Chukat -- Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

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"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.

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.

Makor Or Shabbaton

MakorOrIt's time to register for the Makor Or Shabbaton at Beth Sholom!

Join Makor Or and teachers Norman Fischer, Rabbi Dorothy Richman, and Rabbi Aubrey Glazer for the beautiful experience of Shabbat from Friday night Shabbat dinner through to Havdalah on Saturday night.

During this joyful retreat, we will practice silent meditation, study Torah, daven the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat and Saturday prayer services, and enjoy Jewish chant. We will share silent meals and take time to contemplate together this precious gift of life and renewal of the soul. Makor Or Shabbat retreats have always been our favorite – full of joy, depth, and fellowship.

No previous experience with meditation, Hebrew, or prayer is necessary. Out of respect for our members with asthma please do not wear scented products to Makor Or programs.

After registering below, please also email Makor Or Director Ellen Shireman to confirm your participation.

Meeting Dates/Times:
Friday, January 26; 5 - 9 p.m.
Saturday, January 27; 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.

Meeting Location:
Makom Sholom Meditation Room @ Beth Sholom
301 14th Street @ Clement Street
Tel: 415 221-8736

Beth Sholom Registration Cost:
$100.00

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About Makor Or: Founded January 1, 2000 by Rabbi Alan Lew (z"l) and Norman Fischer, the Jewish meditation practice of Makor Or incorporates sitting and walking meditation, and Jewish chant. Our mission is to bring the clarity and depth of meditation practice to our Jewish life and observance, to facilitate the transformation that Judaism can effect in our lives. Makor Or is a program of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture.

Norman Fischer is the spiritual leader of Makor Or. He is also a Zen master, founder of Everyday Zen, and a poet. His books include, Jerusalem Moonlight, Taking Our Places, Sailing Home, The Strugglers, and Training in Compassion.

Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman serves as the rabbi of Makor Or. She is a Master Educator leading Kevah Torah study groups, teaching widely in the Bay Area. She has served as rabbi for Berkeley Hillel, Sha'ar Zahav, and Congregation Beth Sholom with her mentor Rabbi Alan Lew (z"l).

Rabbi Aubrey L. Glazer, Ph.D. (University of Toronto), is rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom. Aubrey’s publications include reflections on contemporary spirituality, including Mystical Vertigo (2013) and he recently completed a study on the intersection of Jewish mysticism and Rinzai Buddhism in the songbook of Leonard Cohen, called Tangle of Matter & Ghost.

Yom Kippur -- Leviticus 16:1 – 34

What is the real difference between love and compassion?

Judaism teaches us that love (ahavah) is the inner side of compassion (chesed). Or we could imagine it this way: chesed is "the Love Supreme" above that fuels and fires the ahavah of "the Love Below," that which is shared between human beings.

Or we can learn what it means to love a fellow Jew from two Russian peasants. Reb Moshe Leib Sassover, one of the greatest students of the Maggid of Mezeritch, teaches a remarkable tale about ahavah as the inner side of chesed. He writes:

Once I came to an inn, where two thoroughly drunk Russian peasants were sitting at a table, draining the last drops from a bottle of strong Ukrainian vodka. One of them, in a slurred, drunken drawl yelled to his friend: "Igor! Do you love me?"

Igor, somewhat surprised by the question answered: "Of course, Ivan, of course, I love you!"

"No, no," insisted Ivan, "Do you really love me, really?!"

Igor, now feeling a bit cornered, assured him:

"What do you think? I don’t love you? Of course I love you. You’re my best friend Ivan!"

"Oh, yes, yes?" countered Ivan. "If you really loved me...then why don’t you know what hurts me and the pain I have in my heart?"


It is this moment, when Ivan really sees and feels Igor’s pain in his heart, only then can we ascend from the place of ahavah to the higher point of chesed!

Love is about ME. Compassion is about WE.

This Yom Kippur, we are invited to shift from ME to WE. Let us ponder: What hurts do we want to heal? What worlds will we rebuild this Yom Kippur through compassion?

