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.

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.

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.

Re'eh -- Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

American naturalist-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked, "Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting."

Emerson’s 1836 essay, Nature, expresses the belief that everything in our world – even a drop of dew – is a microcosm of the universe. This transcendentalist notion is not foreign to Judaism, especially its more mystical streams. We open ourselves to such transcendence through the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes and, in so doing, daring to see beyond ourselves so that we can develop new relationships to all texts, even sacred texts of nature. It's all a question of how we see ourselves in relation to the text and its sacred inspiration.

So when Moses says to the Children of Israel, "See I place before you today a blessing and a curse," they enter an important stage of maturity in their covenantal relationship — that of responsibility. Seeing the consequences of our actions is a sign of growing responsibility. These are proclaimed on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal as the Israelites are crossing over into the Holy Land. In establishing a Temple, we made a place where the Divine will dwell in essence and Name. This will become the new central address for sacrifices, and in keeping with the overall theology of Deuteronomy, no offerings can be made to the divine outside this locale. Laws of tithing are discussed in detail, including how the tithe is given to the needy in certain years. Here, we encounter one of the first iterations of charity as an obligation devolving upon the Jew to aid those in need with a gift or loan. But all such loans are forgiven on the Sabbatical year and all indentured servants are freed after six years of service.

The theme of seeing concludes Parashat Re'eh. Listing the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecosts (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) as times when the pilgrim goes to see and be seen before the Divine in the precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the parsha demonstrates that encountering the Divine in our lives is indeed a "seeing into our nature" with fresh eyes. This "seeing" provides hope for such sacred encounters throughout our lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by mystical visions. It features a stylized eye with retinal ganglion cells and filaments of muscle radiating outward. Of his transcendent experiences, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me." His peer Walt Whitman described himself as part of a universal weave of "threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff." Rabbi Arthur Cohen writes of being pressed "to the limit where thought cannibalizes itself in despair, where knowing ceases, where the emptying of the self is undergone and the fullness of God may commence." Mystics, be they American transcendentalists, Hasids, or academics, are not lunatics; their practice is an enthusiastic response to the world as it is – radically interconnected, with each individual indivisible from everything else. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'et'hanan -- Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaEtchananHow does empathy resonate with you?

American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once remarked that, "Humans aren't as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were 'reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy'."

Such oscillation of our empathic experiences resonates with Moses’ proclamation – one that elicits positive empathy — that there is no religion without ethics. Sinai was an encounter with the divine (theophany) that was sealed into the communal heart through Exodus, while this legacy moment in Deuteronomy is designed to be didactic, to emphasize the implications of the Sinai encounter in the communal mind.

In studying Mosaic law, we engender a positive empathy to spiritual practice. This process is a critical marker of Jewish identity that emerges from the Hebrew Bible. More than mere intellectual study, Torah study is a contemplative commitment whereby, in repeatedly encountering and pondering these laws, we are awakened to a newfound awareness, whether through affixing the mezuzah to every passageway, donning tefillin to connect head- to heart-filled action (6:8-9; 11:18-20), affixing tzitzit to our four-cornered garments (22:12), as well as reaching out to the needy (15:8).

No book has had as lasting an impact on the evolution of monotheism within Western civilization as Deuteronomy, and no statement has shaped Jewish consciousness as much as the Shema (6:4). This quintessential Jewish prayer — "Hear, O Israel! YHVH is our God, YHVH alone." — continues to resonate with positive empathy, not only as our final words as we pass onto the next world, but in this world, right here, right now.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a riff on Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, a famous painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. The art historian Malcolm Andrews describes Wanderer as a representation of "the gulf...between the human and the vast world of nature." In our version, the gulf is not so much between humanity and the rest of nature (although that dichotomy is central to the Hebrew Bible), but a gulf between one particular wanderer and the land he has been called to, but will never know. Here, Moses surveys the Holy Land from afar. "Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan." (Deuteronomy 3:27) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tisha B'av: A Meaningful Fast

By the numbers, fewer and fewer non-Orthodox Jews are fasting for Tisha B'Av. Some even argue that we shouldn't fast! We hope to provide you with an opportunity to reconnect with the meaning and power of the Ninth of Av.

On Monday, July 31, please join CBS and Makor Or for a moving evening of meditation, reflection, and what Rabbi Glazer describes as "the sacred theater of Lamentations." Return on Tuesday, August 1, to discover the value of marking Tisha B'Av in community.

Tisha B'av At-A-Glance:
The fast begins at 8:19 p.m. on Monday, July 31, and ends on Tuesday, August 1, at 8:45 p.m.
Monday, July 31: Makor Or Meditation, 7–8 p.m., Makom Sholom
Monday, July 31: Tisha B’Av service, 8–9:30 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Tuesday, August 1: Tisha B'Av morning service, 7–9 a.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Tuesday, August 1: Tisha B'Av evening service, 6–7 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel


20110805_Rand1Av Writing to us from Jerusalem, where he is currently teaching and studying, Rabbi Glazer shares the following insight about honoring and observing Tisha B'Av.

I’ve been thinking recently of an inconsolable child, one that I discovered in an astonishing text I've been teaching this summer.

Lamentations, the core biblical text recited on the floor during the 9th of Av, recounts the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples and presents the divine need for consolation. The God of the biblical Lamentations is either the wailing Daughter of Zion or the fallen God of War. But in the late medieval Spanish commentary called Zohar Hadash, the text I have been teaching, it is an inconsolable child who is wailing. Wandering through the ruins of Jerusalem, we run into these orphaned children sifting through the ashes of Jerusalem and crying out:

"Every day we approach Mother’s bed, but we do not find Her there. We ask after Her — no one heeds us. We ask after Her bed – overturned. We ask after Her throne – collapsed. We ask Her palaces – they swear they know nothing of Her whereabouts. We ask the dust – not footprints there."

