Bo -- Exodus 10:1–13:16

Insofar as it relates to modern life, religious scholars have cast the role of ritual in a certain light, understanding how it forms and informs our human societies and cultures through that preferred lens. In her renowned study, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992), the anthropologist of religion Catherine Bell challenges some of the assumptions that guide most religious scholarship. Bell suggests an approach to ritual activities less encumbered by assumptions about how ritual embodies dichotomies of thinking and acting; instead, she turns her focus to disclosing the strategies by which ritualized activities "do what they do," how and why they continue to stir us and remain relevant.

Every American Jew can attest to the power of ritualized activities "doing what they do" from generation to generation — think of the ubiquity of the Passover seder celebrations and its popularization with the Maxwell House Haggadah! Clearly, Bell is on to something here; the power of Exodus resonates to this day.

This section in the reading of Exodus serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach – to "passover" the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.

It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Exodus 13:9: "And it shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as a remembrance between your eyes, in order that the law of the Lord shall be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand the Lord took you out of Egypt." Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents discarded their tefillin and other Jewish ritual objects when they arrived in the United States. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes that "if skin divers dove into New York harbor, they could dredge up an underwater mountain of tefillin. As the boats carrying our great-grandfathers passed by the Statue of Liberty, they literally kissed their tefillin goodbye. Religious observance was for another land and another place." Today, many of us even outside of Orthodoxy have reclaimed ritual objects and practice. Laying tefillin is a powerful ritual and a daily reminder of the moment we hearkened to freedom. In every ritual act, there is liberating psychological potential. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Leilah Goode's Bat Mitzvah

Hello. My name is Leilah Goode. I am a seventh grader at Claire Lilienthal Middle School. I love playing soccer, going to pop concerts, watching movies, and hanging out with my friends in addition to exploring all that San Francisco has to offer.

In Parashat Bo ("Go!"), God commands Moses to "Go to Pharaoh" to continue to plead for the Israelites' freedom. Pharaoh refuses, and his refusal causes additional punishment to befall the Egyptians in the form of three more plagues: locusts, darkness, and, finally, the death of all firstborn Egyptian sons. As the firstborn Egyptians begin to die, Pharaoh relents, and Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses proclaims that each year on the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month, a festival lasting seven days will be celebrated in order to recall our freedom from slavery in Egypt.

Freedom, at last. In my d’var Torah, I contemplate the privilege of living in a society founded on freedom, the challenges freedom brings, and the vigilance with which we must protect our liberty. Freedom cannot be taken for granted, even in America.

I would like to thank my tutor, Noa Bar, for all her patience and perseverance in helping me learn my segments of this week’s Shabbat torah service. I would also like to thank Rabbi Glazer and Rabbinic Intern Amanda Russell for familiarizing my havurah with the weekly prayers and reinforcing that there are many acceptable interpretations of our stories. Thanks to my havurah and CBS for being part of a collective journey. And thanks to my family for encouraging me to embrace all aspects of my heritage.

Va'eira -- Exodus 6:2-9:35

The self-revelation of the divine to Moses is a unique moment in our spiritual history and changes the face of monotheism forever.

Emboldened and empowered, Moses and Aaron return before Pharaoh, demanding in the divine name,

Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s recalcitrance leads to the moment where Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, swallowing up the surrounding staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, followed by the famous plagues. Water to blood; swarms of frogs; lice infestations; hordes of beasts; pestilence; painful boils; all culminating in the seventh plague, a hail of fire and ice.

Immune to the plagues, however, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Pharaoh’s heart of stone. In response to the first five divine plagues, Pharaoh hardens his heart. In response to the remaining plagues, however, Torah states plainly that G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart. No matter the agent, the result is the same; "Pharaoh's heart is heavy." (Exodus 7:14) Rabbi Stuart Kelman, founding rabbi of Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom, suggests the first five plagues saw Pharaoh progressively hardening his own heart to the plight of the Hebrews and the demands of Moses. That hardening response soon becomes reflexive, a kind of muscle memory, so that the Pharaoh’s heart was already "sclerotic" by the sixth plague, and G-d merely ensures that Pharaoh "lives out the consequences of his own arrogance and ambition." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Micah Mangot's Bat Mitzvah

Shalom! My name is Micah Mangot. I am a seventh grader at Herbert Hoover Middle School. I enjoy reading, hanging out with my friends, singing, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my family, and swimming.

In Parashat Va'eira, on God's instruction, Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh refuses and God turns the water of the Nile into blood, Pharaoh is ready to let the Israelites go but God hardens his heart. This process repeats itself with the plagues of frogs, hordes of insects/wild animals, boils, and burning hail. Parashat Va'eira ends without any real resolution. Since God hardens Pharaoh's heart, the parsha raises a question of restrictions on our freedom. In my D'var Torah, I explore what restrictions there are on our freedom and how that relates to my bat mitzvah.

Becoming a bat mitzvah is a big moment. What is important is not only the actual service and party, but also all of the planning and learning that happens before. As a result of this process, I have learned perseverance and the skill of trope reading. To me, this is just the beginning of my learning and of being a part of the community.

I would like to thank my tutor Noa Bar for helping me learn the Hebrew necessary, Rabbi Glazer for working with me on my D'var Torah, and my family and extended family for supporting me wholeheartedly on this journey. I would also like to express my appreciation to the congregation.

