Yitro -- Exodus 18:1–20:23

Whether we are reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Beowulf, or La Chanson de Roland, we immediately recognize something all great works of literature tend to share in common — all mark out their protagonists as heroes from the outset.

So who is the real hero in the Moses story? When we turn to Hollywood, whether with Christian Bale in Ridley Scott’s recent epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) or with Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), the cinematic consensus appears to point to attributing star status to Moses as hero par excellence. But is that always the case, especially in this week’s reading? It can be argued that the real hero — the one who takes the greatest risk and catalyzes the greatest shift in the narrative — is actually the Priest of Midian, Jethro, because he is Moses’ greatest teacher and his father-in-law.

When Jethro hears of the divine miracles performed for the Israelites, he is en route to the Israelite camp with Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, and two sons in tow. With prescience, Jethro advises Moses to delegate his growing work load as singular leader of the people by appointing magistrates and judges. This will distribute the workload more reasonably and assist Moses in providing his people with the necessary pillars of civil society -- governance and administered justice.

Encamping opposite Mount Sinai, the Israelites respond to the divine call:

All that God has spoken shall we do [na’asse].

This becomes the calling card of all future Jewish spiritual practice -- doing the practice is primary, understanding is secondary.

Amidst thunder, lightning, billowing smoke, and shofar blasts, there is a theophany; the divine presence descends the mountain while Moses is simultaneously summoned to ascend. The Sinaitic Revelation, another pillar of Judaism, is proclaimed to all those gathered at the foot of the mountain. The intensity of the Revelation is too much for the people to bear, and they beg Moses to receive the Torah directly from its divine source and only then reveal it to them.

Just what was revealed on Sinai remains a mystery, part of the ongoing process of Revelation that encompasses everything from that moment to what a teacher and student share in study to this day.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: This week's illustration attempts to depict what is fundamentally impossible to depict, the theophany at Sinai. It is taught that each Jew alive today is connected to one of the 600,000 souls present at Sinai for matan Torah, "the giving of Torah." According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, however, we can only access that transformative, defining moment "when we are able to share in the spirit of awe that fills the world." That’s a nice reminder that we should all make a little more space for awe and wonder. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Behar / Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

Facebook_CoverDesign_Behar-Bechukotai"Sowing the seed,
my hand is one with the earth.
…Hungry and trusting,
my mind is one with the earth.
Eating the fruit,
my body is one with the earth.
"

Wendell Berry’s poem "Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer" asks us to consider how the farmer is like the farm. Similarly, the strong language of covenantal prohibition in Leviticus calls on each of us as conscious consumers to draw boundaries around how we use and transform the natural world.

Transformative cycles of seven in biblical literature, in general, and here in Leviticus, in particular, recall the grandeur of creation that continues its unfolding revelation daily. That revelation is taking place every seventh year for the Sabbatical year, when all work on the land ceases so that its fruit is free for the taking, for both human and animal kingdoms.

Seven Sabbatical cycles (forty-nine years) culminate in a fiftieth year, crowned as the Jubilee year, on which work on all land ceases, all indentured servants are freed, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land of Israel that have been sold will then revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands and the prohibitions against fraud and usury conclude the reading of Behar.

The whole purpose of creation is to recognize our complete embeddedness in everything, including all other sentient beings. Lines of filiation run most directly through our own awareness of the transformative cycles that embrace us. If a human intelligence of the earth and sensitivity to its needs is one that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace, then perhaps Wendell Berry’s "mad" farmer is not so mad after all!

It is also illuminating to consider our network of intimate relationships and cycles in the context of charity. If you still haven’t had a conversation with a Mormon, try talking about tithing. Observant Mormons unflinchingly give ten percent of their pre-tax dollars to the church. And Jews? Not so consistent – perhaps this is why Jewish institutions continue to struggle as they do all across America. Why is it that a Mormon feels more commanded than a Jew to fulfill a biblical precept?

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 Parashat Bechukotai, the Israelites are promised that if the commandments are kept, they will enjoy the material prosperity they have rightly earned in addition to 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 aforementioned spiritual practice of setting aside a tenth (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. The understanding that in giving, you receive more than you give could not be more true or urgent today.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork depicts the arrival of the Jubilee year. Because the Jewish day begins at nightfall, the land is shown scattering rays of Jubilee joy at dusk. "And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you..." (Leviticus 25:10) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Yitro -- Exodus 18:1–20:23

Facebook_CoverDesign_YitroRevelation marks a unique aspect of Judaism, and the modern German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig astutely noted that it exists in symbiotic relationship with Creation and Redemption. But what are the degrees and nuances of Revelation?

Sinai may be Revelation's apogee, but can we develop a deeper appreciation for its subtler nuances? Jewish liturgy suggests that Creation is ongoing daily – but what about Revelation, especially between people? This week, we turn to a series of subtle revelations shared in encounters with remarkable religious figures.

When Moses’ father-in-law, the Priest of Midian, Jethro, hears of the divine miracles performed for the Israelites, he is en route to the Israelite camp with Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, and two sons in tow. With prescience, Jethro advises Moses to delegate his growing work load as singular leader of the people by appointing magistrates and judges. This will distribute the workload more reasonably and assist Moses in providing his people with the necessary pillars of civil society -- governance and administered justice.

Encamping opposite Mount Sinai, the Israelites respond to the divine call:

All that God has spoken shall we do [na’asse].

This becomes the calling card of all future Jewish spiritual practice -- doing the practice is primary, understanding is secondary.

