Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1–24:18

Robert Cover (1943-1986), the renowned law professor and activist at Yale Law School, once remarked that every legal system or nomos had woven within its own narrative or story. Cover taught that everyone lives in at least one nomos, by which he means a normative universe. A normative universe is "a world of right and wrong, of lawful and unlawful, of valid and void." He is quick to point out that while this universe is not identical with law, it does however contain within it both law and "the narratives that locate it and give it meaning." How apt for this week’s reading of Mishpatim — law writ large— to then reconsider Cover’s words that: "[f]or every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture." Every reader of Torah knows intuitively the truth of Cover’s teaching, namely, that the law, connected with its narratives, constitutes a world. It is only by locating our lives within a common community where our lives can then be shared, and yes, even sane!

So what is the (sane) story woven into this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions? To address this question we turn to the Jewish mystics, also known as Kabbalists because they exemplify what Cover is at pains to interpret, especially in this week’s reading. In the mystical masterpiece set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings, we find in this Book of Splendor known as the Zohar, that the mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body at once hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's austere illustration depicts the contours of a gavel. The mood and imagery are both inspired by Parashat Mishpatim, with its litany of "of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions." As Rabbi Glazer contends, one can find love "interwoven with the legislative nomos," but at the p'shat (face value) level, Mishpatim is a straightforward code of conduct; as such, it provides an essential foundation for an orderly, civil society. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Fusion Friday Kabbalat Shabbat Is Back!

Facebook_FusionFridayKabbalatShabbatCBS is proud to announce the return of Fusion Friday Kabbalat Shabbat, a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat service that provides its many participants with a transformative experience that is as moving as it is joyful.

Led by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, the Shir Hashirim EnsembleHazzan Richard Kaplan, violinist Lila Sklar, and Sheldon Brown (on clarinet, flute, saxophone, and bass clarinet) – will provide participants with an exquisite Friday night service featuring Jewish sacred music from around the world and drawn from Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Mizrahi traditions. Each Fusion Friday Kabbalat Shabbat will incorporate contemplative prayer, mantra-like tunes, a Jewish/Turkish/Sufi zikr, klezmer and jazz accents, and beautiful Zoharic teachings and meditations by our own Rabbi Glazer. The prayer leaders, music, spirit, and ideas of the Fusion Friday Kabbalat Shabbat series make the vital passage between the rest of the week and Shabbat the extraordinary experience that it should be! Shabbat is a gift. We hope you will celebrate it with us!

Let's sing together on Friday, March 16! The Fusion Friday service is free.

Beraysheet -- Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

"Living God and Master of the Universe
on high and dwelling in eternity,
His name holy
and He is sublime
and created His world
out of three words: sefer, sfar, sippur – letter, limit, and tale.
"

So begins the ancient treatise, Sefer Yetzirah, which focuses on sound and its magical capacity for "making" and "world building." This book takes on the grammar of creation as expressed through the Hebrew language.

In acknowledging that all our beginnings are made through language, this year we have an opportunity to be more mindful of how we use language to create and destroy realities, through each letter, its limit, and the tale that we chose to tell. Sefer Yetzirah shares this mutual concern for "making" and "world building" that is at the core of Genesis.

The story of creation we read this week is a story of beginnings and creative inspiration, and all of this transpires within the creation that has already occurred – the divine Creator creates more than once. God as Creator forms the first human body from the unformed earth, blowing a living breath into it to form a soul. A help mate, Eve, is then formed for Adam. Moving from a state of radical loneliness to begin building community happens in relationship. But not all beginnings bode well or even last, and creation begins again with Noah, a righteous man alone in a corrupt world.

Are the end and the beginning of these episodes in the human condition "always there"? If so, what does this teach us about the way we wander and dwell in the here and now?

