Yom Kippur -- Leviticus 16:1 – 34

What is the real difference between love and compassion?

Judaism teaches us that love (ahavah) is the inner side of compassion (chesed). Or we could imagine it this way: chesed is "the Love Supreme" above that fuels and fires the ahavah of "the Love Below," that which is shared between human beings.

Or we can learn what it means to love a fellow Jew from two Russian peasants. Reb Moshe Leib Sassover, one of the greatest students of the Maggid of Mezeritch, teaches a remarkable tale about ahavah as the inner side of chesed. He writes:

Once I came to an inn, where two thoroughly drunk Russian peasants were sitting at a table, draining the last drops from a bottle of strong Ukrainian vodka. One of them, in a slurred, drunken drawl yelled to his friend: "Igor! Do you love me?"

Igor, somewhat surprised by the question answered: "Of course, Ivan, of course, I love you!"

"No, no," insisted Ivan, "Do you really love me, really?!"

Igor, now feeling a bit cornered, assured him:

"What do you think? I don’t love you? Of course I love you. You’re my best friend Ivan!"

"Oh, yes, yes?" countered Ivan. "If you really loved me...then why don’t you know what hurts me and the pain I have in my heart?"

It is this moment, when Ivan really sees and feels Igor’s pain in his heart, only then can we ascend from the place of ahavah to the higher point of chesed!

Love is about ME. Compassion is about WE.

This Yom Kippur, we are invited to shift from ME to WE. Let us ponder: What hurts do we want to heal? What worlds will we rebuild this Yom Kippur through compassion?

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: The illustration seen here is an updated version of the original, created in 5776 / 2016 to illustrate Rabbi Glazer's Parashat Acharei Mot Torah Byte. According to the Torah's description of the scapegoat ritual, which we read about on Yom Kippur, the Israelite priests use Azazel’s goat as a proxy, an animal laden with the sins of the community and then led into the remote desert and set free, presumably carrying the people's sins to some distant place. But that p'shat (straightforward) interpretation makes it all seem too easy. Atonement doesn't happen that way. Rather, the goat is released, but roams unseen in the wilds of our psyche, informing our actions in the world until we have courage enough to confront our missteps and failings. Past deeds, for good or for ill, are not erased by primitive magic. The scapegoat’s eyes are always on us, and we are not called upon to be perfect (nor to deny our imperfect pasts), but instead to strive to better ourselves and to make the world better through action in it. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Dance The Pain Away

DancingHasidsIt's easy for us to shirk our Jewish responsibility to wrestle with the more challenging and anachronistic aspects of our tradition. In a few weeks, when we read Parashat Vayikra, we'll reconsider the ancient Israelites' sacrificial practices, which seem quite alien to us today. Yet the psychological distance imposed by time and social change doesn't relieve us of our duty to parse and digest the rituals.

Evan Wolkenstein, Director of Experiential Education for American Jewish World Service (and a teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay), writes,

"Nearly 2000 years have passed since the last turtledove’s blood was wrung against the altar walls, and we are still forced to acknowledge that, interesting as they may be, these verses are relevant almost exclusively through creative hermeneutics. We may look to Vayikra for inspiration. We may find its details somewhat disturbing. But no matter our potential discomfort, one thing is certain for all of us—we would never remove these passages from the Torah."

We would never remove the passages because, as Wolkenstein puts it, "none of us is better off by forgetting any part of the past." To the contrary, the past should inform and improve our present; earnest discourse about (and with) the past makes us better Jews and better human beings. Such soul-searching, though, is often uncomfortable, and few Jews outside of our clergy make a regular habit of it. Those who do and who elect to share their ruminations are too often criticized or ignored.

Case in point: every year, a handful of Jewish writers point out that the Purim story has a "a dark and dangerous underside." Invariably, these voices are lambasted and labelled "self-hating" or "naive." In fact, it is the reactionary critics, those who refuse to reside in the uneasy and uncertain space of Purim, who do a grave disservice to our tradition and, importantly, to our future. Lest this seem like a partisan broadside, however, the Jews at the other end of the spectrum – those who refuse to observe or celebrate Purim because they've written it off as a politically incorrect tale of "bloody revenge" (and even attempted genocide by Jews, not of Jews) – are no less misguided.

