Emor – Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Facebook_CoverDesign_EmorThis week’s reading builds upon last week’s distinction between the Priestly Torah, which focuses on the priestly views of ritual (as distinct from those of the masses), and the Holiness Code, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

What further distinguishes Chapters 21 and 22 of Leviticus from the rest of the Holiness Code (Chapters 17–26) is a primary concern for the priesthood rather than for the Israelite people as a whole. There is an internal symmetry wherein the code for ordinary priests (21:1-9) and the code for the High Priest (21:10-15) both begin with funerary regulations and conclude with marital restrictions.

Parashat Emor also addresses the annual callings to holiness: a weekly sabbatical retreat; an annual paschal offering on the 14th of Nisan as well as the seven day cycle of Pesach (Passover) beginning on the 15th of Nisan; the gathering and elevating of the Omer offering from the first barley harvest on the second day of Passover to its culmination in Shavuot; the primal cry of the shofar on the 1st of Tishrei for Rosh Hashanah; followed by a fast day on the 10th of Tishrei; culminating with a seven-day festival for dwelling in booths while dancing with the four species on the 15th of Tishrei and then the after-party of the Eighth day of Assembly marking the pilgrimage route home with Shemini Atzeret.

By contrast, the first section of Emor speaks to laws pertaining to Temple service of the High Priest.

All in all, there is something about sacred time that speaks to each of us differently, yet the sacred somehow finds a way to take place in our lives through the Jewish calendar and the synagogue.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's stark artwork is inspired by Emor's focus on separation, especially as it pertains to distinctions between pure/impure or sacred/profane. The Israelite approach to sacrifice, illness, hygiene, sexual biology, food, agriculture, and more is informed by a severe dualism that makes sense in context; nonetheless, it is impossible not to feel empathy for those members of the tribe who are cut off from their people because they are deemed taboo or impure.Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayekhi — Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

One of the greatest malaises of Western civilization to this day was captured by Ernest Becker (1924-1974) in his book, Denial of Death. Becker points to the reality we know all too well, that we shield and mask death from our lives until it is too late. What we seek to mask, according to Becker, is a deeper anxiety of death and mortality, which itself is the result of an evolutionary clash between our will to survive and the peculiar survival strategy to cope with the ultimate futility of that survival urge.

And so, without any denial possible any longer, on his deathbed, Jacob announces: "…I am now old, and I do not know how soon I may die… So that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die." (Genesis 27: 2,4)

In the course of this grandiose blessing of the next generation, a tragic moment almost passes everyone by when it comes to Jacob's grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, who Jacob does not recognize. He asks his son Joseph about his grandchildren: “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8) Eventually, Jacob agrees to bless his grandchildren, but Joseph is displeased as his father appears to be flouting the social etiquette by blessing Ephraim, the younger, before Manasseh, the elder. True to the ongoing disruption of primogeniture in Genesis, Jacob corrects his son, Joseph, who has assimilated the primacy of primogeniture in Near Eastern society, wherein the elder ruling over the younger sibling is an expected norm.

In the end, no matter how assimilated, Joseph accepts his father, Jacob’s unconventional blessing for his own children that both challenges societal norms while following in his father’s footsteps. Respecting his father’s last wishes, now also his own, both Jacob and Joseph are interred in the Holy Land together with their ancestors, bringing Genesis to a close.

Torah is our primary Jewish lens to bring meaning to our own confrontations with endings and new beginnings.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is a wallpaper-like pattern featuring different icons associated with the story of Joseph, which we conclude in Parashat Vayekhi. The eyes symbolize Joseph's vision and prognostication; the tears reference the weeping he does in moments of loneliness, forgiveness, and joy; the heart is a symbol not only of the profound love Jacob felt for Joseph, but also for the big-hearted actions taken by Joseph as Bereshit (Genesis) draws to a close. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

David Malman, Calligrapher & Mensch

Facebook_DavidMalman_SiddurMinyanBookPlate_GronowskiFamilyChapel_CBS_August2016In February 2016, our twice-daily egalitarian minyan was featured by J Weekly. The article emphasized just how important our CBS minyan is to the larger Bay Area Jewish community.

"San Francisco is home to about a dozen egalitarian congregations, yet Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in the Inner Richmond, is the only one that provides the essential community service of a daily minyan. I say it’s essential because of the Jewish practice of saying Kaddish daily for 11 months after the passing of a loved one, a practice more common among liberal, egalitarian Jews than one might assume."