Amidst thunder, lightning, billowing smoke, and shofar blasts, there is a theophany; the divine presence descends the mountain while Moses is simultaneously summoned to ascend. The Sinaitic Revelation, another pillar of Judaism, is proclaimed to all those gathered at the foot of the mountain. The intensity of the Revelation is too much for the people to bear, and they beg Moses to receive the Torah directly from its divine source and only then reveal it to them.

Just what was revealed on Sinai remains a mystery, part of the ongoing process of Revelation that inspires remarkable religious leaders, the Moses and Jethroes of today, as evinced in the remarkable work of the Elijah Interfaith Institute in Jerusalem, whose revelatory mandate is to share wisdom and foster peace.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: This week's artwork attempts to capture something of the drama of the Mount Sinai theophany. "And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice." (Exodus 19:18–19) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Behar -- Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

CoverDesign_Behar_FacebookCycles are enticing, entrancing, and mesmerizing. The American poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) once remarked: "We might possess every technological resource... but if our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling are still running in the old cycles, our process may be ‘revolutionary’ but not transformative."

The seven transformative cycles that appear in biblical literature -- and feature prominently in this week's parsha -- recall the grandeur of creation that continues its unfolding revelation daily. That revelation is taking place every seventh year for the Sabbatical year, when all work on the land ceases so that its fruit is free for the taking, for both human and animal kingdoms.

Seven Sabbatical cycles (forty-nine years) culminate in a fiftieth year, crowned as the Jubilee year, on which work on all land ceases, all indentured servants are freed, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land of Israel that have been sold will then revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands and the prohibitions against fraud and usury conclude the reading of Behar.

Now consider for a moment all of the people involved in getting a piece of produce you enjoy into your hand to eat. Where was it grown, and by whom? Farmers, truck drivers, storekeepers, men and women -- imagine how hard they are working to support themselves and their families. Now consider all the ways in which this divine cycling has supported the creation of this fruit by creating fertile soil, clouds and rainwater, energy from sunshine, air. The key is to recognize and be mindful of our interconnectedness with all sentient beings of creation; only then are we called upon to elevate it and make it holy.

The whole purpose of creation is to recognize our complete embeddedness in all created sentient beings with those lines of filiation running most directly through our own awareness of these transformative cycles that embrace us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a simple celebration of the Jubilee year, a radical and remarkable concept deserving of more attention. Although the Jubilee (or Yovel, meaning ram's horn, which was traditionally sounded to proclaim the Jubilee's start) hasn't been observed by Jews for ages -- our rabbis ruled that Jubilee can not be observed as long as so many of us are living in diaspora -- there is much wisdom in the practice of radical release and rest. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit: Counting the Omer

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Gif_Omer1Another Pesach (Passover) has come and gone. The next Jewish holiday on the radar of many Jews is Rosh Hashanah, but even if we ignore the "minor" holidays and observances -- if, for example, you won't be fasting on the 17th of Tammuz (July 24) -- Shavuot is a big deal, and it's just over a month away!

Shavuot is such a big deal, in fact, that we have a countdown until it arrives...or maybe it's better called a "countup"? The 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot is referred to as the omer, and it's a mitzvah (commandment) to count the days as they pass (Sefirat HaOmer).

So what's an omer, and why are we counting it? Way back in the days of the First Temple, an omer (a sheaf, or an ancient unit of measure) of barley was brought to the Temple as an offering to HaShem, an expression of gratitude for the harvest season. The Omer period begins with this barley offering, and the Torah dictates the aforementioned counting:

Gif_Omer8 Gif_Omer5You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to G-d (Leviticus 23:15-16).”

In the Torah, this counting seems connected only to the agricultural calendar, a way of reckoning when the wheat harvest should begin (i.e., when the count is completed, on Shavuot). Over time, however, Shavuot became associated with the giving of Torah to Israel at Mount Sinai. In fact, for contemporary Jews, Shavuot is more closely associated with divine revelation than with agricultural bounty.

Likewise, the counting of the Omer has also taken on metaphysical significance. Today, the Omer is interpreted as a bridge between Pesach and Shavuot. Writing for MyJewishLearning.com, Rabbi Jill Jacobs explains:

"While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one."

The remarkable transformation from close-minded slaves to liberated souls prepared to receive Torah didn't come easy for our ancestors, and it doesn't come any easier for us. To help Jews carry out the spiritual and personal work of the Omer, Jewish mystics of the 16th century assigned the weeks and days of the Omer count to particular characteristics or emotions, drawing on their knowledge of Kabbalah and the sephirot of the Tree of Life. The Chabad website includes a detailed primer about how observant Jews should "examine and refine" each attribute or feeling as they move through the Omer season. It's worth exploring this approach to the Omer; it has mystical roots, but it's a remarkably practical self-improvement system and offers us a wonderful way to make the season meaningful, even profound.Gif_Omer15

The animated GIFs that accompany this post are highlights from graphic designer and artist Hillel Smith's GIF the Omer: Best Omer Ever project, "a fun, daily typographic Omer counter" that Smith has launched as part of his ongoing effort "to create new takes on traditional forms, melding ancient practices with a contemporary aesthetic."

We encourage you to visit GIF the Omer regularly to check out more of Smith's animations. (You can even opt to subscribe for daily email updates.) And, hey, if you decide to start working the Omer program, so much the better!

Image credits and captions:
All GIF artworks by Hillel Smith, 2016
From top:
Day 1 of the Omer
Day 8 of the Omer (Note: 8 = ח)
Day 5 of the Omer (Note: Numeral systems depicted include Arabic, Burmese, Braille, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Korean, Sundanese, and a bunch more.)
Day 15 of the Omer (Note: 15 = טו)