Matot / Massei -- Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

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The final of the four tangible ways of measuring the intangibles of intentional community that I learned with Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman (Oranim College of Education) during the Rabin Bay Area Leadership Mission to Israel is Meaningfulness: "My uniqueness is an important resource and influence for the group."

As we read this week in Parashat Matot, Moses divides up the community according to tribes, assigning land and leadership roles accordingly as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. The Torah provides two names for the twelve tribes of Israel, both derived from the imagery of the tree: shevatim and matot. While a shevet is a "branch," a mateh is a "staff" – the former attached to the tree, the other detached. In other words, a mateh is a shevet that has been uprooted from its tree.

The twelve tribes embody this tension between unity and division. Eager to settle in plots east of the Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, later joined by half of the tribe of Manasseh, demand these plots as their portion in the Promised Land. Moses, initially angered by this special request, subsequently agrees – on the condition that they join and lead Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan.

Today, we continue to face this tension in our modern Jewish tribe. We struggle between mateh and shevet Judaism, between denominationalism and unity, and between Conservative Judaism and "Just Jewish."

Both of these perennial tendencies of creating and grouping community are part of the Tree of Jewish communal Life; the question is how we strike a balance between our need for ideological affinity within a given denomination and the need to be a part of a unified peoplehood.

Parashat Massei

"One can find a squalid America as easily as a scenic America; a bitter, hopeless America as easily as the confident America of polyethylene wrapping, new cars, and camping trips in the summer."

For Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), the U.S. Attorney General (during his brother's administration) and U.S. Senator who was assassinated in 1968, camping is a scenic part of our American pioneering spirit (rather than a squalid one).

So when we read this week of the journey of the Israelites and the record of their forty-two station stops in encampments along the way to the Promised Land – from the Exodus to the plains of Moab across the river from the land of Canaan – we would be well served in reading into it a sense of real joy. As we approached our destination, the boundaries of the Promised Land were traced, and more importantly, Cities of Refuge were designated as havens, places of exile for inadvertent murderers. (How telling that the Cities of Refuge, which are an advanced institution dedicated to creating civil society and thus protecting it from the circle of bloodshed that comes with revenge, are referred to time after time in Scripture – here in Numbers as well as in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.)

In the final surveying of laws relating to the land, we confronted the issue of inheritance head-on. The daughters of Tzelafochad – as proto-feminists – decide to marry within their own tribe of Manasseh to ensure that the estate which they inherit from their father should not pass to the province of another tribe.

Throughout the parsha, the land ultimately serves as a horizontal platform for action, one that always binds us in a vertical relationship to what is right, just, and compassionate – the divine. Just as we journey across lands here on earth, we must not forget the journey of the soul.

Although journeys on land may be long and treacherous, there is no greater journey than the turn inwards. Each Shabbat, we are offered this chance to slow down and share in this ongoing spiritual journey with our community.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is concerned with worldly boundaries, the lines we etch into or lay over the landscape to demarcate property and/or spheres of influence. "When you arrive in the land of Canaan, this is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders." (Numbers 34:2) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Matot/Massei -- Numbers 30:2 - 36:13

Facebook_CoverDesign_MatotMasseiParashat Matot

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), a German-born Swiss author, once remarked: "Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin."

Hesse’s universal vision of human enlightenment requires us to transcend our worldly boundaries. Ironically, religion is sometimes responsible for the very divisions that hinder transcendence into a spiritual realm.

As we read this week in Parashat Matot, Moses divides up the community according to tribes, assigning land and leadership roles accordingly as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. The Torah provides two names for the twelve tribes of Israel, both derived from the imagery of the tree: shevatim and matot. While a shevet is a "branch," a mateh is a "staff"—the former attached to the tree, the other detached. In other words, a mateh is a shevet that has been uprooted from its tree.

The twelve tribes embody this tension between unity and division. Eager to settle in plots east of the Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, later joined by half of the tribe of Manasseh, demand these plots as their portion in the Promised Land. Moses, initially angered by this special request, subsequently agrees—on the condition that they join and lead Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan.

Today, we continue to face this tension in our modern Jewish tribe. We struggle between mateh and shevet Judaism, between denominationalism and unity, and between Conservative Judaism and "Just Jewish."

Both of these perennial tendencies of creating and grouping community are part of the Tree of Jewish communal Life; the question is how we strike a balance between our need for ideological affinity within a given denomination and the need to be a part of a unified peoplehood.

Parashat Massei

William Henry Ashley (1778-1838), an American congressman and fur trader, once described the pace of his trapping expeditions: "As my men could profitably employ themselves on these streams, I moved slowly along, averaging not more than five or six miles per day and sometimes remained two days at the same encampment."

If the pace of Ashley’s journey seems slow, consider that of the Israelites. Along the way to the Promised Land—from the Exodus to the plains of Moab across the river from the land of Canaan — the Israelites record forty-two station stops in encampments. As we approached our destination, the boundaries of the Promised Land were traced, and more importantly, Cities of Refuge were designated as havens, places of exile for inadvertent murderers. (How telling that the Cities of Refuge, which are an advanced institution dedicated to creating civil society and thus protecting it from the circle of bloodshed that comes with revenge, are referred to time after time in Scripture – here in Numbers as well as in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.)

In the final surveying of laws relating to the land, we confronted the issue of inheritance head-on. The daughters of Tzelafochad — as proto-feminists — decide to marry within their own tribe of Manasseh to ensure that the estate which they inherit from their father should not pass to the province of another tribe.

Throughout the parsha, the land ultimately serves as a horizontal platform for action, one that always binds us in a vertical relationship to what is right, just, and compassionate – the divine. Just as we journey across lands here on earth, we must not forget the journey of the soul.