We’re proud of our minyan. Many members describe it as our congregation’s "beating heart." Our regular daveners (prayer participants) join the minyan because they want to be there for every person who needs to pray, recite the mourner's Kaddish, or recall the anniversary of a loved one’s passing with communal support. CBS is the minyan's home, providing space, financial support, and leadership, but the minyan is literally and figuratively "made" by those who participate – people like congregant David Malman.

Years ago, David and his wife, fellow congregant Ellen Shireman, read an issue of CJ Voices, the magazine of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), that included a feature about an East Coast minyan that presented a personalized siddur (prayer book) to individuals who came regularly to say Kaddish for a loved one. Ellen and David were inspired by the lovely tradition, and decided that CBS should and could offer the same.

Facebook_DavidMalman1_SiddurMinyanBookPlate_Boardroom_CBS_August2016Facebook_DavidMalman2_SiddurMinyanBookPlate_Boardroom_CBS_August2016"The people who come [to say Kaddish] do it to honor their parent or loved one," David told me recently, "but the rest of the minyan deeply appreciates it. It’s a kind of symbiosis – the minyan supports the mourners, but, through their regular presence for those months, the mourners support the minyan."

In 2008, David approached Rabbi Micah Hyman, then the spiritual leader of CBS, and proposed that CBS adopt the siddur gifting tradition. Once Rabbi Hyman was on board, David bought a calligraphy pen and obtained a number of siddurim and label stickers from the CBS office. The next step? Learning how to create calligraphy for the bookplates David would place in the front of each siddur.

"When we read that [CJ Voices] article, I thought about it and said to Ellen, 'I know how to do this!' I’ve been fascinated with letters since I was a kid." As a teenager, David practiced writing calligraphy in English and even dabbled with some Hebrew. Later, in his twenties, when the art career of David Moss took off, he was reminded of how moving calligraphy and Judaica can be. "I was looking at these insanely beautiful ketubot…and [the work] broke my heart." David considered picking up the practice again, but his calligraphic impulse lay dormant until he and Ellen decided to get married in 2005. "When I started thinking about our ketubah," he recalled, "I felt I should do it – create the calligraphy." And so he did. Today, the ketubah that David created, which incorporates both English and Hebrew text, hangs in their home. "I guess it worked out!," he said with a smile.

Facebook_DavidMalman3_SiddurMinyanBookPlate_Boardroom_CBS_August2016The labels David used for his first CBS siddurim bookplates were small, and fewer lines of text could fit; as a result, only English text was included. As his calligraphic confidence grew, so, too, did the label size. Today, each bookplate features an English inscription as well as the name of the memorialized individual in both English and Hebrew. The date on which the deceased passed away is also included, using both the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars. David points out that the date serves a practical purpose – whenever the siddur owner wants to double check the date of their loved one’s Yahrzeit, they need only crack their prayer book.

Since 2008, David has created approximately 20 bookplates. His process and specific approach continue to evolve. Currently, David is trying to find the ideal label stock. The original, smaller labels took the ink well, with little bleeding. He hopes to find a larger label that does the same. The personalized siddur gifting practice has also spread; David and Ellen are evening minyan regulars, but the morning "minyan-aires" learned of the practice through the CBS grapevine and soon adopted it.

Facebook_DavidMalman2_SiddurMinyanBookPlate_GronowskiFamilyChapel_CBS_August2016What hasn’t changed in almost a decade is the bookplates’ purpose and the hand creating them. Each is crafted with care by David, placed in a siddur, and presented to a minyan participant who completes the 11-month period of mourning. (Occasionally, if the last day of Kaddish is missed, the presentation will occur on the first Yahrzeit of the deceased.) David describes this presentation as “a tiny ritual, maybe 20 seconds long,” but its brevity is not a reflection of its meaningfulness or sincerity.

Each bookplate is a handsome artifact. David, ever humble, attributes this to the art of calligraphy rather than his particular hand. He thinks that the Hebrew letters, in particular, are "extremely beautiful," and not just aesthetically. "We’re the People of the Book. Our letters are the atomic particles of our civilization. When you look at these pieces, you might think, 'Oh, they’re just bookplates,' but they’re not. Each one is a little brick in the greater Jewish building." This is true with respect to language – David points out that including both the English and Hebrew helps Hebrew literacy – but also klal Yisrael (all of the Jewish people). "Fundamentally, this is a community building enterprise. It enriches our community and it enriches the history of these books – it's all about continuity. When these become 'feral' siddurim, set out into the wild, someone will open these prayer books and see names and a date, and know a bit more about where this book lived and whose lives it touched. That’s important."