As we reflect upon how we use language to create and destroy realities, consider catching Israeli artist Victoria Hannah during her current residency at Magnes Museum when she performs her own rendition of 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in Sefer Yetzirah. Victoria draws inspiration from each Hebrew letter, which is said to symbolize or relate to a specific element in the universe and in the human body, each letter an exact signal, sound, and frequency in space. Stylistically, Hannah's creations span from traditional Jewish music to new music and hip-hop.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Genesis 4:15: "...and the Lord placed a mark on Cain that no one who find him slay him." What exactly is the mark or brand of Cain? From ancient times through today, biblical scholars and rabbis debate what is meant by the Hebrew word ot, which is variously translated as "mark," "sign," "pledge," or "oath." Many ancient interpreters insisted this mark was meant literally, a symbol that consisted of fearsome animal horns. Here, we see such a sign painted on the wall of a desert cave along with a number of falling human forms. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Israel Mission Remembrance (III)

From December 22, 2016 – January 2, 2017, almost 30 members of the CBS community traveled to Israel as part of the CBS/Kol Shofar Intergenerational Communal Family Mission. The trip itinerary was thoughtfully designed by Rabbis Aubrey Glazer and Susan Leider (Kol Shofar), and we've heard from many participants about how extraordinary and memorable an experience they had.

Today, we continue to share participant remembrances with another report from Lu Zilber on what she learnt about the West Bank and northern Israel during the trip. If you read these contributions and wish to join a future congregational mission to Eretz Yisrael, please let us know.


Facebook_LuZilberPhoto1_GolanTzafon (North)

On the long ride to Tzfat, our wonderful guide, Abraham, gave us the skinny on the territories – or the West Bank or Judea and Samaria. You get to pick what to call the place.

We travelled a road that parallels the Green Line. What, you ask, is the green line? It is the armistice line from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, also known as the War of Independence. It's referred to as the green line because that's the ink color used when they drew the armistice map. Geography shows you what's really going on here. In the old days, circa 1000 BCE, Jews lived in the hills of Judea and Samaria, which was located at a critical juncture point in the fertile crescent. The Philistines and other peoples of the region were in the coastal plains below. This made them vulnerable to the Jews; the Jews could easily attack from the heights. Concerned about this vulnerability, the Philistines attacked the Jews. There aren't any more Philistines, so you can see how well that plan worked out for them. Fast forward to the 19th century. Jews have discovered Zionism and start moving back to the land. Guess who is occupying the hills of Judea and Samaria? This gives them a clear shot at Ben Gurion Airport with nothing more than a shoulder-fired missile. Tel Aviv is also in range of a slightly larger weapon. The country is only 11 miles wide at this point!

So the point of the Israeli settlements is to surround the Arab towns located in the hills, thus preventing them from attacking. The same idea is at work in the Golan, except the Golan is unpopulated. So Israel has a "trilemma": it must keep itself secure while keeping itself a Jewish state while keeping itself a democracy. Netanyahu keeps getting reelected because he is doing NOTHING, which many view as preferable to change.

As of this date, there are no settlements on Arab land. (Land ownership is a debate for another day.) But as you ride north from Jerusalem, you understand the trilemma clearly. By the way, who lives in the settlements? The world press likes to focus on the right wing nut jobs but, in reality, most of the residents are commuters with jobs in Tel Aviv (remember the settlements are only 11 miles away!).

We got to Tzfat just before Mincha and visited the Yosef Caro Synagogue. After the expulsion from Iberia in 1492, several tzadiks settled in Tzfat: Isaac Luria, Yosef Caro, and others. They formed small havruta (communities) and basically invented Kabbalah. We were granted an hour for shopping, but the shops, which on my last visit were manned by the artists themselves, are now gone quite commercial. You can find magnificent Judaica at magnificent prices, but I was disappointed on the whole.

The Golan

We got into Land Rover jeeps and drove from our lovely kibbutz hotel, the Pastoral at K'far Blum, to the Golan Heights. Golan is the mountainous region looking down on northern Israel. We stopped at a lookout point that was once a Syrian gun emplacement. I took pictures, including the one you see accompanying this post. The emplacements were aimed directly at the kibbutzim below. Our guide grew up in the nearby town and told us he couldn't count how many shells rained down each day of his childhood. Rained down on a civilian population, mind you. As our guide, Abraham, says, "they didn't want us in Europe, they don't want us here, they don't want us anywhere."

