Vayigash — Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Great change happens with the smallest of steps. That change is captured poignantly in this week’s opening verse, when Judah selflessly pleads for the release of his brother, Benjamin: "Then Judah went up to [Joseph] and said: 'Please, my lord…'" (Genesis 44:18).

This is the dramatic moment where Judah is called upon to facilitate the role of rapprochement as he approaches Joseph. This act of loyalty amidst a history of loyalties betrayed is so heart-wrenching that Joseph, the governor of Egypt, finally pushes aside his seeming disinterestedness to reveal his true identity to his astonished brothers. Shame and remorse overcome the brothers, but Joseph comforts them, explaining the divine hand in this drama.

Rushing back to Canaan with the joyous news, the brothers inform Jacob that his favorite son, Joseph, is still alive. They all return to Egypt with their families – seventy souls in all — and the bereft father is reunited with his favorite son after 22 years apart.

Joseph continues to prosper as governor of Egypt, selling stored food and seed during the famine. As a result, Pharaoh awards Jacob’s family the entire country of Goshen as a place to settle, so that the blessing of assimilation continues for the Israelites amidst their apparent Egyptian exile.

Redemption from exile is a process of inner change and transformation. If we take the advice of Judah, we can each find a pathway to self-transformation [teshuvah] by walking in his footsteps, one small step at a time!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the land of Goshen, the fecund portion of Egypt's Nile delta in which Joseph's family settles when they moved south. Vayigash is the penultimate parsha in Bereshit (Genesis), and it draws to a close on a pastoral climax, with our ancestors secure in a new land and "prolific." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged Recap

This past Saturday evening, Jews from all over the city visited Congregation Beth Sholom to mark our entrance into the final days of preparation for the Yamim Noraim ("the Days of Awe"). A joint production of Beth Sholom, The Kitchen, Kehillah San Francisco, and Congregation Anshey Sfard, Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged made for a special night (and early morning!) – the spirited service didn't end until almost 2 a.m.!

The centerpiece of Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged was a communal singalong featuring brothers Yehuda and Nahman Solomon. (Yehuda is the frontman of the Israeli-American folk-rock band, Moshav, as well as founder of Los Angeles' Happy Minyan.) Yehuda and Nahman were joined by prayer leaders and hazzanim from all of the participating communities – together, they led the crowd in giving voice to Selichot, our tradition’s beautiful and penitential piyyutim (liturgical poems). According to Ashkenazi tradition, the recitation of Selichot begins after midnight on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah and, although our service didn't wind down until the wee hours, there was no shortage of energy and ruach in the Beth Sholom Sanctuary! Even at the end of the service, attendees danced, stomped, and swayed with the music and piyyut, awakening to the urgency of this moment and our need for teshuvah.

Before the main service began, attendees gathered for a lovely Havdalah ceremony and a community Selichot beit midrash co-led by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer and Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan. The study session compared our traditional High Holy Days liturgy and selected lyrics of recently departed songwriter, Leonard Cohen (z"l). The takeaway from the session was the value of wrestling with the difficult personal work of teshuvah and cultivating a relationship with the divine (a struggle reflected in Cohen's poetry and lyrics).

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, the need for a commitment to teshuvah becomes increasingly urgent, but it is likewise important to balance the moments of reckoning with moments of joy. Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged provided both.

Thanks to the rabbis, performers, and prayer leaders who made the evening so moving and fun. Thanks, too, to all of the friendly folks from The Kitchen, Kehillah San Francisco, and Congregation Anshey Sfard who participated, making a memorable evening that much better. Todah rabbah, and l'shanah tovah u'metuka (for a good and sweet year)!

A selection of photographs and videos are included below. Please visit our Facebook page for more.

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.

Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged Recap

facebook_yehudasolomonduvidswirsky_hardlystrictlyselichotunplugged_september2016Almost two hundred people visited the CBS campus this past Saturday evening to mark our entrance into the final days of preparation for the Yamim Noraim ("the Days of Awe"). A joint production of CBS, the Mission Minyan, and The Kitchen, Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged made for a special night (and early morning!) – deeply affecting, joyous, and fun.

The centerpiece of the night was a communal singalong featuring Yehuda Solomon and Duvid Swirsky of the Israeli-American folk-rock band, Moshav. Yehuda and Duvid were joined by prayer leaders and hazzanim from CBS, the Mission Minyan, and the Kitchen – together, they led the crowd in giving voice to Selichot, our tradition’s beautiful and penitential piyyutim (liturgical poems). According to Ashkenazi tradition, the recitation of Selichot begins after midnight on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah (or the Sunday prior, if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, as it does this year) and, although our service didn't wind down until 2 a.m., there was no shortage of energy and ruach in the CBS Sanctuary! Attendees danced, stomped, and swayed with the music and singing, awakening to the urgency of this moment and our need for teshuvah.

