Balak -- Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."

Eleanor Roosevelt (b.1884) was one of the most outspoken women on human rights and women's issues in the White House during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, her husband.

This week, in Parashat Balak from the prophet Balaam, who was commissioned to curse the people of Israel by Balak, the king of Moab and the Israelites' arch enemy. On the way to curse the Israelite encampments, Balaam is berated by his donkey, which sees an angel sent to obstruct their passage. After Balaam's eyes are opened to the angelic emissary, his attempts at cursing the Israelites are subverted into blessings:

"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5).

In marked contrast to Amalek’s violent work of chaos that "happens to attack randomly on the way" (Deuteronomy 25:18), the Jewish response of "blotting out Amalek" is actually about embracing life – it is a call to live purposefully with ethical objectives and just values in an unjust world. Thus, the commandment in Parashat Balak to conquer the seven nations, for example, is actually a commandment to spiritually control and reorient our emotions – including anger, hatred, and revenge. It is a commandment to transform these emotions with divine focus.

When we serve the divine as Jacob, we shield the Divine within our lives from the intrusion of evil or negative thoughts and from an animalistic consciousness. When we serve God as Israel, we make our lives into a "sanctuary" for God, enhancing our divine consciousness by identifying with ethical values and dreams for this world.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Balaam's faithful and unfairly castigated donkey at the moment she sees the angel. "The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so the she-donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field." (Numbers 22:23) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Chukat -- Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

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"The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world."

I am often struck by the prescience of 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber, author of the influential The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05). Notwithstanding the "disenchantment" that ensues in modernity with the need to know the "why" of everything, Judaism posits that the search for the underlying reasoning behind halacha (Jewish religious law) is possible – with limitations.

This week, we are concerned with how to contextualize statutes, specifically laws like those related to the red heifer – namely, those ordained without rationale. Over the course of centuries, this inquiry has lead to a distinct genre of Jewish literature called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot, or Rationalization of the Commandments. If every commandment can be explained rationally, the modern mind will be satisfied. But what price will religion pay if all of its enchantment and mystery can be explained away through reason?

This is the tension that emerges in this week’s reading. Parashat Chukat describes the ritual that mixes ashes of the red heifer with living waters. While its symbolism remains a mystery to us, we know that a life committed to the spiritual practice of Torah is nourishing and life affirming! Like the living waters Miriam pointed the Israelites to throughout their desert sojourns, each of us can embrace life through sacral deeds we call mitzvot, whether we can explain them or not. The paradox of the red heifer is that the ashes of the pure render the impure pure, while the priests who are pure in preparing the ashes become defiled.

Moses also strikes the rock at this point in the journey rather than speaking to it in order to provide the thirsty Israelites with water. The Israelite’s thirst is slaked, but as a result of this burst of anger, both Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. Miriam dies in Zin, and Aaron dies at Hor Hahar, passing on the succession of the priesthood to his son, Elazar. As venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp following further discontent, Moses is commanded to place a brass serpent upon a pole to battle the plague. Those who look heavenwards will be healed. This culminates in a song sung by the Israelites to honor the miraculous well of Miriam that slaked their thirst in the desert. Moses then leads the people into battles against the Emorite kings, Sichon and Og, who appear recalcitrant in granting passage to the Israelite’s through their territories.

Amidst all these challenges, Moses remains committed to caring for and uplifting the Israelites. Against all odds, he trusts in the process that leads to the greater good – even in our own day, we still call this emunah, or faithfulness.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features a silhouette of our tradition’s sacred cow. It is nearly impossible to locate a red heifer (parah adumah) that meets the halachic requirements for the ritual purification sacrifice described in Parashat Chukat. The heifer is so rare, in fact, that tradition tells us only eight of them were sacrificed before the destruction of the Second Temple (and none after, of course). But their extreme rarity hasn’t stopped some Jews from looking for cows that pass muster. An Israeli organization dedicated to building the Third Temple has attempted to identify red heifer candidates since 1987. Over the course of those 30 years, they located two candidates that were eventually rejected and they currently claim to have a third, kosher candidate for consideration. If that cow also proves unsatisfactory, they plan to genetically engineer a red heifer that will meet the halachic requirements. And, no, we’re not making this up. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Korah -- Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

DFacebook_CoverDesign_Korahuring a brief visit to Dublin, the birthplace of Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854), I was struck by the author, playwright, and poet's quick wit and keen observations about human nature. Wilde once quipped that, "Arguments are extremely vulgar, for everyone in good society holds exactly the same opinion."

