Chukat -- Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Chukat

"The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world."

I am often struck by the prescience of 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber, author of the influential The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05). Notwithstanding the "disenchantment" that ensues in modernity with the need to know the "why" of everything, Judaism posits that the search for the underlying reasoning behind halacha (Jewish religious law) is possible – with limitations.

This week, we are concerned with how to contextualize statutes, specifically laws like those related to the red heifer – namely, those ordained without rationale. Over the course of centuries, this inquiry has lead to a distinct genre of Jewish literature called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot, or Rationalization of the Commandments. If every commandment can be explained rationally, the modern mind will be satisfied. But what price will religion pay if all of its enchantment and mystery can be explained away through reason?

This is the tension that emerges in this week’s reading. Parashat Chukat describes the ritual that mixes ashes of the red heifer with living waters. While its symbolism remains a mystery to us, we know that a life committed to the spiritual practice of Torah is nourishing and life affirming! Like the living waters Miriam pointed the Israelites to throughout their desert sojourns, each of us can embrace life through sacral deeds we call mitzvot, whether we can explain them or not. The paradox of the red heifer is that the ashes of the pure render the impure pure, while the priests who are pure in preparing the ashes become defiled.

Moses also strikes the rock at this point in the journey rather than speaking to it in order to provide the thirsty Israelites with water. The Israelite’s thirst is slaked, but as a result of this burst of anger, both Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. Miriam dies in Zin, and Aaron dies at Hor Hahar, passing on the succession of the priesthood to his son, Elazar. As venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp following further discontent, Moses is commanded to place a brass serpent upon a pole to battle the plague. Those who look heavenwards will be healed. This culminates in a song sung by the Israelites to honor the miraculous well of Miriam that slaked their thirst in the desert. Moses then leads the people into battles against the Emorite kings, Sichon and Og, who appear recalcitrant in granting passage to the Israelite’s through their territories.

Amidst all these challenges, Moses remains committed to caring for and uplifting the Israelites. Against all odds, he trusts in the process that leads to the greater good – even in our own day, we still call this emunah, or faithfulness.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features a silhouette of our tradition’s sacred cow. It is nearly impossible to locate a red heifer (parah adumah) that meets the halachic requirements for the ritual purification sacrifice described in Parashat Chukat. The heifer is so rare, in fact, that tradition tells us only eight of them were sacrificed before the destruction of the Second Temple (and none after, of course). But their extreme rarity hasn’t stopped some Jews from looking for cows that pass muster. An Israeli organization dedicated to building the Third Temple has attempted to identify red heifer candidates since 1987. Over the course of those 30 years, they located two candidates that were eventually rejected and they currently claim to have a third, kosher candidate for consideration. If that cow also proves unsatisfactory, they plan to genetically engineer a red heifer that will meet the halachic requirements. And, no, we’re not making this up. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Facebook_CoverDesign_AchareiMot-KedoshimIn conversation with a Jewish artist, I once quipped that all artists must see their art as an offering to the Other Side. "What?!," the artist exclaimed. In order to quell the energy of the negative forces in the universe, I explained, the mystical interpretation of many rituals, especially sacrifice, is understood as a way of assuaging and keeping at bay the Other Side.

So what were the two Young Turk priests, Nadav and Avihu, up to with their offering as ritual artists? The enigmatic scene first described in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), returns in Parashat Acharei Mot with a sobering lesson about the episode.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta? Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who find in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. Sometimes, though, that ecstasy comes at a price – the Other Side can overtake even the most spiritual of ritual artists.

The fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw rather than engage in the real world with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. For Jewish art to be effective, it cannot withdraw from the world, but must engage directly with it by transforming it.

Reading Parashat Kedoshim, we're reminded that part of the reason Leviticus can be a challenging read is that it often seems as though there are competing voices of religious authority. Recall there are two distinct and independent schools of Torah in the Book of Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness Code. 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.

Interestingly, we see in Kedoshim that the Holiness Code is ecological in orientation, at least insofar as it emphasizes the web of relationships that unite various members of the land community – namely: earth, animal, and humans. Just as it is forbidden to cut "the edge" [pe’ah] of either "field" (19:9) or "human head and beard" (19:27), so we are invited to reorient our lives with greater ecological awareness of the place we play within the web of all sentient beings. Such a planetary awareness is what holiness demands of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract, painterly response to the many instances of "you shall not" in Acharei Mot / Kedoshim. Some contemporary readers are turned off by all these "negative commandments" (mitzvot lo taaseh), but such laws became essential as humans settled in large, agrarian centers. Codified behavior provided increased predictability in social interaction, and these codes of conduct were enforced to direct society toward cohesion and stability; the many prohibitions serve as a bulwark against barbarism and the breakdown of social bonds. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tzav -- Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

CoverDesign_TzavThe Greek diplomat, Solon (638-558 BCE) once remarked:

"Learn to obey before you command."

