Balak -- Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."

Eleanor Roosevelt (b.1884) was one of the most outspoken women on human rights and women's issues in the White House during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, her husband.

This week, in Parashat Balak from the prophet Balaam, who was commissioned to curse the people of Israel by Balak, the king of Moab and the Israelites' arch enemy. On the way to curse the Israelite encampments, Balaam is berated by his donkey, which sees an angel sent to obstruct their passage. After Balaam's eyes are opened to the angelic emissary, his attempts at cursing the Israelites are subverted into blessings:

"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5).

In marked contrast to Amalek’s violent work of chaos that "happens to attack randomly on the way" (Deuteronomy 25:18), the Jewish response of "blotting out Amalek" is actually about embracing life – it is a call to live purposefully with ethical objectives and just values in an unjust world. Thus, the commandment in Parashat Balak to conquer the seven nations, for example, is actually a commandment to spiritually control and reorient our emotions – including anger, hatred, and revenge. It is a commandment to transform these emotions with divine focus.

When we serve the divine as Jacob, we shield the Divine within our lives from the intrusion of evil or negative thoughts and from an animalistic consciousness. When we serve God as Israel, we make our lives into a "sanctuary" for God, enhancing our divine consciousness by identifying with ethical values and dreams for this world.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Balaam's faithful and unfairly castigated donkey at the moment she sees the angel. "The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so the she-donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field." (Numbers 22:23) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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.

Korah -- Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

DFacebook_CoverDesign_Korahuring a brief visit to Dublin, the birthplace of Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854), I was struck by the author, playwright, and poet's quick wit and keen observations about human nature. Wilde once quipped that, "Arguments are extremely vulgar, for everyone in good society holds exactly the same opinion."

Torah, on the other hand, teaches us about respecting a diversity of opinions. Such respectful but creative tension [makhloket] comes to be understood in the aftermath of Korah.

By inciting a mutiny against Moses, Korah is justly decrying a hierarchy that he sees as unfair. He proclaims his own brand of spiritual grandeur — "We are all holy!" This is a very real, egalitarian challenge to the hegemony of Mosaic leadership and its preferential granting of the priesthood to Aaron. In the end, Korah and his mutineers are consumed by fire as the earth swallows them up. Why then does Scripture later mention (Numbers 26:11) that "the children of Korah never died?"

The sages of the Mishnah picked up on the cues from Korah and went on to teach the following in Tractate Avot 5:20: "Any dispute [machloket] for heaven’s sake will ultimately endure; while any dispute [machloket] which is not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is a dispute for heaven’s sake? This is a debate between Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute that is not for heaven’s sake? This is the dispute of Korah and his assembly." In other words, there is a difference between petty squabbling and good arguments that allow for growth amidst real difference. Shammai and Hillel exemplify what it means to be involved in disputes for heaven’s sake, given that before either one would launch his own argument, his first step was to cite the opposing position; only after having done so would he then make his own argument. This posture displays a deep respect for opposing points of view and the realization that truth is discovered as part of a process that emerges in civil dialogue.

The vibrancy we yearn for in our Jewish lives comes by living in that creative tension between the Mosaic path and the Korahite path. The challenge before each of us is how to create that single vessel within community – to make space to foster the creative tension to enable our moral grandeur and spiritual audacity to be fully lived.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an illustration of tzitzit tied with a thread of techelet, wool dyed blue with blood extracted from a sea snail. Why this image? At the end of last week’s parsha, Moses was tasked with telling the Israelites that God commanded them to "make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue on the fringe of each corner." (Numbers 15:38) Many of our traditional biblical commentators believed that this "unbearable law" (Pseudo-Philo) was the final straw for Korah and his allies, and therefore gave rise to Korah’s rebellion. But, as James Kugel points out in his How To Read The Bible (2007), "Korah was not really interested in changing the system, merely in taking it over. He was thus a dangerous demagogue." Here, we see the techelet tied to the tzitzit according to the instructions given by Rabbi Abraham ben David (c. 1125–1198), also known as the RaBad or Raavad. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shelach Lecha -- Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

"Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded."

This remark by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor who made headlines in 2013 when he leaked top secret information about NSA surveillance activities, is indeed curious – and it has theological implications. In a wired, connected world in which almost everything we do is monitored, how does the Torah’s understanding of espionage strike us?