Torah, on the other hand, teaches us about respecting a diversity of opinions. Such respectful but creative tension [makhloket] comes to be understood in the aftermath of Korah.

By inciting a mutiny against Moses, Korah is justly decrying a hierarchy that he sees as unfair. He proclaims his own brand of spiritual grandeur — "We are all holy!" This is a very real, egalitarian challenge to the hegemony of Mosaic leadership and its preferential granting of the priesthood to Aaron. In the end, Korah and his mutineers are consumed by fire as the earth swallows them up. Why then does Scripture later mention (Numbers 26:11) that "the children of Korah never died?"

The sages of the Mishnah picked up on the cues from Korah and went on to teach the following in Tractate Avot 5:20: "Any dispute [machloket] for heaven’s sake will ultimately endure; while any dispute [machloket] which is not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is a dispute for heaven’s sake? This is a debate between Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute that is not for heaven’s sake? This is the dispute of Korah and his assembly." In other words, there is a difference between petty squabbling and good arguments that allow for growth amidst real difference. Shammai and Hillel exemplify what it means to be involved in disputes for heaven’s sake, given that before either one would launch his own argument, his first step was to cite the opposing position; only after having done so would he then make his own argument. This posture displays a deep respect for opposing points of view and the realization that truth is discovered as part of a process that emerges in civil dialogue.

The vibrancy we yearn for in our Jewish lives comes by living in that creative tension between the Mosaic path and the Korahite path. The challenge before each of us is how to create that single vessel within community – to make space to foster the creative tension to enable our moral grandeur and spiritual audacity to be fully lived.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an illustration of tzitzit tied with a thread of techelet, wool dyed blue with blood extracted from a sea snail. Why this image? At the end of last week’s parsha, Moses was tasked with telling the Israelites that God commanded them to "make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue on the fringe of each corner." (Numbers 15:38) Many of our traditional biblical commentators believed that this "unbearable law" (Pseudo-Philo) was the final straw for Korah and his allies, and therefore gave rise to Korah’s rebellion. But, as James Kugel points out in his How To Read The Bible (2007), "Korah was not really interested in changing the system, merely in taking it over. He was thus a dangerous demagogue." Here, we see the techelet tied to the tzitzit according to the instructions given by Rabbi Abraham ben David (c. 1125–1198), also known as the RaBad or Raavad. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Facebook_CoverDesign_AchareiMot-KedoshimIn conversation with a Jewish artist, I once quipped that all artists must see their art as an offering to the Other Side. "What?!," the artist exclaimed. In order to quell the energy of the negative forces in the universe, I explained, the mystical interpretation of many rituals, especially sacrifice, is understood as a way of assuaging and keeping at bay the Other Side.

So what were the two Young Turk priests, Nadav and Avihu, up to with their offering as ritual artists? The enigmatic scene first described in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), returns in Parashat Acharei Mot with a sobering lesson about the episode.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta? Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who find in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. Sometimes, though, that ecstasy comes at a price – the Other Side can overtake even the most spiritual of ritual artists.

The fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw rather than engage in the real world with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. For Jewish art to be effective, it cannot withdraw from the world, but must engage directly with it by transforming it.