Speaking of teshuvah and the related seasonal demand for chesbon hanefesh (a rigorous "accounting of the soul"), Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan shared some moving words during the film panel that occurred earlier in the evening. Following a screening of Fire On The Water, a short film dealing with the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) that Rabbi Aubrey Glazer made during his days as a student filmmaker, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan spoke earnestly of his anxiety about the lack of communal sacrifice experienced by Jewish Americans in the last 50+ years. What loss has our society felt, he asked, as we wage an ongoing war in Afghanistan? Too many families lose their sons and daughters, of course, and our federal coffers are steadily drained, but the majority of Americans are insulated from the war – it remains a background abstraction, and there is little to no sense of communal commitment, contribution, or sacrifice. Even during the Vietnam era, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan argued, despite the anti-war movement and the greater public awareness of the body count (on both sides of the conflict), our culture experienced the 1960s and early 1970s as a period of economic growth and general prosperity. He contrasted this with the American experience during World War II, when all citizens were required to ration foods, fuel, and many consumer goods. We haven't experienced anything like that since the 1940s. "When will the bill come due?," he asked the audience.

Rabbi Dorothy Richman responded to Rabbi Wolf-Prusan and quoted the 20th century sage, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: "Some are guilty, but all are responsible." With so much racial strife, ongoing overseas wars, ugly partisanship, and reactionary politics, she said Rabbi Wolf-Prusan's anxieties about our lack of sacrifice hit her hard. Doubtless, many people in the room were similarly stirred.

This sort of earnest, challenging soul-searching is what the High Holy Days are all about. Observant Jews devote the entire Hebrew month of Elul – which began on September 4 this year – to the spiritual heavy lifting of teshuvah. And what exactly is teshuvah? Depending on which Jew you ask, you'll get different answers. Most resources translate teshuvah as "repentance," but many rabbis scorn this translation, and instead frame teshuvah (which literally translates as "return") as the work of returning to relationship with God. Given contemporary Jews' varied conceptions of deity, that's too vague a formulation for many. However you translate or characterize it, though, teshuvah is about working to develop and improve our character – and it's meant to be hard.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, the need for a commitment to teshuvah becomes increasingly urgent, but it is likewise important to balance the moments of reckoning with moments of joy. Hardly Strictly Selichot Unplugged provided both.

Thanks to all of the panelists, performers, and prayer leaders who made the evening so moving and fun. Thanks, too, to all of the friendly folks from the Mission Minyan and The Kitchen who trekked out – in some cases, carpooling (kol hakavod!) – to the Richmond to make this memorable evening that much better. Todah rabbah, and l'shanah tovah u'metuka (for a good and sweet year)!

A selection of photographs snapped during the event are included below.

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Makor Or High Holidays Intensive

MakorOrIt's time to register for the Makor Or High Holidays Intensive at CBS!

The High Holy Days (or High Holidays) mark the most intense period of the Jewish sacred year. Beginning with the month of Elul, we spend six weeks in preparation, prayer, meditation, reflection, and repentance (teshuvah, return) as we re-tune ourselves to our spiritual lives, pausing from our task-oriented activities to take stock of and rededicate ourselves.

The theme of this eighth Makor Or High Holidays Intensive is Cheshbon HaNefesh, or examination of the soul. The Intensive offers us a format for our practice, as well as guidance and community. It consists of five meetings, daily practice, and reflection between meetings, weekly contact with a chevruta partner, and a private interview with our teacher, Norman Fischer. The weekly meetings include meditation, instruction, and discussion.

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.

For more information and to RSVP, please email Ellen Shireman.

Intensive participants are also encouraged to attend our daylong High Holidays Meditation Retreat held at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (JCCSF), led by Norman Fischer and Rabbi Dorothy Richman, on Sunday, October 9th. This day will be open to all, including those who will not attend the entire Intensive.

Intensive Practice Period:
Thursdays, September 15, 22, 29 & October 6th

Meeting Times:
Thursday, September 15; 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.
Thursday, September 22; 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.
Thursday, September 29; 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.
Thursday, October 6; 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.

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

Registration Cost:
$125.00
To pay, write a check payable to: Everyday Zen
Mail to:
Makor Or Director
196  Bocana Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

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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.

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).

Ekev -- Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Insta_CoverDesign_EkevWhy do bad things happen to good people if a beneficent Creator created the world?

This problematic question perennially troubles us, and so too did it trouble philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In his book Théodicée (Theodicy) (1709), written seven years before his death, Leibniz strives to develop a strategy that will clear God of the charge of being, as it were, the author of sin. The philosopher claims that although God wills everything in the world, his will with respect to what is good is decretory (decree-like), whereas his will with respect to what is evil is merely permissive. This implies that the Creator’s permissive willing of evils is morally permissible if and only if such permission of evil is necessary in order for one to meet one's moral obligations. Leibniz’s claim is that the evil that God permits is a necessary consequence of God's fulfilling his duty (namely, to create the "best possible world").

