Sukkot, Day Three -- Exodus 33:12 – 34:26

This Shabbat occurs during Sukkot, and we will be reading a special Sukkot selection from the Book of Exodus. The reading provides us with an opportunity to consider the role of strangers in our lives, especially during this time of heightened "othering" in the political and social arenas.

Atop Mount Sinai, Moses is famously granted a vision of the divine, but he is only permitted or able to see God's back. 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" only to be granted a view of "the other side" to teach us that every human encounter with "the other" presents us with a trace of the divine.

- Rav Aubrey

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Exodus 33:22–23: "And it shall be that when My glory passes by, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen." Here, we peer from the rock cleft, obliquely seeing some semblance of the Divine. Many scientists, artists, and mystics are drawn to the notion of a hidden God, and frame the "holy" as something that can only be experienced indirectly. The forms that appear in this illustration are particles of coral sand viewed through a microscope. 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)

Kedoshim -- Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

CoverDesign_KedoshimEveryone recognizes the dictum known as the Golden Rule. So why does it hold such sway over Western civilization while its source continually remains neglected, if not forgotten?

The English politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833) once made his own observation about the Golden Rule: "Let everyone regulate his conduct... by the golden rule of doing to others as in similar circumstances we would have them do to us, and the path of duty will be clear before him."

And so, once again, this path of duty guides us to a central question addressed in the Book of Leviticus: How do we bring holiness into our lives? How do we prepare ourselves to seek out the divine in our age, in whatever form it is manifest? The directive could not be clearer: "Love your fellow as yourself."

Indeed, the source of the ethical vertebrae of the Golden Rule is embedded in the center of this week’s reading (19:18), which is also the center of the entire Pentateuch. The larger envelope of Leviticus (chapters 17-26) is known as the Priestly Torah. According to renowned Israeli scholar, Dr. Israel Knohl, these chapters stand out in their linguistic and stylistic uniqueness. In his book, Sanctuary of Silence (2007), Knohl argues that if we carefully listen to the divine symphony of the Pentateuch, we will hear the voices of two distinct and independent schools of Torah in Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness School. 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.

Given the political, social, cultural, and religious upheavals that marked the eighth century BCE, a different spiritual paradigm was needed to bring order and solace to the Israelites. These spiritual forces included the critical message of the classical prophets, who sharply attacked the Temple cult and called for a new understanding of the human-divine covenantal relationship. It was in Hezekiah’s court that the priesthood sought to grapple with and respond to the urgent religious and social problems of their time, and they did so by responding to the critique of the prophets. It is precisely this recurring struggle for meaning that is shaping the creative activity of a new Priestly Torah — the Holiness School.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract interpretation of Hillel's riff on the commandment to "love your fellow as yourself." "That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — go study." The imagery calls to mind ears, two spheres in relationship, and our CBS architecture. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.