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: The illustration seen here is an updated version of the original, created in 5776 / 2016 to illustrate Rabbi Glazer's Parashat Acharei Mot Torah Byte. According to the Torah's description of the scapegoat ritual, which we read about on Yom Kippur, the Israelite priests use Azazel’s goat as a proxy, an animal laden with the sins of the community and then led into the remote desert and set free, presumably carrying the people's sins to some distant place. But that p'shat (straightforward) interpretation makes it all seem too easy. Atonement doesn't happen that way. Rather, the goat is released, but roams unseen in the wilds of our psyche, informing our actions in the world until we have courage enough to confront our missteps and failings. Past deeds, for good or for ill, are not erased by primitive magic. The scapegoat’s eyes are always on us, and we are not called upon to be perfect (nor to deny our imperfect pasts), but instead to strive to better ourselves and to make the world better through action in it. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Nitzavim / VaYelekh -- Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once duly remarked: "One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes... and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility."

Life is a series of choices. And sometimes having to make choices may not serve us well, even if it appears that each choice in the series seems perfectly well suited to serving our concerns. In such cases, philosophers will say we encounter a "dynamic choice" problem. When there are too many choices spread out over time, how do you navigate them all? Too often, we see the results of poor choices include self-destructive or addictive behavior and dangerous environmental ruination.

I suggest that Torah has its own pragmatic dynamic choice theory which shines through in Parashat Nitzavim. As Moses makes clear: "It is not in the heavens… neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:12-14). Moses is reinforcing the practical nature of Torah and its pragmatic application to a life well lived as he reaches his 120th year. As Moses gets ready to transition leadership responsibilities to Joshua, he concludes writing the teachings of Torah in an actual scroll, which is then placed for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant. This Torah scroll is meant to be read by the king at a gathering in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem every seventh year (during the festival of Sukkot and the first year of the Shmita cycle). The concern for continuity shines through in the pragmatic dynamic choice theory of Torah, which belies a deeper calling to responsibility.

Reading Parashat VaYelekh, we consider another kind of responsibility – that of memory. As we struggle moment to moment in our over-programmed lives to continuously remember a present called consciousness, we should heed the words of English artist and critic John Berger, who once observed that "the camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget."

Parashat VaYelekh reminds us to never forget the exemplary life of Moses, who reaches his 120th year fully active (even in his short-lived retirement!). Among his final acts recounted here, Moses announces the transition in leadership to Joshua and also concludes the writing of the Torah scroll, now entrusted to the Levites for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant.

Additionally, he explains that every seven years, during the festival of Sukkot, the entire people of Israel are commanded to "gather" together in the Jerusalem Temple in a rite that comes to be known as the mitzvah of hak’hel. The gathering is a sacred moment of communal assembly, one during which those present hear the king read from the Torah scroll. Yet alongside this injunction to gather and read together, there is the acknowledgement that the Israelites will inevitably turn away from their covenant with the divine. When this turning happens, they will experience an eclipse of the divine face, as it were, even though the words of Torah will never be forgotten.

Judaism is both a day-to-day spiritual practice as well as a legacy project never to be forgotten – our challenge is how to strike the appropriate balance amidst our overly-surveyed lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Deuteronomy 31:18 ("And I will hide My face on that day…"). In his book, God and the Big Bang, Daniel C. Matt points out that "according to the mystics, [the Hebrew word for 'universe,' olam], derives from the same root as ‘hiding,’ he’lem." Matt describes our relationship with God as a "cosmic game of hide-and-seek," and asserts that "divine energy pervades all material existence." Here, an atom, the basic building block of matter, is seen partially obscured by a scrim or some substance. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ekev -- Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Facebook_CoverDesign_EkevWilliam Shakespeare once wrote, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." If a beneficent Creator created the world, is it merely a question of thinking that accounts for why bad things happen to good people? We are disturbed by such moral calculus.

