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.

Matot / Massei -- Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

Facebook_CoverDesign_MasseiParashat Matot

The final of the four tangible ways of measuring the intangibles of intentional community that I learned with Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman (Oranim College of Education) during the Rabin Bay Area Leadership Mission to Israel is Meaningfulness: "My uniqueness is an important resource and influence for the group."

As we read this week in Parashat Matot, Moses divides up the community according to tribes, assigning land and leadership roles accordingly as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. The Torah provides two names for the twelve tribes of Israel, both derived from the imagery of the tree: shevatim and matot. While a shevet is a "branch," a mateh is a "staff" – the former attached to the tree, the other detached. In other words, a mateh is a shevet that has been uprooted from its tree.

The twelve tribes embody this tension between unity and division. Eager to settle in plots east of the Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, later joined by half of the tribe of Manasseh, demand these plots as their portion in the Promised Land. Moses, initially angered by this special request, subsequently agrees – on the condition that they join and lead Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan.

Today, we continue to face this tension in our modern Jewish tribe. We struggle between mateh and shevet Judaism, between denominationalism and unity, and between Conservative Judaism and "Just Jewish."

Both of these perennial tendencies of creating and grouping community are part of the Tree of Jewish communal Life; the question is how we strike a balance between our need for ideological affinity within a given denomination and the need to be a part of a unified peoplehood.

Parashat Massei

"One can find a squalid America as easily as a scenic America; a bitter, hopeless America as easily as the confident America of polyethylene wrapping, new cars, and camping trips in the summer."

For Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), the U.S. Attorney General (during his brother's administration) and U.S. Senator who was assassinated in 1968, camping is a scenic part of our American pioneering spirit (rather than a squalid one).

So when we read this week of the journey of the Israelites and the record of their forty-two station stops in encampments along the way to the Promised Land – from the Exodus to the plains of Moab across the river from the land of Canaan – we would be well served in reading into it a sense of real joy. As we approached our destination, the boundaries of the Promised Land were traced, and more importantly, Cities of Refuge were designated as havens, places of exile for inadvertent murderers. (How telling that the Cities of Refuge, which are an advanced institution dedicated to creating civil society and thus protecting it from the circle of bloodshed that comes with revenge, are referred to time after time in Scripture – here in Numbers as well as in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.)

In the final surveying of laws relating to the land, we confronted the issue of inheritance head-on. The daughters of Tzelafochad – as proto-feminists – decide to marry within their own tribe of Manasseh to ensure that the estate which they inherit from their father should not pass to the province of another tribe.

Throughout the parsha, the land ultimately serves as a horizontal platform for action, one that always binds us in a vertical relationship to what is right, just, and compassionate – the divine. Just as we journey across lands here on earth, we must not forget the journey of the soul.

Although journeys on land may be long and treacherous, there is no greater journey than the turn inwards. Each Shabbat, we are offered this chance to slow down and share in this ongoing spiritual journey with our community.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is concerned with worldly boundaries, the lines we etch into or lay over the landscape to demarcate property and/or spheres of influence. "When you arrive in the land of Canaan, this is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders." (Numbers 34:2) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Toldot — Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

facebook_coverdesign_toldotWhat was the nature of the blindness that Isaac succumbed to later in life?

Commenting on Genesis 27:1 ("When Isaac was old his eyes were too dim to see"), Rashi suggests something subtle: "When Isaac was bound to the altar and his father wanted to slaughter him, at that moment, the heavens opened up and ministering angels saw and wept, and their tears came down and fell into his eyes; therefore ‘his eyes were too dim to see’."

This raises the larger question of how we embody and deal with conflict that extends beyond our immediate selves and beyond our immediate families – say, those that impact nations. Do we turn a blind eye to it or do the tears of trauma blind us from seeing what truly stands before us?

The challenge of Judaism is for each of us to continue striving to be better and truer in our relationships with both the children of Abraham and Adam, a diverse family of which we are all proud members.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: In this week's artwork, Esau's profile casts a red shadow on Jacob's face. Much Jewish polemical literature casts Esau, the ruddy, hirsute outdoorsman, as the progenitor of the Babylonians, the Romans, and, later, Christendom, all sworn enemies of the Jewish people. Jacob, the bookish younger twin, stands in for our tribe, the prototypical yeshiva bochur. Yet the relationship between the brothers, like that of all siblings, is not so one-dimensional – they are as interconnected as they are opposed, and the illustration hints at a yin and yang dynamic. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Matot/Massei -- Numbers 30:2 - 36:13

Facebook_CoverDesign_MatotMasseiParashat Matot

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), a German-born Swiss author, once remarked: "Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin."