Espionage is a form of reconnoitering and a test of emunah — of one’s steadfast trust and conviction. As the 12 spies head out on their mission, they think they know what awaits them and so do the people that sent them. 40 days later, these spies return carrying produce from the land, including a cluster of grapes, a pomegranate, and a fig along with a report of the land’s bountifulness. 10 of the spies also warn the Israelites that the giant inhabitants are overpowering. Only Joshua and Caleb dissent, claiming the land can be conquered.

As the Israelites weep, yearning to return to Egypt, the divine decree emerges that they must enter the Promised Land by way of a circuitous route — by way of a forty-year trek through the desert. This period of journeying will allow time enough for the remorseful population to die out, making space for a new generation to emerge, one that will be more open to entering into a meaningful relationship of responsibility with the land divinely granted to them.

Parashat Shelach Lecha also includes legislation regarding the offerings of meal, wine, and oil, as well as laws pertaining to challah and the ritual fringes known as tzitzit that are on any four-cornered garment.

The possibility of knowing (and appreciating) a strong sense of omnipresence of the divine in our lives – that "we are being watched and recorded" – can be constructive if we see it as a spiritual opportunity, a way for us to see our actions honestly and ensure that they have lasting meaning.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration shows forty tally (or hash) marks stylized as linen-wrapped corpses. Inspired by Numbers 14:32-34 – "But as for you, your corpses shall fall in this desert...According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will [thus] bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation." – this is the count of an anthropomorphized, aggrieved, and estranged G-d. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beha'alotecha – Numbers 8:1 - 12:16

How does ritual allow for the building of community practice?

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

Naso – Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

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A 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 Nasotallies 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: The sotah ritual requires a wife suspected of infidelity to drink a potion which will determine her guilt or innocence. This week’s illustration depicts the profile of a woman accused and awaiting the verdict. In our more feminist 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

Community 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 depicts 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earning material well-being is a necessity for the survival of civilization. But how often do we linger in the passionate embrace of the culture that is the fruit of our labors? Wisdom comes with an ability to both earn and enjoy.

In Parashat Bechukotai, the Israelites are promised that if the commandments are kept, they will enjoy the material prosperity they have rightly earned in addition to dwelling securely in the Holy Land. Conversely, should this covenant be abandoned or abrogated, there is a harsh rebuke, coupled with a warning of exile, persecution, and other manifestations of evil. Here, in Bechukotai, we also encounter a variety of pledges made as divine offerings, as well as the aforementioned spiritual practice of setting aside a tenth (tithing) of firstlings and first fruits.

True wisdom then comes from earning material well-being through civilization as well as the passionate embrace of culture so that we may enjoy in sharing this well-being with others. The understanding that in giving, you receive more than you give could not be more true or urgent today.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

Emor – Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Facebook_CoverDesign_EmorThis week’s reading builds upon last week’s distinction between the Priestly Torah, which focuses on the priestly views of ritual (as distinct from those of the masses), and the Holiness Code, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

What further distinguishes Chapters 21 and 22 of Leviticus from the rest of the Holiness Code (Chapters 17–26) is a primary concern for the priesthood rather than for the Israelite people as a whole. There is an internal symmetry wherein the code for ordinary priests (21:1-9) and the code for the High Priest (21:10-15) both begin with funerary regulations and conclude with marital restrictions.

Parashat Emor also addresses the annual callings to holiness: a weekly sabbatical retreat; an annual paschal offering on the 14th of Nisan as well as the seven day cycle of Pesach (Passover) beginning on the 15th of Nisan; the gathering and elevating of the Omer offering from the first barley harvest on the second day of Passover to its culmination in Shavuot; the primal cry of the shofar on the 1st of Tishrei for Rosh Hashanah; followed by a fast day on the 10th of Tishrei; culminating with a seven-day festival for dwelling in booths while dancing with the four species on the 15th of Tishrei and then the after-party of the Eighth day of Assembly marking the pilgrimage route home with Shemini Atzeret.

By contrast, the first section of Emor speaks to laws pertaining to Temple service of the High Priest.

