Ha'azinu -- Deuteronomy 32:1 – 52

American economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) once remarked that "universities exist to transmit knowledge and understanding of ideas and values to students, not to provide entertainment for spectators or employment for athletes." Similarly, the task of Mosaic leadership is to transmit the knowledge and understanding of ideas and values for community-building.

This being so, it's worth noting how Moses manages to remain connected to the web of larger meaning and community while delivering his soliloquy in verse to the Israelites on the last day of his life on earth? Moses calls heaven and earth as his witnesses, and challenges the Israelites to take to heart the continuity they are now a part of. He admonishes and warns his people against the pitfalls of plenty and the apathy that will grow when one becomes too comfortable while living in the Promised Land.

As Moses ascends the summit of Mount Nebo in accord with the divine command, he is able to glimpse the territory he has so long longed for, but he will never enter it. Moses dies at the threshold. Nonetheless, his soliloquy overpowers any sense of "present horror," that dreadful silence that emerges in the dead of night, by ensuring that his legacy is fulfilled by those who come after, by those who will uphold and transmit the knowledge and understanding of ideas and values for community-building that lies at the root of all Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Deuteronomy 32:2: "My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass." Here, fragments of Torah fall earthward. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

Ki Tavo -- Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

How do you express your gratitude? With words? With a thank-you card?

John F. Kennedy once suggested that "as we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

A robust "attitude of gratitude" requires an act that acknowledges a benefactor’s benevolence and communicates one's grateful feelings. This is part of what Moses is teaching the Children of Israel through his own song in Deuteronomy; he instructs his people on how to cultivate the proper attitude for entering the Holy Land – after all, it is being given as an eternal gift. In settling and cultivating the land, the ritual of offering first ripened fruits or bikkurim at the Jerusalem Temple is a key moment in the agrarian lifecycle – here is a chance to proclaim one’s gratitude in community. Gratitude is often learned through our relation to others; thus tithing to the Levites and the needy are opportunities to cultivate gratitude. Sometimes we must see need in our midst to really appreciate the abundant blessings of our lives.

There is follow up here to the episode of blessings and curses that began its articulation in last week’s reading. Moses comments on the development of the Israelites since their birth as a nation; although their sense of peoplehood and commitment has evolved, they have not yet attained the maturity exemplified by "a mind to understand, or eyes to see or ears to hear." (29:3) In other words, aging does not always lead to emotional maturation, and this desert generation is still engaged in an ongoing process of "growing up" amidst innumerable challenges on the journey thus far.

To live by gratitude is our greatest challenge and dearest hope.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract depiction of Parashat Ki Tavo's dark and despotic venom. The parsha includes threats aplenty and bleak visions of the future that will befall the Israelites should they not "fulfill all [God’s] commandments and statutes." (Deuteronomy 28:15) Here, the venom dances across the picture like ink in water. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

German Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt once remarked: "Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core."

How do we discern the difference between hypocrisy and evil? And then how do we confront evil in life? For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good so as to live with hypocrisy-free integrity.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration of defaced wheatpaste posters on an urban wall is inspired by Deuteronomy 25:19: "...you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!" This biblical injunction is the basis for three of the 613 mitzvot: Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites; Wipe out the descendants of Amalek; Do not forget Amalek's atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert. If you’re an art aficionado and this portrayal of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the portrait is a wild-haired riff on one of Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s famous self portraits. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shoftim -- Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

"Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deuteronomy 16:20)

What does it take to pursue justice in an unjust world? I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who commented that "human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals." Dr. King's message, as is so often the case, was inspired by a shared theology that emanated from the Hebrew Bible, and is plainly apparent in Parashat Shoftim.

When the judicial system is set up in Ancient Israel, attention is paid to appointing judges and law enforcement officers in every city. According to Mosaic Law, crimes must be investigated impartially and evidence thoroughly examined for there to be any hope of justice. Most importantly, there is the establishment of two credible witnesses required for any conviction and punishment. Prohibitions against idolatry and sorcery as well as laws governing the appointment of king are expounded, along with the guidelines for cities of asylum for the inadvertent murderer.