Hesse’s universal vision of human enlightenment requires us to transcend our worldly boundaries. Ironically, religion is sometimes responsible for the very divisions that hinder transcendence into a spiritual realm.

As we read this week in Parashat Matot, Moses divides up the community according to tribes, assigning land and leadership roles accordingly as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. The Torah provides two names for the twelve tribes of Israel, both derived from the imagery of the tree: shevatim and matot. While a shevet is a "branch," a mateh is a "staff"—the former attached to the tree, the other detached. In other words, a mateh is a shevet that has been uprooted from its tree.

The twelve tribes embody this tension between unity and division. Eager to settle in plots east of the Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, later joined by half of the tribe of Manasseh, demand these plots as their portion in the Promised Land. Moses, initially angered by this special request, subsequently agrees—on the condition that they join and lead Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan.

Today, we continue to face this tension in our modern Jewish tribe. We struggle between mateh and shevet Judaism, between denominationalism and unity, and between Conservative Judaism and "Just Jewish."

Both of these perennial tendencies of creating and grouping community are part of the Tree of Jewish communal Life; the question is how we strike a balance between our need for ideological affinity within a given denomination and the need to be a part of a unified peoplehood.

Parashat Massei

William Henry Ashley (1778-1838), an American congressman and fur trader, once described the pace of his trapping expeditions: "As my men could profitably employ themselves on these streams, I moved slowly along, averaging not more than five or six miles per day and sometimes remained two days at the same encampment."

If the pace of Ashley’s journey seems slow, consider that of the Israelites. Along the way to the Promised Land—from the Exodus to the plains of Moab across the river from the land of Canaan — the Israelites record forty-two station stops in encampments. As we approached our destination, the boundaries of the Promised Land were traced, and more importantly, Cities of Refuge were designated as havens, places of exile for inadvertent murderers. (How telling that the Cities of Refuge, which are an advanced institution dedicated to creating civil society and thus protecting it from the circle of bloodshed that comes with revenge, are referred to time after time in Scripture – here in Numbers as well as in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.)

In the final surveying of laws relating to the land, we confronted the issue of inheritance head-on. The daughters of Tzelafochad — as proto-feminists — decide to marry within their own tribe of Manasseh to ensure that the estate which they inherit from their father should not pass to the province of another tribe.

Throughout the parsha, the land ultimately serves as a horizontal platform for action, one that always binds us in a vertical relationship to what is right, just, and compassionate – the divine. Just as we journey across lands here on earth, we must not forget the journey of the soul.

Although journeys on land may be long and treacherous, there is no greater journey than the turn inwards. Each Shabbat, we are offered this chance to slow down and share in this ongoing spiritual journey with our community.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is concerned with "worldly boundaries," the lines we etch into or lay over the landscape to demarcate property and/or spheres of influence. "When you arrive in the land of Canaan, this is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders." (Numbers 34:2) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit: Not Every Jew Looks Like You

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Kone-Miller-family- Writing recently in Tablet Magazine, author David Margolick acknowledged the Jewish people's chauvinistic tribalism.

"Why is it we Jews are not only quick to claim someone as our own, but insist upon claiming all of him? For better or worse, though, we do: our fierce feeling of specialness is something we don’t want to share with anyone else. [...] Our chauvinism knows no bounds, and tolerates no asterisks."

Margolick made this admission in an essay exploring the Jewish antecedence of Supreme Court Justice nominee Merrick Garland, which he penned after reading a New York Times profile of Garland that included the following biographical detail.

"Friends say Judge Garland’s connection to Judaism runs deep. His father was Protestant, but he was raised as a Jew — he had a bar mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue — and he spoke movingly Wednesday of how his grandparents left Russia, 'fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.'"

Upon learning that it was "only" Garland's mother who was Jewish, Margolick "felt instantly deflated," and became determined to dig deeper to see what could be turned up about Garland's paternal ancestry. In fact, Margolick learned, Garland's father is Jewish; the Times piece had reported Garland's father was Protestant in error. When the Gray Lady printed a correction, according to Margolick, "everywhere, Jews cheered."