Reading Parashat Kedoshim, we're reminded that part of the reason Leviticus can be a challenging read is that it often seems as though there are competing voices of religious authority. Recall there are two distinct and independent schools of Torah in the Book of Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness Code. There is a fine line distinguishing the Priestly Torah, which is preoccupied with the priestly views of ritual that are distinct from the masses, from the Holiness School, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

Interestingly, we see in Kedoshim that the Holiness Code is ecological in orientation, at least insofar as it emphasizes the web of relationships that unite various members of the land community – namely: earth, animal, and humans. Just as it is forbidden to cut "the edge" [pe’ah] of either "field" (19:9) or "human head and beard" (19:27), so we are invited to reorient our lives with greater ecological awareness of the place we play within the web of all sentient beings. Such a planetary awareness is what holiness demands of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract, painterly response to the many instances of "you shall not" in Acharei Mot / Kedoshim. Some contemporary readers are turned off by all these "negative commandments" (mitzvot lo taaseh), but such laws became essential as humans settled in large, agrarian centers. Codified behavior provided increased predictability in social interaction, and these codes of conduct were enforced to direct society toward cohesion and stability; the many prohibitions serve as a bulwark against barbarism and the breakdown of social bonds. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tzav -- Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

CoverDesign_TzavThe Greek diplomat, Solon (638-558 BCE) once remarked:

"Learn to obey before you command."

What is the relationship between obedience and commandedness [t'zivui] and how does it affect our relationship to sacral duties [mitzvot]?

From hearing the calling to obeying the command [tzav], Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's sons all receive the divine command regarding their duties as priests [kohanim] to make offerings [qorbanot] in the Sanctuary. The fire on the altar must be kept burning at all times, so as to completely consume: the ascent offering [‘olah]; veins of fat from the peace offering [shelamim]; sin offering [hatat]; guilt offering [asham]; and the handful taken from the meal offering [minha]. The priests are permitted to eat the meat of the sin and guilt offerings, as well as the remainder of the meal offering. The peace offering is offered by the one who brought it, with sections apportioned to the priest. Consumption of the holy meat offerings are to be eaten by a person for whom it is ritually appropriate, in a designated place and time.

Initiation into the priesthood for Aaron and his sons takes place over the seven day retreat in the sanctuary compound. Sometimes it takes the perspective of retreat to truly see how our relationship to each and every mitzvah -- no matter how potentially burdensome initially -- is ultimately a great gift all along.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork highlights the body parts Moses marks with blood during the initiation of Aaron and his sons as kohanim. Why the cartilage of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot? (Leviticus 8:23) According to Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), "The fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot of the pilgrimage of life." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayikra -- Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

A strange miniature Aleph opens this week’s parsha, the only one of its kind in the Torah. What does it mean? In our study of the Zohar, we discovered the most remarkable insight:

A miniature aleph — deriving from a diminished place, diminished becoming great as it joins above.

The mystics understand this seemingly obscure scribal tradition of miniaturizing this particular Aleph as a way of showing that although the divine called to Moses, and although the divine showed Moses tremendous respect by constantly speaking to him, Moses still constantly diminished himself before the divine and also before the community of Israel. Indeed, cultivating humility before the divine encounter is a central concern addressed through all the offerings made in the Book of Leviticus.

The Book of Leviticus is also a compendium that sharply contrasts with our classic prophetic teachings, which compose most of the weekly haftarot. For the prophets, the God of Moses is the divine source of morality, and social justice is maintained through the fulfillment of ethical commands (mitzvot). According to the renowned Israeli scholar Dr. Israel Knohl, the Priestly Torah in the Book of Leviticus is distinguished by the centrality of cultic command (as opposed to ethical command); this cultic command is portrayed as the principal content of divine revelation. In his book, Sanctuary of Silence (2007), Knohl argues that the unmediated divine revelation that "is the climactic moment in Israel’s history" is "not revelation at Sinai but revelation at the Tabernacle, associated with sacrificial worship."

Waiting for the cultic calling, it is only fitting then that Moses hears the still, silent voice of the divine from the nexus of cultic activity — the Tent of Meeting [Ohel Moed]. From this point of calling [Vayikrah] — the namesake of this third book of the Pentateuch — the laws of offerings, whether meal or animal, are communicated. These include: (1) Ascent offering [‘olah] — wholly raised up in ascent to the divine by fire atop the altar; (2) Meal offering [minha] — prepared of fine flour, olive oil, and frankincense; (3) Peace offering [shelamim] — animal burned on the altar, with parts given to the priest and other meat eaten by the one bringing the offering; (4) Sin offering [hatat] — brought to atone for transgressions committed in error by the high priest, the entire community, the king, or any Israelite; (5) Guilt offering [asham] — brought by one who has misappropriated property of the sanctuary or is in doubt of transgression.

