Yitro -- Exodus 18:1–20:23

Whether we are reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Beowulf, or La Chanson de Roland, we immediately recognize something all great works of literature tend to share in common — all mark out their protagonists as heroes from the outset.

So who is the real hero in the Moses story? When we turn to Hollywood, whether with Christian Bale in Ridley Scott’s recent epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) or with Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), the cinematic consensus appears to point to attributing star status to Moses as hero par excellence. But is that always the case, especially in this week’s reading? It can be argued that the real hero — the one who takes the greatest risk and catalyzes the greatest shift in the narrative — is actually the Priest of Midian, Jethro, because he is Moses’ greatest teacher and his father-in-law.

When Jethro hears of the divine miracles performed for the Israelites, he is en route to the Israelite camp with Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, and two sons in tow. With prescience, Jethro advises Moses to delegate his growing work load as singular leader of the people by appointing magistrates and judges. This will distribute the workload more reasonably and assist Moses in providing his people with the necessary pillars of civil society -- governance and administered justice.

Encamping opposite Mount Sinai, the Israelites respond to the divine call:

All that God has spoken shall we do [na’asse].

This becomes the calling card of all future Jewish spiritual practice -- doing the practice is primary, understanding is secondary.

Amidst thunder, lightning, billowing smoke, and shofar blasts, there is a theophany; the divine presence descends the mountain while Moses is simultaneously summoned to ascend. The Sinaitic Revelation, another pillar of Judaism, is proclaimed to all those gathered at the foot of the mountain. The intensity of the Revelation is too much for the people to bear, and they beg Moses to receive the Torah directly from its divine source and only then reveal it to them.

Just what was revealed on Sinai remains a mystery, part of the ongoing process of Revelation that encompasses everything from that moment to what a teacher and student share in study to this day.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: This week's illustration attempts to depict what is fundamentally impossible to depict, the theophany at Sinai. It is taught that each Jew alive today is connected to one of the 600,000 souls present at Sinai for matan Torah, "the giving of Torah." According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, however, we can only access that transformative, defining moment "when we are able to share in the spirit of awe that fills the world." That’s a nice reminder that we should all make a little more space for awe and wonder. 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.

Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged Recap

facebook_yehudasolomonduvidswirsky_hardlystrictlyselichotunplugged_september2016Almost two hundred people visited the CBS campus this past Saturday evening to mark our entrance into the final days of preparation for the Yamim Noraim ("the Days of Awe"). A joint production of CBS, the Mission Minyan, and The Kitchen, Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged made for a special night (and early morning!) – deeply affecting, joyous, and fun.

The centerpiece of the night was a communal singalong featuring Yehuda Solomon and Duvid Swirsky of the Israeli-American folk-rock band, Moshav. Yehuda and Duvid were joined by prayer leaders and hazzanim from CBS, the Mission Minyan, and the Kitchen – together, they led the crowd in giving voice to Selichot, our tradition’s beautiful and penitential piyyutim (liturgical poems). According to Ashkenazi tradition, the recitation of Selichot begins after midnight on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah (or the Sunday prior, if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, as it does this year) and, although our service didn't wind down until 2 a.m., there was no shortage of energy and ruach in the CBS Sanctuary! Attendees danced, stomped, and swayed with the music and singing, awakening to the urgency of this moment and our need for teshuvah.

Speaking of teshuvah and the related seasonal demand for chesbon hanefesh (a rigorous "accounting of the soul"), Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan shared some moving words during the film panel that occurred earlier in the evening. Following a screening of Fire On The Water, a short film dealing with the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) that Rabbi Aubrey Glazer made during his days as a student filmmaker, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan spoke earnestly of his anxiety about the lack of communal sacrifice experienced by Jewish Americans in the last 50+ years. What loss has our society felt, he asked, as we wage an ongoing war in Afghanistan? Too many families lose their sons and daughters, of course, and our federal coffers are steadily drained, but the majority of Americans are insulated from the war – it remains a background abstraction, and there is little to no sense of communal commitment, contribution, or sacrifice. Even during the Vietnam era, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan argued, despite the anti-war movement and the greater public awareness of the body count (on both sides of the conflict), our culture experienced the 1960s and early 1970s as a period of economic growth and general prosperity. He contrasted this with the American experience during World War II, when all citizens were required to ration foods, fuel, and many consumer goods. We haven't experienced anything like that since the 1940s. "When will the bill come due?," he asked the audience.

Rabbi Dorothy Richman responded to Rabbi Wolf-Prusan and quoted the 20th century sage, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: "Some are guilty, but all are responsible." With so much racial strife, ongoing overseas wars, ugly partisanship, and reactionary politics, she said Rabbi Wolf-Prusan's anxieties about our lack of sacrifice hit her hard. Doubtless, many people in the room were similarly stirred.

This sort of earnest, challenging soul-searching is what the High Holy Days are all about. Observant Jews devote the entire Hebrew month of Elul – which began on September 4 this year – to the spiritual heavy lifting of teshuvah. And what exactly is teshuvah? Depending on which Jew you ask, you'll get different answers. Most resources translate teshuvah as "repentance," but many rabbis scorn this translation, and instead frame teshuvah (which literally translates as "return") as the work of returning to relationship with God. Given contemporary Jews' varied conceptions of deity, that's too vague a formulation for many. However you translate or characterize it, though, teshuvah is about working to develop and improve our character – and it's meant to be hard.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, the need for a commitment to teshuvah becomes increasingly urgent, but it is likewise important to balance the moments of reckoning with moments of joy. Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged provided both.

Thanks to all of the panelists, performers, and prayer leaders who made the evening so moving and fun. Thanks, too, to all of the friendly folks from the Mission Minyan and The Kitchen who trekked out – in some cases, carpooling (kol hakavod!) – to the Richmond to make this memorable evening that much better. Todah rabbah, and l'shanah tovah u'metuka (for a good and sweet year)!

A selection of photographs snapped during the event are included below.

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