Actually, this Jew didn't. If Garland identifies as a Jew (and is halachically Jewish as well!), why does it matter whether or not both of his parents are Jewish?

Louis-Jeff-used-for-BART-ad_smallerMargolick's article is a reminder that, for many contemporary, secular Jews, ethnic and genetic "purity" -- or yichus -- matters as much if not more than one's behavior or personal identification. Moreover, many members of the tribe (M.O.T.s) tend to prioritize our particularistic "subtribe" (e.g., Ashkenazim discounting Sephardic practice as alien or misguided rather than simply different, or Modern Orthodox Jews looking askance at their Reform brethren), further eroding the virtuous notion of klal Yisrael (the interconnection of all Jews).

Disappointingly, I can recall numerous conversations with fellow Jews, friends as well as relatives, who observed that Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel), Indian Jews (including the Bnei Menashe), and all manner of converts (gerim) "aren't real Jews." When I blanche, they'll often add something like, "You know what I mean, not genetically."

To be fair, whereas Judaism, the religion, and Jewishness, our ethnic/cultural identity, used to be inextricably intertwined, the two are now viewed as distinct by a large majority of Jewish Americans, and the comments of my friends and relatives reflect their prioritization of Jewishness over Judaism. They accept that Ethiopian Jews are Jews in the sense that they practice Judaism, but they lack any yiddishkeit, which is what qualifies them as "real" M.O.T.s.

Enter Debbie Rosenfeld-Caparaz of Lehrhaus Judaica and Dawn Kepler, Director of Building Jewish Bridges, who co-curated the photography exhibition, This is Bay Area Jewry, currently on view at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Kepler, quoted in a J Weekly article about the exhibition, points out that "many refer to the Bay Area as a diaspora of the diaspora," a region where Jewish identity is complex-compound. Kepler states that the exhibition aims to “[push] folks to think more deeply about what Jewish heritage means and to realize that there are lots of Jews, and not very many of them fit into that Ashkenazi stereotype.”

If, as some leading sociologists contend, the Bay Area offers a portrait of the future of American Jewry, Margolick will need to accept the fact that many dedicated and active Jews look very different from him and/or have very different origin stories. Moreover, a great many of us may have only one Jewish parent...or none!

Kol HaKavod to Rosenfeld-Caparaz and Kepler for conceiving of This is Bay Area Jewry, and to photographer Lydia Daniller and writer Robert Nagler Miller for their efforts, as well. For more information on the exhibition, click here.

Image credits: Both photographs by Lydia Daniller for This is Bay Area Jewry, 2016 -- Top: The Kone-Miller Family, members of CBS!

Two Exciting Israel Opportunities For Teens

A visit to Israel is a key stepping stone in a Jewish American teenager’s journey of Jewish discovery. As part of Congregation Beth Sholom's ongoing effort to help all Bay Area Jewish teens connect and identify with Jewish peoplehood and practice, we're highlighting two exciting Israel travel opportunities here.

giftofisrael_2014_600x200pxGIFT OF ISRAEL
CBS is one of a number of Bay Area congregations supporting the Jewish Community Federation's Gift of Israel program. Gift of Israel serves Bay Area Jewish families who would like their children to have an affordable opportunity to connect to Israel as teens. Children in 3rd - 7th grades are eligible for enrollment. Sound intriguing? Click through to learn more about this remarkable opportunity!
Insider.Icon.OnwardIsrael
Onward Israel
Bay Area students and young professionals between the ages of 19 - 27 are eligible to apply for Onward Israel, an exciting, Tel Aviv-based internship program. Participants work 4 days/week at a Tel Aviv office and are immersed in contemporary Israeli society one day a week with a cohort of other young adults from the Bay Area. For details, please visit the Onward Israel website.

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): What's In A Name? (Or What's With Orev?)

CoverDesign2_RavenNow and again, someone asks me why I sign my CBS emails with a two-part first name: Christopher Orev. Fair question.

In day-to-day life, I prioritize my given, secular name, Christopher. In this respect, I'm like most Jewish Americans. My patronymic Hebrew name, Orev ben Avraham Avinu v' Sarah Imanu, is known by very few people and used by fewer still, generally reserved for use in a ritual context.