Two years ago, writing in The Forward, religious studies professor Shaul Magid, allowed as how "Purim is essentially about the celebration of violence." But he doesn't stop there. He doesn't suggest that Purim should wither on the vine or be reduced to a Disney-fied carnival, an intellectually impotent combo of Halloween and Mardi Gras. Instead, he suggests a way forward by sharing a story. How very Jewish of him.

"If you want to approach Purim with a spirit of open-mindedness this year, I’ve got an idea of how to do it. There is a story about blotting out Amalek told in the name of the Hasidic master Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov (1783-1841). I heard the story from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z"l). During the Purim feast, Zvi Elimelekh suddenly stopped the festivities and said, 'Saddle the horses and get the carriages, it is time to blot out Amalek.' His Hasidim were petrified. 'What could the master mean?' Being obedient disciples, they got in their carriages and followed their rebbe. He rode into town to a local inn where the Polish peasants (the Amalekites of his day?) were engaged in their own drunken bash.

The rebbe and his disciples entered the inn. When the peasants saw them, they stopped dancing. The music stopped. Everyone circled around the rebbe and the Jews as they walked to the center of the dance floor. The room was silent. The rebbe looked at one of the peasants and put out his hand with his palm to the ceiling. Silence. The peasants looked at one another. Suddenly one of them stepped forward and took the rebbe’s hand. They slowly started dancing. The musicians began playing. In a matter of minutes, all the Hasidim and peasants were dancing furiously with one another.

You want to blot out Amalek? [...] Reach out your hand. And dance. That is how you blot out Amalek. Crazy? Ask Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov. That is what it means to take Purim seriously.

Put another way by David Bowie (z"l),

"Let's dance -- put on your red shoes and dance the blues
Let's sway -- you could look into my eyes
Let's sway under the moonlight,
this serious moonlight.

This year, maybe, we can dance with one another (and with our tradition), warts, disagreements, and all.

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

Acharei Mot -- Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30

CoverDesign_AchareiMot"After the ecstasy, the laundry!"

This insight by renowned author and teacher of meditation, Jack Kornfield, co-founder of Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California, encapsulates the challenge of daily spiritual practice. In his bestselling book of the same title, Kornfield offers a uniquely intimate understanding of how the modern spiritual journey unfolds — and most importantly, how we can prepare our hearts for awakening. Kornfield argues that the enlightened heart navigates the real world of family relationships, emotional pain, earning a living, sickness, loss, and death.

Commentators have long been puzzled by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Were these two brothers and young Turk priests focused on ecstatic religious experience to a fault? The ecstatic enigma first seen in Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47) here returns to the sobering lesson behind this episode. Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta. Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who locate in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. As Kornfield sagely warns, however, sometimes such ecstasy comes at a price.

And the question remains: once the peak experience of ecstasy has been tasted, how does one remain living in the real world -- the one with our laundry? No matter how high the peak experience, we Jews are tasked with living in the world, even if not of it. The expectation of the Tzaddik in Judaism (just like that of the Bodhisattva in Buddhism) is to return from a state of enlightenment to share that light with others.

Understood from the Hasidic perspective, the fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw from rather than engage in the real world, to return with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. The only person authorized entry into the Holy of Holies and grounded enough to process the experience is the High Priest, and even he may only enter once a year to offer the sacred incense of ketoret.

Another aspect of atonement is described through the casting of lots over two goats so as to determine which to serve as a divine offering and which to designate for sins (the scapegoat) and send as an offering to Azazel in the wilderness. How fitting then that this reading is reserved for the High Holiday of Yom Kippur, serving as a perennial reminder of this challenge of grounding our peak, ecstatic experiences into a daily living of our spiritual lives that includes doing the laundry!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the scapegoat ritual. Azazel's goat is led into the remote desert and set free, roaming unseen in the wilds of our psyche and burdened with our missteps and failings. Past deeds, for good or for ill, are not erased by primitive magic; even ignored or forgotten, they inform our actions in the present. The scapegoat's eyes are always on us, and we are not called upon to be perfect (nor to deny our imperfect pasts), but instead to strive to better ourselves and to make the world better through action in it. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Mystics of Mile End Book Talk

Sigal headshot (1)On Monday, April 25, author Sigal Samuel will present a book talk about her acclaimed debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, which tells the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family obsessed with climbing the Kabbalah's Tree of Life.