What is the relationship between obedience and commandedness [t'zivui] and how does it affect our relationship to sacral duties [mitzvot]?

From hearing the calling to obeying the command [tzav], Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's sons all receive the divine command regarding their duties as priests [kohanim] to make offerings [qorbanot] in the Sanctuary. The fire on the altar must be kept burning at all times, so as to completely consume: the ascent offering [‘olah]; veins of fat from the peace offering [shelamim]; sin offering [hatat]; guilt offering [asham]; and the handful taken from the meal offering [minha]. The priests are permitted to eat the meat of the sin and guilt offerings, as well as the remainder of the meal offering. The peace offering is offered by the one who brought it, with sections apportioned to the priest. Consumption of the holy meat offerings are to be eaten by a person for whom it is ritually appropriate, in a designated place and time.

Initiation into the priesthood for Aaron and his sons takes place over the seven day retreat in the sanctuary compound. Sometimes it takes the perspective of retreat to truly see how our relationship to each and every mitzvah -- no matter how potentially burdensome initially -- is ultimately a great gift all along.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork highlights the body parts Moses marks with blood during the initiation of Aaron and his sons as kohanim. Why the cartilage of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot? (Leviticus 8:23) According to Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), "The fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot of the pilgrimage of life." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayikra -- Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

A strange miniature Aleph opens this week’s parsha, the only one of its kind in the Torah. What does it mean? In our study of the Zohar, we discovered the most remarkable insight:

A miniature aleph — deriving from a diminished place, diminished becoming great as it joins above.

The mystics understand this seemingly obscure scribal tradition of miniaturizing this particular Aleph as a way of showing that although the divine called to Moses, and although the divine showed Moses tremendous respect by constantly speaking to him, Moses still constantly diminished himself before the divine and also before the community of Israel. Indeed, cultivating humility before the divine encounter is a central concern addressed through all the offerings made in the Book of Leviticus.

The Book of Leviticus is also a compendium that sharply contrasts with our classic prophetic teachings, which compose most of the weekly haftarot. For the prophets, the God of Moses is the divine source of morality, and social justice is maintained through the fulfillment of ethical commands (mitzvot). According to the renowned Israeli scholar Dr. Israel Knohl, the Priestly Torah in the Book of Leviticus is distinguished by the centrality of cultic command (as opposed to ethical command); this cultic command is portrayed as the principal content of divine revelation. In his book, Sanctuary of Silence (2007), Knohl argues that the unmediated divine revelation that "is the climactic moment in Israel’s history" is "not revelation at Sinai but revelation at the Tabernacle, associated with sacrificial worship."

Waiting for the cultic calling, it is only fitting then that Moses hears the still, silent voice of the divine from the nexus of cultic activity — the Tent of Meeting [Ohel Moed]. From this point of calling [Vayikrah] — the namesake of this third book of the Pentateuch — the laws of offerings, whether meal or animal, are communicated. These include: (1) Ascent offering [‘olah] — wholly raised up in ascent to the divine by fire atop the altar; (2) Meal offering [minha] — prepared of fine flour, olive oil, and frankincense; (3) Peace offering [shelamim] — animal burned on the altar, with parts given to the priest and other meat eaten by the one bringing the offering; (4) Sin offering [hatat] — brought to atone for transgressions committed in error by the high priest, the entire community, the king, or any Israelite; (5) Guilt offering [asham] — brought by one who has misappropriated property of the sanctuary or is in doubt of transgression.

It is remarkable that even in moments of apparent disconnection from the divine, there is always a way to draw closer in the act of repairing by remaining connected through ritual life. The key to opening the doorway of connection, though, is to be as humble as the diminished Aleph.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's parsha illustration marks my last for Beth Sholom. It's inspired by storyteller Joel Lurie Grishaver's insistence that we, as contemporary Jews, "try to look Leviticus in the eye – to take it on its own terms. No rationalizations. No mutations. No metaphors. ... Look directly into the fire at the bottom of the altar, and without flinching tell it: 'Go ahead, make my faith.'" Leviticus is hard. Much of Torah is hard. That's partly why it's been a privilege to create weekly parshiyot illustrations for the past 112 weeks (just over two full cycles). Torah study of all kinds demands we look long and hard into the flames, even when it's easier to look away. In so doing, we can spot the threads of personal or communal significance that run through Torah's black fire on white fire like pure threads of techelet, here radiating heavenward amidst a burning offering. Todah rabbah for looking and reading with me. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Michael Ross' Bar Mitzvah

Shalom. My name is Michael Ross. I'm an eighth grader at The Brandeis School of San Francisco and I am becoming a bar mitzvah this Shabbat, 11 Elul 5777.

A bit about me:
I love to play the electric guitar, and have been taking music lessons at The Blue Bear School of Music for six years. My preferred music genre is rock, but I also play jazz in the Brandeis band. I love cars, and am interested in engineering and modern technology/machines, especially computers. I also play tennis.

