Vayikra -- Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

Ki Tissa -- Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Construction of the Tabernacle is left to the wise-hearted artisans, Bezalel and Aholiav, and proceeds according to schedule, but Moses does not return from atop Mount Sinai exactly when expected (32:1). This leads the impatient Israelites to sculpt a molten calf of gold and worship it (32:6).

When he finally returns, Moses sees his people dancing around this idol and becomes enraged; he smashes the first set of tablets, destroys the molten calf, and executes the culprits behind this moment of grave idolatry. Then, in a moment of great empathic compassion, Moses turns to God and says: “If You do not forgive them, then blot me out of the book that You have written!” (32:32) Perhaps this eruption of empathic compassion is what allows Moses to formulate a second set of tablets upon his next ascent to Sinai?

When Moses is able to be truly present to the others in his community, no matter how errant, he is then granted a vision of the divine, through the thirteen attributes of mercy. After Auschwitz, the great French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) took this remarkable moment of Moses’ request for a complete encounter with the divine “face” (33:20) only to be granted a view of “the other side” (33:23) to teach us that every human encounter with "the other" presents us with a trace of the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the golden calf, Torah's most prominent symbol of idolatry. Here, the calf's head references Charging Bull, the famous bronze sculpture that's sparked countless photo ops in downtown Manhattan since it was installed in 1987. The choice isn't intended as an attack on capitalism (which, when thoughtfully regulated, is the most workable system we’ve come up with), but perhaps our modern championing of relentless economic growth is a species of misbegotten idol? In the background are golden earrings featuring the Egyptian Eye of Horus, a reference to the story's collection of Israelite earrings to create the calf; surely, their earrings' iconography and style would have been Egyptian following such a long period of assimilation. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1–24:18

Robert Cover (1943-1986), the renowned law professor and activist at Yale Law School, once remarked that every legal system or nomos had woven within its own narrative or story. Cover taught that everyone lives in at least one nomos, by which he means a normative universe. A normative universe is "a world of right and wrong, of lawful and unlawful, of valid and void." He is quick to point out that while this universe is not identical with law, it does however contain within it both law and "the narratives that locate it and give it meaning." How apt for this week’s reading of Mishpatim — law writ large— to then reconsider Cover’s words that: "[f]or every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture." Every reader of Torah knows intuitively the truth of Cover’s teaching, namely, that the law, connected with its narratives, constitutes a world. It is only by locating our lives within a common community where our lives can then be shared, and yes, even sane!

So what is the (sane) story woven into this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions? To address this question we turn to the Jewish mystics, also known as Kabbalists because they exemplify what Cover is at pains to interpret, especially in this week’s reading. In the mystical masterpiece set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings, we find in this Book of Splendor known as the Zohar, that the mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body at once hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's austere illustration depicts the contours of a gavel. The mood and imagery are both inspired by Parashat Mishpatim, with its litany of "of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions." As Rabbi Glazer contends, one can find love "interwoven with the legislative nomos," but at the p'shat (face value) level, Mishpatim is a straightforward code of conduct; as such, it provides an essential foundation for an orderly, civil society. 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.

Shemot -- Exodus 1:1-6:1

To discover the nature of being human, there are those moments in life when you have to leave the known and venture into the unknown. The story is told about Prince Siddhartha who discovers the true nature of the human condition during an excursion outside the palace walls. In leaving the comfort of the palace, he saw an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and, finally, someone attempting to follow a spiritual path. Witnessing life outside the palatial walls is what causes him to contemplate the suffering in the world.

Another young seeker named Moses takes leave of the Pharaoh’s palace only to discover the suffering of his fellows. In witnessing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, Moses kills the perpetrator. When Moses then admonishes two Jews fighting the next day, he is forced to flee to Midian. It is at that moment that both the Prophet Moses and Prince Siddhartha each knew that a radical change in life was necessary in order to find meaning along the journey.

But the story of Exodus really begins before leaving the palace walls, as the children of Israel are growing numerous and prospering generations after Joseph’s rise to grand vizier of Egypt. This prosperity and integration is perceived as a threat to their Egyptian overlords. In the process of Pharaoh’s enslaving the Israelites, he also orders the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah to kill all male babies by throwing them into the Nile.

