Bo -- Exodus 10:1–13:16

Insofar as it relates to modern life, religious scholars have cast the role of ritual in a certain light, understanding how it forms and informs our human societies and cultures through that preferred lens. In her renowned study, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992), the anthropologist of religion Catherine Bell challenges some of the assumptions that guide most religious scholarship. Bell suggests an approach to ritual activities less encumbered by assumptions about how ritual embodies dichotomies of thinking and acting; instead, she turns her focus to disclosing the strategies by which ritualized activities "do what they do," how and why they continue to stir us and remain relevant.

Every American Jew can attest to the power of ritualized activities "doing what they do" from generation to generation — think of the ubiquity of the Passover seder celebrations and its popularization with the Maxwell House Haggadah! Clearly, Bell is on to something here; the power of Exodus resonates to this day.

This section in the reading of Exodus serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach – to "passover" the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.

It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Exodus 13:9: "And it shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as a remembrance between your eyes, in order that the law of the Lord shall be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand the Lord took you out of Egypt." Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents discarded their tefillin and other Jewish ritual objects when they arrived in the United States. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes that "if skin divers dove into New York harbor, they could dredge up an underwater mountain of tefillin. As the boats carrying our great-grandfathers passed by the Statue of Liberty, they literally kissed their tefillin goodbye. Religious observance was for another land and another place." Today, many of us even outside of Orthodoxy have reclaimed ritual objects and practice. Laying tefillin is a powerful ritual and a daily reminder of the moment we hearkened to freedom. In every ritual act, there is liberating psychological potential. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Bo -- Exodus 10:1–13:16

Facebook_CoverDesign_Bo"No more exploitation of the weak, racial discrimination, or ghettoes of poverty! Never again!"

So declared Pope John Paul II in 1999. He called for a different way of living in keeping with his religious ideals, and he argued that the Church should not achieve these goals through partisan politics or by revolutionary violence. The purpose of religion was bringing about the Kingdom of God, not about creating a Marxist utopia. So how does our traditional-egalitarian Jewish community read this week’s call for liberation in the Exodus story?

This section in the reading of Exodus serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach – to "passover" the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.

It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by the tenth and final plague. "It came to pass at midnight, and the Lord smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon, and every firstborn animal." (Exodus 12:29) Because contemporary readers are so familiar with the story, we too often ignore or diminish the horror of this plague. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

VeZot Ha'Berachah -- Deuteronomy 33:1 – 34:12

facebook_coverdesign_vezothaberachahPlease note that Parashat VeZot Ha'Berachah is read during the Simchat Torah service, which will take place on Tuesday, October 25. This Saturday, October 22, is Shabbat Sukkot, during which we read a selection from Parashat Ki Tissa.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) once remarked: "Zion is in ruins, Jerusalem lies in the dust. All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth."

How is this redemption achieved? For Heschel, redemption takes place through time, not space. "Quality time" is what matters in our lives, and it is through the Jewish calendar that we "do Jewish," embodying Jewish life and identity.

It is precisely through the appointed times (or moadim) on the Jewish calendar that we are best able to define our Jewish lives. We do so by abiding in the sukkah and taking hold of the four species, as well as by participating in the thrice annual pilgrimage festivals to the Jerusalem Temple during Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and Booths (Sukkot).

And when we "Rejoice in the Torah" during Simchat Torah, we simultaneously conclude and begin anew the annual Torah-reading cycle. Firstly, we read the Torah section of Parashat VeZot Ha'Berachah, recounting the Mosaic blessing bestowed upon each of the twelve tribes of Israel before his death. Echoing Jacob's blessings to his twelve sons five generations earlier, Moses empowers each tribe with its individual role within the Israelite community.

What VeZot Ha'Berachah then relates is how Moses ascended Mount Nebo to its summit, taking a peek at the Promised Land without ever entering into it. Moses’ burial place to this day remains unknown and the Torah concludes by attesting that "never again did there arose a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom G-d knew face to face...and in all the mighty hand and the great, awesome things which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel."

As we conclude the annual reading of the Torah, it is important to remember that every moment is a sacred encounter in the making when we truly value the sacral power of time.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork includes the symbols and colors of the two tribes of Israel that we know survive today (i.e., the tribes that became Jews). The colors and symbols are drawn from Bamidbar Rabbah, part of our rabbinic literature (midrashim). The stones of the choshen, or priestly breastplate, are depicted in white, black, and red here, and represent the Tribe of Levi. The lion depicted on a sky blue ground represents the Tribe of Judah. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

VeZot ha’Berachah -- Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12

193337Rabbi A.J. Heschel (1907-1972) once remarked:

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn...

Time is what matters in our lives; it is through the Jewish calendar that we embody Jewish life and identity. It is precisely through the appointed time or moadim on the Jewish calendar that we are enabled to define our Jewish lives. Abiding in the sukkah, taking hold of the four species, and the thrice annual pilgrimage festivals to the Jerusalem Temple during Passover, Feast of Weeks, and Booths make a deep impression.

When we “rejoice in the Torah” during Simchat Torah, we simultaneously conclude and begin anew the annual Torah-reading cycle. Firstly, we read the Torah section of Vezot Haberachah, recounting the Mosaic blessing bestowed upon each of the twelve tribes of Israel before Moses' death. Echoing Jacob's blessings to his twelve sons five generations earlier, Moses empowers each tribe with its individual role within the Israelite community. Vezot Haberachah then relates how Moses ascended Mount Nebo to its summit, taking a peek at the Promised Land without ever entering into it. Moses’ burial place to this day remains unknown and the Torah concludes by attesting that:

Never again did there arise a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom G-d knew face to face... and in all the mighty hand and the great, awesome things which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel.

When we truly value the sacral power of time, every moment is a sacred encounter in the making.

- Rabbi Glazer

Image credit: "Moses viewing the Promised Land from Mount Nebo," by Robert Dowling, 1879