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.

Tisha B'av: A Meaningful Fast

By the numbers, fewer and fewer non-Orthodox Jews are fasting for Tisha B'Av. Some even argue that we shouldn't fast! We hope to provide you with an opportunity to reconnect with the meaning and power of the Ninth of Av.

On Monday, July 31, please join CBS and Makor Or for a moving evening of meditation, reflection, and what Rabbi Glazer describes as "the sacred theater of Lamentations." Return on Tuesday, August 1, to discover the value of marking Tisha B'Av in community.

Tisha B'av At-A-Glance:
The fast begins at 8:19 p.m. on Monday, July 31, and ends on Tuesday, August 1, at 8:45 p.m.
Monday, July 31: Makor Or Meditation, 7–8 p.m., Makom Sholom
Monday, July 31: Tisha B’Av service, 8–9:30 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Tuesday, August 1: Tisha B'Av morning service, 7–9 a.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Tuesday, August 1: Tisha B'Av evening service, 6–7 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel


20110805_Rand1Av Writing to us from Jerusalem, where he is currently teaching and studying, Rabbi Glazer shares the following insight about honoring and observing Tisha B'Av.

I’ve been thinking recently of an inconsolable child, one that I discovered in an astonishing text I've been teaching this summer.

Lamentations, the core biblical text recited on the floor during the 9th of Av, recounts the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples and presents the divine need for consolation. The God of the biblical Lamentations is either the wailing Daughter of Zion or the fallen God of War. But in the late medieval Spanish commentary called Zohar Hadash, the text I have been teaching, it is an inconsolable child who is wailing. Wandering through the ruins of Jerusalem, we run into these orphaned children sifting through the ashes of Jerusalem and crying out:

"Every day we approach Mother’s bed, but we do not find Her there. We ask after Her — no one heeds us. We ask after Her bed – overturned. We ask after Her throne – collapsed. We ask Her palaces – they swear they know nothing of Her whereabouts. We ask the dust – not footprints there."

I hear the wailing of the real Children of Israel in Zohar Hadash who are crying, "We are the orphans, without Father or Mother! We cast our eyes upon the walls of our Mother’s house, but it is destroyed, and we can’t find Her…" No longer servants or children, we are all now orphans. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, we orphans bang our heads against a wall that is also wailing. We are like children crying out, "Mommy, Mommy, wall, wall!"

My words here echo Zohar Hadash's imagined barbed missives, sent back and forth by Babylonian Jewry to Israeli Jewry, each challenging the other's authenticity and attacking the "bad faith" of the other Jewish population. In choosing not to leave the diaspora of Babylon, you should weep for yourselves, not the Temple you never frequented, quips the Israeli community. You chose your fate because your self-concern overrides your concern for the Temple and the Holy Land. The response of Babylonian Jewry from the depths of diaspora comes later on, when they finally have enough courage to respond to their Israeli brethren:

"It is fitting that you cry, and it befits you to eulogize and mourn when you see Mother’s sanctuaries destroyed, the place of Her bed upended in mourning. She is absent, having flown away from you, leaving you unaware of Her whereabouts. You might say She is with us in exile, dwelling among us. If so, we should rejoice, for indeed the prophet Ezekiel saw Her here with all Her legions. But actually for this we must weep and eulogize, like jackals and desert ostriches. She has been banished from Her chambers and we are in exile. She comes to us in bitterness and sees us daily in all our afflictions, with all the statues and decrees they impose upon us constantly. But She cannot remove these scourges from us, nor all the ordeals that we suffer."

So we, as diaspora Jews, join the orphans of Jerusalem as jackals and desert ostriches, deeply devoid of any possible consolation in the current ruins of a Jerusalem that is tearing the Jewish people apart — it just makes you wanna cry! And that's precisely why you should join us on Tisha B'Av — that's the point of a real dirge!