It is remarkable that even in moments of apparent disconnection from the divine, there is always a way to draw closer in the act of repairing by remaining connected through ritual life. The key to opening the doorway of connection, though, is to be as humble as the diminished Aleph.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's parsha illustration marks my last for Beth Sholom. It's inspired by storyteller Joel Lurie Grishaver's insistence that we, as contemporary Jews, "try to look Leviticus in the eye – to take it on its own terms. No rationalizations. No mutations. No metaphors. ... Look directly into the fire at the bottom of the altar, and without flinching tell it: 'Go ahead, make my faith.'" Leviticus is hard. Much of Torah is hard. That's partly why it's been a privilege to create weekly parshiyot illustrations for the past 112 weeks (just over two full cycles). Torah study of all kinds demands we look long and hard into the flames, even when it's easier to look away. In so doing, we can spot the threads of personal or communal significance that run through Torah's black fire on white fire like pure threads of techelet, here radiating heavenward amidst a burning offering. Todah rabbah for looking and reading with me. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayakhel–Pekudei -- Exodus 35:1 – 40:38

The genius of every design by Steve Jobs (1955-2011) was an ability to understand what his community of users really wanted. Jobs was single-minded, and at times ruthless, in directing his designers to respond to community, to "have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."

Community is founded upon shared values and built upon shared practice. The team of wise-hearted artisans who create the Tabernacle and its furnishings as detailed in the previous reading of Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19) are truly inspired and devoted. The co-operative nature of this communal art project is inspiring on many levels. The instructions Moses conveys regarding the construction of the Tabernacle require materials in abundance. Once asked, the response is immediate and the materials arrive in abundance: from gold, silver, and copper, to blue-, purple-, and red-dyed wool, as well as goat hair, spun linen, animal skins, wood, olive oil, herbs, and precious stones. It is likely one of the only capital campaigns in Jewish history where its leader had to ask the members to stop giving!

"My favorite things in life don’t cost any money," Jobs’ once remarked. Jobs had clarity on the design of life, namely "that the most precious resource we all have it time." With that in mind, the strange opening of this week’s reading now falls into place — Moses' assembly of the Israelites begins with reiterating the importance of observing the Sabbath.

Making time sacred is the purpose of the Sabbath. The map of the soul’s journey, as Rabbi Lew (1945- 2009), z”l, taught, "...is the journey from isolation to a sense of our intimate connection to all being." That journey, unique to each soul, happens regularly in spiritual community. It is only when we are dedicated to a spiritual practice as central as the Sabbath that we can truly build communal institutions of lasting value.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is a depiction of a grape vine trained into the shape of menorah. The picture is inspired by theologian Rachel Adler's commentary on the Mishkan's menorah. She writes, "The menorah is not just any lamp, however. It is a giant lamp of unusual design.... We cannot sustain our presence at the original moment when a startled shepherd sees a terrible and wonderful sight: a tree on fire, unconsumed. We can only make a memory-tree to remind us of that moment, an artifice-tree of hammered gold, which we set afire, not abruptly, but with the choreography of ritual. Our reenactment distorts the story as it enriches it. The memory-tree is no humble wild thornbush, but the richly bearing fruit tree of the promised land, or the utterly stylized tree of modern ritual art." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tissa -- Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Construction of the Tabernacle is left to the wise-hearted artisans, Bezalel and Aholiav, and proceeds according to schedule, but Moses does not return from atop Mount Sinai exactly when expected (32:1). This leads the impatient Israelites to sculpt a molten calf of gold and worship it (32:6).