My parsha is Ki Teitzei. It contains the greatest number of laws of any parsha in the whole Torah – 74, including laws regarding humane treatment of animals and of the most vulnerable members of society, as well as laws curbing animal instincts such as incest and rape, even during war. Some laws address how we are to treat people and their property, and others how we should please and serve God. We are told to keep all of our disputes between people and not involve nature or animals, again even during war. These laws were all meant to raise the Israelites and ultimately the rest of the world from a selfish and brutal state to an elevated state of community and society.

I have family and friends coming from all over the world, and I look forward to sharing this experience with them and with my Beth Sholom community in which I've grown up.

I hope to see you this Shabbat when I become a bar mitzvah, a son of these many commandments!

Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

German Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt once remarked: "Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core."

How do we discern the difference between hypocrisy and evil? And then how do we confront evil in life? For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good so as to live with hypocrisy-free integrity.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration of defaced wheatpaste posters on an urban wall is inspired by Deuteronomy 25:19: "...you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!" This biblical injunction is the basis for three of the 613 mitzvot: Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites; Wipe out the descendants of Amalek; Do not forget Amalek's atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert. If you’re an art aficionado and this portrayal of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the portrait is a wild-haired riff on one of Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s famous self portraits. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Devarim -- Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Facebook_CoverDesign_DevarimThe great American boxer Muhammad Ali once remarked: "It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen."

When we turn to the repetition of the Law through its namesake (the Book of Deuteronomy, from deutero, meaning "repetition," and nomos, meaning "law"), we find Moses laying out his legacy plan through the repetition of the Law to the assembly.

Part of this Mosaic legacy entails his recounting the Israelites' 40-year journey from Egypt to Sinai, and eventually to the Promised Land. Part of the challenge along the way has been to solidify a cohesive practice. Moses now recognizes that this practice must take the form of sacral deeds called mitzvot.

Tied up with his reiteration of the Law, Moses also recounts the further challenges he faced as leader – countless battles with warring nations as well as the inter-tribal conflicts surrounding division of land. The generation of the desert, still imbued with the Egyptian slave mentality, must die out before a new community can be truly committed to this covenant.

For the legacy to be good and effective, Moses must transmit to Joshua, who engages in "counter-effectuation" — the possibility of conviction emerging from repetition is how the Mosaic legacy is carried forward with his own imprint.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is a depiction of Joshua. Behind him, loosely rendered, we see spectres of the Nephilim, the giants or fallen angels that reportedly inhabited the Promised Land. Unlike their ten scout companions, Joshua and Caleb believed the Israelites could conquer Canaan's fearsome inhabitants. For his bravery and virtue, Joshua would later inherit the mantle of Moses. "But Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you he will go there; strengthen him, for he will cause Israel to inherit it." (Deuteronomy 1:38) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Chukat -- Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Chukat"The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world."

I am often struck by the prescience of 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber, author of the influential The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05). Notwithstanding the "disenchantment" that ensues in modernity with the need to know the "why" of everything, Judaism posits that the search for the underlying reasoning behind halacha (Jewish religious law) is possible – with limitations.

This week, we are concerned with how to contextualize statutes, specifically laws like those related to the red heifer – namely, those ordained without rationale. Over the course of centuries, this inquiry has lead to a distinct genre of Jewish literature called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot, or Rationalization of the Commandments. If every commandment can be explained rationally, the modern mind will be satisfied. But what price will religion pay if all of its enchantment and mystery can be explained away through reason?

This is the tension that emerges in this week’s reading. Parashat Chukat describes the ritual that mixes ashes of the red heifer with living waters. While its symbolism remains a mystery to us, we know that a life committed to the spiritual practice of Torah is nourishing and life affirming! Like the living waters Miriam pointed the Israelites to throughout their desert sojourns, each of us can embrace life through sacral deeds we call mitzvot, whether we can explain them or not. The paradox of the red heifer is that the ashes of the pure render the impure pure, while the priests who are pure in preparing the ashes become defiled.

Moses also strikes the rock at this point in the journey rather than speaking to it in order to provide the thirsty Israelites with water. The Israelite’s thirst is slaked, but as a result of this burst of anger, both Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. Miriam dies in Zin, and Aaron dies at Hor Hahar, passing on the succession of the priesthood to his son, Elazar. As venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp following further discontent, Moses is commanded to place a brass serpent upon a pole to battle the plague. Those who look heavenwards will be healed. This culminates in a song sung by the Israelites to honor the miraculous well of Miriam that slaked their thirst in the desert. Moses then leads the people into battles against the Emorite kings, Sichon and Og, who appear recalcitrant in granting passage to the Israelite’s through their territories.