All in all, there is something about sacred time that speaks to each of us differently, yet the sacred somehow finds a way to take place in our lives through the Jewish calendar and the synagogue.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's stark artwork is inspired by Emor's focus on separation, especially as it pertains to distinctions between pure/impure or sacred/profane. The Israelite approach to sacrifice, illness, hygiene, sexual biology, food, agriculture, and more is informed by a severe dualism that makes sense in context; nonetheless, it is impossible not to feel empathy for those members of the tribe who are cut off from their people because they are deemed taboo or impure.Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Facebook_CoverDesign_AchareiMot-KedoshimIn conversation with a Jewish artist, I once quipped that all artists must see their art as an offering to the Other Side. "What?!," the artist exclaimed. In order to quell the energy of the negative forces in the universe, I explained, the mystical interpretation of many rituals, especially sacrifice, is understood as a way of assuaging and keeping at bay the Other Side.

So what were the two Young Turk priests, Nadav and Avihu, up to with their offering as ritual artists? The enigmatic scene first described in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), returns in Parashat Acharei Mot with a sobering lesson about the episode.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta? Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who find in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. Sometimes, though, that ecstasy comes at a price – the Other Side can overtake even the most spiritual of ritual artists.

The fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw rather than engage in the real world with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. For Jewish art to be effective, it cannot withdraw from the world, but must engage directly with it by transforming it.

Reading Parashat Kedoshim, we're reminded that part of the reason Leviticus can be a challenging read is that it often seems as though there are competing voices of religious authority. Recall there are two distinct and independent schools of Torah in the Book of Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness Code. There is a fine line distinguishing the Priestly Torah, which is preoccupied with the priestly views of ritual that are distinct from the masses, from the Holiness School, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

Interestingly, we see in Kedoshim that the Holiness Code is ecological in orientation, at least insofar as it emphasizes the web of relationships that unite various members of the land community – namely: earth, animal, and humans. Just as it is forbidden to cut "the edge" [pe’ah] of either "field" (19:9) or "human head and beard" (19:27), so we are invited to reorient our lives with greater ecological awareness of the place we play within the web of all sentient beings. Such a planetary awareness is what holiness demands of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract, painterly response to the many instances of "you shall not" in Acharei Mot / Kedoshim. Some contemporary readers are turned off by all these "negative commandments" (mitzvot lo taaseh), but such laws became essential as humans settled in large, agrarian centers. Codified behavior provided increased predictability in social interaction, and these codes of conduct were enforced to direct society toward cohesion and stability; the many prohibitions serve as a bulwark against barbarism and the breakdown of social bonds. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

Pesach

Facebook_CoverDesign_Pesach5777"Roots, man — we’re talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. … yeah — these are my roots, I suppose. Am I looking for them? … I ain’t looking for them in synagogues … I can tell you that much." — Bob Dylan, 1983

Is the Messiah a person or a process of redemption?

In my book on Bob Dylan’s gnostic theology, God Knows Everything Is Broken, I argue that the Hibbing bard fell prey to the allure of messianic personhood one night in a Tucson hotel room, as he described his own experience: "I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up." Months later, Dylan again found himself alone in empty arena sound-checks. Through these solitary communions, he worked up a new song, "Slow Train," which served, amid larger questions with ineffable answers, as his own journey through a messianic process.

Meanwhile, many of his Jewish listeners turned a deaf ear to his next three albums. That's unfortunate, because they are necessary listening if you want to hear how Dylan’s "conversion songs" are inextricably linked to his ongoing, post-conversion work.

Following a few short years of "conversion," Dylan, in 1983, released "Infidels," a virulent self-critique, embarking on "a very personal battle to construct a world view that retains [his] faith in both God and humanity." Around this time, Dylan even recorded an album of Hasidic songs (the bootlegged out-takes are called "From Shot to Saved"). It is through the outreach of Rabbi Manis Friedman that Dylan found his direction home, and Chabad legend has it that the Hibbing bard prayed in a hoodie at the Crown Heights headquarters. During Dylan’s first appearance before the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson at his farbrengen, a traditional Hasidic gathering, the latter did not acknowledge the former because of his apostate status – only after Dylan immersed in a mikvah to return to his Jewish self would the rebbe smile at him at the next farbrengen.