If it was not for the righteous indignation of the midwives, Moses would never have come onto the scene. This child born to Yocheved, daughter of Levi, and her husband Amram, is placed in a basket along the Nile River. It is Pharaoh’s daughter who discovers the baby hidden in the basket while bathing in the Nile and names him Moses.

Fast forward to Moses fleeing the palace, finding his way to Midian, where he rescues Tzipporah, daughter of local chieftain and priest of Midian, Jethro. He later marries Tzipporah and becomes a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks. Moses continues to wander in search of the truth, finally encountering the divine in renowned theophany of the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai.

As Moses and Aaron challenge Pharaoh’s recalcitrance to free the Israelites, the people hold fast to the hope that redemption is at hand.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is inspired by Exodus 3:2: "…behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed." Here, patterns and colors are made to play off one another in a nod to the mystical incomprehensibility of the divine flame. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Sukkot, Day Three -- Exodus 33:12 – 34:26

This Shabbat occurs during Sukkot, and we will be reading a special Sukkot selection from the Book of Exodus. The reading provides us with an opportunity to consider the role of strangers in our lives, especially during this time of heightened "othering" in the political and social arenas.

Atop Mount Sinai, Moses is famously granted a vision of the divine, but he is only permitted or able to see God's back. After Auschwitz, the great French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) took this remarkable moment of Moses' request for a complete encounter with the divine "face" only to be granted a view of "the other side" to teach us that every human encounter with "the other" presents us with a trace of the divine.

- Rav Aubrey

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Exodus 33:22–23: "And it shall be that when My glory passes by, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen." Here, we peer from the rock cleft, obliquely seeing some semblance of the Divine. Many scientists, artists, and mystics are drawn to the notion of a hidden God, and frame the "holy" as something that can only be experienced indirectly. The forms that appear in this illustration are particles of coral sand viewed through a microscope. 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.

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.

Bamidbar -- Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Facebook_CoverDesign_BamidbarCommunity building requires many relational building blocks for success. As we journey through the Book of Numbers this year, I am reflecting upon the lessons I learned with Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman (Oranim College of Education) during the Rabin Bay Area Leadership Mission to Israel.

There are four tangible ways of measuring the intangibles of intentional community. One key for community building is Commitment; you want each member to feel responsible for the general good of the group, for its spiritual and emotional well-being.

In the desert of Sinai, there is a collective understanding of the need for a census of the twelve tribes to be conducted. The Levites are to serve in the sanctuary, substituting for the firstborn, who were disqualified upon their worship of the Molten Calf. In dismantling and transporting the portable sanctuary, the Levites bore a great burden. The Kohathites carried the sanctuary’s vessels, while the Gershonites were responsible for the tapestries and the Merarites transported the wall panels and pillars.

In other words, it took a coordinated effort to ensure the continuity of this site for communal worship. While each tribe retained its own leader and flag, marked by tribal color and emblem, it was the greater purpose of community that galvanized their journey and its ongoing inspiration through the desert.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is a straightforward depiction of one of the Levites' prescribed Mishkan chores: "They shall remove the ashes from the altar and spread a cloth of purple wool over it. They shall place on it all the utensils with which they minister upon it: the scoops, the forks, the shovels, and the basins-all the implements of the altar." (Numbers 4:13–14) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tissa -- Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Facebook_CoverDesign_KiTissa"Literature, painting, and sculpture give material expression to all the spiritual concepts implanted in the depths of the human soul, and as long as even one line hidden in the depth of the soul has not been expressed outwardly, then it remains the task of art [avodat ha’umanut] to bring it out" (Rav Kook, Olat Re’ayah, II, 3).

Such outward expression of an inner aesthetic of the devotional heart is found in this week’s description of the design of the Tabernacle – why else would these artisans, Bezalel and Aholiav, be referred to as wise-hearted?

How then does Moses relate to the innovations of Bezalel’s design? Acting as the communal leader, Moses seems to have missed the deadline, and does not return from atop Mount Sinai exactly when expected (32:1). This leads the impatient Israelites to sculpt a molten calf of gold and worship it (32:6). When he finally returns, Moses sees his people dancing around this idol and becomes enraged; he smashes the first set of tablets, destroys the molten calf, and executes the culprits behind this moment of grave idolatry. Then, in a moment of great empathic compassion, Moses turns to God and says: “If You do not forgive them, then blot me out of the book that You have written!” (32:32) Perhaps this eruption of empathic compassion is what allows Moses to formulate a second set of tablets upon his next ascent to Sinai.