Alongside these laws, this week’s parsha also sets forth the rules of war, including exemptions from the military draft as well as the requirement to first offer peace before launching the offensive and attacking a city. Moreover, laws of war prohibit the wanton destruction of staples that are of value even though they nourish the enemy, for example, the prohibition of cutting down a fruit tree. The special ritual to be followed when the body of a person killed by an unknown perpetrator is found in a field – articulated as the law of Eglah Arufah – focuses again on the responsibility of both the most proximate community and its leaders for what could have been done to prevent this tragic loss of life.

Finally, we are reminded that every generation is responsible and entrusted with the task of interpreting the law to keep it dynamic as a living system of justice.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts an unsettled landscape with a road leading in the direction of a distant city. In fact, these hills are in Marin and the city skyline belongs to present-day San Francisco. Because of topographic similarities and the prominent role Jewish immigrants played in San Francisco's history, many Bay Area Jews view the city as our "American Jerusalem" and the region as our Promised Land. It's worth noting, however, that contrary to many claims, San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city is not a latter day iteration of Parashat Shoftim's city of refuge prescription. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Re'eh -- Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

American naturalist-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked, "Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting."

Emerson’s 1836 essay, Nature, expresses the belief that everything in our world – even a drop of dew – is a microcosm of the universe. This transcendentalist notion is not foreign to Judaism, especially its more mystical streams. We open ourselves to such transcendence through the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes and, in so doing, daring to see beyond ourselves so that we can develop new relationships to all texts, even sacred texts of nature. It's all a question of how we see ourselves in relation to the text and its sacred inspiration.

So when Moses says to the Children of Israel, "See I place before you today a blessing and a curse," they enter an important stage of maturity in their covenantal relationship — that of responsibility. Seeing the consequences of our actions is a sign of growing responsibility. These are proclaimed on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal as the Israelites are crossing over into the Holy Land. In establishing a Temple, we made a place where the Divine will dwell in essence and Name. This will become the new central address for sacrifices, and in keeping with the overall theology of Deuteronomy, no offerings can be made to the divine outside this locale. Laws of tithing are discussed in detail, including how the tithe is given to the needy in certain years. Here, we encounter one of the first iterations of charity as an obligation devolving upon the Jew to aid those in need with a gift or loan. But all such loans are forgiven on the Sabbatical year and all indentured servants are freed after six years of service.

The theme of seeing concludes Parashat Re'eh. Listing the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecosts (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) as times when the pilgrim goes to see and be seen before the Divine in the precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the parsha demonstrates that encountering the Divine in our lives is indeed a "seeing into our nature" with fresh eyes. This "seeing" provides hope for such sacred encounters throughout our lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by mystical visions. It features a stylized eye with retinal ganglion cells and filaments of muscle radiating outward. Of his transcendent experiences, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me." His peer Walt Whitman described himself as part of a universal weave of "threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff." Rabbi Arthur Cohen writes of being pressed "to the limit where thought cannibalizes itself in despair, where knowing ceases, where the emptying of the self is undergone and the fullness of God may commence." Mystics, be they American transcendentalists, Hasids, or academics, are not lunatics; their practice is an enthusiastic response to the world as it is – radically interconnected, with each individual indivisible from everything else. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ekev -- Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

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

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaEtchananHow does empathy resonate with you?

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

Devarim -- Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Facebook_CoverDesign_DevarimThe great American boxer Muhammad Ali once remarked: "It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen."

When we turn to the repetition of the Law through its namesake (the Book of Deuteronomy, from deutero, meaning "repetition," and nomos, meaning "law"), we find Moses laying out his legacy plan through the repetition of the Law to the assembly.

Part of this Mosaic legacy entails his recounting the Israelites' 40-year journey from Egypt to Sinai, and eventually to the Promised Land. Part of the challenge along the way has been to solidify a cohesive practice. Moses now recognizes that this practice must take the form of sacral deeds called mitzvot.

Tied up with his reiteration of the Law, Moses also recounts the further challenges he faced as leader – countless battles with warring nations as well as the inter-tribal conflicts surrounding division of land. The generation of the desert, still imbued with the Egyptian slave mentality, must die out before a new community can be truly committed to this covenant.