When he finally returns, Moses sees his people dancing around this idol and becomes enraged; he smashes the first set of tablets, destroys the molten calf, and executes the culprits behind this moment of grave idolatry. Then, in a moment of great empathic compassion, Moses turns to God and says: “If You do not forgive them, then blot me out of the book that You have written!” (32:32) Perhaps this eruption of empathic compassion is what allows Moses to formulate a second set of tablets upon his next ascent to Sinai?

When Moses is able to be truly present to the others in his community, no matter how errant, he is then granted a vision of the divine, through the thirteen attributes of mercy. After Auschwitz, the great French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) took this remarkable moment of Moses’ request for a complete encounter with the divine “face” (33:20) only to be granted a view of “the other side” (33:23) to teach us that every human encounter with "the other" presents us with a trace of the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the golden calf, Torah's most prominent symbol of idolatry. Here, the calf's head references Charging Bull, the famous bronze sculpture that's sparked countless photo ops in downtown Manhattan since it was installed in 1987. The choice isn't intended as an attack on capitalism (which, when thoughtfully regulated, is the most workable system we’ve come up with), but perhaps our modern championing of relentless economic growth is a species of misbegotten idol? In the background are golden earrings featuring the Egyptian Eye of Horus, a reference to the story's collection of Israelite earrings to create the calf; surely, their earrings' iconography and style would have been Egyptian following such a long period of assimilation. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tetzaveh -- Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Fashion designer Kenneth Cole once remarked, "You can change an outfit, you can outfit change, or both." How fitting that clothes are what truly outfit spiritual change in this week’s reading!

To outfit spiritual change, all priests or kohanim wear: (1) a full- length linen tunic [ketonet]; (2) linen breeches [michnasayim]; (3) a linen headdress, or turban [mitznefet]; and (4) a long, waist sash [avnet]. To manifest his spiritual shift, the High Priest also wears: (5) an apron of blue-, purple-, and red-dyed wool, with linen and gold thread [efod]; (6) a breastplate composed of 12 precious stones inscribed with the names of the 12 tribes [hoshen]; (7) a cloak of blue wool, adorned with gold bells and pomegranates on its hem [me’il]; and (8) a golden plate upon the forehead with the inscription, “Holy to God” [tzitz].

Initiation into the priesthood takes seven days for Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Itamar. Mirroring the seven day cycle of creation, here Torah is teaching us that every creative choice we make, even the most mundane, outfits us with the possibility of spiritual transformation.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the Holy of Holies as an abstract, contained force. In Parashat Tetzaveh, we learn the Israelite priests must be purified and specially adorned in order to safely approach the Holy of Holies. Comparing Aaron’s "holysuit" to a space suit, religious scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky (z”l) wrote, "we must have G-d’s holy presence to survive, but we must approach it only when it is contained in the precise manner G-d prescribes, and we come into the realm of holiness only in the holysuit G-d gives us. In the modern world, we have energy that can serve as a metaphor to model this divine power. Carefully contained, nuclear power can fuel our cities, but if the plant has cracks, it will escape and destroy, and if an individual approaches without a radiation suit, that person is dead." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Terumah -- Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Master architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) once remarked that "God lies in the details." His refined glass and steel structures defined mid-20th century architecture, and anyone looking carefully at his Seagram Building or the Barcelona Pavilion will notice the way his materials meet with their surroundings – the way form and function work together – and will understand van der Rohe's teaching about the essence of divine design.

In this week’s reading, the Israelites are called upon to contribute a remarkable panoply of the most moral of all materials: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and red-dyed wool; flax, goat hair, animal skins, wood, olive oil, spices, and gems. Together, these precious materials will allow the Divine to dwell in the details of the Mishkan (the portable desert Tabernacle). The command given to Moses could not be any more clear:

Make for me a sanctuary that I may dwell amidst them.” (Exodus 25:8).

The inner chamber is veiled by a woven curtain. That chamber is the sacred space where the Ark of the Covenant is placed, and the Ark houses the tablets of the Ten Commandments. On the Ark’s cover hover two winged cherubim hewn of pure gold. In the outer chamber, the seven-branched menorah stands and showbread is arranged upon a table.

