inherent in the existence of these "things" creates a philosophical conundrum that medieval Jewish philosophers, Maimonides above all others, address but are unable to resolve: out of what source is the material of creation derived? If God is all, then how can God be changeable? Can a changeable God be perfect? If God is not all and creation is separate from the Divine, how can God be limitless and all powerful? These are rankling questions. The sword that Maimonides wields to cut this Gordian knot is the idea that the natural laws that apply to our physical existence do not also apply to God.

Maimonides places the understanding of this essential dilemma beyond the realm of human cognition and beyond words, but the Torah itself goes another way - "God said, 'let there be light; and there was light.'" God speaks, and through speech alone the physical world manifests.

How are we to understand this act of speech? It is presented in the Torah in words that are easily understandable to us because they are presented in a human rendering of a divine language. But who hears these words and who records them for posterity? The next verse, "God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness," shows that speed and intellection are not identical. "Let there be light" truly is a verbal utterance. The text continues, "God called the light day, and the darkness Night." This shows us that discernment and naming are related, and that both are consequences of separation (division).

The story of creation is a story of speech, of distinction, of judgement, and of naming. Out of speech comes life and activity. The first act of creation echoes through the whole work of creation. It is both foundation and model.

What begins in speech is also accomplished through naming, the means of distinction. Judgement can only be rendered on what has been made distinct. The Written Law begins with spoken words. In the process of discernment (seeing things as distinct from one another), things become separated from each other in name and in the physical world. God makes these separations through speech and thought. But we know that human will does not translate into reality without physical action.

God models this translation for us in the way that convenants between God and Abraham are accomplished. A covenant is made through acts of physical separation – cutting. While all of these cuttings are marks in flesh, it is important to remember cutting (carving, incision, and gouging) was also the action required to produce writing in Abraham's time. One carved into stone, incised into metal and wood, and gouged or traced in clay or even sand.

The first of these covenantal moments is the very odd covenant of the pieces. Abraham (Abram at the time) is told by God that he will come to possess the land and he asks for a divine sign. God calls for Abram to bring a three-year heifer, a three year she-goat, a three-year ram, a turtle dove, and a young bird. Abram does this and cuts all of the animals in half (except, without explanation, the young bird) and lays the two halves of each opposite one other in two symmetrical rows. Abram then falls asleep in the heat of the day and sinks into a feverish dream. In the dream, he is told of the long road his descendants will have to take before they take possession of the covenant-promised land. When he awakes, it is already the darkest of dark nights and "there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces."

Abram is brought to a moment that reenacts creation (with a hint of the fourth day in the presence of two different lights). The torch that passes between the pieces reiterates and sanctifies through fire the sacrifice through separation that Abram has made. Abram has made his inscription in the flesh of his offerings, a symmetrical division which mirrors the symmetrical separations made by God in the creation – day/night, heaven/earth, water/land, etc.

This divine sanctification of a human act of physical separation is not yet the equivalent of a full transition to written record, but it is the initiation of the use of signs as abstractions for words and ideas. The Covenant of the pieces is a sign that Abram/Abraham would keep in memory. The next step in this process is brit milah. Brit is the inscription of the covenant onto the living human body. It is the first permanent mark. The technology of covenant is converging with the technology of writing.

This relationship to permanent marking is clarified in the Akedah (the "Binding of Isaac"). Abraham is told to offer up his son as a sacrifice. God’s motivation is a classic conundrum. Whether or not God intends this as a test of Abraham, it becomes exactly that. The usual interpretation is that the Akedah is a test of Abraham’s faith, but it can also be interpreted as a test of Abraham’s understanding of the mechanics of the written aspect of covenant. Isaac already bears the covenantal text on his body. A sign has been inscribed. We are being told that written signs are made to create clarity and for permanence. The misunderstanding on Abraham’s part that needs to be corrected is his belief that a covenant that ends life can overwrite a covenant in life. This second sign would negate the first and is prevented. Subsequent prohibitions on tattoos, scarification, and even beard cutting reinforce this understanding.

In our next installment, we will talk about Jeremiah and the transition from the inscribed to the scribed.

Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

Shemini – Leviticus 9:1-11:47

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

Vayekhi — Genesis 47:28–50:26

facebook_coverdesign_vayekhiConfronting our own mortality can often give rise to unseen blessings in our lives and the lives of those we love. At the close of Genesis, during Jacob's final hours, he conducts a stocktaking of his children, the twelve tribes of Israel. On his deathbed, Jacob announces: "…I am now old, and I do not know how soon I may die… So that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die." (Genesis 27: 2,4)

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

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

Just as it opens with blessing, Genesis closes with it – so may we all be blessed in our own ongoing journey into communal life that emerges through Exodus.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is inspired by Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh. "But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Ephraim's head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Manasseh's head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Manasseh was the firstborn." (Genesis 48:14) Jacob’s crossover blessing is traditionally understood as yet another example of the Torah showing the younger son displacing the older. Contemporary Biblical scholars also surmise that the account was written to foreshadow the future power of Ephraim’s descendant, Jeroboam (c. 960 - 910 B.C.E.), who would become the first king of Israel’s Northern Kingdom. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Meiketz — Genesis 41:1–44:17

facebook_coverdesign_mikeitzSometimes our hidden gifts reveal themselves to us in expected times and places. Pharaoh unveils this gift to Joseph, saying: "There is none so discerning and wise as you." (Genesis 41:39)

Joseph's 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.

Following our hearts and keeping them connected to our minds, like Joseph, offers us all new pathways to redeem us from most of life’s imprisonment.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an expressionistic depiction of the seven famished cows that appear in the Pharaoh's dream. "And behold, seven other cows were coming up after them from the Nile, of ugly appearance and lean of flesh..." (Genesis 41:3) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayeishev — Genesis 37:1–40:23

facebook_coverdesign_vayeishevGiven all the challenges and distractions life presents, settling the mind is no small feat.

When scripture states, "Now Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan" (Genesis 37:1), one way of understanding this settling is the primary, more literal one, that of Jacob's family putting down roots in a particular place. But we can also infer that Jacob himself is settling his mind.

Jealousy, sibling rivalry, preferential treatment – all necessary elements of intrigue in any gripping novella – are surprisingly 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.

Ultimately, Joseph comes to realize that his own redemption depends on his finding a way to settle his mind so that he may see the dream life more clearly.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration shows the bloody tunic Joseph's brothers delivered to Jacob. The cloth is otherwise plain, a nod to the debate among Torah scholars about what is meant by the Hebrew description "kethoneth passim." Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes that this "may be translated as 'a full-sleeved robe,' 'a coat of many colors,' 'a coat reaching to his feet,' 'an ornamented tunic,' 'a silk robe,' or 'a fine woolen cloak.'" Whatever the tunic looked like, Jacob, in gifting it to Joseph, was perceived to be showing favoritism for his youngest son, thereby begetting the jealousy and rivalry. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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.

Vayeitzai — Genesis 28:10–32:3

facebook_coverdesign_vayeitzai"Jacob took leave of Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran." (Genesis 28:10)

Wandering in a displaced manner is distinct from wandering to a place of promise. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Abraham, Jacob takes leave of his hometown of Be'er Sheva to dream of something more – a Promised Land.

En route to Haran, Jacob encounters that place, falls asleep, and then dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. This powerful vision of angels ascending and descending upon the ladder serves as a further signpost for Jacob’s journey onwards to the Promised Land. The next morning, Jacob raises the stone upon which he laid his head as an altar called, Beth El.

While in Haran, Jacob devotes fourteen years to work and raising a family including: his six sons with LeahReuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, and their daughter, Dinah; Dan and Naphtali, sons of Rachel’s handmaiden; and Gad and Asher, sons of Leah’s handmaiden, Zilpah; and finally Joseph, born to Rachel.

After this extended period, in a surprising turn for biblical narrative, Jacob yearns to return home. After repeated attempts at swindling Jacob to stay, Laban pursues Jacob but is warned not to harm him. Jacob and Laban make a pact on Mount Gil-‘Ed, allowing Jacob to continue in his ascent to the Holy Land, accompanied again by angels. Reflecting the ladder’s dynamic tension and two-way flow, Jacob’s journey is one of both ascent and descent amid the joys and challenges of a familial life.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract depiction of the monument Jacob erects at Beth El. The layered image is intended to evoke both Jacob's dream – the stones of the cairn standing in for the rungs of a ladder – and the fear and trembling he experienced when he became aware of G-d's presence. "And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, 'Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].' And he was frightened, and he said, 'How awesome is this place!'" (Genesis 28: 16–17) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.