For the legacy to be good and effective, Moses must transmit to Joshua, who engages in "counter-effectuation" — the possibility of conviction emerging from repetition is how the Mosaic legacy is carried forward with his own imprint.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is a depiction of Joshua. Behind him, loosely rendered, we see spectres of the Nephilim, the giants or fallen angels that reportedly inhabited the Promised Land. Unlike their ten scout companions, Joshua and Caleb believed the Israelites could conquer Canaan's fearsome inhabitants. For his bravery and virtue, Joshua would later inherit the mantle of Moses. "But Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you he will go there; strengthen him, for he will cause Israel to inherit it." (Deuteronomy 1:38) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Matot / Massei -- Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

Facebook_CoverDesign_MasseiParashat Matot

The final of the four tangible ways of measuring the intangibles of intentional community that I learned with Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman (Oranim College of Education) during the Rabin Bay Area Leadership Mission to Israel is Meaningfulness: "My uniqueness is an important resource and influence for the group."

As we read this week in Parashat Matot, Moses divides up the community according to tribes, assigning land and leadership roles accordingly as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. The Torah provides two names for the twelve tribes of Israel, both derived from the imagery of the tree: shevatim and matot. While a shevet is a "branch," a mateh is a "staff" – the former attached to the tree, the other detached. In other words, a mateh is a shevet that has been uprooted from its tree.

The twelve tribes embody this tension between unity and division. Eager to settle in plots east of the Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, later joined by half of the tribe of Manasseh, demand these plots as their portion in the Promised Land. Moses, initially angered by this special request, subsequently agrees – on the condition that they join and lead Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan.

Today, we continue to face this tension in our modern Jewish tribe. We struggle between mateh and shevet Judaism, between denominationalism and unity, and between Conservative Judaism and "Just Jewish."

Both of these perennial tendencies of creating and grouping community are part of the Tree of Jewish communal Life; the question is how we strike a balance between our need for ideological affinity within a given denomination and the need to be a part of a unified peoplehood.

Parashat Massei

"One can find a squalid America as easily as a scenic America; a bitter, hopeless America as easily as the confident America of polyethylene wrapping, new cars, and camping trips in the summer."

For Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), the U.S. Attorney General (during his brother's administration) and U.S. Senator who was assassinated in 1968, camping is a scenic part of our American pioneering spirit (rather than a squalid one).

So when we read this week of the journey of the Israelites and the record of their forty-two station stops in encampments along the way to the Promised Land – from the Exodus to the plains of Moab across the river from the land of Canaan – we would be well served in reading into it a sense of real joy. As we approached our destination, the boundaries of the Promised Land were traced, and more importantly, Cities of Refuge were designated as havens, places of exile for inadvertent murderers. (How telling that the Cities of Refuge, which are an advanced institution dedicated to creating civil society and thus protecting it from the circle of bloodshed that comes with revenge, are referred to time after time in Scripture – here in Numbers as well as in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.)

In the final surveying of laws relating to the land, we confronted the issue of inheritance head-on. The daughters of Tzelafochad – as proto-feminists – decide to marry within their own tribe of Manasseh to ensure that the estate which they inherit from their father should not pass to the province of another tribe.

Throughout the parsha, the land ultimately serves as a horizontal platform for action, one that always binds us in a vertical relationship to what is right, just, and compassionate – the divine. Just as we journey across lands here on earth, we must not forget the journey of the soul.

Although journeys on land may be long and treacherous, there is no greater journey than the turn inwards. Each Shabbat, we are offered this chance to slow down and share in this ongoing spiritual journey with our community.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is concerned with worldly boundaries, the lines we etch into or lay over the landscape to demarcate property and/or spheres of influence. "When you arrive in the land of Canaan, this is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders." (Numbers 34:2) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Balak -- Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Facebook_CoverDesign_Balak"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.

"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Two

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study is back, meeting each Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants are studying the fourth chapter of Tractate Shabbat using the Adin Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud. If you don’t have a copy, bring a tablet or laptop so that you can use the free online version.

Henry is contributing regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus providing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions with a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. Chapter Two of his exploration appears below.

You can read "CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple" by clicking here.

* * * * *
What is Talmud Study?

Chapter Two: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself. (Have you read Tristram Shandy? If not, you really should. Poor Tristram becomes quite familiar with this sort of thing.)

As I discussed last week, the Written Torah consists of Torah, Prophets, and Writings – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. We know that at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple all of the books of the Tanakh existed in written form. We have the physical examples that were discovered at Qumran on the Dead Sea. Some people believe that the entire Tanakh is the precise word of God. If we accept this (and even if we don’t), how did the word of God come to be written down?