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, there were only 50 manned tanks on guard duty. Everyone else left to go celebrate the holiday. The tanks were manned by terrified 19-year-old soldiers; the senior officer was 23. Because the Syrians had to line up in single file in order to move through the pass between the volcanos, the Israelis were able to hold off several hundred Syrian tanks and 1,200 military vehicles in all. They aimed at the first and the last in a group, immobilizing them, then they could pick off the middle tanks. The ones that got through eventually turned back because they were running out of gas. The 50 Israeli tanks were reduced to seven during the Syrian attack, but those seven then attacked the Syrians. Their commander told them there was no one to stop the Syrians getting to Haifa but them.

During the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israelis finished capturing Nasser's forces in Sinai and then started on the Golan. The United Nations (UN) was about to vote on a resolution to end the fighting. Abba Eban was the UN rep and was told to filibuster until the Israelis had time to take the Golan. He spoke for 12 hours.

There was a Mossad agent who had grown up in Egypt, was fluent in Arabic and had a swarthy complexion. His name was Eli Cohen. He posed as a Syrian business man and befriended the Assistant Defense Minister of Syria. He wrangled a trip to the Golan and noticed the emplacements were hidden behind clumps of trees. This info was passed on to the Israeli army, who then knew exactly where to strike. That's how the Israelis were able to capture the Golan in 12 hours.

Terumah -- Exodus 25:1–27:19

Facebook_CoverDesign_Terumah"Color and I are one."

So quipped Paul Klee during his 1914 painting journey to Tunisia, which he viewed as a major breakthrough for his art. He insisted that the trip enabled him to embrace his calling: "I am a painter."

In this week’s reading, the Israelites are called upon to contribute a remarkable panoply of the most moral of all materials: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and red-dyed wool; flax, goat hair, animal skins, wood, olive oil, spices, and gems. Together, these precious materials will allow the Divine to dwell in the details of the Mishkan (the portable desert Tabernacle). The command given to Moses could not be any more clear:

Make for me a sanctuary that I may dwell amidst them.” (Exodus 25:8).

The inner chamber is veiled by a woven curtain. That chamber is the sacred space where the Ark of the Covenant is placed, and the Ark houses the tablets of the Ten Commandments. On the Ark’s cover hover two winged cherubim hewn of pure gold. In the outer chamber, the seven-branched menorah stands and showbread is arranged upon a table.

The Tabernacle is the divine Artist’s template for a transformative encounter, all contained within a "living shell and skin of the earth on which we live" – that is how color and ritual life become one!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a graphic depiction of the Ark’s cherubim. "The cherubim shall have their wings spread upwards, shielding the ark cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another." (Exodus 25:20) The profiles of the cherubim are eagle-like, a nod to the more esoteric descriptions of the cherubim provided by the prophet Ezekiel, the Kabbalists, and others. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1–24:18

Facebook_CoverDesign_MishpatimConsider this audacious claim: halacha is inextricably intertwined with Kabbalah or, put another way, the law is intertwined with mysticism. Could this really be so? Are there many areas of Jewish life in which kabbalistic practice entered mainstream halachic practice? If so, what effect might this reality have upon this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperative and 30 prohibitions?

As Jewish historian Jacob Katz (born November 15, 1904, in Magyargencs, Hungary, and died May 20, 1998, in Israel) insisted in his book Halakhah and Kabbalah: Studies in the History of Jewish Religion, its Various Faces and Social Relevance (1984), Jewish law is indeed intertwined with Kabbalah. As we have been learning in our second year of Zohar study in our Lehrhaus Philosophy Circle of the Bay Area, a fruitful way to address this legal layering of Torah is to turn to the Jewish mystics, also known as Kabbalists. The Zohar is a mystical masterpiece that is set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings, and the mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body at once hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Keep that parable in mind, then, and return to this week's parsha, when, upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah. Only then can we, if we so desire, express that love in a deeper commitment as critical kabbalists…

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a response to Exodus 24:10: "...and they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity." What does it mean to perceive G-d as a Jew? Just as some of us write "G-d" with a hyphen to represent the grand and incomprehensible essence of deity, so, too, can abstraction gesture toward that which is unfathomable and profound. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Announcing Fusion Friday Kabbalat Shabbat!