Amidst all these challenges, Moses remains committed to caring for and uplifting the Israelites. Against all odds, he trusts in the process that leads to the greater good – even in our own day, we still call this emunah, or faithfulness.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features a silhouette of our tradition’s sacred cow. It is nearly impossible to locate a red heifer (parah adumah) that meets the halachic requirements for the ritual purification sacrifice described in Parashat Chukat. The heifer is so rare, in fact, that tradition tells us only eight of them were sacrificed before the destruction of the Second Temple (and none after, of course). But their extreme rarity hasn’t stopped some Jews from looking for cows that pass muster. An Israeli organization dedicated to building the Third Temple has attempted to identify red heifer candidates since 1987. Over the course of those 30 years, they located two candidates that were eventually rejected and they currently claim to have a third, kosher candidate for consideration. If that cow also proves unsatisfactory, they plan to genetically engineer a red heifer that will meet the halachic requirements. And, no, we’re not making this up. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Facebook_CoverDesign_AchareiMot-KedoshimIn conversation with a Jewish artist, I recently quipped that all artists must see their art as an offering to the Other Side. "What?!," the artist exclaimed. In order to quell the energy of the negative forces in the universe, I explained, the mystical interpretation of many rituals, especially sacrifice, is understood as a way of assuaging and keeping at bay the Other Side.

So what were the two Young Turk priests, Nadav and Avihu, up to with their offering as ritual artists? The enigmatic scene first described in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), returns in Parashat Acharei Mot with a sobering lesson about the episode.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta? Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who find in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. Sometimes, though, that ecstasy comes at a price – the Other Side can overtake even the most spiritual of ritual artists.

The fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw rather than engage in the real world with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. For Jewish art to be effective, it cannot withdraw from the world, but must engage directly with it by transforming it.

Reading Parashat Kedoshim, we're reminded that part of the reason Leviticus can be a challenging read is that it often seems as though there are competing voices of religious authority. Recall there are two distinct and independent schools of Torah in the Book of Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness Code. 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.

Interestingly, we see in Kedoshim that the Holiness Code is ecological in orientation, at least insofar as it emphasizes the web of relationships that unite various members of the land community – namely: earth, animal, and humans. Just as it is forbidden to cut "the edge" [pe’ah] of either "field" (19:9) or "human head and beard" (19:27), so we are invited to reorient our lives with greater ecological awareness of the place we play within the web of all sentient beings. Such a planetary awareness is what holiness demands of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract, painterly response to the many instances of "you shall not" in Acharei Mot / Kedoshim. Some contemporary readers are turned off by all these "negative commandments" (mitzvot lo taaseh), but such laws became essential as humans settled in large, agrarian centers. Codified behavior provided increased predictability in social interaction, and these codes of conduct were enforced to direct society toward cohesion and stability; the many prohibitions serve as a bulwark against barbarism and the breakdown of social bonds. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tzav – Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

Facebook_CoverDesign_TzavLeviticus is a challenging book to absorb. On one hand, many observant Jews the world over consider the Priestly tradition (as articulated throughout Leviticus) to be obsessed with time-conditioned commands that are far removed from our lived experience today. On the other hand, thanks to the biased scholarship of Julius Wellhausen, critical readers of the Hebrew Bible have unquestioningly inherited a negative view of the Priestly Code, regarding it as a theology that tends towards denaturalization and abstracts the natural conditions and motives of the actual life of the people in the land of Canaan. Thankfully, in her book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Ellen Davis argues that the opposite is the case – namely, that Leviticus articulates a theologically profound vision of the complex interdependency of the created order.

So what then is the relationship between obedience and commandedness [t'zivui] and how does it affect our relationship to sacral duties [mitzvot]?

From hearing the calling to obeying the command [tzav], Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's sons all receive the divine command regarding their duties as priests [kohanim] to make offerings [qorbanot] in the Sanctuary. The fire on the altar must be kept burning at all times, so as to completely consume: the ascent offering [‘olah]; veins of fat from the peace offering [shelamim]; sin offering [hatat]; guilt offering [asham]; and the handful taken from the meal offering [minha]. The priests are permitted to eat the meat of the sin and guilt offerings, as well as the remainder of the meal offering. The peace offering is offered by the one who brought it, with sections apportioned to the priest. Consumption of the holy meat offerings are to be eaten by a person for whom it is ritually appropriate, in a designated place and time. Initiation into the priesthood for Aaron and his sons takes place over the seven day retreat in the sanctuary compound.

What makes this profound vision of the complex interdependency of the created order real is the degree to which human beings responsibly participate in that order.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s artwork is inspired by the following instruction: "An earthenware vessel in which [the sin offering] is cooked shall be broken..." (Leviticus 6:21) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Two

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study is back, meeting each Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants are studying the fourth chapter of Tractate Shabbat using the Adin Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud. If you don’t have a copy, bring a tablet or laptop so that you can use the free online version.

Henry is contributing regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus providing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions with a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. Chapter Two of his exploration appears below.

You can read "CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple" by clicking here.

* * * * *
What is Talmud Study?

Chapter Two: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself. (Have you read Tristram Shandy? If not, you really should. Poor Tristram becomes quite familiar with this sort of thing.)