This week’s reading of Parashat Ekev provides us with an opportunity to challenge this ethical rationalization. In continuing with his legacy speech, Moses’ address to the Children of Israel takes on the following tone: If you fulfill these commands, then (and only then) you will prosper in the Land of Israel. Moses also points to moments of collective backsliding – the Golden Calf, the rebellion of Korah, and the skepticism of the spies – not merely to point a finger, but also to offer an opening for the work of forgiveness by the Merciful One, a way to practice the power of return, known as teshuvah — a devotional posture all but absent from Greek philosophy. This spiritual practice of teshuvah is ongoing, and especially important as we approach the month of Elul that precedes High Holy Days. Within this description of the Land of Israel as "flowing with milk and honey," we also learn about the beauty of the "seven species" (wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and dates).

This week then is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how each of us comes to terms with, or questions, this moral calculus in the ongoing journey of our relationship to the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by a passing mention in Parashat Ekev; we learn that the Israelites are aided in their conquest of the Promised Land by the tzir’ah. "And also the tzir'ah, the Lord, your God, will incite against them, until the survivors and those who hide from you perish." (Deuteronomy 7:20) Rashi and Nachmanides contend that the tzir'ah is a hornet, with Rashi further detailing that the insect "injected poison into [the Canaanites], making them impotent and blinding their eyes wherever they hid." Today, many frum naturalists assert that the tzir'ah is the Oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis), the largest hornet species in Israel and the species on which this illustration is based. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'et'hanan -- Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaEtchananHow does empathy resonate with you?

American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once remarked that, "Humans aren't as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were 'reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy'."

Such oscillation of our empathic experiences resonates with Moses’ proclamation – one that elicits positive empathy — that there is no religion without ethics. Sinai was an encounter with the divine (theophany) that was sealed into the communal heart through Exodus, while this legacy moment in Deuteronomy is designed to be didactic, to emphasize the implications of the Sinai encounter in the communal mind.

In studying Mosaic law, we engender a positive empathy to spiritual practice. This process is a critical marker of Jewish identity that emerges from the Hebrew Bible. More than mere intellectual study, Torah study is a contemplative commitment whereby, in repeatedly encountering and pondering these laws, we are awakened to a newfound awareness, whether through affixing the mezuzah to every passageway, donning tefillin to connect head- to heart-filled action (6:8-9; 11:18-20), affixing tzitzit to our four-cornered garments (22:12), as well as reaching out to the needy (15:8).

No book has had as lasting an impact on the evolution of monotheism within Western civilization as Deuteronomy, and no statement has shaped Jewish consciousness as much as the Shema (6:4). This quintessential Jewish prayer — "Hear, O Israel! YHVH is our God, YHVH alone." — continues to resonate with positive empathy, not only as our final words as we pass onto the next world, but in this world, right here, right now.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a riff on Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, a famous painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. The art historian Malcolm Andrews describes Wanderer as a representation of "the gulf...between the human and the vast world of nature." In our version, the gulf is not so much between humanity and the rest of nature (although that dichotomy is central to the Hebrew Bible), but a gulf between one particular wanderer and the land he has been called to, but will never know. Here, Moses surveys the Holy Land from afar. "Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan." (Deuteronomy 3:27) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Renew Our Days: The High Holy Days Unbound

AvivaChernickShaliach tzibbur (prayer leader), musician, and teacher Aviva Chernick returns again to CBS to lead Renew Our Days: The High Holy Days Unbound, a special, two-part service occurring on the mornings of Rosh Hashanah Day 1 and Yom Kippur.

Renew Our Days is a prayer lab, a non-halachic service (e.g., there is no Torah service) inspired by traditional liturgy, but not bound to it. The service continues to evolve from last year's initial iteration; it will move a bit further from a traditional structure, letting go of more of the text and incorporating more contemplative and embodied practice.

Highlighting selected passages and prayers, Aviva will guide participants on a journey, an opportunity to rediscover and reconnect with the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual substance of Jewish prayer and the High Holy Days. "With curiosity and an openness to discover the experience of prayer anew," Aviva says, "so much is possible."