When Moses is able to be truly present to the others in his community, no matter how errant, he is then granted a vision of the divine, through the thirteen attributes of mercy. Perhaps this manifestation of compassion is "the task of art [avodat ha’umanut]" that Rav Kook writes of.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork depicts the artisan Bezalel. "See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, with knowledge, and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship…" (Exodus 31:2–3) Bezalel finds himself "enthused" – literally, "possessed by [or inspired by] a god," and he crafts the Mishkan while riding a wave of sustained creative energy and focus. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1–24:18

Facebook_CoverDesign_MishpatimConsider this audacious claim: halacha is inextricably intertwined with Kabbalah or, put another way, the law is intertwined with mysticism. Could this really be so? Are there many areas of Jewish life in which kabbalistic practice entered mainstream halachic practice? If so, what effect might this reality have upon this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperative and 30 prohibitions?

As Jewish historian Jacob Katz (born November 15, 1904, in Magyargencs, Hungary, and died May 20, 1998, in Israel) insisted in his book Halakhah and Kabbalah: Studies in the History of Jewish Religion, its Various Faces and Social Relevance (1984), Jewish law is indeed intertwined with Kabbalah. As we have been learning in our second year of Zohar study in our Lehrhaus Philosophy Circle of the Bay Area, a fruitful way to address this legal layering of Torah is to turn to the Jewish mystics, also known as Kabbalists. The Zohar is a mystical masterpiece that is set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings, and the mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body at once hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Keep that parable in mind, then, and return to this week's parsha, when, upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah. Only then can we, if we so desire, express that love in a deeper commitment as critical kabbalists…

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a response to Exodus 24:10: "...and they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity." What does it mean to perceive G-d as a Jew? Just as some of us write "G-d" with a hyphen to represent the grand and incomprehensible essence of deity, so, too, can abstraction gesture toward that which is unfathomable and profound. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shana Cohen's Bat Mitzvah

Facebook_ShanaCohenHello! Hej! Jambo! Hola! שלום! Bonjour! Hallo! Helló!

My name is Shana Cohen, and I am a third generation San Franciscan and a student at Gateway Middle School. I like soccer (I play on SF Sol), reading, spending time with family and friends, animals, horseback riding, art, and being creative. I am bilingual – I speak both Swedish and English – as well as bicultural. I especially enjoy traveling, and have been fortunate to spend summers in Sweden with my family, and to travel and meet people around the globe. Wherever I go, I make friends and have experiences that I will always remember. So many people from my life have made an impact on me that has contributed to my journey towards reaching the age of mitzvot.

On February 25th, I will have my bat mitzvah, a changing point in my life. I will be sharing it with friends and family from many parts of the world including California, Sweden, Germany, and Kenya. No matter how far (or near) you came from, I am so thankful you are here to share this day with me and my family.

In this week's parsha, we learn that all Jews, rich and poor alike, were required to contribute half a shekel for the Mishkan. You will learn more about Parashat Mishpatim during the Torah service, which includes my d’var Torah.

The maftir that I will read describes a census taken of the children of Israel. Everyone over the age of 20 is required to give half a shekel to restore the Mishkan. The Mishkan was a portable structure used until the Temple was built in Jerusalem. The Israelites could bring sacrifices to redeem for sins or express thanks. Later, in the Torah portion Ki Tissa, God calls Moses to Mount Sinai to get the commandments. Meanwhile, the people became impatient and worried. As a result, they make a golden calf to have a substitute for God. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai he sees the calf and breaks the tablets. God punishes the Israelites by making them drink the gold of the golden calf. Moses is mad but tells God to give them a second chance. He then returns to Mount Sinai to receive a new set of tablets.

I want to thank my mamma and pappa, my brother Ari, all my grandparents, and the rest of my family and friends. I also want to give special thanks to Rabbi Aubrey Glazer and Noa Bar for instilling in me the gift of Torah, and connecting it to my everyday life. I also want to thank Congregation Beth Sholom for supporting my ongoing Jewish education, and the opportunity to create lifelong friendships.