We may not be philosophers like Leibniz, but we are nonetheless 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 artwork is an abstract image created using colors drawn from an aerial photograph of the Jordan River meandering through the Jordan Rift Valley, near where some (literalist) Biblical scholars claim the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land with Joshua. "Hear, O Israel: Today, you are crossing the Jordan to come in to possess nations greater and stronger than you, great cities, fortified up to the heavens." (Deuteronomy 9:1) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Welcoming Shabbat Nachamu

Sadly, the time has come for us to bid our all-star Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) Kohn Summer Intern, Claire Ambruster, a fond adieu.

For eight weeks this summer, Claire was a welcome addition to the CBS team. Without exception, every member of the CBS staff was very impressed with her and pleased with the work she did. As Rabbi Glazer wrote, "Claire was a pleasure to work with – responsive, responsible, and Jewishly knowledgeable and curious. Her ability to juggle multiple tasks and manage her time is noteworthy as are her people skills. This bodes well for future service in the Jewish community and beyond!"

We wish Claire the very best, and hope to see more of her since she'll just be across the Bay at Mills College. Fortunately for us, she is sharing one final blog contribution, this one about Shabbat Nachamu (August 20).

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Facebook_ModehAni_ClaireThis summer, I was very grateful to have had the opportunity to work at Congregation Beth Sholom through the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) Kohn internship. I worked in different departments here at CBS, which allowed me to gain perspective into different types of work — from accounting to communications. I really enjoyed getting to know my coworkers and the CBS community. Thank you to everyone who helped to make my time here full of growth!

Did you know that this coming Shabbat is a special one?

Shabbat Nachamu begins this Friday evening, the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av. Just yesterday, Tisha B’Av brought a period of intense mourning for many losses, including the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. However, on Shabbat Nachamu we make a complete shift, focusing instead on hope, healing, and light. Although we fasted and had no celebrations on Tisha B’Av, we have celebrations and weddings after Shabbat Nachamu.

Shabbat Nachamu also begins the seven weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah — marking the start of a journey towards teshuvah and repentance. Despite our feelings of brokenness on Tisha B’Av, these seven weeks symbolize completeness, reminiscent of the seven days of the week or the seven days of shiva. For these next seven weeks, we read a weeky haftarah that provides comfort. On Shabbat Nachamu, we begin the haftarah with the line "Nachamu nachamu ami yomer eloheim," which means "You all comfort, comfort My people, says G-d" (Isaiah 40:1). In other words, "Come together and comfort each other and you will heal."

How does our tradition expect us to suddenly turn from complete mourning, loss, and destruction to comfort, healing, and hope — what really has changed? How many of us actually have the ability to just change our focus when we feel despair? And where does pain go?

In Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening, he relates a Hindu parable about a student who frequently complained. To teach her student a lesson, the master told her to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and then to drink it. It tasted bitter. Then, the master told her student to drop the salt into the lake and taste it again. Now, the salt was diluted and the water tasted fresh. At this, the master told her apprentice, "The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains the same, exactly the same. But the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things... Stop being a glass. Become a lake" (Nepo 18). On Shabbat Nachamu, we are called to become a lake. Although pain may always exist, we expand our perspective to include infinite sorrows and joys.

No matter the roadblocks, we can possess extensive gratitude — and those "roadblocks" can become "stepping stones" to learning something new. The Hebrew expression for gratitude is "hikarat hatov," literally, "recognizing the good." Each of us has many things to be thankful for — no matter what. In Pirkei Avot, it states, "Who is rich? Those who rejoice in their own lot" (Pirkei Avot 4:1). In this way, our choices are what determine our outlook — and that is the wisdom of Shabbat Nachamu.

Artwork credit & note: Claire Ambruster, Modeh Ani, Watercolor on paper, 2015; Claire wanted this piece to accompany her article because the title and first words of our morning prayer, "Modeh ani," mean "I give thanks." That sentiment (and the practice of reciting the Modeh Ani with intention) can help us "become a lake."

Metzora -- Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

CoverDesign_MetzoraFrench author Victor Hugo (1802-1885) once remarked:

"Society is a republic. When an individual tries to lift themselves above others, they are dragged down by the mass, either by ridicule or slander."

Slander is at once a spiritual and physical disease. In Numbers 12, Miriam stokes the masses to revolt against the leadership of her brother, Moses, through the sin of slander. But slander appears in Parshat Metzora, too, albeit less plainly. The signs of the metzora (commonly mistranslated as "leper" in last week’s parsha) really describe a person caught in a state of unpreparedness or inappropriateness for ritual engagement. The recipe for return (or becoming "clean" again) may strike the modern reader as magical. A detailed ceremony is described whereby the priest brings together two birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread, and a bundle of hyssop as an offering.

But this spiritual malaise 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 of tzara’at 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: This week's artwork is inspired by the sacrifice of "two, live clean birds" described in the opening passage of Parashat Metzora. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.