Vayeitzai — Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

To flee from a challenging situation may strike us irresponsible. However, sometimes taking leave is not about fleeing, but taking hold of a new chapter in life. This is what is at stake in the opening words of this week’s reading: "Jacob took leave of Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran." (Genesis 28:10) Jacob is taking leave of his hometown of Be'er Sheva to dream of something more – a Promised Land.

En route to Haran, Jacob encounters that place, falls asleep, and then dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. This powerful vision of angels ascending and descending upon the ladder serves as a further signpost for Jacob’s journey onwards to the Promised Land. The next morning, Jacob raises the stone upon which he laid his head as an altar called, Beth El.

While in Haran, Jacob devotes fourteen years to work and raising a family including: his six sons with LeahReuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, and their daughter, Dinah; Dan and Naphtali, sons of Rachel’s handmaiden; and Gad and Asher, sons of Leah’s handmaiden, Zilpah; and finally Joseph, born to Rachel.

After this extended period, in a surprising turn for biblical narrative, Jacob yearns to return home. After repeated attempts at swindling Jacob to stay, Laban pursues Jacob but is warned not to harm him. Jacob and Laban make a pact on Mount Gil-‘Ed, allowing Jacob to continue in his ascent to the Holy Land, accompanied again by angels.

The rabbinic mind prefers from the outset to read this story as a "taking leave" that teaches an important message: when one is dedicated to cultivating a just and righteous life, then taking leave makes an imprint upon the very place you depart from.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by the "dream stone" on which Jacob laid his head. According to Jewish storyteller Joel Lurie Grishaver, this magic rock was created by God to help people recall their dreams and was used by generations of biblical protagonists: Jacob sleeps on it; Joseph chips off a piece to carry as a rubbing stone; Jeroboam builds a temple over it. Eventually, though, the rock is smashed into countless shards by Hezekiah and the pieces were "passed from hand to hand, place to place," the world over. Grishaver writes "every time that Joseph Caro dreamed of the Shekinah, a piece of rock was near. Every time Rashi understood a piece of Torah in one of his dreams, a sliver of rock was on the spot." Yup, it's quite a rock. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ekev -- Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Facebook_CoverDesign_EkevWilliam Shakespeare once wrote, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." If a beneficent Creator created the world, is it merely a question of thinking that accounts for why bad things happen to good people? We are disturbed by such moral calculus.

This week’s reading of Parashat Ekev provides us with an opportunity to challenge this ethical rationalization. In continuing with his legacy speech, Moses’ address to the Children of Israel takes on the following tone: If you fulfill these commands, then (and only then) you will prosper in the Land of Israel. Moses also points to moments of collective backsliding – the Golden Calf, the rebellion of Korah, and the skepticism of the spies – not merely to point a finger, but also to offer an opening for the work of forgiveness by the Merciful One, a way to practice the power of return, known as teshuvah — a devotional posture all but absent from Greek philosophy. This spiritual practice of teshuvah is ongoing, and especially important as we approach the month of Elul that precedes High Holy Days. Within this description of the Land of Israel as "flowing with milk and honey," we also learn about the beauty of the "seven species" (wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and dates).

This week then is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how each of us comes to terms with, or questions, this moral calculus in the ongoing journey of our relationship to the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by a passing mention in Parashat Ekev; we learn that the Israelites are aided in their conquest of the Promised Land by the tzir’ah. "And also the tzir'ah, the Lord, your God, will incite against them, until the survivors and those who hide from you perish." (Deuteronomy 7:20) Rashi and Nachmanides contend that the tzir'ah is a hornet, with Rashi further detailing that the insect "injected poison into [the Canaanites], making them impotent and blinding their eyes wherever they hid." Today, many frum naturalists assert that the tzir'ah is the Oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis), the largest hornet species in Israel and the species on which this illustration is based. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Our Talmud Shiur Resumes

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study returns next Tuesday, March 28, at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants will begin the fourth chapter of Tractate Shabbat using the Adin Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud. If you don’t have a copy, bring a tablet or laptop so that you can use the free online version.

As the shiur prepares to resume after a brief break, Henry has decided to contribute regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus allowing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions to appreciate a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. The first of these appears below.

* * * * *
What is Talmud Study?

Chapter One: In which a simple question proves not so simple.

What is Talmud study? Talmud study is distinct from other types of Jewish text study. It is an investigation of the Oral Torah rather than the Written Torah. What does that mean?

Written Torah is the Tanakh – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, also known as The Five Books of Moses, The Prophets, and The Writings. Tanakh is the combined canonized text of the Jewish Bible (alternatively known as Mikra or the Hebrew Bible, but never the deeply offensive "Old Testament.") When we listen to a rabbi’s sermon or study Parsha HaShavua (the weekly Torah portion) we are studying the Written Torah directly. If we read Rashi, Nachmanides, Nechama Leibowitz, or Aviva Zornberg, we are reading Oral Torah commentaries on the Written Torah.

Every Jewish text that has appeared after the texts canonized in the Written Torah is the Oral Torah. The Written Torah mixes narrative and legal material freely. These types of thought diverged into more specialized discussions in the oral lore that began as soon as the Written Torah was revealed. These separate threads are referred to as aggadah (Rabbinic literature) and halacha (Jewish Law). Aggadah develops into a body of texts referred to broadly as the midrash. Midrash includes Pirek de Rebbe Eliezer, Midrash Rabbah, the Mekhiltas, Sifre, and others. These works comment directly and closely on Tanakh. Midrash is often said to be an effort to fill in the vast open spaces in Biblical narrative left open by the Tanakh’s laconic style, and this is certainly true. Midrash is quirky and explosively imaginative. Over time, the midrash has taken on the role of a canonized text, but its direct origins are in rabbinic sermons of the first and second centuries. As printed books, these works are organized to show how they directly depend on and relate to the structure of Written Torah.

The Zohar, the central mystical text of Judaism and the seed out of which much of subsequent Jewish mysticism grows, is also organized as a commentary on the Five Books of Moses. While the Zohar flies as far as the mind will let it, it always returns to the end of the day to the Written Torah like a homing pigeon.

But the Talmud is not organized around the Written Torah. It is organized as a commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the body of text that emerged out of the oral discussions of the halacha. (Besides the Mishnah, vital but less central early halachic texts are the Tosefta and the various small traditions recorded in Baraitot.) Mishnah is an explication of how one should go about the practical details of observing the halachot (laws) that we find in the Tanakh.

We also refer to these laws at the 613 mitzvot. Some mitzvot seem clear, such as "Thous Shalt Not Kill." Others, such as "A Jealous Husband Must Take His Wife to the Priests and Not Put Oil on Her Meal Offering," are a bit more opaque. Like all rules, Biblical law often seems much more easily understood in theory than in practice.

The Mishnah speaks in its own voice. Even though it derives its subject and meaning from an aspect of the Tanakh it does not quote from Tanakh nor is it organized around the structure of the Tanakh.

Mishnah is the central element of Talmud. Talmud includes the Mishnah and a later, vastly larger, text referred to as the Gemara. The Gemara purports to be a commentary on the Mishnah. (When we open a page of Talmud, we see much more on the page, but that's a subject for another day.) The Mishnah is an organized and thorough effort to make obeying the will of God a practical possibility. It is also an assertion that the human relationship with the Divine functions as a result of the probing human intellect at work.

Where does this come from? How true is the last assertion above? And what is Talmud study?

Next week, I will discuss the origins of the Mishnah and the "writtenness" of the Written Torah.

READ CHAPTER TWO: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself.

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

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.