Bo -- Exodus 10:1–13:16

Facebook_CoverDesign_Bo"No more exploitation of the weak, racial discrimination, or ghettoes of poverty! Never again!"

So declared Pope John Paul II in 1999. He called for a different way of living in keeping with his religious ideals, and he argued that the Church should not achieve these goals through partisan politics or by revolutionary violence. The purpose of religion was bringing about the Kingdom of God, not about creating a Marxist utopia. So how does our traditional-egalitarian Jewish community read this week’s call for liberation in the Exodus story?

This section in the reading of Exodus serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach – to "passover" the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.

It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by the tenth and final plague. "It came to pass at midnight, and the Lord smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon, and every firstborn animal." (Exodus 12:29) Because contemporary readers are so familiar with the story, we too often ignore or diminish the horror of this plague. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'eira -- Exodus 6:2-9:35

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaeiraIn her renowned book, Memory and Oblivion: The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2009), Israeli scholar Rachel Elior posits that history cannot be separated from the one who tells it. The winners write their version of the story empowered by their power and authority over the present; whereas the oppressed write their forgotten history with an eye towards future redemption.

Whether we are referring to the memory of Second Temple spiritual practice and community building that the Essenes preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls or to the spiritual activism of the dissenting Hebrew midwives in Egypt – neither of these religious cultures is relegated to oblivion. But what happens when fear is spoken to power rather than truth?

Pharaoh is a paradigmatic rabble-rouser, an agitator, firebrand, and provocateur. He sells himself on a platform of fear-mongering where he is the one entirely in control of the universe — he takes the place of God. Pharaoh is the symbol of demagoguery par excellence.

It is this demagoguery that Moses and Aaron must confront, demanding in the divine name,

Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s recalcitrance leads to the moment where Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, swallowing up the surrounding staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, followed by the famous plagues. Water to blood; swarms of frogs; lice infestations; hordes of beasts; pestilence; painful boils; all culminating in the seventh plague, a hail of fire and ice. Immune to the plagues, however, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened. The man is deluded by the narcissistic belief that his initial platform of fear-mongering will assure him perennial rule.

Judaism asserts otherwise, not only by sanctioning dissent through righteous indignation, but by holding out the hope of a future informed by a messianic consciousness that fills the hearts and minds of all to bring on a new, redemptive reality for all sentient beings – even in our own day!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptian people. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Adina Sweet's Bat Mitzvah

AdinaSweetThis Shabbat, we hope you'll join CBS as we celebrate Adina Sweet's bat mitzvah!

Adina's message for the community is below.

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Shalom. My name is Adina Sweet. I am a seventh grader at the Brandeis School of San Francisco. My favorite subjects are Social Studies and English. I like to hang out with my friends, play soccer and basketball, and dance.

My bat mitzvah is coming up soon, and I am very excited to share this special day with my family, friends, and members of the congregation. My bat mitzvah will be the day that I formally become a member of the Jewish community.

My parashat is Bo, the story of the last three plagues; locusts, darkness, and death of the first born. The portion also explains how to celebrate one of my favorite holidays, Passover. Parashat Bo is one of the most important portions in the Torah because of the story's moral as well as the great expectations it sets for Jews to fulfill G-d’s request to celebrate an amazing holiday.

Last summer, my family and I traveled to Israel where we saw the Kotel. I discovered the many different sides of Judaism and different expressions of my religion. I connected to the religion even more and had some very special moments during that trip.

I could not have gotten ready for my bat mitzvah without the help of Rabbi Glazer, who helped me write my drash and talked about Parashat Bo with me. My tutor, Ruth Weisberg, helped me learn trope and taught me the Torah service prayers. My parents showed me so much love and support, and with my sister's help, they really made this day possible. Also, my dog, Teddy, was always there when I needed him.

I hope to see you this Shabbat!

Bo -- Exodus 10:1-13:16

Chagall_MosesAccording to American statesman, lawyer, poet, and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish (May 7, 1892 – April 20, 1982):

There are those who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American Dream.

Liberation powers the Exodus story, and it continues to resonate to this day.

This parsha serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach -- to "pass over" the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night, together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.

It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: "Moses spreads the darkness over Egypt," by Marc Chagall, 1931

Va'eira -- Exodus 6:2-9:35

god-turns-moses-staff-into-a-serpent-1966.jpg!Blog"Demagoguery sells. And therefore, radio stations will put it on. But that doesn't mean that you can't do something else and also make it sell."

So says the American comedian-cum-politician Al Franken. What exactly is demagoguery? From time immemorial, demagoguery is that recurring situation we encounter when political leaders seek support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. Even in the most democratic context of ancient Greece, one could encounter a leader or orator who espoused the cause of the common people.

Pharaoh is one such paradigmatic rabble-rouser, a firebrand and provocateur. He sells himself on a platform of fear-mongering where he is the one entirely in control of the universe — he takes the place of God.

It is this demagoguery that Moses and Aaron must confront, demanding in the divine name,

Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s recalcitrance leads to the moment where Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, swallowing up the surrounding staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, followed by the famous plagues. Water to blood; swarms of frogs; lice infestations; hordes of beasts; pestilence; painful boils; all culminating in the seventh plague, a hail of fire and ice. Immune to the plagues, however, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: "God Turns Moses' Staff into a Serpent," by Marc Chagall, 1966