It is, indeed. Kol HaKavod, David! Thank you for this wonderful mitzvah!

CBS encourages all community members to sustain and strengthen our twice-daily minyan through participation. As David points out, ours is the only egalitarian minyan "between Los Angeles and Vancouver, and perhaps west of the Rockies with the exception of Phoenix [and the aforementioned cities]." Pick one day of the week (or even just one day a month), and commit to joining the minyan for davening in the morning, evening, or both. Not only will you sometimes have the privilege and honor of making minyan when a mourner from outside the community has come to CBS to say Kaddish; you might even find yourself surprised by the value of a regular commitment to Jewish prayer.

Emor – Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Facebook_CoverDesign_EmorThis week’s reading builds upon last week’s distinction between the Priestly Torah, which focuses on the priestly views of ritual (as distinct from those of the masses), and the Holiness Code, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

What further distinguishes Chapters 21 and 22 of Leviticus from the rest of the Holiness Code (Chapters 17–26) is a primary concern for the priesthood rather than for the Israelite people as a whole. There is an internal symmetry wherein the code for ordinary priests (21:1-9) and the code for the High Priest (21:10-15) both begin with funerary regulations and conclude with marital restrictions.

Parashat Emor also addresses the annual callings to holiness: a weekly sabbatical retreat; an annual paschal offering on the 14th of Nisan as well as the seven day cycle of Pesach (Passover) beginning on the 15th of Nisan; the gathering and elevating of the Omer offering from the first barley harvest on the second day of Passover to its culmination in Shavuot; the primal cry of the shofar on the 1st of Tishrei for Rosh Hashanah; followed by a fast day on the 10th of Tishrei; culminating with a seven-day festival for dwelling in booths while dancing with the four species on the 15th of Tishrei and then the after-party of the Eighth day of Assembly marking the pilgrimage route home with Shemini Atzeret.

By contrast, the first section of Emor speaks to laws pertaining to Temple service of the High Priest.

All in all, there is something about sacred time that speaks to each of us differently, yet the sacred somehow finds a way to take place in our lives through the Jewish calendar and the synagogue.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's stark artwork is inspired by Emor's focus on separation, especially as it pertains to distinctions between pure/impure or sacred/profane. The Israelite approach to sacrifice, illness, hygiene, sexual biology, food, agriculture, and more is informed by a severe dualism that makes sense in context; nonetheless, it is impossible not to feel empathy for those members of the tribe who are cut off from their people because they are deemed taboo or impure.Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tazria / Metzora – Leviticus 12:1-15:33

Facebook_CoverDesign_Tazria-MetzoraDebate still abounds as to how best translate the key terms tumah and taharah — signatures of Leviticus (see, for example, Chapter 12). Purity and impurity? Ritual fitness or exclusion? Death and rebirth? I continue to return to the inspired translation of theologian Rachel Adler, who teaches that tumah and taharah are best rendered as "a way of learning how to die and be reborn."

In Parashat Metzora, we encounter the moment where Miriam stokes the masses to revolt against the leadership of her brother, Moses, through the sin of slander. Some of our rabbinic interpretation suggests that the signs of the metzora really describe a person caught in a state of unpreparedness or inappropriateness for ritual engagement, a person who has not yet learned "how to die and be reborn."

But the spiritual malaise of tzara’at is not limited to one’s person; it can also spread to one’s home, as manifest by dark red or green patches on the walls. This disease is at once spiritual and physical because it leads to exclusion and is associated with strife and dissension that are often the natural fall-out of hate speech.

Tzara’at takes different forms today, including irate e-mails, bullying texts, and harassing phone messages, but the outcome is largely the same — exclusion, strife, and dissension. Our task is to find ways of returning to our relationships, especially in society, ready to re-engage fairly and wholly with others after we have purged ourselves of our disruptive and destructive patterns, able to return to that unsullied core of the soul within each and every one of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: In These Are The Words, Rabbi Arthur Green writes that the ritual defilements that Leviticus is preoccupied with all stem from "improper contact with the portals of birth and death, the limits of life as we know it." This week's illustration is meant to call to mind a sensuous plume of smoke – the sacrificial offering – but was created using the documented action of subatomic particles in a CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) bubble chamber – itself a beautiful artifact of our species' ongoing attempts to learn more about the origins and limits of life. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayekhi — Genesis 47:28–50:26

facebook_coverdesign_vayekhiConfronting our own mortality can often give rise to unseen blessings in our lives and the lives of those we love. At the close of Genesis, during Jacob's final hours, he conducts a stocktaking of his children, the twelve tribes of Israel. On his deathbed, Jacob announces: "…I am now old, and I do not know how soon I may die… So that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die." (Genesis 27: 2,4)