Writing and Jewish law (halacha) are connected from the beginning within the Tanakh. The first mitzvot to be revealed are the Ten Commandments. These come in two drafts. The first, written by "the Hand of God," doesn’t make it to us intact. The one that we actually get to read from is inscribed into stone by Moses.

There are a number of lessons about writing in the Jewish tradition that we can learn from this story:
1) Use of the written word is an attribute that we share with the Divine.
2) Our written texts, physically produced by human hands, are sufficiently similar to those produced by the Divine "Hand" that they can have the full authority of the words of the Divine.
3) The written word can partake of the same permanence – that is, the same perfection – as the word of the Divine received directly.

The Written Law has the virtues of permanence and fixity. Appearing in the written text, it provides a certainty on which the believer can base their confidence that the will of God can be known, followed, and be made a source of constant support.

These virtues can also become weaknesses, however. Permanence is the extreme of orthodoxy. Humanity is ever shifting in location, social mores, technology, artistry, and even temperament. As long as the Law remains at the center of human concerns, permanence works in its favor. But, if the law becomes dislodged from that center even slightly, that permanence is transformed into a weakness.

If the Law requires a physicality, it is always threatened. The first set of tablets is smashed. The people remain without the benefit of the Law until a second set of tablets can be carved for them. Dependence on fixity of physical permanence stifles the preservation of the Law through memory. When the Law enters memory through repeated reading or through memorization of an oral text, it enters the mesh of human memory and, like the human mind as a whole, becomes malleable.

In the First Temple period, both sets of tablets lie in the Ark. They are not brought forth. We never hear of the reading of the Law until the reign of Hezekiah, when a lost scroll (generally assumed to be the Book of Deuteronomy) is rediscovered during the renovation of the Temple. It becomes clear from the aftermath of the reading of that scroll that the Israelites (Judahites) had forgotten most of what Moses had taught. The quality of Jewish faith in the First Temple period seems thin to us now. It appears to be a brittle monotheism lacking all of the intellectual ferment that we associate with the Jewish mind.

The nations of Israel and Judah come under dire threat in the eras of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The coming of a new or renewed faith among Jacob’s children starts to become visible. Writing and the technology of writing plays a part in this change.

Next week, we'll find hints of an explanation of the ties that bind the Written Law to the Oral Law.

READ CHAPTER THREE: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.
Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

VeZot Ha'Berachah -- Deuteronomy 33:1 – 34:12

facebook_coverdesign_vezothaberachahPlease note that Parashat VeZot Ha'Berachah is read during the Simchat Torah service, which will take place on Tuesday, October 25. This Saturday, October 22, is Shabbat Sukkot, during which we read a selection from Parashat Ki Tissa.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) once remarked: "Zion is in ruins, Jerusalem lies in the dust. All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth."

How is this redemption achieved? For Heschel, redemption takes place through time, not space. "Quality time" is what matters in our lives, and it is through the Jewish calendar that we "do Jewish," embodying Jewish life and identity.

It is precisely through the appointed times (or moadim) on the Jewish calendar that we are best able to define our Jewish lives. We do so by abiding in the sukkah and taking hold of the four species, as well as by participating in the thrice annual pilgrimage festivals to the Jerusalem Temple during Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and Booths (Sukkot).

And when we "Rejoice in the Torah" during Simchat Torah, we simultaneously conclude and begin anew the annual Torah-reading cycle. Firstly, we read the Torah section of Parashat VeZot Ha'Berachah, recounting the Mosaic blessing bestowed upon each of the twelve tribes of Israel before his death. Echoing Jacob's blessings to his twelve sons five generations earlier, Moses empowers each tribe with its individual role within the Israelite community.

What VeZot Ha'Berachah then relates is how Moses ascended Mount Nebo to its summit, taking a peek at the Promised Land without ever entering into it. Moses’ burial place to this day remains unknown and the Torah concludes by attesting that "never again did there arose a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom G-d knew face to face...and in all the mighty hand and the great, awesome things which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel."