I hear the wailing of the real Children of Israel in Zohar Hadash who are crying, "We are the orphans, without Father or Mother! We cast our eyes upon the walls of our Mother’s house, but it is destroyed, and we can’t find Her…" No longer servants or children, we are all now orphans. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, we orphans bang our heads against a wall that is also wailing. We are like children crying out, "Mommy, Mommy, wall, wall!"

My words here echo Zohar Hadash's imagined barbed missives, sent back and forth by Babylonian Jewry to Israeli Jewry, each challenging the other's authenticity and attacking the "bad faith" of the other Jewish population. In choosing not to leave the diaspora of Babylon, you should weep for yourselves, not the Temple you never frequented, quips the Israeli community. You chose your fate because your self-concern overrides your concern for the Temple and the Holy Land. The response of Babylonian Jewry from the depths of diaspora comes later on, when they finally have enough courage to respond to their Israeli brethren:

"It is fitting that you cry, and it befits you to eulogize and mourn when you see Mother’s sanctuaries destroyed, the place of Her bed upended in mourning. She is absent, having flown away from you, leaving you unaware of Her whereabouts. You might say She is with us in exile, dwelling among us. If so, we should rejoice, for indeed the prophet Ezekiel saw Her here with all Her legions. But actually for this we must weep and eulogize, like jackals and desert ostriches. She has been banished from Her chambers and we are in exile. She comes to us in bitterness and sees us daily in all our afflictions, with all the statues and decrees they impose upon us constantly. But She cannot remove these scourges from us, nor all the ordeals that we suffer."

So we, as diaspora Jews, join the orphans of Jerusalem as jackals and desert ostriches, deeply devoid of any possible consolation in the current ruins of a Jerusalem that is tearing the Jewish people apart — it just makes you wanna cry! And that's precisely why you should join us on Tisha B'Av — that's the point of a real dirge!

As we enter this Tisha B’Av 5777, let's all listen more deeply to the caterwauling concatenation of the inconsolable child. Let us never forget that as a community of orphans we continue mourning the emptiness of our collective authenticity – this wandering and weeping within us all, wailing these words, "Mommy, mommy, wall, wall!" as a naive child. Nevertheless, the child presses on, searching for his divine mother, long gone from the wall, so all that remains is his inconsolable wailing.

Yonder is your consolation coming, O orphaned ones...

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Archie Rand, "Av," 1993, Oil and enamel on canvas

Samantha Friedland's Bat Mitzvah

Facebook_Samantha-FriedlandShalom. My name is Samantha Friedland, and I am a 7th grader at Creative Arts Charter School. My main hobbies are playing the flute, the guitar, and soccer. I also love being with friends and family, and just having fun.

My bat mitzvah will take place this Shabbat, May 27. It will be an exciting event for me, my friends, and my family. My Torah portion is about the census Moses took of the people in the desert on their long journey to Israel. This portion talks a lot about each of the tribes and their roles they had to play in order to survive in the desert for so long.

Thank you to Randi, my tutor, and to Rabbi Glazer, for guiding me through my studies and teaching me so much about Torah and my Torah portion. Thank you to all of my family and friends for making me laugh and for always supporting me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Three

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

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

* * * * *
What is Talmud Study?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Re'eh -- Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Facebook_CoverDesign_ReehWhat does it mean to really "see"? To better appreciate "seeing" – for which Parashat Re’eh is named – let us consider the experiential dimension of a quiet state of mind. The practitioner of Zen meditation sometimes experiences an event known as kenshō, literally meaning "seeing nature" and understood as an awakening from our fundamental ignorance. Experiencing kenshō is not the same as achieving Nirvana, but it does grant one a glimpse of the "real" reality.

While Zen practitioners turn to Buddha, Jews turn to Moses, as both seekers are yearning for guidance about how best to "see." Judaism starts with the act of looking back, of seeing what has come before with fresh eyes. In so doing, we can develop new relationships to all texts, even our sacred tomes. Whether or not we succeed depends on how we see ourselves in relation to the text and its sacred inspiration. So when Moses says to the Children of Israel, "See I place before you today a blessing and a curse," they enter an important stage of maturity in their covenantal relationship — that of responsibility.

Seeing the consequences of our actions is a sign of growing responsibility. These are proclaimed on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal as the Israelites are crossing over into the Holy Land. In establishing a Temple, we made a place where the Divine will dwell in essence and Name. This will become the new central address for sacrifices, and in keeping with the overall theology of Deuteronomy, no offerings can be made to the divine outside this local. Laws of tithing are discussed in detail, including how the tithe is given to the needy in certain years. Here, we encounter one of the first iterations of charity as an obligation devolving upon the Jew to aid those in need with a gift or loan. But all such loans are forgiven on the Sabbatical year and all indentured servants are freed after six years of service.

The theme of seeing concludes Parashat Re'eh. Listing the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecosts (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) as times when the pilgrim goes to see and be seen before the Divine in the precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the parsha demonstrates that encountering the Divine in our lives is indeed a "seeing into our nature" with fresh eyes. This "seeing" provides hope for such sacred encounters throughout our lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract depiction of an advance guard of Israelites marching into the Promised Land. The forms of the soldiers are rendered so as to call to mind territorial maps – provisional, likely-contested borders sketched over the same plot of land. "For you are crossing the Jordan, to come to possess the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you shall possess it and dwell in it." (Deuteronomy 11:31) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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.