While van der Rohe once quipped that he preferred to be good rather than merely interesting, clearly the Tabernacle is more than just good design, it is the template for a transformative encounter — and that is simply divine!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts a different kind of portable Mishkan, a heart enthused with G-d’s holy presence. Rabbi Stuart Weinberg Gershon writes that "the physical sanctuary of G-d is just a reminder of what G-d really wants – that each person builds a sanctuary within his or her heart for G-d to dwell therein. … G-d has no need to dwell in buildings. What G-d desires more than anything is to dwell – to live – in each of us." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Julian Rapaport's Bar Mitzvah

Shalom, my name is Julian Rapaport. I am a seventh grader at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. People describe me as an "old soul" and I guess they are right. I love playing Beatles records on my new turntable, listening to Mel Brooks2,000 Year Old Man, and following politics. I also play saxophone in the Brandeis Middle School jazz band and a rock band called Another Man Out the Window.

This Saturday, February 17, I will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. At first, I was less than enthused about this – lots of extra work learning the trope and the prayers and, besides, I really didn’t want a party. But that all changed when I started to learn Torah – both how to sing the trope and the meaning in the text. I also realized how special it is for my entire family to be here and watch me carry on the tradition of officially joining the greater Jewish community – at Beth Sholom, in San Francisco, and beyond.

I will be chanting from Parashat Terumah in the Book of Exodus. In this portion, God commands Moses to tell the Israelites to build a Sanctuary. The Sanctuary will house the Torah, as a symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites. God also gives very specific instructions for how the Sanctuary is to be assembled. But interestingly, when God tells Moses how the supplies are to be collected, it sounds pretty vague. God simply tells Moses "have them take for me an offering (a terumah)." I feel that vagueness is symbolic of the Jewish people coming together as a community, by giving whatever they could give to the common goal of building the Tabernacle to God’s specifications.

I want to thank Rabbi Glazer for inspiring me in the writing of my D’var Torah. I also want to thank my grandparents, my mom, my dad, and my brother for all the love and support in getting me to this day. But most of all, I want to thank Scott Horwitz, my bar mitzvah tutor. Scott helped me get excited for this important moment in my life, and helped me learn how to chant Torah and sing all the prayers. His calmness, humor, musical talent, and teaching skill helped guide me through this process.

Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1–24:18

Robert Cover (1943-1986), the renowned law professor and activist at Yale Law School, once remarked that every legal system or nomos had woven within its own narrative or story. Cover taught that everyone lives in at least one nomos, by which he means a normative universe. A normative universe is "a world of right and wrong, of lawful and unlawful, of valid and void." He is quick to point out that while this universe is not identical with law, it does however contain within it both law and "the narratives that locate it and give it meaning." How apt for this week’s reading of Mishpatim — law writ large— to then reconsider Cover’s words that: "[f]or every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture." Every reader of Torah knows intuitively the truth of Cover’s teaching, namely, that the law, connected with its narratives, constitutes a world. It is only by locating our lives within a common community where our lives can then be shared, and yes, even sane!

So what is the (sane) story woven into this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions? To address this question we turn to the Jewish mystics, also known as Kabbalists because they exemplify what Cover is at pains to interpret, especially in this week’s reading. In the mystical masterpiece set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings, we find in this Book of Splendor known as the Zohar, that the mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body at once hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's austere illustration depicts the contours of a gavel. The mood and imagery are both inspired by Parashat Mishpatim, with its litany of "of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions." As Rabbi Glazer contends, one can find love "interwoven with the legislative nomos," but at the p'shat (face value) level, Mishpatim is a straightforward code of conduct; as such, it provides an essential foundation for an orderly, civil society. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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.

Beshalach -- Exodus 13:17–17:16

How does any reasonable person react when facing "the lesser of two evils" or "an offer you can’t refuse"? When we find ourselves "on the horns of a dilemma," we are usually "trapped between a rock and a hard place" — this is a feeling we know all too well in life, whether in business dealings or with family and friends.

