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.

Kezayit: Burn, Baby, Burn!

Facebook_LagBOmerFlamingArrowWhat's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Lag B'Omer is this Thursday, May 26 (18 Iyar). Although the holiday has been getting more press in recent years, it continues to go largely ignored by most Jewish Americans.

But maybe that's about to change? A concerted effort is being made by some contemporary Jewish leaders to make Lag B'Omer a centerpiece of the Jewish calendar, a holiday that secular Jews will appreciate as much as their religious brethren. Given that Lag B'Omer is traditionally observed by lighting bonfires, dancing, singing, and feasting, it should be an easy sell.

So why do we set things ablaze and party hardy on Lag B'Omer? What are we so colorfully celebrating? According to one content-aggregating website, "Lag Ba'Omer is a joyous holiday, but no one is sure what it celebrates."

There are explanations, however. Lag B'Omer translates as the "33rd [day] in the Omer." The Omer, as devoted Kezayit readers will surely recall, is the 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot. While we previously explained why the 49 days of the Omer are counted and why this count has taken on mystical significance, we didn't mention that most of the period of the Omer is understood to be one of semi-mourning. Halachically observant Jews may not get a haircut, shave, listen to instrumental music, dance, or have weddings or parties during the Omer. The Talmud explains that the semi-mourning memorializes either a terrible plague that killed 24,000 of the great sage Rabbi Akiva's students or the murder of those same students by Roman soldiers during the years of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–136 CE). Modern rabbis have also suggested that the Omer should be seen as a time to remember the millions of Jews who were persecuted and killed during the Crusades, centuries of European pogroms, and the Shoah. Of course, anthropologists point out that many ancient cultures practiced "similar periods of restraint in the early spring to symbolize their concerns about the growth of their crops."

BonfireWhether it's an ancient rite of an agricultural people, a commemoration of a specifically Jewish experience, or some combination thereof, the Omer is meant to be a somber period. Lag B'Omer is the exception. All the restrictions of the mourning period are lifted; it's the one day during the Omer that we let it all hang out. Which brings us back to the holiday's potential renaissance.

As a recent article in J. makes clear, Lag B'Omer makes space for even the most secular of Jews to connect strongly with their Judaism. Joel Stanley, Director of Jewish Innovation at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center (OFJCC) in Palo Alto, saw an opportunity to draw a crowd with "live music, archery, dance, wilderness workshops, spontaneous chats about Kabbalah, activities for kids and barbecue"...as well as "towering fire sculptures." This year, the OFJCC is producing their first Burning Mensch celebration, a Lag B'Omer party designed to appeal to younger, more secular Jews, those of our tribe who generally eschew ritual or traditional spiritual experiences, but are eager to celebrate their Jewish heritage. Zack Bodner, Executive Director of the OFJCC, says Burning Mensch is part of an effort he dubs Judaism 3.0, "a vision for the future."

We salute such creative efforts, and hope that Burning Mensch is a grand success, both for the sake of its producers and sponsors (Kol Emeth, Jewish Study Network, and Milk + Honey) as well as for Jewish engagement, generally.

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): Mistaking Cupid For A Cherub

cupid-valentine_10This week, elementary schools and drug stores across the United States are filled with red and pink decorations and illustrations of a fat, winged baby with a bow and arrow. This portrayal of Cupid, the Greco-Roman god of desire (or, according to medieval Christians, "the demon of fornication"), was popularized by Greek artists during the Hellenisitic period, over 2,000 years ago. Ancient vintage notwithstanding, the depiction remains the most common one today.

Pop quiz time! Do you call that chubby, winking Cupid a cherub or a putto? Or perhaps you believe the two are the same?

If you're like most people, you identify this "cute" Cupid as a cherub, or think that a cherub and putto are equivalent. But most people are wrong, at least technically speaking. (If we want to get really technical, a fat, winged Cupid is a particular type of putto called an amorino.)

So what exactly is a putto, and what does any of this have to do with Judaism? According to Wikipedia, a putto is "a figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child, usually nude and sometimes winged." Putto is just the singular of the more familiar putti. Erstwhile art history students should recognize the latter term (as well as this celebrated ceiling fresco by Andrea Mantegna, which features a number of putti doing their putti thing).

Importantly, in the context of Jewish theology, a putto is most definitely NOT a cherub! Cherubs (or cherubim) are much more exciting and mysterious than the baby-faced, winged chubsters most of us have in mind when we describe someone as "cherubic." Cherubim figure prominently in Jewish angelology -- although, as with all things Jewish, there is much disagreement about what exactly they are. In Genesis, two cherubim guard the path to the Tree of Life, but these guards aren't described in detail; we're told only that they're armed with flaming swords. The prophet Ezekiel, however, describes cherubim much more vividly.

CoverDesign_Terumah"Every one had four faces: the first face was the face of an ox, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle. ... The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it."

Ezekiel's astonishing, even frightening vision is generally dismissed by modern rationalists as the product of an addled mind, but there is symbolic and philosophical value in appreciating cherubim as terrible agents of G-d. Jewish mystics understood this. Perhaps recalling the fiery exchange of Ezekiel's cherubim, they came to prioritize the charged space between the sculpted cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant (described in this week's parsha) as a kind of spiritual singularity. This week's Shabbat handout artwork (pictured just above) is an abstract depiction of that creatively and spiritually charged space.

So it's your call. When you hear the word cherub, you can think of a butterball who shoots you in the butt with an arrow and giggles sweetly. Or you can ponder chimeric manifestations of a sublime and terrible force. While we acknowledge that the latter won't sell Valentine's Day cards, we think one is a lot more interesting than the other.

Image credit: Top, Cupid emoticon by Symbols & Emoticons; Bottom, Christopher Orev Reiger, for CBS