Join us in song, prayer, and reflection as we experience
the "Days of Awe" in a fresh and inspiring way.

Renew Our Days is open to all CBS High Holy Day ticket holders, but space is limited and preregistration is required (even if you have already purchased your general High Holy Day tickets). Please plan to join us promptly at 10 a.m. The service will end at approximately 1 p.m. (During the Yom Kippur service, Yizkor will occur around noon.)

For a little taste of the prayer lab's vibe, we invite you to listen to Aviva’s lovely interpretation of Chadeish Yameinu.

[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/02-Chadesh-Yameinu-Turn-Your-Face-to-the-Sun.mp3"][/audio]
Service Details
Renew Our Days: Rosh Hashanah Unbound |  September 21, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Renew Our Days: Yom Kippur Unbound (w/ Yizkor) |    September 30, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel

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RENEW OUR DAYS WORKSHOP
Many of the Renew Our Days service melodies will be easy to sing, but new to service participants. Because Aviva wants to maximize the experience of all who join the special High Holy Days prayer lab, she is offering an optional Renew Our Days Workshop on Sunday, September 17, 4:15 – 5:45 p.m., on the Eva Gunther Plaza (just outside of the Sanctuary). In the event of rain, the workshop will take place in the Gronowski Family Chapel. Please join CBS congregants and friends as we reconnect with or get to know Aviva and become comfortable with the service melodies before the new year. (When you register for the services, you will automatically be registered for this workshop.)

Even before the workshop in late September, service participants can begin acquainting themselves with some of the Renew Our Days melodies. Please enjoy these simple recordings – sing along and let them warm you up for what is to come. (Just click on the melody names to listen.)

NEWER MELODIES FOR THE MORNING SERVICE:
1. Tishrei Niggun, by Nava Tehilah – (Or download music file)
2. Carlebach Niggun, by Shlomo Carlebach – (Or download music file)
3. Modah Ani, by Rabbi Shefa Gold – (Or download music file)
4. Elohai Neshama – (Or download music file)
5. Baruch Sheamar, by Rabbi Shefa Gold – (Or download music file)
6. Nishmat Kol Chai, by Joey Weisenberg – (Or download music file)
7. Ahava, by Aviva Chernick – (Or download music file)
8. Adonai S'fatai – (Or download music file)
9. Hayom, by Aviva Chernick – (Or download music file)

FAMILIAR MELODIES FOR THE HIGH HOLY DAYS:
10. Zochreynu
11. Michalkel Chayim – (Or download music file)
12. B'rosh Hashanah – (Or download music file)
13. U'teshuvah U'tefilah U'tzedakah – (Or download music file)
14. Avinu Malkeinu – (Or download music file)

Renew Our Days is supported by an anonymous grant.

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.

Beha'alotecha – Numbers 8:1 - 12:16

Facebook_CoverDesign_BehaAlotechaHow does ritual allow for the building of community practice?

Ongoing commitment to communal ritual requires trust. Another key for community building I learned from Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman (Oranim College of Education) while on the Rabin Bay Area Leadership Mission to Israel is Mutual Trust: The "willingness of individuals to join and help others without deep personal familiarity nor with any expectation, just the conviction that this is what other members of a community are doing, so I will do it, too."

In Parashat Beha'alotecha, as Aaron is commanded to light the lamps of the menorah, the focus is on just how to raise the sparks to create a luminous presence. For those Israelites unable to bring the Paschal offering at the appointed time, there is another chance with the institution of a Second Passover. Also, dissatisfaction with the manna from heaven sets in as the Israelites yearn for new tastes.

Each of these scenarios involves an initial enthusiasm that fades, so that the challenge remains how to hold onto that inspiration through a daily spiritual practice. The mosaic wisdom here is instructive, specifically in imparting his (Moses') spirit to the appointed seventy elders. Spiritual practice is bolstered in a community of practice where mutual trust is a given.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork depicts "the cloud of the Lord" that leads the Israelites through their years of desert wandering. "Whether it was for two days, a month, or a year, that the cloud lingered to hover over the Mishkan, the children of Israel would encamp and not travel, and when it departed, they traveled." (Numbers 9:22) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Naso -- Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Facebook_CoverDesign_NasoAnother key community building lesson I learned from Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman (Oranim College of Education) during the Rabin Bay Area Leadership Mission to Israel is the importance of Belonging – a sense that "this is mine," a feeling of ownership and full inclusion in a group that allows "a community to become part of the definition of one's personal identity."