As we enter this Tisha B’Av 5777, let's all listen more deeply to the caterwauling concatenation of the inconsolable child. Let us never forget that as a community of orphans we continue mourning the emptiness of our collective authenticity – this wandering and weeping within us all, wailing these words, "Mommy, mommy, wall, wall!" as a naive child. Nevertheless, the child presses on, searching for his divine mother, long gone from the wall, so all that remains is his inconsolable wailing.

Yonder is your consolation coming, O orphaned ones...

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Archie Rand, "Av," 1993, Oil and enamel on canvas

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.

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.

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."

Tisha B'Av

"Goin’ to leave this Broke-down Palace
On my hands and my knees I will roll roll roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside
In my time - in my time - I will roll roll roll.
"

Why bother fasting on Tisha B’Av?

Broke-down Palace was first performed here, in San Francisco, on August 18, 1970, at the Fillmore West, appearing in the number six spot in the first (acoustic) set.

There is a moving anecdote about Broke-down Palace involving the American novelist and Merry Prankster, Ken Kesey. Kesey was renowned for appearing somewhat confused and disjointed, mixed in with his moments of genius, particularly as he reflected upon the death of his son. Kesey’s son died in a tragic accident, when the high school wrestling team's van drove off a cliff during a snow storm. Not long after his son's death, Kesey was invited to see the Grateful Dead play a gig somewhere on the West Coast. During the second set, the whole band turned to him and began playing Broke-down Palace. With tears in his eyes, Kesey later explained that it wasn't until that moment that he really understood the truly transcendent purpose of art, as he put it: "All my life I thought art was this [he stuck a fist in the air]. But at that moment I realized that art was really this [he made a hugging motion]."

So I ask again, why bother fasting on Tisha B’Av?

Many progressives with utopian aspirations feel that there is no longer any reason to fast. After all, who really wants to rebuild another "Broke-down Palace"? And of course, there is the modern State of Israel.

But think again! Expand your spiritual horizons and join us this coming Saturday evening at CBS, starting at 7:45 p.m., for reflection and meditation in Makom Shalom with Makor Or as we prepare the heart to enter into the sacred theater of Lamentations, which we will read at 8:50 p.m.

The Book of Lamentations itself is a singular work of genius in the Hebrew Bible. While it appears to be a standard template from the genre of Near Eastern laments, or kinnot, precious little of the focus is actually on the Temple cult itself. Here’s the rub — Tisha B’av and Lamentations beckon us to be present in our spiritual lives to degradation, poverty, homelessness, shame, anger, and rupture from God. And to top it off, there is the unmitigated audacity of the Sages (of blessed memory) in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (20:5), who suggested but a few hundred years after the Second Temple’s destruction that the possibility of rebirth and creativity actually emerges from the ashes of destruction! The birthday of the Messiah is also purported to take place on Tisha B’Av! And then there is the fact that "Jewish Sadie Hawkins Day" is six days later — aka Tu B’Av! And how do we reconcile the teaching of Rabbi Aha in the name of Rabbi Yohanan who suggests that Israel "produced many more righteous people in its destruction than when it was built up"?

Tisha B'Av is a time for us to look deeper inside our hearts, acknowledge the brokenness, and to sing along with the Montreal bard:

"There is a crack, a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in!"

Only after you have experienced the catastrophe can the song then be sung:

"In my time - in my time - I will roll roll roll..."

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Kezayit: Wall To Wall

Facebook_PlacingNoteInWallClose_YomHaAtzmautCelebration_May2016What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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When we reported on the delightfully fun Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration that took place at CBS on Sunday, May 15, we highlighted the handiwork of our talented CBS Family Preschool students:

"Outside, in Eva Gunther Plaza, congregants of all ages added personal aspirations and prayers to an amazing replica of the Western Wall made by the CBS Family Preschool Pre-K class. The students were inspired by photos of the Western Wall as well as memories and stories shared by children in the class who have visited the actual wall in Jerusalem. (The notes added to the replica wall yesterday will soon be carried to the actual Western Wall and placed there!)"