So why, then, do I insist on writing Christopher Orev? Because my Hebrew name is very important to me, and I feel it should appear in formal correspondence, especially in a Jewish context. Because the name itself is unusual, however, I'm often asked what it means. Not long ago, Rabbi Glazer suggested that I share the origin of the name on the CBS blog in the hopes that a handful of readers might find my explanation of interest.

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Those well-versed in Tanakh might worry that I've chosen Orev in some misguided tribute to one of the two Midianite chieftains killed in Shoftim 7:25. But, no, the ill-fated Midianite is not my namesake.

Because Orev means 'raven,' some friends of mine have assumed that my choice stems from my fondness for natural history and especially for reviled and misunderstood species. I am fascinated and excited by ravens, but that partiality isn't my principal motivation, either. Instead, I chose Orev because of the raven's mysterious role in the story of Noah.

"And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. He sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the drying of the waters from upon the earth. And he sent out the dove from him to see whether the water had subsided from the face of the ground." (Bereshit 8:6-8).

Where did the raven go?

Contemporary biblical critics contend that the raven's disappearance is evidence of the biblical narrative's many sources. According to these scholars, when the stories of Torah were first edited and assembled, scribes often included details from differing accounts (rather than choosing between them). By this reckoning, one of the ancient riffs on the flood story had it that a raven was released while another, slightly different version of the tale assigned the recon flight to a dove. The two versions were simply spliced together so that Noah released the raven and then the dove.

The literary, analytical, and rational inclinations of this particular Torah reader make me appreciative of such striking examples of narrative juxtaposition and mythmaking. But while I appreciate our sacred text through a decidedly non-supernatural lens, I also invest Torah with much social and mystical power. These two, very different approaches to Torah — one universalist and secular, the other specific and traditional — place me in a grey zone of contemporary Jewish identity, but I consider this balancing act (this push-pull or hybrid position) to be the very essence of the Conservative movement’s philosophy.

But what does this have to do with my name? Back to Noah’s raven; what became of it? There are a number of traditional drashs that explain the raven's disappearance, but I view the stray bird as an analog of my Jewish neshamah (soul). This particular orev "flew the coop," so to speak, for a few generations, but has at last come back to the ark (through the covenant of conversion).

I find a satisfying etymological riff on this interpretation in the Hebrew name itself, עורב. Ayin means "eye," Vav means "and," Resh means "beginning" or "head," and Beit means "house" or "home." Orev, therefore, can be read as "eye and head home," an oblique reference to the raven's "seeing" his way home. Likewise, my neshamah has turned anew (or returned) to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

Another gratifying etymological connection has been made between orev and erev, meaning 'evening' or 'dusk.' Both words are comprised of the same letters, and Hebrew linguists believe that the word orev was derived from erev, a reference to the raven's dark plumage. If so, the raven’s name is born of the gloaming, my favorite time of day, one electric with magic and possibility, and ideal for sustained rumination.

But the etymology can be (and is) taken one step further. Ervuv is the Hebrew word for 'mixture' and, just as day mixes with night at erev, some rabbis point out that, although it is officially deemed treif, the raven is the only bird species to split the difference on the Mishnah's four kashrut qualities; it possesses two kosher attributes and two treif attributes, and is therefore a "mixed" creature.

This mixture angle is also important to me. When I emerged from the mikveh, I was a new Jew. If you had asked me then if I stood at Sinai, I would have confidently replied, ‘Yes.' Yes, at least, with respect to metaphysics and psychology...but my personal history is not that of Hebrew school, kugel, or Camp Ramah. My Gentile past informs my Jewish identity in unexpected, generally positive ways, but the individual ger, like the individual shul, will never please klal Yisrael. Because I am actively engaged in the Jewish community (across the denominational, political, and theological spectrums), my very "Jewishness" is sometimes challenged. Some fellow Jews review my attributes and deem me kosher; others say I'm treif. I'd be fibbing were I to claim that this limbo doesn't trouble me, but I also recognize that it provides me with a special opportunity to examine questions of identity. I will be wholly Jewish and yet I will be "the stranger that sojourns among" my fellow Jews. The name I have chosen embodies two themes that are important to me: my (re)turn to Jewish peoplehood and also the peculiar/particular Jewish identity of the ger.