Brother and sister Lev and Samara Meyer live in Montreal's Mile End — a mashup of hipsters and Hasidic Jews. They have a fairly typical childhood, other than that their father is distracted, their mother is dead, and down the street Mr. Katz is trying to recreate the biblical Tree of Knowledge out of plucked leaves, toilet paper rolls, and dental floss. When their father, David, an atheist professor of Jewish mysticism, is diagnosed with an unusual heart murmur, he becomes convinced that his heart is whispering divine secrets. But as David's frenzied attempts to ascend the Tree of Life lead to tragedy, Samara and Lev set out — in separate and divisive ways — to finish what he's started. It falls to next-door neighbor and Holocaust survivor Chaim Glassman to shatter the silence that divides the members of the Meyer family. But can he break through to them in time?Mystics of Mile End book cover

Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Currently opinion editor at the Forward, she has also published work in the Daily Beast, the Rumpus, BuzzFeed, and Electric Literature. She has appeared on NPR, BBC, and Huffington Post Live. Her six plays have been produced in theaters from Vancouver to New York. Originally from Montreal, Sigal now lives in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.

The cost of attendance is $18 and includes a copy of the novel. Given that the book retails for $16 on Amazon, this is a wonderful deal! RSVP early as we are limited to 30 books. Refreshments will be provided.



THIS BOOK TALK WAS RECORDED. LISTEN TO AUTHOR SIGAL SAMUEL IN CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST ELYSSA WORTZMAN BY CLICKING THE "PLAY" BUTTON BELOW. [audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/MyticsOfMileEndBooktalk_April2016.mp3"][/audio]

An Overview of Rabbi Glazer's Israel Trip

From Sunday, December 20, 2015 - Sunday, January 3, 2016, Rabbi Glazer will visit Israel to present some of his recent research, give book talks, study with renowned Israeli scholars, and participate in a program for college students.

7911984On December 24, he will teach in the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem's Winter Break study program, Ta’amu U’r’u – Taste and See. His session is titled “Beginnings Forever After: How do we understand the depths of beginning a relationship to Talmud Torah according to Kabbalah & Hasidut?”

Rabbi Glazer will also give book talks at two Masorti communities -- Neve Schecter, in Tel Aviv, on December 24, and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem on December 31. His talk, "Is Jewish Thinking Possible After Auschwitz?," interrogates the (im)possibility of Jewish thinking -- and serious metaphysical thought at large -- following the essays of philosopher, pianist, and aesthetician Theodor W. Adorno. These two talks occur in conjunction with the Hebrew-language publication of Rabbi Glazer's A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Theory After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought (Resling Press, Tel Aviv).

"The Zohar: East and West" international conference takes place December 28-30, with two days of sessions at Ben Gurion University, Be'er Sheva, and the final day at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 3.52.39 PMCelebrating the culmination of Daniel Matt’s Priztker Edition translation of the Zohar, Rabbi Glazer will present his research on Tiberean Hasdisim's usage of Kabbalah. His presentation will be drawn from his paper, “Between Quietism of the 'Still Mind' & Merging in 'Ecstatic Kisses' In the Holy Land: Zohar as Hermeneutics of Contemplation in Tiberean Hasidism," which explores how the spiritual practice of quieting the busy mind can allow the practitioner to be more fully present and self-actualizing in their interactions with others. In particular, Rabbi Glazer considers how these ideas are expressed in the 18th century spiritual community of Tiberias and its application of the Zohar?

We wish Rabbi Glazer nesiyah tovah (good travels) and fruitful teaching and learning while abroad!

If you need pastoral services during Rabbi Glazer's absence, please contact the CBS offices; we have emergency clergy available in case of birth, death, or serious illness.