As we conclude the annual reading of the Torah, it is important to remember that every moment is a sacred encounter in the making when we truly value the sacral power of time.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork includes the symbols and colors of the two tribes of Israel that we know survive today (i.e., the tribes that became Jews). The colors and symbols are drawn from Bamidbar Rabbah, part of our rabbinic literature (midrashim). The stones of the choshen, or priestly breastplate, are depicted in white, black, and red here, and represent the Tribe of Levi. The lion depicted on a sky blue ground represents the Tribe of Judah. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ha'azinu -- Deuteronomy 32:1 – 52

facebook2_coverdesign_haazinuIn spite of his death at 28, Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (aka Novalis, 1772–1801) left us with a long lifetime's worth of profound gems. Among these, "Whoever knows what philosophizing is, also knows what life is."

Philosophy happens in the school of life. We encounter it through everyday provocations like irony, the joke, and the essay. For Novalis, self-understanding cannot be achieved through isolated soliloquy; rather, it requires engagement with the larger community as well as with the arts. In other words, in order to understand yourself, you must first realize that you belong to a greater web of meaning.

As we read Moses’ soliloquy this week in Parashat Ha’azinu, I have been thinking more about Novalis’ insight. How does Moses manage to remain connected to the web of larger meaning and community while delivering his soliloquy in verse to the Israelites on the last day of his life on earth? Moses calls heaven and earth as his witnesses, and challenges the Israelites to take to heart the continuity they are now a part of. He admonishes and warns his people against the pitfalls of plenty and the apathy that will grow when one becomes too comfortable while living in the Promised Land.

As Moses ascends the summit of Mount Nebo in accord with the divine command, he is able to glimpse the Promised Land, but he will never enter it. Moses dies at the threshold, but his soliloquy overpowers any sense of "present horror," that dreadful silence that emerges in the dead of night, by ensuring that his legacy is fulfilled by those who come after, by those who will uphold and transmit the Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by one of the descriptions of the future, fallen Israelite people in the Song of Moses. "Their wine is the bitterness of serpents, and the bitterness of the ruthless cobras." Here, wine glass ring stains turn into Ouroboros-like cobras. (Deuteronomy 32:33) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

VaYelekh -- Deuteronomy 31:1 – 30

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

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

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

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

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

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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

Nitzavim -- Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20

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

I suggest that Torah has its own pragmatic dynamic choice theory which shines through in this week's parsha. As Moses makes clear: "It is not in the heavens… neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:12-14). Moses is reinforcing the practical nature of Torah and its pragmatic application to a life well lived as he reaches his 120th year.

As Moses gets ready to transition leadership responsibilities to Joshua, he concludes writing the teachings of Torah in an actual scroll, which is then placed for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant. This Torah scroll is meant to be read by the king at a gathering in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem every seventh year (during the festival of Sukkot and the first year of the Shmita cycle). The concern for continuity shines through in the pragmatic dynamic choice theory of Torah, lest its song be forgotten by the next generation.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Deuteronomy 30:3: "Then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you." Our Jewish experience of exile, or galut, fundamentally shapes our national and corporate identity and imagination. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tavo -- Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

facebook_coverdesign_kitavoHow do you express your gratitude? With words? With a thank-you card?

A robust "attitude of gratitude" requires an act that acknowledges a benefactor’s benevolence and communicates one's grateful feelings. This is part of what Moses is teaching the Children of Israel through his own song in Deuteronomy; he instructs his people on how to cultivate the proper attitude for entering the Holy Land – after all, it is being given as an eternal gift. In settling and cultivating the land, the ritual of offering first ripened fruits or bikkurim at the Jerusalem Temple is a key moment in the agrarian lifecycle – here is a chance to proclaim one’s gratitude in community. Gratitude is often learned through our relation to others; thus tithing to the Levites and the needy are opportunities to cultivate gratitude. Sometimes we must see need in our midst to really appreciate the abundant blessings of our lives.

There is follow up here to the episode of blessings and curses that began its articulation in last week’s reading. Moses comments on the development of the Israelites since their birth as a nation; although their sense of peoplehood and commitment has evolved, they have not yet attained the maturity exemplified by "a mind to understand, or eyes to see or ears to hear." (29:3) In other words, aging does not always lead to emotional maturation, and this desert generation is still engaged in an ongoing process of "growing up" amidst innumerable challenges on the journey thus far.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features an opened pomegranate, one of the seven species brought to the Temple for the bikkurim offering."And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it, that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you." (Deuteronomy 26:1–2) Because the pomegranate is also associated with Rosh Hashanah, it seemed only appropriate to feature it now. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Facebook_CoverDesign_KiTetzeiHow do we react to evil when we confront it in our lives?