This sense of true belonging is something the Children of Israel yearn for during their ongoing journey, and the twelve tribes attempt to retain connection between one another without sacrificing the need to do so on their own terms and in their own particular manner. Offerings are made to inaugurate the altar by each of the tribes. While these offerings appear to be identical, each day is described on its own terms. The offerings that each of us make to bolster community will always be unique.

This week's parsha actually begins at the moment of completion of the grand census taking in the Sinai desert. Parashat Naso tallies those who will be doing the planning and organizing [avodat ha’masah] of transporting the Tabernacle. It is this organization that enables entry into moments of deeper self-reflection [avodat ha’avodah]. Various laws are also revealed including the ritual of the wayward wife, known as sotah, as well as the spiritual practice of the nazir.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the profile of a woman accused and awaiting the priest's verdict. The sotah ritual requires a wife suspected of infidelity to drink a potion which will determine her guilt or innocence. In our more feminist and gender-aware era, the ritual is controversial, rightly condemned for its severe patriarchal framing. It is worth noting, though, that the outcome would almost certainly render an accused woman innocent. That's a far sight better than public execution, which was the usual punishment for suspected adultery in ancient times. What today appears inhumane and sexist may have been a progressive invention in its own day. 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.

Tazria / Metzora – Leviticus 12:1-15:33

Facebook_CoverDesign_Tazria-MetzoraDebate still abounds as to how best translate the key terms tumah and taharah — signatures of Leviticus (see, for example, Chapter 12). Purity and impurity? Ritual fitness or exclusion? Death and rebirth? I continue to return to the inspired translation of theologian Rachel Adler, who teaches that tumah and taharah are best rendered as "a way of learning how to die and be reborn."

In Parashat Metzora, we encounter the moment where Miriam stokes the masses to revolt against the leadership of her brother, Moses, through the sin of slander. Some of our rabbinic interpretation suggests that the signs of the metzora really describe a person caught in a state of unpreparedness or inappropriateness for ritual engagement, a person who has not yet learned "how to die and be reborn."

But the spiritual malaise of tzara’at is not limited to one’s person; it can also spread to one’s home, as manifest by dark red or green patches on the walls. This disease is at once spiritual and physical because it leads to exclusion and is associated with strife and dissension that are often the natural fall-out of hate speech.

Tzara’at takes different forms today, including irate e-mails, bullying texts, and harassing phone messages, but the outcome is largely the same — exclusion, strife, and dissension. Our task is to find ways of returning to our relationships, especially in society, ready to re-engage fairly and wholly with others after we have purged ourselves of our disruptive and destructive patterns, able to return to that unsullied core of the soul within each and every one of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: In These Are The Words, Rabbi Arthur Green writes that the ritual defilements that Leviticus is preoccupied with all stem from "improper contact with the portals of birth and death, the limits of life as we know it." This week's illustration is meant to call to mind a sensuous plume of smoke – the sacrificial offering – but was created using the documented action of subatomic particles in a CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) bubble chamber – itself a beautiful artifact of our species' ongoing attempts to learn more about the origins and limits of life. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayakhel -- Exodus 35:1 – 38:20

Facebook_CoverDesign_VayakhelWhile participating on the Rabin Community Building Mission to Israel, I came to realize just how much community is founded upon shared values and built upon shared practice. On this mission, I learned from Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman from Oranim College in Eretz Yisrael, who taught that there are five lenses for measuring community building:

(a) Meaningfulness: "My uniqueness is an important resource and influence for the group" – establishing an existential connection through the journey of the spirit;

(b) Belonging: "This is mine" – feeling a sense of ownership of the community over space and time, whereby this emerging community becomes part of the definition of my personal identity;

(c) Commitment: "I feel responsible for the general good of the group" – feeling a sense of responsibility for the spiritual and emotional well-being of the community;

(d) Mutual trust: willingness to join and help others without deep personal familiarity nor with any expectation, just the conviction that here this is what members of a community are doing, so will I;

(e) Devotion: determining the spiritual practice that galvanizes each of these aforementioned levels of engagement – feeling an embodied relationship to the Torah as a regular way of life.