Indeed, this winter, during the Bay Area Conservative/Masorti Mission To Israel (December 22, 2016 – January 2, 2017), Rabbi Glazer will deliver all of the notes placed in the replica wall by members of the CBS community to the Kotel. (Todah rabbah, Rabbi!)

So why do we Jews have a tradition of inserting notes into the Kotel? Because the Western Wall is the last remaining remnant of the Second Temple, it is itself venerated as a sacred icon by many Jews -- some even believe it is a direct conduit to G-d -- and the handwritten notes placed in the wall's cracks are prayers or requests made to or of HaShem. Even non-Jews place personal entreaties in the wall, and it's become something of a requisite stop for foreign visitors to Israel, especially political figures.

Facebook_PlacingNoteInWall2_YomHaAtzmautCelebration_May2016According to the Jewish Virtual Library, "the Wall has been a popular place for prayer since the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., [and] the earliest example of placing notes at the Western Wall occurred in the mid-16th century. Rabbi Gedaliah of Semitzi visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall in 1699 and wrote the first recorded evidence of prayers being written down and left in the cracks of the Wall. The Wall became a popular destination during the 19th century as technology afforded more people the ability to travel the globe."

Fortunately, even if you're not a world traveler, you can place a note in the Western Wall. You can take advantage of services like that offered by Orthodox outreach organization Aish HaTorah, which allow people who can not visit Jerusalem in person to type in messages that are then printed and placed in the Western Wall by an Aish representative. Alternatively, you can add a note to the replica created by our preschoolers -- the wall is currently installed in the hallway between the synagogue and the preschool -- and know that it will find a home in the actual Western Wall later this year. Our preschoolers recommend this latter option!

Finally, we leave you with a joke: Every year, Shlomo visits the Kotel to place his special appeal in one of the wall's cracks. His petition reads, "HaShem, please help me win the lottery this year." Year after year, however, Shlomo fails to win any lottery prizes. Finally, after many years of this, as Shlomo departs from the Kotel, he is addressed by G-d. Startled and trembling on his knees, Shlomo looks toward the source of the incorporeal voice and asks, "HaShem, what do you ask of your humble servant?" G-d replies, "Nudnik, will you go and buy a lottery ticket?"

Kezayit: Tu B'Shevat In A Nutshell

With Tu B'Shevat less than a week away, we're sharing another Kezayit feature here. What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Trees
This coming Monday, January 25, is Tu B'Shevat (literally translating as "the 15th of Shevat").

Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (in 70 C.E.), Tu B'Shevat was a fiscal and agricultural year turnover, the date on which Israelite farmers calculated what tree and fruit crop tithes they owed the Temple.

Once Jews were living in diaspora, however, the rabbis reconceived Tu B'Shevat as a minor holiday during which Jews recalled and celebrated their ties to the Holy Land. For 1,500 years, Tu B'Shevat was a relative blip on the Jewish holiday calendar. That began to change in the 16th century, when the date became a spiritual locus for Jewish mystics. Rabbi Isaac Luria and his Safed disciples created a Kabbalistic Tu B'Shevat seder that emphasizes spiritual nourishment of the Tree of Life. The language of the seder roughly maps the sephirot, the ten Divine Emanations of G-d according to Kabbalah, as a tree -- roots, trunk, branches, and leaves.

Fast forward another 300 years or so, and Tu B'Shevat was given yet another makeover. The Jewish National Fund began celebrating the holiday as a kind of Israeli Arbor Day, a way to raise public awareness of and international support for their afforestation campaign. Because of this new association, many Jewish Americans would come to think of Tu B'Shevat as a "Jewish Earth Day."

Today, Tu B'Shevat is growing in popular observance, and is flavored with a little bit of mysticism, a little bit of environmentalism, and a lot of nuts, olives, figs, and other tasty treats.

Oh, and apparently the holiday precipitated a rap song and video that's so embarrassing it's almost endearing. Click the screenshot below to subject yourself to three minutes of incredulity and aural vexation. Do it for the trees.


Lead image credit: "South lake view; Angora Lakes Resort; South Lake Tahoe, CA; September 2015," Christopher Orev Reiger