For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration captures the fear that permeates much of the parsha. "...all Israel will listen and fear." (Deuteronomy 21:21) Our ancestors stoned to death wayward children and cut off the hand of a woman who inadvertently touched the "private parts" of a man other her husband – their moral code was clearly a corporeally enforced one. Fortunately, this violence would be reconsidered and tempered by the rabbis. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shoftim -- Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

Web_Chen_9177The passion for truth behind the Torah’s pursuit of justice could not be stated any clearer than Moses' instruction: "Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deuteronomy 16:20).

So, as we read in Parashat Shoftim about the primacy of justice, I think of philosopher John Rawls' definition of the concept in his work Law of Peoples (1999). Rawls is important as a thinker because he challenged philosophers to really begin to consider different models of global justice, eliciting questions like: Should global inequality be morally troubling? How might we lean towards a less unjust world?

When the judicial system is set up in Ancient Israel, attention is paid to appointing judges and law enforcement officers in every city. According to Mosaic Law, crimes must be investigated impartially and evidence thoroughly examined for there to be any hope of justice. Most importantly, there is the establishment of two credible witnesses required for any conviction and punishment. Prohibitions against idolatry and sorcery as well as laws governing the appointment of king are expounded, along with the guidelines for cities of asylum for the inadvertent murderer.

Alongside these laws, this week’s parsha also sets forth the rules of war, including exemptions from the military draft as well as the requirement to first offer peace before launching the offensive and attacking a city. Moreover, laws of war prohibit the wanton destruction of staples that are of value even though they nourish the enemy, for example, the prohibition of cutting down a fruit tree. The special ritual to be followed when the body of a person killed by an unknown perpetrator is found in a field – articulated as the law of Eglah Arufah – focuses again on the responsibility of both the most proximate community and its leaders for what could have been done to prevent this tragic loss of life. Finally, we are reminded that every generation is responsible and entrusted with the task of interpreting the law to keep it dynamic as a living system of justice.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

There is no Shabbat handout artwork this week. Christopher Orev Reiger is unplugging in the mountains.

Re'eh -- Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Facebook_CoverDesign_ReehWhat does it mean to really "see"? To better appreciate "seeing" – for which Parashat Re’eh is named – let us consider the experiential dimension of a quiet state of mind. The practitioner of Zen meditation sometimes experiences an event known as kenshō, literally meaning "seeing nature" and understood as an awakening from our fundamental ignorance. Experiencing kenshō is not the same as achieving Nirvana, but it does grant one a glimpse of the "real" reality.

While Zen practitioners turn to Buddha, Jews turn to Moses, as both seekers are yearning for guidance about how best to "see." Judaism starts with the act of looking back, of seeing what has come before with fresh eyes. In so doing, we can develop new relationships to all texts, even our sacred tomes. Whether or not we succeed depends on how we see ourselves in relation to the text and its sacred inspiration. So when Moses says to the Children of Israel, "See I place before you today a blessing and a curse," they enter an important stage of maturity in their covenantal relationship — that of responsibility.

Seeing the consequences of our actions is a sign of growing responsibility. These are proclaimed on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal as the Israelites are crossing over into the Holy Land. In establishing a Temple, we made a place where the Divine will dwell in essence and Name. This will become the new central address for sacrifices, and in keeping with the overall theology of Deuteronomy, no offerings can be made to the divine outside this local. Laws of tithing are discussed in detail, including how the tithe is given to the needy in certain years. Here, we encounter one of the first iterations of charity as an obligation devolving upon the Jew to aid those in need with a gift or loan. But all such loans are forgiven on the Sabbatical year and all indentured servants are freed after six years of service.

The theme of seeing concludes Parashat Re'eh. Listing the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecosts (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) as times when the pilgrim goes to see and be seen before the Divine in the precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the parsha demonstrates that encountering the Divine in our lives is indeed a "seeing into our nature" with fresh eyes. This "seeing" provides hope for such sacred encounters throughout our lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract depiction of an advance guard of Israelites marching into the Promised Land. The forms of the soldiers are rendered so as to call to mind territorial maps – provisional, likely-contested borders sketched over the same plot of land. "For you are crossing the Jordan, to come to possess the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you shall possess it and dwell in it." (Deuteronomy 11:31) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.