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.

Devarim -- Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Facebook_CoverDesign_DevarimThe Hebrew name for the fifth book of the Torah is Devarim, meaning "spoken words." The title is apt – Devarim consists of three speeches made by Moses to the assembled Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. The Greek name for the book, though, is apt in another way. Deuteronomy, from the roots deutero and nomos, meaning "repetition" and "law," respectively, is best translated as "repetition of the law." Why is this repetition meaningful?

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze famously argued in Difference and Repetition (1968) that "repetition for itself" is a distinct form of repetition, one freed from being a mere reiteration of an original, identical thing. For Deleuze, this means that some repetition can be the repetition of difference instead of a facsimile. Rather than this being a case of "eternal return," repetition is the return of what Deleuze considers "the differential genetic condition of real experience," or "an individuation of a concrete entity." Ultimately, Deleuze posits, this individuation of entities happens through the actualization, integration, or resolution of a "differentiated virtual field of Ideas." These Ideas are themselves changed, via "counter-effectuation," in each individuating event. Admittedly, this is heady stuff!

When we turn to the Book of Deuteronomy, 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 multiple Ideas co-existing as he carries forward the Mosaic legacy, but with his own imprint.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features the opening words of Parashat Devarim. "These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav." (Deuteronomy 1:1) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Balak -- Numbers 22:2 - 25:9

Facebook_CoverDesign_Balak2"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24: 5).

Renowned Italian author, Umberto Eco (1932-2016) once tellingly remarked, "I think a book should be judged 10 years later, after reading and re-reading it." So how do we react each time we enter into our sacred spaces of worship and re-read and re-cite the renowned opening verse above?

These are the words recited 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 do we move along this path to the Promised Land when we feel blocked from all sides? 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 G-d as Israel, we make our lives into a "sanctuary" for G-d, enhancing our divine consciousness by identifying with ethical values and dreams for this world.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork shows Balaam blessing the Israelites as cloaked figures look on (maybe his Moabite patrons?). The illustration was drawn with bold lines, loose handling, and close cropping to increase energy and tension, hopefully conveying something of the prophet's enthusiasm – the word comes from the Greek enthousiasmos, meaning 'possessed by a god.' Only one eye is open and Balaam's mouth is agape, a literal take on the text: "The word of Balaam the son of Beor and the word of the man with an open eye." (Numbers 24:3); "The Lord placed something into Balaam's mouth." (Numbers 23:5). Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): Mistaking Cupid For A Cherub

cupid-valentine_10This week, elementary schools and drug stores across the United States are filled with red and pink decorations and illustrations of a fat, winged baby with a bow and arrow. This portrayal of Cupid, the Greco-Roman god of desire (or, according to medieval Christians, "the demon of fornication"), was popularized by Greek artists during the Hellenisitic period, over 2,000 years ago. Ancient vintage notwithstanding, the depiction remains the most common one today.

Pop quiz time! Do you call that chubby, winking Cupid a cherub or a putto? Or perhaps you believe the two are the same?

If you're like most people, you identify this "cute" Cupid as a cherub, or think that a cherub and putto are equivalent. But most people are wrong, at least technically speaking. (If we want to get really technical, a fat, winged Cupid is a particular type of putto called an amorino.)

So what exactly is a putto, and what does any of this have to do with Judaism? According to Wikipedia, a putto is "a figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child, usually nude and sometimes winged." Putto is just the singular of the more familiar putti. Erstwhile art history students should recognize the latter term (as well as this celebrated ceiling fresco by Andrea Mantegna, which features a number of putti doing their putti thing).

Importantly, in the context of Jewish theology, a putto is most definitely NOT a cherub! Cherubs (or cherubim) are much more exciting and mysterious than the baby-faced, winged chubsters most of us have in mind when we describe someone as "cherubic." Cherubim figure prominently in Jewish angelology -- although, as with all things Jewish, there is much disagreement about what exactly they are. In Genesis, two cherubim guard the path to the Tree of Life, but these guards aren't described in detail; we're told only that they're armed with flaming swords. The prophet Ezekiel, however, describes cherubim much more vividly.

CoverDesign_Terumah"Every one had four faces: the first face was the face of an ox, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle. ... The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it."

Ezekiel's astonishing, even frightening vision is generally dismissed by modern rationalists as the product of an addled mind, but there is symbolic and philosophical value in appreciating cherubim as terrible agents of G-d. Jewish mystics understood this. Perhaps recalling the fiery exchange of Ezekiel's cherubim, they came to prioritize the charged space between the sculpted cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant (described in this week's parsha) as a kind of spiritual singularity. This week's Shabbat handout artwork (pictured just above) is an abstract depiction of that creatively and spiritually charged space.

So it's your call. When you hear the word cherub, you can think of a butterball who shoots you in the butt with an arrow and giggles sweetly. Or you can ponder chimeric manifestations of a sublime and terrible force. While we acknowledge that the latter won't sell Valentine's Day cards, we think one is a lot more interesting than the other.

Image credit: Top, Cupid emoticon by Symbols & Emoticons; Bottom, Christopher Orev Reiger, for CBS