Facebook_FusionFridayKabbalatShabbatBeginning in 2014, the CBS community has gathered on the third Friday of each month to welcome Shabbat with uplifting song. This spirited 3rd Friday Musical Kabbalat Shabbat service has grown in popularity over the past two years, providing its many participants with a transformative experience that is as moving as it is joyful.

This year, CBS is proud to announce Fusion Friday Kabbalat Shabbat, an exciting new iteration of our 3rd Friday series!

Led by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, the Shir Hashirim EnsembleHazzan Richard Kaplan, violinist Lila Sklar, and Sheldon Brown (on clarinet, flute, saxophone, and bass clarinet) – will provide participants with an exquisite Friday night service featuring Jewish sacred music from around the world and drawn from Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Mizrahi traditions. Each Fusion Friday Kabbalat Shabbat will incorporate contemplative prayer, a Jewish/Turkish/Sufi zikr, klezmer and jazz accents, and beautiful Zoharic teachings and meditations by our own Rabbi Glazer. The prayer leaders, music, spirit, and ideas of the Fusion Friday Kabbalat Shabbat series make the vital passage between the rest of the week and Shabbat the extraordinary experience that it should be! Shabbat is a gift. We hope you will celebrate it with us!

Let's sing together on Friday, May 19! The Fusion Friday service is free, but pre-registration is required – please take a quick minute to sign up below.

A Personal Reflection on Halacha

In early July, we introduced our Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) Kohn Summer Intern, Claire Ambruster, to the community with a thoughtful article she wrote for the CBS blog. Today, we're pleased to share Claire's second blog contribution, "A Personal Reflection on Halacha," which is accompanied by her lovely artwork.

Yes, indeed, Claire is one talented intern!

* * * * *

ClaireAmbruster_Artwork1Like many modern Jews, my practice requires that I embrace a quintessential Jewish struggle. I struggle to reconcile my commitment to religious observance with my commitment to egalitarian values. I also desire to practice regularly and spontaneously.

I recently learned of a Kabbalistic teaching written by Rabbi Hayyim Vital in Sha’ar HaGilgulim. He writes (11:12) that each soul is intrinsically connected to a unique mitzvah. It is the mission of each person to perfect that one act. While practicing all 613 mitzvot also engages the soul, Vital writes that we are most responsible for perfecting our individual, "root" mitzvah.

The idea that one mitzvah is uniquely connected to our soul does not mean we must ignore the other 612, but it does mean that some of the mitzvot might not come naturally, authentically, or easily for individual Jews. We can learn and grow by grappling with even the most personally-challenging mitzvot, but we learn and grow in an equally valuable manner by practicing mitzvot at our own pace, in a way that feels meaningful. Halacha is a living, individual experience.

Recently, I became inspired to expand my Shabbat observance. Although I had not developed a regular Shabbat practice, I attempted to observe one Shabbat completely according to halacha (no driving, no phone or computer, no cooking, etc.). It didn’t exactly work. While parts of the experience were meaningful – especially the break from my computer screen! – my high expectations of a "perfect" Shabbat became a little overwhelming. For me, focusing too much on the "rules" distracted me from my original kavanot (intentions). For the next Shabbat, I vowed to focus more on the basics – to light candles, spend time with family and friends, to rest, and renew.

This struggle between halacha and spontaneity, between tradition and change, is one I choose to embrace. With respect to halacha, I find a kind of magic in speaking ancient prayers and honoring words that have been spoken l’dor v’dor – from generation to generation. There is a magic in connecting to my Jewish family, bound together by the rituals we practice. Yet I sometimes find that focusing on halachic practices can distract from my true desires and kavanot. For now, my goal is to find a balance, stay true to myself, and continuously learn and discover.