As I discussed last week, the Written Torah consists of Torah, Prophets, and Writings – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. We know that at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple all of the books of the Tanakh existed in written form. We have the physical examples that were discovered at Qumran on the Dead Sea. Some people believe that the entire Tanakh is the precise word of God. If we accept this (and even if we don’t), how did the word of God come to be written down?

Writing and Jewish law (halacha) are connected from the beginning within the Tanakh. The first mitzvot to be revealed are the Ten Commandments. These come in two drafts. The first, written by "the Hand of God," doesn’t make it to us intact. The one that we actually get to read from is inscribed into stone by Moses.

There are a number of lessons about writing in the Jewish tradition that we can learn from this story:
1) Use of the written word is an attribute that we share with the Divine.
2) Our written texts, physically produced by human hands, are sufficiently similar to those produced by the Divine "Hand" that they can have the full authority of the words of the Divine.
3) The written word can partake of the same permanence – that is, the same perfection – as the word of the Divine received directly.

The Written Law has the virtues of permanence and fixity. Appearing in the written text, it provides a certainty on which the believer can base their confidence that the will of God can be known, followed, and be made a source of constant support.

These virtues can also become weaknesses, however. Permanence is the extreme of orthodoxy. Humanity is ever shifting in location, social mores, technology, artistry, and even temperament. As long as the Law remains at the center of human concerns, permanence works in its favor. But, if the law becomes dislodged from that center even slightly, that permanence is transformed into a weakness.

If the Law requires a physicality, it is always threatened. The first set of tablets is smashed. The people remain without the benefit of the Law until a second set of tablets can be carved for them. Dependence on fixity of physical permanence stifles the preservation of the Law through memory. When the Law enters memory through repeated reading or through memorization of an oral text, it enters the mesh of human memory and, like the human mind as a whole, becomes malleable.

In the First Temple period, both sets of tablets lie in the Ark. They are not brought forth. We never hear of the reading of the Law until the reign of Hezekiah, when a lost scroll (generally assumed to be the Book of Deuteronomy) is rediscovered during the renovation of the Temple. It becomes clear from the aftermath of the reading of that scroll that the Israelites (Judahites) had forgotten most of what Moses had taught. The quality of Jewish faith in the First Temple period seems thin to us now. It appears to be a brittle monotheism lacking all of the intellectual ferment that we associate with the Jewish mind.

The nations of Israel and Judah come under dire threat in the eras of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The coming of a new or renewed faith among Jacob’s children starts to become visible. Writing and the technology of writing plays a part in this change.

Next week, we'll find hints of an explanation of the ties that bind the Written Law to the Oral Law.

READ CHAPTER THREE: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.
Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

Our Talmud Shiur Resumes

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study returns next Tuesday, March 28, at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants will begin the fourth chapter of Tractate Shabbat using the Adin Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud. If you don’t have a copy, bring a tablet or laptop so that you can use the free online version.

As the shiur prepares to resume after a brief break, Henry has decided to contribute regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus allowing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions to appreciate a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. The first of these appears below.

* * * * *
What is Talmud Study?

Chapter One: In which a simple question proves not so simple.

What is Talmud study? Talmud study is distinct from other types of Jewish text study. It is an investigation of the Oral Torah rather than the Written Torah. What does that mean?

Written Torah is the Tanakh – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, also known as The Five Books of Moses, The Prophets, and The Writings. Tanakh is the combined canonized text of the Jewish Bible (alternatively known as Mikra or the Hebrew Bible, but never the deeply offensive "Old Testament.") When we listen to a rabbi’s sermon or study Parsha HaShavua (the weekly Torah portion) we are studying the Written Torah directly. If we read Rashi, Nachmanides, Nechama Leibowitz, or Aviva Zornberg, we are reading Oral Torah commentaries on the Written Torah.

Every Jewish text that has appeared after the texts canonized in the Written Torah is the Oral Torah. The Written Torah mixes narrative and legal material freely. These types of thought diverged into more specialized discussions in the oral lore that began as soon as the Written Torah was revealed. These separate threads are referred to as aggadah (Rabbinic literature) and halacha (Jewish Law). Aggadah develops into a body of texts referred to broadly as the midrash. Midrash includes Pirek de Rebbe Eliezer, Midrash Rabbah, the Mekhiltas, Sifre, and others. These works comment directly and closely on Tanakh. Midrash is often said to be an effort to fill in the vast open spaces in Biblical narrative left open by the Tanakh’s laconic style, and this is certainly true. Midrash is quirky and explosively imaginative. Over time, the midrash has taken on the role of a canonized text, but its direct origins are in rabbinic sermons of the first and second centuries. As printed books, these works are organized to show how they directly depend on and relate to the structure of Written Torah.

The Zohar, the central mystical text of Judaism and the seed out of which much of subsequent Jewish mysticism grows, is also organized as a commentary on the Five Books of Moses. While the Zohar flies as far as the mind will let it, it always returns to the end of the day to the Written Torah like a homing pigeon.