It will be my pleasure to see you at CBS this Shabbat.

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.

Shemot -- Exodus 1:1-6:1

facebook_coverdesign_shemotAs we open the Book of Exodus – which describes the founding of a nation and a collective religion we today call Judaism – let us consider the challenge that philosopher Peter Sloterdijk poses to our assumptions about the myth of religion's return in recent decades.

In You Must Change Your Life (2014), Sloterdijk argues that it is not religion that is returning, but a mode in which humans are practicing, training beings that create and re-create themselves through exercises and routine. In the course of this training, Sloterdijk writes, an individual human "transcends itself."

In making the case for the expansion of what Sloterdijk calls a "practice zone" for individuals as well as for society as a whole, new insights emerge about what he dubs the "self-formation" of all things human, both individual and collective, and the dynamism between those two. As individuals, we are interwoven into the collective and vice versa.

This sense of the individual intertwined within the collective could not be more evident than in this week’s opening section of the Book of Exodus, where the collective children of Israel are growing numerous and prospering generations after Joseph’s rise to become grand vizier of Egypt. Yet all that remains of their integration and elevation into Egyptian society are their individual names. What has happened to their collective "practice zone"? Still, names tell a story, even if one nearly forgotten.

It is precisely this prosperity and integration that now becomes perceived as a threat to their Egyptian overlords. In the process of Pharaoh’s enslaving the Israelites, he also orders the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah to kill all male babies by throwing them into the Nile.

If it was not for the righteous indignation of the midwives, Moses would never have come onto the scene. This child born to Yocheved, daughter of Levi, and her husband Amram, is placed in a basket along the Nile River. It is Pharaoh’s daughter who discovers the baby hidden in the basket while bathing in the Nile and names him Moses.

Fast forward to Moses fleeing the palace, finding his way to Midian, where he rescues Tzipporah, daughter of local chieftain and priest of Midian, Jethro. He later marries Tzipporah and becomes a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks. Moses continues to wander in search of the truth, finally encountering the divine in renowned theophany of the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai.

As Moses and Aaron challenge Pharaoh’s recalcitrance to free the Israelites, the people hold fast to the hope that redemption is at hand. When we know the depth of our own name’s message, then perhaps our "practice zone" can re-emerge more boldly in the community within which we are all intertwined as a collective.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: If this week’s illustration calls to mind the facade of our remarkable sanctuary, good. But it’s also a straightforward rendering of an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph called a neb. The checkered pattern was used in the hieroglyph to show that the bowl-shaped basket was woven from reeds. Perhaps the same type of Egyptian basket was used to float Moses in this week's parsha? "[When] she could no longer hide him, she took [for] him a reed basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child into it, and put [it] into the marsh at the Nile's edge." (Exodus 2:3) From now on, when you look at the striking architecture of CBS, think ark, menorah, and neb! Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaEtHananWhat is empathy to you?

German philosopher Theodor Lipps (1851–1914) often reflected on the quality of empathy, or Einfühlung, seeing it as a key to understanding our aesthetic experiences as well as the primary basis for recognizing each other as thinking, acting creatures. Lipps contends that empathy explains the felt immediacy of our aesthetic appreciation of objects. Because we unconciously project our interior states onto the external objects we encounter, we will perceive an object as beautiful if our internal experiences are positive and as ugly if our internal state is negative.

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 inspired by the description of the theophany at Sinai in Parashat Va'et'hanan: "And you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens, with darkness, a cloud, and opaque darkness." (Deuteronomy 4:11) This foundational episode of our religion is fundamentally impossible to depict – it is incomprehensibly grand and stupefying – but perhaps this hybrid supernova-eye imagery captures something of the moment's profound awe. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Naso -- Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Facebook_CoverDesign_Nasso2The American author Joan Didion (b. 1934) once remarked:

"Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another."