The earliest occurrence of "between a rock and a hard place" in 1921 America denotes being bankrupt — "common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California." (American Dialect Society, Dialect Notes V, 1921) More recently, Aron Ralston's book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004) was adapted into in the gruesome film, 127 Hours (2010). Ralston’s memoir recounts the 127 hours that he spent trapped by a boulder in Robbers Roost, Utah, after a climbing accident in April 2003. He survives precisely by opting for the "hard place" of freeing himself by cutting off part of his right arm.

Aside from these common usages of the expression, from Arizona and California to Utah, this week we turn to the Israelites who are feeling quite constricted as they are now trapped "between a rock and a hard place" — between Pharaoh’s armies rapidly approaching from behind and the ominous Reed Sea ahead of them. How will they respond to being "between the devil and the deep blue sea"?

Moses receives the divine command to raise his staff over the water so that the Reed Sea then splits, relieving the Israelites of their predicament, trapped as they are "between a rock and a hard place," and allowing them safe passage. This opening quickly turns into a dead end for the Egyptian armies pursuing the Israelites. Once they are safe on the far side of the sea, Moses, Miriam, and the Children of Israel erupt into redemption songs.

Now in the desert, however the challenges mount. The Israelites suffer from thirst and hunger, and complain to their new leaders, Moses and Aaron. Their thirst is slaked only when the bitter waters of Marah are sweetened. Moses also brings forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, and causes nourishing manna to rain down on his people each morning and quails each evening. The Israelites gather a double portion of manna on Fridays, since none will fall from the sky on the divinely decreed day of rest known as the Sabbath. Aaron even jars a morsel of manna as testimony for future generations.

The trials continue as the Israelites are attacked by the tribe of Amalek, who is ultimately defeated by Moses and Joshua. It is noteworthy that Moses uses the spiritual power of prayer, while Joshua uses the political power of armed forces.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's collage-like illustration depicts the rock at Horeb during the night, with water still pouring forth from the place where Moses struck it. "You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it." (Exodus 17:6) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Member Profile : Willy Waks

Today, we invite you to meet (or reconnect) with congregant Willy Waks.

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How long have you been a member of Beth Sholom?
Six years.

How long have you lived in the Bay Area?
Five-and-a-half years now.

Where are you from originally?
France, then Israel, then Dallas. That's the short version, at least!

What kind of work do you do?
I'm retired from my work in IT (Information Technology).

Do you have any hobbies or other pursuits that are important to you? If so, what?
Yes. Road and mountain biking, and also swimming in the Bay (to or from Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge).

What’s your favorite movie, book, or album? Why?
The movie that impressed me most was They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. It's about the plight and injustices inflicted by greed and selfishness.

What’s your most meaningful Jewish memory?
My first son David's bar mitzvah. It was a costume party on Shushan Purim, which can happen only in Jerusalem!

What, if anything, makes Beth Sholom special for you?
Beth Sholom has the right mix of tradition and open mindedness. I enjoy coming and participating in services.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the community?
I already miss Rabbi Glazer. I am sad that he is leaving us.

Photo: Willy is pictured in Dallas, Texas, with his son, David, a Lieutenant in the Dallas Fire Department.

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.

Leilah Goode's Bat Mitzvah

Hello. My name is Leilah Goode. I am a seventh grader at Claire Lilienthal Middle School. I love playing soccer, going to pop concerts, watching movies, and hanging out with my friends in addition to exploring all that San Francisco has to offer.

In Parashat Bo ("Go!"), God commands Moses to "Go to Pharaoh" to continue to plead for the Israelites' freedom. Pharaoh refuses, and his refusal causes additional punishment to befall the Egyptians in the form of three more plagues: locusts, darkness, and, finally, the death of all firstborn Egyptian sons. As the firstborn Egyptians begin to die, Pharaoh relents, and Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses proclaims that each year on the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month, a festival lasting seven days will be celebrated in order to recall our freedom from slavery in Egypt.

Freedom, at last. In my d’var Torah, I contemplate the privilege of living in a society founded on freedom, the challenges freedom brings, and the vigilance with which we must protect our liberty. Freedom cannot be taken for granted, even in America.