Artwork credit & note: Claire Ambruster, Shiru L'Adonai, Watercolor on paper, 2015; Claire wanted this piece to accompany her article because Shiru L'Adonai, or "singing a new song," "references the theme of finding a balance between change and tradition."

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: 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)

Rabbi Glazer Reviews Kabbalah and Ecology

Kabbalah&EcologyIt's Earth Day! What better time to highlight Rabbi Glazer's review of Rabbi David Seidenberg‘s book Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image In The More-Than-Human World (Cambridge University Press, 2015)? The book review was published in the March 2016 of the journal Theological Studies, but can read it in full by clicking here.

In the write-up, Rabbi Glazer suggests that Pope Francis’s 2015 Papal encyclical Laudato si’ (“On the Care for Our Common Home”), while a laudable "watershed," includes one "potential shortcoming." Pope Francis focuses on reassessing the relationship and differences between "dominion" and "stewardship," but Rabbi Glazer and Rabbi Seidenberg worry that casting humanity as Earth's stewards is too limiting an understanding of the human place in things. From the review's conclusion:

"Rabbi Seidenberg brings a bold eco-theology of the more-than-human world of nature that seeks to 'be directed toward the future,' one that must 'not only push us to evolve theology, but also to illuminate for us, in critical ways, the meaning of ancient texts and ideas, and the history of those ideas and texts.' While Laudato si’ should be captivating our theological attention, Rabbi Seidenberg’s theology contributes to the emergence of eco-theologies that reach beyond stewardship into a robust, devotional engagement with a more Gaian spiritual activism emerging from Jewish mystical sources."

Mystics of Mile End Book Talk

Sigal headshot (1)On Monday, April 25, author Sigal Samuel will present a book talk about her acclaimed debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, which tells the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family obsessed with climbing the Kabbalah's Tree of Life.

Brother and sister Lev and Samara Meyer live in Montreal's Mile End — a mashup of hipsters and Hasidic Jews. They have a fairly typical childhood, other than that their father is distracted, their mother is dead, and down the street Mr. Katz is trying to recreate the biblical Tree of Knowledge out of plucked leaves, toilet paper rolls, and dental floss. When their father, David, an atheist professor of Jewish mysticism, is diagnosed with an unusual heart murmur, he becomes convinced that his heart is whispering divine secrets. But as David's frenzied attempts to ascend the Tree of Life lead to tragedy, Samara and Lev set out — in separate and divisive ways — to finish what he's started. It falls to next-door neighbor and Holocaust survivor Chaim Glassman to shatter the silence that divides the members of the Meyer family. But can he break through to them in time?Mystics of Mile End book cover

Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Currently opinion editor at the Forward, she has also published work in the Daily Beast, the Rumpus, BuzzFeed, and Electric Literature. She has appeared on NPR, BBC, and Huffington Post Live. Her six plays have been produced in theaters from Vancouver to New York. Originally from Montreal, Sigal now lives in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.

The cost of attendance is $18 and includes a copy of the novel. Given that the book retails for $16 on Amazon, this is a wonderful deal! RSVP early as we are limited to 30 books. Refreshments will be provided.

CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS.

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THIS BOOK TALK WAS RECORDED. LISTEN TO AUTHOR SIGAL SAMUEL IN CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST ELYSSA WORTZMAN BY CLICKING THE "PLAY" BUTTON BELOW. [audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/MyticsOfMileEndBooktalk_April2016.mp3"][/audio]

Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1-24:18

CoverDesign_MishpatimWhat is the deeper story woven into this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperative and 30 prohibitions?

As Jewish historian Jacob Katz (born November 15, 1904, in Magyargencs, Hungary, and died May 20, 1998, in Israel) insisted in his book Halakhah and Kabbalah: Studies in the History of Jewish Religion, its Various Faces and Social Relevance (1984), halacha is inextricably intertwined with Kabbalah. In other words, Jewish law is intertwined with Jewish mysticism, and there are many examples of mainstream halachic practice being informed by Kabbalistic customs.