But the Talmud is not organized around the Written Torah. It is organized as a commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the body of text that emerged out of the oral discussions of the halacha. (Besides the Mishnah, vital but less central early halachic texts are the Tosefta and the various small traditions recorded in Baraitot.) Mishnah is an explication of how one should go about the practical details of observing the halachot (laws) that we find in the Tanakh.

We also refer to these laws at the 613 mitzvot. Some mitzvot seem clear, such as "Thous Shalt Not Kill." Others, such as "A Jealous Husband Must Take His Wife to the Priests and Not Put Oil on Her Meal Offering," are a bit more opaque. Like all rules, Biblical law often seems much more easily understood in theory than in practice.

The Mishnah speaks in its own voice. Even though it derives its subject and meaning from an aspect of the Tanakh it does not quote from Tanakh nor is it organized around the structure of the Tanakh.

Mishnah is the central element of Talmud. Talmud includes the Mishnah and a later, vastly larger, text referred to as the Gemara. The Gemara purports to be a commentary on the Mishnah. (When we open a page of Talmud, we see much more on the page, but that's a subject for another day.) The Mishnah is an organized and thorough effort to make obeying the will of God a practical possibility. It is also an assertion that the human relationship with the Divine functions as a result of the probing human intellect at work.

Where does this come from? How true is the last assertion above? And what is Talmud study?

Next week, I will discuss the origins of the Mishnah and the "writtenness" of the Written Torah.

READ CHAPTER TWO: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself.

Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

Simona Lewis' Bat Mitzvah

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SimonaLewis

Hello. My name is Simona Lewis. I’m an eighth grader at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. My interests include hanging out with my friends, dancing, playing and creating computer games, and spending time with my family. This coming Shabbat, September 10, I will become a bat mitzvah.

My parsha is Shoftim, which means judges. In this parsha, Moses tells the Israelites about different rules about appointing judges and how to have a just society. He explains the requirements to be a judge, the rules about the cities of refuge, as well as the requirements a king must have if the Israelites choose to appoint one. Parashat Shoftim also includes the famous commandment, "Tzedek tzedek tirdof," or, "Justice, justice you shall pursue."

I would like to thank my parents for always being there for me and helping me prepare for this big day in my life. I would also like to thank Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel for her support and for helping me learn how to read and chant Torah and haftarah, as well as helping me write my drash. I would also like to thank my brother and sister for encouraging me and listening to me practice countless times. Lastly, I would like to thank The Brandeis School of San Francisco and the Congregation Beth Sholom community for celebrating this milestone in my life with me and my family.

Please note that Simona's bat mitzvah will take place at Camp Newman on Saturday, September 10, but that she will observe a tefillinbat mitzvah at CBS this Thursday, September 8, during morning minyan (7 a.m.).

Simone Jochnowitz's Bat Mitzvah

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Facebook_Jochnowitz

Hello. My name is Simone Jochnowitz. I’m an eighth grader at A.P. Giannini Middle School. My interests include hanging out with my friends, playing trombone in my school band, dancing, and going on walks with my dog. This coming Shabbat, August 27, I will become a bat mitzvah.

My parsha is Ekev, which means "if." In this parsha, Moses tells the people Israel about all the good things that will happen to them IF they follow the laws and commandments that he has taught them. He reminds them about the unfortunate episode involving the Golden Calf, and other evil actions they committed during their 40 years in the desert. Parashat Ekev also contains the famous question, "What does HaShem want?" (The answer: "Follow his ways and do justice.")

I would like to thank my mother and father for teaching me the haftarah and helping me with my speech; Rabbi Glazer for his support; my brother and sisters for their love and encouragement; and the Congregation Beth Sholom community for celebrating this simcha with me and my family.

Devarim -- Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Facebook_CoverDesign_DevarimThe Hebrew name for the fifth book of the Torah is Devarim, meaning "spoken words." The title is apt – Devarim consists of three speeches made by Moses to the assembled Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. The Greek name for the book, though, is apt in another way. Deuteronomy, from the roots deutero and nomos, meaning "repetition" and "law," respectively, is best translated as "repetition of the law." Why is this repetition meaningful?

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze famously argued in Difference and Repetition (1968) that "repetition for itself" is a distinct form of repetition, one freed from being a mere reiteration of an original, identical thing. For Deleuze, this means that some repetition can be the repetition of difference instead of a facsimile. Rather than this being a case of "eternal return," repetition is the return of what Deleuze considers "the differential genetic condition of real experience," or "an individuation of a concrete entity." Ultimately, Deleuze posits, this individuation of entities happens through the actualization, integration, or resolution of a "differentiated virtual field of Ideas." These Ideas are themselves changed, via "counter-effectuation," in each individuating event. Admittedly, this is heady stuff!