While this "re-conversion" story is kept under wraps, Dylan’s public return to roots was still misunderstood as a returning of a secularist, or nonobservant Jew. Perhaps their singing spokesperson accepted the darkening spiritual awareness that "everything is broken." Yet the return to his Jewish roots, for Dylan, was more radical. Importantly, he returned not as a zealot, which "Infidels" rejects, but as a Jew devoid of Orthodox ideology. In his perennial reinventions, Dylan’s pendulum swings — not merely from one orthodoxy to another — but from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. Already wobbling into heterodoxy in 1985, Dylan remarks: "Whether you believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah is irrelevant, but whether you’re aware of the messianic complex, that’s … important … People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now, as if He was here …"

Unlike the medieval Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia, who aborted his messianic meeting to convert Pope Nicholas III in 1279, Dylan’s modern messianic mission with Pope John Paul II in 1997 was met with equally dubious reception as the Vatican called him "a false prophet." Did Dylan believe his messianic search had evolved from personhood to process, to then dissolve the differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

Like every SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) seeker so allergic to setting foot in a synagogue, Dylan eventually returns home to the root of his soul. Being "aware of the messianic complex" demarcates the theology of Dylan’s songbook and enables its rapid shift, from the apocalyptic songs to those affirming a personal sense of gratitude for his redemption. This struggle to clarify the source of messianism emerges in many lyrics, for example, in "Pressing on to a Higher Calling" (from the 1980 album "Saved"), which points to the shift from personhood to process. Such a journey, especially when it is frustratingly circuitous, is only possible by struggling with messianism as a process.

So for Pesach, don’t leave home! Rather stay attuned during the seder. Open that door at home for Elijah and see there is really an internalizing shift taking place, from messianic personhood to process. It is an opening to that "kind of sign [each and every one of us] need[s] when it all come[s] from within"!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer (This piece originally appeared in J. Jewish News of Northern California, April 7, 2017).

Artwork note: This week’s illustration depicts the Korban Pesach, or "sacrifice of Passover." Also referred to as the Paschal lamb, it figures prominently in Christian rhetoric, where Jesus Christ is portrayed as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, or Lamb of God. The illustration seemed a fitting accompaniment to Rabbi Glazer's examination of Bob Dylan's messianic search. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tzav -- Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

CoverDesign_TzavThe Greek diplomat, Solon (638-558 BCE) once remarked:

"Learn to obey before you command."

What is the relationship between obedience and commandedness [t'zivui] and how does it affect our relationship to sacral duties [mitzvot]?

From hearing the calling to obeying the command [tzav], Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's sons all receive the divine command regarding their duties as priests [kohanim] to make offerings [qorbanot] in the Sanctuary. The fire on the altar must be kept burning at all times, so as to completely consume: the ascent offering [‘olah]; veins of fat from the peace offering [shelamim]; sin offering [hatat]; guilt offering [asham]; and the handful taken from the meal offering [minha]. The priests are permitted to eat the meat of the sin and guilt offerings, as well as the remainder of the meal offering. The peace offering is offered by the one who brought it, with sections apportioned to the priest. Consumption of the holy meat offerings are to be eaten by a person for whom it is ritually appropriate, in a designated place and time.

Initiation into the priesthood for Aaron and his sons takes place over the seven day retreat in the sanctuary compound. Sometimes it takes the perspective of retreat to truly see how our relationship to each and every mitzvah -- no matter how potentially burdensome initially -- is ultimately a great gift all along.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork highlights the body parts Moses marks with blood during the initiation of Aaron and his sons as kohanim. Why the cartilage of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot? (Leviticus 8:23) According to Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), "The fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot of the pilgrimage of life." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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.

Tetzaveh -- Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Fashion designer Kenneth Cole once remarked, "You can change an outfit, you can outfit change, or both." How fitting that clothes are what truly outfit spiritual change in this week’s reading!

To outfit spiritual change, all priests or kohanim wear: (1) a full- length linen tunic [ketonet]; (2) linen breeches [michnasayim]; (3) a linen headdress, or turban [mitznefet]; and (4) a long, waist sash [avnet]. To manifest his spiritual shift, the High Priest also wears: (5) an apron of blue-, purple-, and red-dyed wool, with linen and gold thread [efod]; (6) a breastplate composed of 12 precious stones inscribed with the names of the 12 tribes [hoshen]; (7) a cloak of blue wool, adorned with gold bells and pomegranates on its hem [me’il]; and (8) a golden plate upon the forehead with the inscription, “Holy to God” [tzitz].