While this perception of disconnection between California children may still hold, the Children of Israel attempt to retain connection between one another without sacrificing the need to do so on their own terms, in their own particular manner. Offerings are made to inaugurate the altar by each of the twelve 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 are always unique, from planning and organizing [avodat ha’masah] that enables entry into moments of deeper self-reflection [avodat ha’avodah]. This week's parsha actually begins at the moment of completion of the grand census taking in the Sinai desert (detailed in last week’s reading). Parashat Naso tallies those who will be doing the planning and organizing [avodat ha’masah] of transporting the Tabernacle. 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 artwork presents an "earthen vessel" (Numbers 5:17) filled with "the bitter curse bearing waters" (Numbers 5:18) of the sotah ritual. The (presumed) wayward wife is forced to drink this potion to determine her (in)fidelity. The ritual's cartoonishly magical thinking (by today's standards) and grave consequences call to mind medieval witch trials; in a nod to the hocus-pocus, the bowl is seen here levitating, its shadow rippling like the surface of the potion. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Bamidbar -- Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Facebook_CoverDesign_BamidbarThe great Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze (ca. 4th century BCE) once remarked:

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."

Such wisdom might allow us to see the work of the Levites in a different light.

In the desert of Sinai, a census is conducted of the twelve tribes. The Levites are to serve in the sanctuary, substituting for the firstborn, who were disqualified upon their worship of the Molten Calf. In dismantling and transporting the portable sanctuary, the Levites bore a great burden. The Kohathites carried the sanctuary’s vessels, while the Gershonites were responsible for the tapestries and the Merarites transported the wall panels and pillars.

In other words, it took a coordinated effort to ensure the continuity of this site for communal worship. While each tribe retained its own leader and flag, marked by tribal color and emblem, it was the greater purpose of community that galvanized their journey and its ongoing inspiration through the desert.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by G-d's request that each Israelite tribe fly the standard of their division outside their encampment. "The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division with the flag staffs of their fathers' house; some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp." (Numbers 2:2) The flag is a marker of tribal allegiance, but it should also serve as a symbol of that which we aspire to, a measure of excellence -- a "standard" in all respects. 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)

Vayikra -- Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26

CoverDesign_VayikraA strange miniature Aleph opens this week’s parsha, the only one of its kind in the Torah. What does it mean?

In our communal study of the Zohar, we discovered the most remarkable insight:

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork credit: Illustration of an 'olah offering by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tissa -- Exodus 30:11-34:35

CoverDesign_KiTissaIn Ki Tissa, design of the Tabernacle is assigned to the wise-hearted artisans, Bezalel and Aholiav. We hear the echo of their influence in Israel even today.

For example, the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, established in 1906 by artist Boris Schatz, has evolved into one of the world's most prestigious art schools. We learn this week why the name Bezalel is synonymous with more than a century of Israeli art, innovation, and academic excellence. Bezalel’s namesake shines -- the school is responsible for producing numerous artistic breakthroughs and has demonstrated a remarkable ability to respond and adapt to cultural changes. If its numerous generations of graduates – the vanguard of Israeli artists, designers, and architects, both in Israel and around the globe – is any indication, then Bezalel remains as strong an influence as ever in Israeli society.

But how does Moses relate to the innovations of Bezalel’s design? Acting as the communal leader, Moses seems to have missed the deadline, and does not return from atop Mount Sinai exactly when expected (32:1). This leads the Israelites to sculpt a molten calf of gold and worship it (32:6). When he finally returns, Moses sees his people dancing around this idol and smashes the first set of tablets, destroys the molten calf, and executes the culprits behind this moment of grave idolatry. Then, in a moment of great empathic compassion, Moses turns to God and says: “If You do not forgive them, then blot me out of the book that You have written!” (32:32)

Perhaps this eruption of empathic compassion is what allows Moses to formulate a second set of tablets upon his next ascent to Sinai. When Moses is able to be truly present to the others in his community, no matter how errant, he is then granted a vision of the divine, through the thirteen attributes of mercy.

After Auschwitz, the great French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) took this remarkable moment of Moses’ request for a complete encounter with the divine “face” (33:20) only to be granted a view of “the other side” (33:23) to teach us that every human encounter with "the other" presents us with a trace of the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Another in our series of original illustrations inspired by mid-20th century graphic design. Although the artwork specifically depicts the Israelites' worship of the golden calf in this week's parsha, it is more generally inspired by the relationship between fear, ecstasy, resignation, and faith (of a certain kind) -- think Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling or, if you prefer the philosophy of another brilliant anti-Semite, think of Arthur Schopenhauer's notion of the sublime providing supreme liberation through self-negation. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.