I would like to thank my tutor, Noa Bar, for all her patience and perseverance in helping me learn my segments of this week’s Shabbat torah service. I would also like to thank Rabbi Glazer and Rabbinic Intern Amanda Russell for familiarizing my havurah with the weekly prayers and reinforcing that there are many acceptable interpretations of our stories. Thanks to my havurah and CBS for being part of a collective journey. And thanks to my family for encouraging me to embrace all aspects of my heritage.

Va'eira -- Exodus 6:2-9:35

The self-revelation of the divine to Moses is a unique moment in our spiritual history and changes the face of monotheism forever.

Emboldened and empowered, Moses and Aaron return before Pharaoh, demanding in the divine name,

Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s recalcitrance leads to the moment where Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, swallowing up the surrounding staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, followed by the famous plagues. Water to blood; swarms of frogs; lice infestations; hordes of beasts; pestilence; painful boils; all culminating in the seventh plague, a hail of fire and ice.

Immune to the plagues, however, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Pharaoh’s heart of stone. In response to the first five divine plagues, Pharaoh hardens his heart. In response to the remaining plagues, however, Torah states plainly that G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart. No matter the agent, the result is the same; "Pharaoh's heart is heavy." (Exodus 7:14) Rabbi Stuart Kelman, founding rabbi of Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom, suggests the first five plagues saw Pharaoh progressively hardening his own heart to the plight of the Hebrews and the demands of Moses. That hardening response soon becomes reflexive, a kind of muscle memory, so that the Pharaoh’s heart was already "sclerotic" by the sixth plague, and G-d merely ensures that Pharaoh "lives out the consequences of his own arrogance and ambition." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Micah Mangot's Bat Mitzvah

Shalom! My name is Micah Mangot. I am a seventh grader at Herbert Hoover Middle School. I enjoy reading, hanging out with my friends, singing, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my family, and swimming.

In Parashat Va'eira, on God's instruction, Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh refuses and God turns the water of the Nile into blood, Pharaoh is ready to let the Israelites go but God hardens his heart. This process repeats itself with the plagues of frogs, hordes of insects/wild animals, boils, and burning hail. Parashat Va'eira ends without any real resolution. Since God hardens Pharaoh's heart, the parsha raises a question of restrictions on our freedom. In my D'var Torah, I explore what restrictions there are on our freedom and how that relates to my bat mitzvah.

Becoming a bat mitzvah is a big moment. What is important is not only the actual service and party, but also all of the planning and learning that happens before. As a result of this process, I have learned perseverance and the skill of trope reading. To me, this is just the beginning of my learning and of being a part of the community.

I would like to thank my tutor Noa Bar for helping me learn the Hebrew necessary, Rabbi Glazer for working with me on my D'var Torah, and my family and extended family for supporting me wholeheartedly on this journey. I would also like to express my appreciation to the congregation.

Simon Crosby's Bar Mitzvah

Hello. My name is Simon Crosby.

I’m in seventh grade at A.P. Giannini Middle School. I am in the school band, and I enjoy playing bassoon and trumpet. I also like soccer, disc golf, and tennis.

I’m excited in both an excited way and a nervous way about my bar mitzvah. Preparing for my bar mitzvah has been hard work with a lot of learning and practice. I’ve enjoyed improving my Hebrew, working with my dad most nights, and learning from my tutor, Randy Weiss. I’m so happy that so many of my family are travelling to be with me.

This Thursday and Saturday, I’ll be reading from Parashat Shemot, which covers the early life of Moses. Beginning when Pharaoh orders all Jewish baby boys to be killed, Moses’ mother hides him, and the Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and raises him. Moses then travels to Midian where he encounters the burning bush. G-d speaks to Moses, telling him to free the Jews from Egypt. Moses is scared and hesitates, but eventually returns to Egypt to free the Jews. In studying my parsha, I have learned that it’s okay to be scared - being scared sometimes helps. It can make you take more time to think about what you are doing.

Thank you to Rabbi Glazer, my parents, teachers, my friends, my brother, Daniel, and all of my family for supporting me during this journey.