As Lehrhaus Philosophy Circle of the Bay Area participants have been learning through our study of the Book of Splendor known as the Zohar, the mystical masterpiece is set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings. The mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Last week, CBS launched a new Shabbat pamphlet that features original cover art inspired by mid-20th century graphic design. The artwork that accompanies this post is an abstract representation of Exodus 24:17 ("And the appearance of the glory of G-d was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses came within the cloud.") Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit: Tu B'Shevat In A Nutshell

With Tu B'Shevat less than a week away, we're sharing another Kezayit feature here. What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Trees
This coming Monday, January 25, is Tu B'Shevat (literally translating as "the 15th of Shevat").

Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (in 70 C.E.), Tu B'Shevat was a fiscal and agricultural year turnover, the date on which Israelite farmers calculated what tree and fruit crop tithes they owed the Temple.

Once Jews were living in diaspora, however, the rabbis reconceived Tu B'Shevat as a minor holiday during which Jews recalled and celebrated their ties to the Holy Land. For 1,500 years, Tu B'Shevat was a relative blip on the Jewish holiday calendar. That began to change in the 16th century, when the date became a spiritual locus for Jewish mystics. Rabbi Isaac Luria and his Safed disciples created a Kabbalistic Tu B'Shevat seder that emphasizes spiritual nourishment of the Tree of Life. The language of the seder roughly maps the sephirot, the ten Divine Emanations of G-d according to Kabbalah, as a tree -- roots, trunk, branches, and leaves.

Fast forward another 300 years or so, and Tu B'Shevat was given yet another makeover. The Jewish National Fund began celebrating the holiday as a kind of Israeli Arbor Day, a way to raise public awareness of and international support for their afforestation campaign. Because of this new association, many Jewish Americans would come to think of Tu B'Shevat as a "Jewish Earth Day."

Today, Tu B'Shevat is growing in popular observance, and is flavored with a little bit of mysticism, a little bit of environmentalism, and a lot of nuts, olives, figs, and other tasty treats.

Oh, and apparently the holiday precipitated a rap song and video that's so embarrassing it's almost endearing. Click the screenshot below to subject yourself to three minutes of incredulity and aural vexation. Do it for the trees.


Lead image credit: "South lake view; Angora Lakes Resort; South Lake Tahoe, CA; September 2015," Christopher Orev Reiger

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

Shemot -- Exodus 1:1-6:1

2009_04_L1Giordano Bruno, the Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, and scientist who was eventually burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church's Inquisition for asserting that the universe is infinite and that Earth is not its center, observed:

"There is one simple Divinity found in all things, one fecund Nature, preserving mother of the universe insofar as she diversely communicates herself, casts her light into diverse subjects, and assumes various names."

Names define the Book of Exodus. As the children of Israel are growing numerous and prospering generations after Joseph’s rise to grand vizier of Egypt, it is their names that remain.

This prosperity and integration is perceived as a threat to their Egyptian overlords. In the process of Pharaoh’s enslaving the Israelites, he also orders the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah to kill all male babies by throwing them into the Nile.

If it was not for the righteous indignation of the midwives, Moses would never have come onto the scene. This child born to Yocheved, daughter of Levi, and her husband Amram, is placed in a basket along the Nile River. It is Pharaoh’s daughter who discovers the baby hidden in the basket while bathing in the Nile and names him Moses.

Fast forward to Moses fleeing the palace, finding his way to Midian, where he rescues Tzipporah, daughter of local chieftain and priest of Midian, Jethro. He later marries Tzipporah and becomes a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks. Moses continues to wander in search of the truth, finally encountering the divine in the renowned theophany of the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai.