When we turn to the Book of Deuteronomy, we find Moses laying out his legacy plan through the repetition of the Law to the assembly. Part of this Mosaic legacy entails his recounting the Israelites' 40-year journey from Egypt to Sinai, and eventually to the Promised Land. Part of the challenge along the way has been to solidify a cohesive practice. Moses now recognizes that this practice must take the form of sacral deeds called mitzvot. Tied up with his reiteration of the Law, Moses also recounts the further challenges he faced as leader – countless battles with warring nations as well as the inter-tribal conflicts surrounding division of land. The generation of the desert, still imbued with the Egyptian slave mentality, must die out before a new community can be truly committed to this covenant.

For the legacy to be good and effective, Moses must transmit to Joshua, who engages in "counter-effectuation" — the possibility of multiple Ideas co-existing as he carries forward the Mosaic legacy, but with his own imprint.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features the opening words of Parashat Devarim. "These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav." (Deuteronomy 1:1) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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!

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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."

Camp Ramah Galim

Riding Your Wave In the Sea of Judaism: The Start-up Camp Ramah Galim

imgresThere is nothing quite like the oceanic rhythm of Camp Ramah campers and staff surrounding you from dawn till dusk. In those eternal moments, you begin to feel the pulse of this camp’s namesake — Galim. Singing, dancing, exploring, studying, rock climbing, scuba diving — an immersive summer at Camp Ramah in Northern California transforms hearts and minds to live Jewish lives.

Along with Elyssa and Talya, I have been blessed to visit, teach, and support our brand new Camp Ramah NorCal, known in Hebrew as Ramah Galim, or "Ramah of the Waves." Clearly, if we can create the ruach of Ramah amidst the strawberry fields of Watsonville, then we can do anything! Thanks to the devoted leadership of many, including CBS members Craig Miller and Alex Bernstein, Ramah Galim has been overwhelmed by the response of parents looking for a meaningful, authentic Jewish camping experience. Registration was expected at 100 and is now over 250! Who could resist such a panoply of ways to live your Judaism? Outdoor adventures, ocean explorations, and performing arts – each track of this new camp meets each child right where they are, lifting their souls ever higher.

Facebook_JoshHorwitz---AaronMiller---------RabbiGlazer_CampRamahNorcal_July2016 I've been part of Ramah since my second year as a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Traveling to and teaching at almost every Ramah in the Northeast, it has become clear to me that the many unique Ramah traditions mark a transformational camping movement born from the vision of Conservative/Masorti Judaism; the movement continues to inspire and renew one generation to the next, producing Jewish leaders and families unlike any other!

And so this summer I brought deep expectations – along with my family (who joined many other rabbinic families from near and far) – to Ramah NorCal, the new jewel in the Bay Area Jewish community. As rabbi of CBS, along with our amazing Youth Advisor, David Herrera, we look forward to our ongoing partnership with Ramah Galim and its leadership (headed by Rabbi Sarah Shulman) Facebook_SarahShulmanLielRabbiGlazer_CampRamahNorcal_July2016with the goal of ensuring more and more Jewish campers feel their unique pulse as part of the waves of this oceanic blessing of Ramah Galim, and that this summer magic washes back through our communal family in the coming years.

While Elyssa was facilitating Jewish art and spiritual direction workshops for all ages, I was blessed to teach the staff and campers about some of the layers of meaning within the name Ramah Galim. This culminated with our dedication of the Aron HaKodesh during the camp's Founder’s Day, when I shared two "take-aways" from the Zohar on the mystery of galim, or waves. Firstly, to be children of galim is to be riding the waves of our ancestors, as the children of Abraham and Sarah who enacted mitzvot as innumerable as galei yam, the waves of the sea. Secondly, to download the taste of the world that is coming – that is, Shabbat — we must be as galim, for all exists within these waves, intermingled, heaps upon heaps, reaching out to all!

I am grateful for the ability to support and partner with Ramah Galim, and I know that the camp is so appreciative of the unconditional support provided by CBS. The pulsing rhythm of our CBS spiritual life will only be enhanced by continuing to support Jewish camping experiences and making spaces for informal, experiential Judaism to come alive in our community! As we welcome Rebecca Goodman to our team as Director of Youth Education,Facebook_RabbiGlazerArkDedication2_CampRamahNorcal_July2016 along with David Herrera who is been blessed to spend all summer with our campers at Ramah Galim, we have great things to look forward to together! May we continue to be and become children of galim! That is the secret of Ramah Galim and it is the secret of CBS. Let us continue to reach out to all, making new friends and deepening old friendships so that we continue building and nurturing our Jewish lives with love as deep as the ocean. May this summer immerse our children in the waves of inspiration that make up the oceanic blessing of Judaism. From these children inherit a better world, thanks to the actions we commit to take.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Photo captions:
- Josh Horwitz, Sam Toeman, Aaron Miller, Raquel Sweet, Nathan Fell, Adina Sweet, and Rabbi Glazer at Camp Ramah NorCal
- Rabbi Sarah Shulman, Liel Shulman, & Rabbi Glazer at Camp Ramah NorCal
- Rabbi Glazer speaking at the dedication of the Ramah Galim ark during Founder's Day

Chukat -- Numbers 19:1 - 22:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Chukat2The courageous Somali-born Dutch activist and feminist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b. 1969), pleads with us to "recognize that we can no longer tolerate violent oppression of women in the name of religion and culture any more than we would tolerate violent oppression espoused by any other bully in the name of a twisted rationale."