Let us consider just how the team of wise-hearted artisans who create the Tabernacle and its furnishings were able to embody each of these lenses of community building. The co-operative nature of these instructions Moses conveys regarding the construction of the Tabernacle requires many precious materials. Once asked, the community's response is immediate; the materials arrive in abundance: from gold, silver and copper, to blue-, purple- and red-dyed wool, as well as goat hair, spun linen, animal skins, wood, olive oil, herbs and precious stones. It is likely one of the only capital campaigns in Jewish history where its leader had to ask the members to stop giving!

How might we elevate our spiritual practice as a highest agenda, bringing together our boundless passions and talents so we can truly recommit ourselves to ensuring that all five lenses of community building remain on our radar, both in America and Israel – this is our ever-present challenge.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: Parashat Vayakhel includes a detailed description of the menorah Bezalel crafts for the Mishkan. "And he made the menorah of pure gold; of hammered work he made the menorah, its base and its stem, its goblets, its knobs, and its flowers were [all one piece] with it." (Exodus 37:17) Many generations later, Maimonides (the Rambam) drew a picture of the menorah based on the Torah's description; he used only basic geometric shapes: circles, triangles, and half-circles. This week’s illustration is modeled on Maimonides’ unusual (and curiously contemporary) imagining. 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.

From Tiberias With Love

Facebook_RobertsWe're pleased to announce From Tiberias With Love: Letters of Spiritual Direction from 1777 Community in Eretz Yisrael, a four-session mini-course that will meet at 8 a.m. on Thursdays in March (2, 9, 16, 23), immediately following morning minyan.

Scroll down to register now!


Does distance really make the heart grow fonder? What would you do if your spiritual leader and core community left your diasporic home to return to Eretz Yisrael? How would you continue your spiritual journey in the diaspora while remaining committed to your teachers and colleagues now settled far away?

These questions resonate as we reconsider the neglected history of Yishuv Aliya, the immigration of Hasidim in 1777, which consisted of several hundred people who arrived at the same time. At its head were four Hasidic leaders of White Russia: R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, R. Abraham of Kalisk, R. Zvi Hirsch of Smorytzsch, and R. Israel of Plock. The caravan set out in March 1777 from Eastern Europe and arrived in Eretz Yisrael, via Istanbul, in September of the same year.

Historians have different opinions about the causes of this immigration, but there can be no doubt that this conscious community was seeking an intimate experience of egalitarian fellowship built upon unique approaches to Torah and tefillah that can inspire our own search.  Of special interest then are fifteen igrot, or "Letters of Love," penned by R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and R. Avraham haKohen of Kalisk that served as long distance spiritual direction primarily to Hasidim in Eastern Europe. By examining this ongoing correspondence as a form of spiritual direction, we will explore the creative spiritual tensions between mind-centered techniques (HaBaD) in relation to heart-centered techniques (HaGaT) of the spiritual life in community.

Bi-lingual texts will be distributed. No prior knowledge of Hebrew or Hasidism required; the syllabus will be made available to those who register.

Image credit: Detail of "Tiberias, looking towards Hermon," David Roberts (Scottish, 1796-1864), First Edition Lithograph

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.

The Financial Four -- January 17, 2017

Today, the latest edition of The Financial Four, an update from our Interim Director of Finance, Missy Sue Mastel.

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Happy Secular New Year!