Initiation into the priesthood takes seven days for Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Itamar. Mirroring the seven day cycle of creation, here Torah is teaching us that every creative choice we make, even the most mundane, outfits us with the possibility of spiritual transformation.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the Holy of Holies as an abstract, contained force. In Parashat Tetzaveh, we learn the Israelite priests must be purified and specially adorned in order to safely approach the Holy of Holies. Comparing Aaron’s "holysuit" to a space suit, religious scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky (z”l) wrote, "we must have G-d’s holy presence to survive, but we must approach it only when it is contained in the precise manner G-d prescribes, and we come into the realm of holiness only in the holysuit G-d gives us. In the modern world, we have energy that can serve as a metaphor to model this divine power. Carefully contained, nuclear power can fuel our cities, but if the plant has cracks, it will escape and destroy, and if an individual approaches without a radiation suit, that person is dead." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Terumah -- Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Master architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) once remarked that "God lies in the details." His refined glass and steel structures defined mid-20th century architecture, and anyone looking carefully at his Seagram Building or the Barcelona Pavilion will notice the way his materials meet with their surroundings – the way form and function work together – and will understand van der Rohe's teaching about the essence of divine design.

In this week’s reading, the Israelites are called upon to contribute a remarkable panoply of the most moral of all materials: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and red-dyed wool; flax, goat hair, animal skins, wood, olive oil, spices, and gems. Together, these precious materials will allow the Divine to dwell in the details of the Mishkan (the portable desert Tabernacle). The command given to Moses could not be any more clear:

Make for me a sanctuary that I may dwell amidst them.” (Exodus 25:8).

The inner chamber is veiled by a woven curtain. That chamber is the sacred space where the Ark of the Covenant is placed, and the Ark houses the tablets of the Ten Commandments. On the Ark’s cover hover two winged cherubim hewn of pure gold. In the outer chamber, the seven-branched menorah stands and showbread is arranged upon a table.

While van der Rohe once quipped that he preferred to be good rather than merely interesting, clearly the Tabernacle is more than just good design, it is the template for a transformative encounter — and that is simply divine!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts a different kind of portable Mishkan, a heart enthused with G-d’s holy presence. Rabbi Stuart Weinberg Gershon writes that "the physical sanctuary of G-d is just a reminder of what G-d really wants – that each person builds a sanctuary within his or her heart for G-d to dwell therein. … G-d has no need to dwell in buildings. What G-d desires more than anything is to dwell – to live – in each of us." 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.

Beshalach -- Exodus 13:17–17:16

How does any reasonable person react when facing "the lesser of two evils" or "an offer you can’t refuse"? When we find ourselves "on the horns of a dilemma," we are usually "trapped between a rock and a hard place" — this is a feeling we know all too well in life, whether in business dealings or with family and friends.

The earliest occurrence of "between a rock and a hard place" in 1921 America denotes being bankrupt — "common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California." (American Dialect Society, Dialect Notes V, 1921) More recently, Aron Ralston's book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004) was adapted into in the gruesome film, 127 Hours (2010). Ralston’s memoir recounts the 127 hours that he spent trapped by a boulder in Robbers Roost, Utah, after a climbing accident in April 2003. He survives precisely by opting for the "hard place" of freeing himself by cutting off part of his right arm.

Aside from these common usages of the expression, from Arizona and California to Utah, this week we turn to the Israelites who are feeling quite constricted as they are now trapped "between a rock and a hard place" — between Pharaoh’s armies rapidly approaching from behind and the ominous Reed Sea ahead of them. How will they respond to being "between the devil and the deep blue sea"?

Moses receives the divine command to raise his staff over the water so that the Reed Sea then splits, relieving the Israelites of their predicament, trapped as they are "between a rock and a hard place," and allowing them safe passage. This opening quickly turns into a dead end for the Egyptian armies pursuing the Israelites. Once they are safe on the far side of the sea, Moses, Miriam, and the Children of Israel erupt into redemption songs.

Now in the desert, however the challenges mount. The Israelites suffer from thirst and hunger, and complain to their new leaders, Moses and Aaron. Their thirst is slaked only when the bitter waters of Marah are sweetened. Moses also brings forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, and causes nourishing manna to rain down on his people each morning and quails each evening. The Israelites gather a double portion of manna on Fridays, since none will fall from the sky on the divinely decreed day of rest known as the Sabbath. Aaron even jars a morsel of manna as testimony for future generations.

The trials continue as the Israelites are attacked by the tribe of Amalek, who is ultimately defeated by Moses and Joshua. It is noteworthy that Moses uses the spiritual power of prayer, while Joshua uses the political power of armed forces.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's collage-like illustration depicts the rock at Horeb during the night, with water still pouring forth from the place where Moses struck it. "You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it." (Exodus 17:6) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.