In the course of this grandiose blessing of the next generation, a tragic moment almost passes everyone by when it comes to Jacob's grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, who Jacob does not recognize. He asks his son Joseph about his grandchildren: “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8) Eventually, Jacob agrees to bless his grandchildren, but Joseph is displeased as his father appears to be flouting the social etiquette by blessing Ephraim, the younger, before Manasseh, the elder. True to the ongoing disruption of primogeniture in Genesis, Jacob corrects his son, Joseph, who has assimilated the primacy of primogeniture in Near Eastern society, wherein the elder ruling over the younger sibling is an expected norm.

In the end, no matter how assimilated, Joseph accepts his father, Jacob’s unconventional blessing for his own children that both challenges societal norms while following in his father’s footsteps. Respecting his father’s last wishes, now also his own, both Jacob and Joseph are interred in the Holy Land together with their ancestors, bringing Genesis to a close.

Just as it opens with blessing, Genesis closes with it – so may we all be blessed in our own ongoing journey into communal life that emerges through Exodus.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is inspired by Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh. "But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Ephraim's head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Manasseh's head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Manasseh was the firstborn." (Genesis 48:14) Jacob’s crossover blessing is traditionally understood as yet another example of the Torah showing the younger son displacing the older. Contemporary Biblical scholars also surmise that the account was written to foreshadow the future power of Ephraim’s descendant, Jeroboam (c. 960 - 910 B.C.E.), who would become the first king of Israel’s Northern Kingdom. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tazria -- Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

CoverDesign_TazriaThe renowned Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) once observed:

"Abstract painting seeks to be a pure pictorial language, and thus attempts to escape the essential impurity of all languages: the recourse to signs or forms that have meanings shared by everyone."

Nowhere is this "essential impurity of all languages" more evident than when reading about the laws of tumah and taharah — a signature of Leviticus (see, for example, Chapter 12). Debate still abounds as to how exactly to be best translate these key terms — Purity and impurity? Ritual fitness or exclusion? Death and rebirth? There remains a real need in communal life to continue to have "recourse to signs or forms that have meanings shared by everyone." Consider the passionately-committed but critical Orthodox, feminist Jew, Rachel Adler, and her translation of tumah and taharah as "a way of learning how to die and be reborn” and how this resonates with Octavio Paz’s poetic categories.

In grappling with the biblical text and its layers of rabbinic interpretation, a turn to poetics invites us once again to embrace halakhah as we continue to weave the rich tapestry of ritual into our daily lives through "forms that have meanings shared by everyone."

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is intended to be unsettling, and references the base manner in which our ancestors evaluated an individual's purity (or impurity). Many of the laws and rituals in Leviticus strike contemporary readers as anachronistic or even offensive. When reading Tanakh, we Jews are called upon to take our ancestral name seriously (Yisrael, literally "he who contends or strives with G-d"). We must wrestle with these texts not only because a growing number of our brethren embrace a more literal understanding of these decrees, but because this is our book, the "word" that binds Jews of all stripes, streams, and colors in our special tribal/communal relationship (klal Yisrael) -- even those of us who read our ancestors' purity tests as ethnic or ethnoreligious anthropology do not get a pass. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Rabbi Glazer On Rites of Passage

RabbiGlazer_VidStillGetting married, becoming parents, and (G-d willing, many, many, many years later!) dying -- after b'nai mitzvah, these are the major rites of passage that most of us will experience over the course of our lives. Because these life cycle events -- playfully referred to as "match, hatch, and dispatch" -- are so culturally ubiquitous, we often forget that they are opportunities for profound personal transformation.

Not long ago, Rabbi Glazer sat down with a videographer to discuss the spiritual importance of life cycle events in the context of our Jewish "communal family." He emphasized just how special these moments are, and why they should not be minimized or taken for granted.

"Something significant changes in the-- on a cellular level in terms of your spirit. You are not the same person when you began and when you cross through that threshold. And that's the reason why we see it as really being-- you're kind of going through a liminal moment, you're passing through a doorway. The threshold of that doorway is the community, once you come through the community, you come through that moment of ritual belonging and ritual performance, something changes and it's as if we're going into another room in the larger spiritual house of our lives."

We invite you to watch the 6-minute video CBS produced following the conversation.