I think we're especially fortunate to have two New Year celebrations; I use one for my spiritual health and the other for my (and incidentally, the synagogue’s) financial well-being. Some people say spirituality and financial considerations shouldn’t mix. Don’t believe that for a second; they are inextricably tied together. At the synagogue, like everywhere else, you get what you pay for – we commit to supporting our synagogue and the synagogue is there when we need and want it.

A lot has happened in a few short weeks since my last post. So, with no further ado, let's look at our recent progress.

1. Commitment to Cash Flow – While we continue our bold push to create a sustained culture of giving, we are well on our way to making our projections for the year, coming in at or below budget on our expenses. This good news is a direct result of...

2. Our Commitment to Savings – Many of our Board members and volunteers have come up with great ideas to help us save money. We are investing in programming changes for our synagogue database, our telephone systems, and our postage and copying contracts in order to create more sustainable long-term cost structures. Some of you may have noticed some of our customer relationship management (CRM) changes, and may have experienced a glitch here and there. We are grateful for your patience and understanding as we work through these systemic changes and get everything working correctly while we continue to do our job of keeping your financials accurate and up to date.

3. Commitment to Staff and the Environment – So many people came to tell us how wonderful the High Holy Days services were at CBS, and many felt this was because of the hard work of our staff. We agree, so we have reworked our staff benefits to include Commuterchecks and Flexible Spending Account (FSA) benefits for anyone who opts in. We also scheduled some lovely back massages for the hardworking CBS Family Preschool and office staff just before our wonderful Light It Up! Community Hanukkah celebration.

4. Commitment to the Community – We all know that Beth Sholom is not an island, and we have been making a lot of plans to partner and work with other synagogues. Here, in the financial office, we are forging a CRM redesign for use by other congregations in the Bay Area. We thank Congregation Emanu-El and Peninsula Temple Beth El (San Mateo) for encouraging us to "boldly go where (few) synagogues have gone before." Stay tuned for exciting updates on that front!

Finally, thanks to you, our members, who give all of our commitments – and your commitments to us – meaning and purpose.

L’shalom,
Missy Sue

VaYelekh -- Deuteronomy 31:1 – 30

facebook_coverdesign_vayelekhA remarkable conversation between two Jewish luminaries took place a few years ago, when neuroscientist Eric Kandel (b. 1929) and survivor-activist Elie Wiesel (1928- 2016) – both Nobel Laureates – reflected on memory and forgetting. Wiesel reminded us that we must never forget, while Kandel taught that the best way to do this is by remaining active, social, and creative into your golden years.

As we struggle moment to moment in our over-programmed lives to continuously remember a present called consciousness, we should heed the words of these luminaries: "Keep the past alive in you, and actively use it to create a better future."

This week’s reading of Parashat VaYelekh reminds us to never forget the exemplary life of Moses, who reaches his 120th year fully active (even in his short-lived retirement!). Among his final acts recounted here, Moses announces the transition in leadership to Joshua and also concludes the writing of the Torah scroll, now entrusted to the Levites for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant.

Additionally, he explains that every seven years, during the festival of Sukkot, the entire people of Israel are commanded to "gather" together in the Jerusalem Temple in a rite that comes to be known as the mitzvah of hak’hel. The gathering is a sacred moment of communal assembly, one during which those present hear the king read from the Torah scroll. Yet alongside this injunction to gather and read together, there is the acknowledgement that the Israelites will inevitably turn away from their covenant with the divine. When this turning happens, they will experience an eclipse of the divine face, as it were, even though the words of Torah will never be forgotten.

Judaism is both a day-to-day spiritual practice as well as a legacy project never to be forgotten – our challenge is how to strike the appropriate balance.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by Deuteronomy 31:16–17: "And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them. And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them..." The image can be interpreted in many different ways, but it was informed by specific and rather literal thinking. Having worked for almost a decade in the neuroscience lab of Paul Greengard, who shared the Nobel Prize with Eric Kandel, I was thinking of the electric thicket of neurons and synapses contained in each of our brains, and how physiological changes to these cells can lead to perceptual deficiencies (e.g., hidden faces). Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.