While the shadow side of every religion is violence, how should one abide by laws for which there seems to be no rationale? The search for the underlying reasoning behind halacha (Jewish religious law) – specifically laws like those related to the red heifer – often reveals traditional statutes, namely, laws ordained without rationale. Over the course of centuries, this inquiry has lead to a distinct genre of Jewish literature called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot, or Rationalization of the Commandments. If every commandment can be explained rationally, the modern mind will be satisfied. But what price will religion pay if all of its enchantment and mystery can be explained away through reason?

This is the tension that emerges in this week’s reading. Parashat Chukat describes the ritual that mixes ashes of the red heifer with living waters. While its symbolism remains a mystery to us, we know that a life committed to the spiritual practice of Torah is nourishing and life affirming! Like the living waters Miriam pointed the Israelites to throughout their desert sojourns, each of us can embrace life through sacral deeds we call mitzvot, whether we can explain them or not. The paradox of the red heifer is that the ashes of the pure render the impure pure, while the priests who are pure in preparing the ashes become defiled.

Moses also strikes the rock at this point in the journey rather than speaking to it in order to provide the thirsty Israelites with water. The Israelite’s thirst is slaked, but as a result of this burst of anger, both Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. Miriam dies in Zin, and Aaron dies at Hor Hahar, passing on the succession of the priesthood to his son, Elazar. As venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp following further discontent, Moses is commanded to place a brass serpent upon a pole to battle the plague. Those who look heavenwards will be healed. This culminates in a song sung by the Israelites to honor the miraculous well of Miriam that slaked their thirst in the desert. Moses then leads the people into battles against the Emorite kings, Sichon and Og, who appear recalcitrant in granting passage to the Israelite’s through their territories.

Amidst all these challenges, Moses remains committed to caring for and uplifting the Israelites. Against all odds, he trusts in the process that leads to the greater good – even in our own day, we still call this emunah, or faithfulness.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a depiction of the Nehushtan, or "the brazen serpent." "Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live." (Numbers 21:9) As a lover of snakes – and someone who has lived with snakes for most of my life – I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Bechukotai -- Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34

Facebook_CoverDesign_BechukotaiEnglish critic Terry Eagleton (b. 1943) once astutely remarked:

"We face a conflict between civilization and culture, which used to be on the same side. Civilization means rational reflection, material well-being, individual autonomy, and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective, and irrational."

Earning material well-being is a necessity for the survival of civilization. But how often do we linger in the passionate embrace of the culture that is the fruit of our labors? Wisdom comes with an ability to both earn and enjoy.

In this week’s reading of Bechukotai, the Israelites are promised that if the commandments are kept, they will enjoy the material prosperity they have rightly earned as well as dwelling securely in the Holy Land. Conversely, should this covenant be abandoned or abrogated, there is a harsh rebuke, coupled with a warning of exile, persecution, and other manifestations of evil. Here, in Bechukotai, we also encounter a variety of pledges made as divine offerings, as well as the spiritual practice of setting aside a tenth known as tithing of firstlings and first fruits.

True wisdom then comes from earning material well-being through civilization as well as the passionate embrace of culture so that we may enjoy in sharing this well-being with others.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the litany of terrible fates that will befall the Israelites if they "do not listen to [G-d] and do not perform all [the] commandments": "Your land will be desolate, and your cities will be laid waste"; "I will incite the wild beasts of the field against you"; "You will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters you will eat." (Leviticus 26) In short, life gets much, much more Hobbesian. The text and imagery in the illustration come from Psalm 137, which may be read as a poetic caution against turning away from G-d: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Emor -- Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

CoverDesign_EmorIn a candid moment, the renowned American scholar of the Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels (b. 1943), once remarked that her research of these early religious texts taught her something interesting:

These ancient stories in religion speak to our desire. But they move us toward hope.

Where might one experience this correlation between desire and hope that really speaks to us about Judaism as a religion? Is it through interpersonal ethics? Familiar customs? Or, on the other hand, through rituals that deepen the human-divine relationship? Holiness calls out to us, but how and when do we hear the call?

The second section of Emor, literally “speaks out” and addresses us in describing 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 artwork is inspired by the many harsh directives that appear in Parashat Emor, directives that exclude many Israelites (e.g., the deformed, disabled, or sick) from full belonging and that command our ancestors to stone to death various offenders. From Leviticus 24:13-14: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him." Holiness may call out to us, but in the stratified and severe worldview of our ancestors, it has the voice of a potentate. So, again, with the wrestling! Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.