As Moses and Aaron challenge Pharaoh’s recalcitrance to free the Israelites, the people hold fast to the hope that redemption is at hand. When we know the depth of our own name’s message, exodus is all the more apparent.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: "turned, to a transparent fire," by Christopher Orev Reiger, 2009 -- this painting was created as an oblique reference to theophany and pantheism (of the sort Giordano Bruno and some Kabbalists embrace)

An Overview of Rabbi Glazer's Israel Trip

From Sunday, December 20, 2015 - Sunday, January 3, 2016, Rabbi Glazer will visit Israel to present some of his recent research, give book talks, study with renowned Israeli scholars, and participate in a program for college students.

7911984On December 24, he will teach in the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem's Winter Break study program, Ta’amu U’r’u – Taste and See. His session is titled “Beginnings Forever After: How do we understand the depths of beginning a relationship to Talmud Torah according to Kabbalah & Hasidut?”

Rabbi Glazer will also give book talks at two Masorti communities -- Neve Schecter, in Tel Aviv, on December 24, and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem on December 31. His talk, "Is Jewish Thinking Possible After Auschwitz?," interrogates the (im)possibility of Jewish thinking -- and serious metaphysical thought at large -- following the essays of philosopher, pianist, and aesthetician Theodor W. Adorno. These two talks occur in conjunction with the Hebrew-language publication of Rabbi Glazer's A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Theory After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought (Resling Press, Tel Aviv).

"The Zohar: East and West" international conference takes place December 28-30, with two days of sessions at Ben Gurion University, Be'er Sheva, and the final day at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 3.52.39 PMCelebrating the culmination of Daniel Matt’s Priztker Edition translation of the Zohar, Rabbi Glazer will present his research on Tiberean Hasdisim's usage of Kabbalah. His presentation will be drawn from his paper, “Between Quietism of the 'Still Mind' & Merging in 'Ecstatic Kisses' In the Holy Land: Zohar as Hermeneutics of Contemplation in Tiberean Hasidism," which explores how the spiritual practice of quieting the busy mind can allow the practitioner to be more fully present and self-actualizing in their interactions with others. In particular, Rabbi Glazer considers how these ideas are expressed in the 18th century spiritual community of Tiberias and its application of the Zohar?

We wish Rabbi Glazer nesiyah tovah (good travels) and fruitful teaching and learning while abroad!

If you need pastoral services during Rabbi Glazer's absence, please contact the CBS offices; we have emergency clergy available in case of birth, death, or serious illness.

Julia in Israel: The Adventure Continues!

Today is our third full day in Israel and we have covered so much ground in this short period of time. Yesterday we traveled to Tzfat, one of the four holy cities in Israel. We went to the home of an incredible artist named David Friedman, who is influenced by Kabbalah, a jewish mysticism. His artwork has vibrant watercolors, geometric shapes, and hebrew lettering. Each painting has layers of meaning and I was in awe as he peeled each one away, revealing more about his art and the facets of Kabbalism.

Congregation Beth Sholom San Francisco

The city is 6,000 years old and many buildings still exude this history- stonewalls, iron gates, and damage from several earthquakes. The population is generally more observant and you can see this in the clothing they wear- women cover their hair and men have paeot. We concluded our day at the mikveh, a ritual bathhouse. The women were given a tour of the spa-like space and engaged in a discussion about the mitzvah of the mikveh, and dating and marrying in the orthodox sect.

Congregation Beth Sholom San Francisco

We drove to Tel Aviv that evening, and what an extreme dichotomy from Tzfat! Today in Tel Aviv, 7 Israeli peers joined our trip and I'm excited to speak with them about their experience growing up in the country and serving in the IDF. We visited Rabin Square and independence Hall and learned about the creation of the state of Israel and the war of Independence. I still feel like there is so much to discuss; we really just skimmed the surface on Israel's history. Luckily we are having another political talk this evening, once in Jerusalem. Afterwards we walked through the outdoor market in Tel Aviv; it was heavenly. Fresh fruit, amazing food, and filled with people. My friend and I explored the area and stumbled upon a small restaurant, which was more like a kitchen in someone's home. It was fantastic. Now we are on our way to Jerusalem and tomorrow we will spend Shabbat in the holiest city of Israel. More later, le'heit!