Although journeys on land may be long and treacherous, there is no greater journey than the turn inwards. Each Shabbat, we are offered this chance to slow down and share in this ongoing spiritual journey with our community.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is concerned with "worldly boundaries," the lines we etch into or lay over the landscape to demarcate property and/or spheres of influence. "When you arrive in the land of Canaan, this is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders." (Numbers 34:2) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit: Counting the Omer

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Gif_Omer1Another Pesach (Passover) has come and gone. The next Jewish holiday on the radar of many Jews is Rosh Hashanah, but even if we ignore the "minor" holidays and observances -- if, for example, you won't be fasting on the 17th of Tammuz (July 24) -- Shavuot is a big deal, and it's just over a month away!

Shavuot is such a big deal, in fact, that we have a countdown until it arrives...or maybe it's better called a "countup"? The 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot is referred to as the omer, and it's a mitzvah (commandment) to count the days as they pass (Sefirat HaOmer).

So what's an omer, and why are we counting it? Way back in the days of the First Temple, an omer (a sheaf, or an ancient unit of measure) of barley was brought to the Temple as an offering to HaShem, an expression of gratitude for the harvest season. The Omer period begins with this barley offering, and the Torah dictates the aforementioned counting:

Gif_Omer8 Gif_Omer5You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to G-d (Leviticus 23:15-16).”

In the Torah, this counting seems connected only to the agricultural calendar, a way of reckoning when the wheat harvest should begin (i.e., when the count is completed, on Shavuot). Over time, however, Shavuot became associated with the giving of Torah to Israel at Mount Sinai. In fact, for contemporary Jews, Shavuot is more closely associated with divine revelation than with agricultural bounty.

Likewise, the counting of the Omer has also taken on metaphysical significance. Today, the Omer is interpreted as a bridge between Pesach and Shavuot. Writing for MyJewishLearning.com, Rabbi Jill Jacobs explains:

"While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one."

The remarkable transformation from close-minded slaves to liberated souls prepared to receive Torah didn't come easy for our ancestors, and it doesn't come any easier for us. To help Jews carry out the spiritual and personal work of the Omer, Jewish mystics of the 16th century assigned the weeks and days of the Omer count to particular characteristics or emotions, drawing on their knowledge of Kabbalah and the sephirot of the Tree of Life. The Chabad website includes a detailed primer about how observant Jews should "examine and refine" each attribute or feeling as they move through the Omer season. It's worth exploring this approach to the Omer; it has mystical roots, but it's a remarkably practical self-improvement system and offers us a wonderful way to make the season meaningful, even profound.Gif_Omer15

The animated GIFs that accompany this post are highlights from graphic designer and artist Hillel Smith's GIF the Omer: Best Omer Ever project, "a fun, daily typographic Omer counter" that Smith has launched as part of his ongoing effort "to create new takes on traditional forms, melding ancient practices with a contemporary aesthetic."

We encourage you to visit GIF the Omer regularly to check out more of Smith's animations. (You can even opt to subscribe for daily email updates.) And, hey, if you decide to start working the Omer program, so much the better!

Image credits and captions:
All GIF artworks by Hillel Smith, 2016
From top:
Day 1 of the Omer
Day 8 of the Omer (Note: 8 = ח)
Day 5 of the Omer (Note: Numeral systems depicted include Arabic, Burmese, Braille, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Korean, Sundanese, and a bunch more.)
Day 15 of the Omer (Note: 15 = טו)

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): Man As Technicolor Dreamcoat

In the wake of David Bowie's passing, we're sharing another Kezayit feature here. What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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On Sunday, January 10, the world lost a great pop culture trendsetter and zelig, David Bowie (1947-2016).

Bowie, born David Robert Jones in South London, wasn’t Jewish, but he was among the first celebrities to dabble with Kabbalah. In the title song of his 1976 album, Station to Station, he sings,

"From where dreams are woven
Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle
Here am I, flashing no color

Tall in this room overlooking the ocean
Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth
There are you, you drive like a demon from station to station


At the time, even Bowie’s most ardent fans were confused — what are Kether and Malkuth? A clue was provided by the photograph that appeared on the back cover of Station to Station. The picture shows Bowie at his most androgynous drawing the Tree of Life, the diagram representing the relationship between the Ten Sefirot, the Divine Emanations of G-d according to Kabbalah. Kether (or Keter, crown) and Malkuth (or Malchut, kingdom) are the top- and bottommost sefirot, respectively. Bowie’s lyrics seem to suggest that he and his companions "overlooking the ocean" had tapped into some esoteric knowledge that allowed them direct access — “one magical movement” — from the realm of the Earthly (Malkuth) to the realm of the supernal (Kether), a channel not accessible to most of humanity, who need to “drive like demon[s] from station to station.” There are, of course, both healthy and unhealthy ways to tap into mystical revelation, and according to many sources, the Station to Station portion of Bowie’s career was informed by his being “bombed out of his mind on cocaine.”

Bowie’s legacy, though, will not be his flirtation with Jewish esoteric traditions, his battle to overcome drug addiction, or his acting and painting forays. As Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times obituary, "Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called 'plastic soul,' but it was suffused with genuine soul. […] Throughout Mr. Bowie’s metamorphoses, he was always recognizable. His voice was widely imitated but always DB-Transformation-Colourhis own; his message was that there was always empathy beyond difference.”

We leave you with an animated representation of Bowie’s metamorphoses by illustrator Helen Green.

Lead image credit: "David Bowie draws the Tree of Life," photographed by Steve Shapiro, 1975